The Believer (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Believer is a very similar movie to American History X. Ryan Gosling looks very much like Edward Norton did in a similar role. There is a major difference, expressed in the official plot summary: "A young Jewish man develops a fiercely anti-Semitic worldview. Based on the true story of an American Nazi Party leader in the 1960s who was revealed to be Jewish."

Roger Ebert cited this article in the Jerusalem Report:

The film has its roots in a true story. Daniel Burros was a nice Jewish boy from Queens who somehow went from being his rabbi's star pupil to a hotheaded proponent of the long-defunct Third Reich. After a stint in the Army, he became involved with the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1965, following Burros' arrest at a KKK event in New York City, the New York Times disclosed that he was Jewish. Hours after the paper hit the stands, Burros took his own life


Summer Phoenix shows her breasts in two scenes.

It's a very serious movie, with one central theme being that bigotry is essentially self-loathing. Of course, that principle is obvious enough to be a truism, but Daniel Balint carried it to an extreme. He was a brilliant young Jewish student who became a notorious Nazi skinhead. Obviously, he is a much more complex and layered person than the average skinhead hatemonger, since he is both Jewish and a genius.

One point that the film makes, which I had never thought of before, is that the world of bigotry is filled with sado-masochism, both in public social mores and in sexual practices. We're not talking harmless sexual titillation here, like spankings, domination fantasies, or leather B&D costumes, but genuinely psychopathic behavior. It makes a lot of sense. If hard-core bigotry has a root in self-loathing, then that very same root must also produce many masochists.

I suppose that the title sums it the other central theme quite well. Daniel is a believer in the same sense in which Eric Hoffer defined a "true believer". Just as the most rabid right-wing Goldwaterites became the most rabid left-wing student radicals of the late 60s, the most fanatical student of Judiasm could easily turn into the most fanatical enemy of Judaism. True believers need an absolute belief system, and the actual beliefs involved are a secondary matter. Daniel was a believer looking for a belief system.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • anatomy of a scene

  • interview with the director

Many people, including Roger Ebert, voiced the concern that Daniel's anti-semitism was so articulate and thought-provoking that it was actually providing ammunition for real Nazis. I don't know if that is true or not, but I don't see how one could make a movie about an articulate, brilliant Jewish skinhead and not show him to be articulate and brilliant. The only other alternative would be not to make the movie at all, and I've never believed that certain topics should be declared off-limits to art. The filmmakers obviously agree, and they share my belief that the best way to deal with aberrations like Daniel is to understand them, and the factors that create them.

However, that makes this film very unpleasant. It's a good movie, but a difficult one to watch.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Entertainment Weekly A-,

  • General UK consensus: three stars. Telegraph 6/10, Independent 8/10, Guardian 6/10, Times 8/10, BBC 5/5

  • The film won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.3/10, Yahoo voters 4.2/5
  • Box office in the USA: $400,000 in arthouse distribution in major markets only (13 screens)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C+.  It reminded me a lot of American History X, right down to the details of Ryan Gosling's look. The total lack of box office appeal is indicative of zero crossover appeal. It's a heavy film, weighty with the analysis of self-loathing as Daniel struggles to understand what he really believes. If the premise intrigues you, it is done well. I thought that the storyline was interesting enough to hold my attention, even though I sometimes felt the film was heavy-handed.

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