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Invincible (2001) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 June 2003

New Line Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG-13
starring: Tim Roth, Jouko Ahola, Anna Gourari, Max Raabe, Jacob Wein, Udo Kier, Gustav-Peter Woehler
release year: 2001
film rating: Three and a half stars
sound/picture rating: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

World War II, and what led up to it, proves to be an inexhaustible source of stories for interesting movies. Written and directed by the creative Werner Herzog, "Invincible" finds yet another story; even though some elements of it have turned up in other movies, the core tale here seems to be presented for the first time.

In 1932 Poland, young Zishe Breihart (Jouko Ahola), a Jew, works in his father's blacksmith shop. He's become very large and extraordinarily well muscled; he's also quiet and usually gentle, a hero to the local Jewish kids, particularly his wise and learned younger brother, Benjamin (Jacob Wein). A circus comes to town with its own strong man, whom Zishe easily defeats in a contest of strength. An agent from Berlin urges Zishe to come to the city to see about employment in show business.

Zishe is wondering what he is made for; he's much stronger than a blacksmith needs to be, so he's curious as to whether God has some other purpose in mind for him. Despite some misgivings, Zishe decides to make the journey -- mostly on foot -- and arrives in the German city at a period in which its 1920s decadence is just giving way for the more austere Nazi regime.

The agent takes Zishe to The Palace of the Occult, a cabaret owned by and featuring Hanussen (Tim Roth), a very astute fraud who passes himself off as the prophet of the National Socialist Party. He's impressed by Zishe, but cautions, "A Jew should never be as strong as you." Hanussen is very ambitious, and longs to be appointed as Minister of the Occult in Hitler's future cabinet. He constantly raves about the Nazis -- "all our German people are full of unknown power," he exults -- and about Hitler in particular. "I am the prophet of his coming," Hanussen intensely declares.

Zishe and Hanussen are curious about each other; despite their great differences -- Hanussen declares himself to be a nobleman of Danish ancestry -- there is a real link between them. But they don't know what it is.
The act Hanussen devises for Zishe is simple, and calculated to especially appeal to the Nazis. Clad in a warrior's garb, wearing a blond wig and a horned helmet, Zishe is introduced as Siegfried, the living embodiment of the Germanic spirit. Being Polish, he's uncomfortable about this; being Jewish, he's even more uncomfortable being introduced as an Aryan superman. But his strongman routine is very impressive to audiences.
He's attracted to Marta Farra (Anna Gourari), Hanussen's stateless mistress, who's an expert pianist, and who longs to perform Beethoven with an orchestra. But though she likes Zishe, she's frightened of Hanussen, and can't bring herself to leave him.

This is how things go for some weeks, until his mother and brother Benjamin arrive from Poland for just one day, to see how Zishe is getting along. Disconcerted by their trust, and by Benjamin's not even recognizing him at first, Zishe finally takes a stand. On stage, he reveals that not only is he not blond, he's not a German -- and beyond that, he's a Jew.

This outrages the Nazis in the audience, but thrills the well-dressed Jews (and others). Hanussen very shrewdly realizes that this is marketable, especially when the next few days bring lines around the block. Zishe's Jewishness is made a part of the act, a kind of challenge to the authority of the Nazis. They rise to the bait; both Himmler and Goebbels become frequent attendees, and even invite Hanussen to cruise about on the official Nazi yacht.

But there are revelations to come, some of them utterly dumbfounding to people who know nothing of this story -- which probably includes almost all of us. There have been two movies about Hanussen himself, one in the 1950s, the other in 1988, with Klaus Maria Brandauer as the occult wizard. The latter is highly regarded, but it's very hard to find on VHS; it has not yet been released on DVD. Both films are called "Hanussen."

As fascinating as "Invincible" is, Herzog tends to stumble a few times. When Hanussen makes his advent, Herzog is clearly so entranced by him -- and Tim Roth is, as usual, excellent -- that the story becomes derailed. Zishe is (sporadically) no longer the central character, giving away for long periods to Hanussen. Herzog has a hard time folding their stories together, though he works hard at it. The trouble is that the effort shows, including in an improbable scne on the yacht, and another in the woods.

Also, the story goes on too long; Zishe eventually returns to Poland, hoping to be the New Samson for the Jews. This is essentially an entirely new issue; even if the real Zishe Breibart did go through with this, it's as if the film stops dead in Berlin, and begins again in Poland. There are too many climaxes toward the end, places where the film could easily have ended.

But the story overall is so unusual and so interesting that even though the film is too long (over two hours), we just can't stop watching, mostly because we know it's a true story. And there are some amazing scenes in it, as when Zishe first arrives at the Palace of the Occult. He watches a well-trained chorus line perform a dance while a tenor sings "You're the Cream in My Coffee." You expect Sally Bowles to show up. Later, Marta tells Zishe that she believes in the purity of some souls -- and shows him Hanussen's inner chamber, where he fleeces the wealthy on a one-to-one basis. The impressive round room is ringed with a huge fish take, containing only wispy blue jellyfish. They're so pure and simple that they enrich Marta's faith. And to us, too, they look like a miracle on earth.

Herzog mostly keeps the Nazis well-placed in their context in this period. They're very powerful, of course, and despite the band imposed on Germany in the treaties of World War I, there's obviously an army being built, for the cabaret's audiences are full of men in uniform, swastikas on their sleeves. The police chief of Berlin (Udo Kier), however, is a nobleman, not a Nazi, though he moves smoothly among them. But his end is coming. This is a world poised on the brink of disaster, dancing on the lip of the volcano.

The very end of the film coolly and rationally presents the concept of finding for yourself what God means you to do. But it also depicts the corollary: what if even those who mean the most to you don't believe for a moment that you are bearing God's message?

Along with "The Pianist," this is one of the most compelling of recent films to tell stories centering around Germany and the Nazi era. Though "Invincible" is not as well produced as, say, "Max," a story set a decade or so earlier, it's more interesting and more compelling partly because of Herzog's obvious conviction, and partly because it tells an amazing and true story.

The print on the DVD seems a bit washed out and lacking in color, but it probably looked that way in theaters, too. It's a shame that the only extra provided is a theatrical trailer; it would have been fascinating to hear what the highly intelligent Herzog had to say about this story.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: only extra is the trailer
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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