Sunday, February 15, 2009

Invincible (2002)

As exploitative and insulting as Holocaust movies are, anything that tends to take place before the Holocaust is usually worse. There's a sort of winking referencing, a manipulation of foreknowledge for sick irony. It's what makes Life Is Beautiful far more enraging outside of the concentration camp than within it. But, of course, if anyone could make a film about pre-Final Solution Nazi Germany that offered up a straight-talking portrait, it would be Werner Herzog. And by straight-talking, I mean so utterly bizarre that you'd fly off in a rage if the material was handled any other way.

But isn't that what makes Herzog such an exciting and singular filmmaker, arguably the most visionary director working today? His combination of surreal imagery and documentary-like verité allows him to explore the theme of existentialism and the human identity better than any other filmmaker I've ever seen. That search for identity plays a big role in Invincible, in which a Jewish strongman's faith leads him to defiantly claim his Jewish heritage in the middle of 1932 Berlin.

Ostensibly Herzog based the film on a true story, but if this is your first tango with the director I should warn you how loosely you should interpret the word "based." Herzog searches for that "ecstatic truth" of his, and as such he fudges dates, events, and anything else in order to propel his characters towards the purpose he gives them. Case in point: the real Zishe Breitbart died a full 7 years before the events of this story, in 1925. Yet his story works so well as a piece of Nazi defiance that Herzog just lifted the story and shifted it down the timeline.

As he often does, Herzog casts untrained actors in order to carry the film. Jouko Ahola may not have the chops to star in a character study, but he is perfect for the part. A two-time winner of the World's Strongest Man competition, Ahola certainly looks the part, but his lack of polish comes in handy for the character as well. Breitbart is a man of simplicity and geniality. A "real" actor likely would have called attention to this, but Ahola just walks through the scene taking in information, then responding like a normal person.

Breitbart lives in a small town in Poland, where all the locals know him as the strongest man around. A talent scout visits and sees Breitbart in a competition with another strongman. The contender lifts a boulder, and Breitbart walks up and lifts the man as he holds the stone. The scout takes Breitbart to see his first film and before long the strongman is in Berlin, working in a variety show run by Hanussen (Tim Roth), a supposed mystic who also employs a pianist Maria, and a mime he dubs Rothschild trotted out to appease the growing Nazi clientele. When Zishe lumbers through his door, Hanussen comes up with a plan. "We will Aryanize you. A Jew should never be as strong as you."

So he puts a blond wig and tosses Zishe (under the stage name Siegfried) on stage, where he delights the brownshirts. Here is an example of Aryan perfection. Hanussen, who knows of the Nazis' dabblings in the occult and wants in, speaks endlessly of the power of the mystical and the will of the body and things of that nature. Breitbart stands there but does not take it in, and finally has enough. He announces his Judaism to the crowd as he rips of his wig and proclaims himself the next Samson.

Breitbart is a fairly straightforward character, but then so is Hanussen. We expect him to be furious -- and he is -- but he notices the lines of Jews eager to see the strongman and sees nothing but dollar signs. After all, in 1932 the Nazis had power but were not yet rounding up Jews in the street; soon the cabaret theater becomes as much a boxing ring as a show, as the seats get split right down the middle between enraptured Jews and enraged Nazis.

Breitbart of course represent Jewish identity, a voice unwilling to hide as Nazis come to prominence. Yes, he is more symbol than man, but Herzog's characters (even his documentary subjects) often fit this description. Hanussen likewise fits a thematic role: the foil. Where Breitbart bulges with ridiculous musculature, he's genial and open-faced. Hanussen, on the other hand, is hunched over, as if always scheming to himself. When he must go to trial to prove whether or not he is a mystic or just a con man, we learn a shocking truth about him that offers up the flip-side of identity, the kind that masks itself in shame and fear and rage.

The film slips for me at the end, when Zishe returns home to warn his Polish brethren of a vision he has of the coming Holocaust. I mentioned my distaste for Holocaust-related dramatic irony, but sure enough the crowd who hears him retorts with "The Germans could never invade Poland! They have no army!" Well, they do have one, full of 100,000 men. "Well, we should still worry about Russia, not Germany." But there are moments of this proud Jewish man's fear of the coming events that forgive this. When he explains his vision to a rabbi, the man responds that he just doesn't understand what Zishe is trying to say. "I don't know if I understand either," sighs the strongman, and it sums up -- whether Herzog even realized it or not -- the entire suffering of the Holocaust in one understated moment: people simply can't comprehend such an event, so how could they ever prepare for it?

Invincible isn't in that top-tier of Herzog's classic narratives, but it's an honest and bold depiction of a man who proved wrong the notion of Aryan superiority, that the Jews were just weak and greedy. It never insists upon itself, and for that it deserves special mention amongst any film remotely concerned with the Holocaust, which usually spell SUFFERING in bold letters while never actually telling the story properly. There is a shot, as in all Herzog films, that seems to sum up at least one aspect of the film, and as in all Herzog films it's just weird. He films a flood of crabs walking out of the sea and shuffling about on the beach. Is it an allusion for the rise of the Nazi tide? Does it capture the jittery, horrifying feeling in the pit of Zishe's stomach when he sees what will come of the National Socialist party? Did Herzog just think the crabs were kind of cool? You never can tell with him, and it's why I'll always hold him dear to my heart.

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