Your movie comes out at a strange time in the Jewish world--when it seems Jews once again are confronting anti-Semitism on a large scale. Occurrences in the movie, such as neo-Nazis trying to destroy synagogues, have actually been happening now in Europe and elsewhere. Did you have mixed feelings about releasing the movie at this time?
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, I had a spasm of "Oh my god, I did a terrible thing." That faded. I feel that the film is not only not anti-Semitic--it's embarrassingly philo-Semitic. It's an attack on prejudice itself. Some people have asked me, 'Are you worried that some people will misuse the film?' And of course I can't be sure that they won't. There are passages in there that you could take out of context, and say, 'Here's a great argument against the Jews, and even the Jews themselves know it's true.'
No matter what you do, conceivably someone can misuse it, especially if you're dealing with something volatile. I am not without a certain queasiness and anxiety, but I'm very glad I made the film.
I'm sure you've had critics say that during this time, we should only showcase the positive aspects of Judaism. How do you respond?
I think I show a lot that is positive about Judaism. The film is made as if there were nothing for the Jew to fear. The time when we weren't allowed to say all kinds of things in public is over. We're free.
That isn't completely true, and of course events since I finished the film have made it even less true. But I think there's a benefit to acting as if it's true, to saying, you know what, I'm not embarrassed to say anything about my religion. I think that when you say to the anti-Semitic world, "Hey, I'm not ashamed," you take away a lot of the power of anti-Semitism. Jews in their reactions have been so fearful and so, in a sense, apologetic. That is part of what has led to what we call Jewish self-hatred. When I was growing up, Jews I knew were horribly embarrassed about the Jews they saw who exemplified anti-Semitic cliché.
I've never been an anti-Semite; I've never denied I was Jewish. I never was tempted by right-wing stuff. But there is a tremendous amount. Those explosive feelings that go in contradictory directions--that is what I identify with. When this story finally took shape for me in the form it's in, I felt I had found a way to express something I had been looking for all my life. That impulse to be a thing and its opposite--a Jew and a Nazi, a living contradiction. It's very autobiographical in that way.
The positive feelings for Judaism and the particular version of Judaism that I have Danny espouse is my own version. I can't claim it for anyone else, but it's mine.
Do most Jews today have some of that contradictory nature within them?
Well, you know the expression 'two Jews, three opinions.' I think we believe that is true of us. And I guess human beings generally have that impulse.
When you hear a story about some kind of injustice, it's almost a natural human reaction to identify with the oppressed, identify with the oppressor, imagine oneself as the person who will redeem the oppressed -- you project yourself into multiple roles. Only multiple roles are really enough to satisfy you.
Danny's character is based on a real person who died in 1965. Your film is contemporary. Do you think a character like Danny could actually exist now, or has American society changed enough so that he couldn't?
One of the things I did when I made the film to try to solve that problem was to have him come from the Orthodox world. The real guy [Burros] was more from the conservative world, and I don't think he'd gone to yeshivas. The first things I wrote [for the film] were some of the anti-Semitic screeds. I showed them to Orthodox kids who I was working with out at Queens College. They looked at these passages--which said things like the Jews are essentially female, etc.--and they all said, "Yeah, this is what I used to think." It was so automatic, it was not even a scandal to them.
Once I made the film, I thought maybe this is no longer pertinent, and yet, when people watch it, it seems as pertinent as ever. I worried that the 1967 war, that by transforming the image of Israel and thereby of the Jew, would alter all of this, and I don't think it altered it very much at all.
Yes. I can't quite put my finger on what that otherness is about. I grew up Reform and very assimilated. Though I was Bar Mitzvahed and we said prayers on Friday night, there was very little sense of what Judaism was. There was this enormous object in my life that was palpable, but invisible. I could feel it, but I had no idea what it was. And it was Judaism. I think that was never resolved until I began to practice and learn a little about Judaism itself. In a way that's how the film evolved. Somewhere, eight or ten years ago, I realized this film is not just about a Jew, it's also about Judaism.
I think the character in the film who expresses that feeling most clearly is Carla, Danny's girlfriend, who is not Jewish but becomes increasingly drawn to Judaism. What is it about Judaism that she finds so intriguing?
I think it's two contradictory things. On the one hand, she's tormenting and teasing her boyfriend. She intuits quite early that he's really Jewish. She sort of says, 'You're running away from it? Well, I'll drag you back to it.' On another level, I think there's an impulse in her to give up her will, her ego. It's a spiritual impulse that I don't think of as particularly Jewish, but because there's this Jewish guy there, she says, 'Ok, I'll play with this thing.' I think Carla is on a quest of her own, and I don't know where she'll end up. I think of her problem as much more Christian than Jewish.
Why did you choose to title the film "The Believer?"
To me, the movie was always "The Jewish Nazi." I thought of it for many years as "The Jewish Nazi." But when it came to make a production, it's very hard to rent locations for something called "The Jewish Nazi." We called it "The Believer" because it was harmless enough. If I had to go back and do it again, I'd call it "The Fanatic." In the long run, it's not about a Jewish Nazi. It's a film about being Jewish. That's what I was trying to say -- 'This is what it feels like to be Jewish, for me.'
What do you hope that people take away from the film?
An appreciation for the irreconcilable contradictoriness of life, of the multiplicity of life -- that it's bigger than our idea of it can ever encompass. It doesn't submit to reason. One of the things I like best about the film is its unfinishedness. We always say Judaism is a religion of questions, not of answers. This is a film of questions, not of answers.
You have described the film as a "love poem" to Judaism. What do you mean by that?
The strategy was to invert things. You see a guy who says he's a Nazi and in fact he's a Jew. He seems to hate his religion and in fact he loves it. It seems to be an anti-Semitic film and in fact it's a philo-Semitic film. A love poem shouldn't be in the cliché form. It should surprise you--it loves from a different direction.