Hitler's real-life Caligari and a Jewish Siegfried
Jun 3, 2004
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
Playing Werner Herzog's commentary track for Cobra Verde and watching the movie again enhanced my appreciation of it. The DVD transfer of Herzog's next feature film, "Invincible" (2001), is as fine as that of "Cobra Verde," but lacks a commentary track. I am absolutely certain that Herzog would have interesting things to say about this movie. I am less certain that it has the kind of images that are more awe-inspiring on second viewing. Indeed, from a film-maker famous for shooting in extreme locales (deserts and jungles), "Invincible" is notable for being shot mostly inside a nightclub (though there was a foray to the Christmas Islands to photograph thousands of very red crabs on a rocky beach).
The other most striking images are also marine: translucent jellyfish in the aquariums that surround the inner chamber of the Theater of the Occult, although there are also some scenic shots from the pure-hearted hero's walk from his village in eastern Poland to Berlin. Zishe Breitbart (played by Jouko Ahola, a Finnish bodybuilder who won the 1997 and 1999 World's Strongest Man competitions) portrays a Jewish village blacksmith. Zishe gets into a fight with some anti-Semitic yokels in a restaurant and to pay for the damages agrees to the owner's suggestion that he pit himself against the strongman at a circus that is (conveniently) visiting the area.
The circus's strongman struggles to lift a boulder waist-high. Zishe fairly easily lifts the boulder over his head. When the circus strongman is lifting it again, Zishe lifts the man holding the boulder. Thus begins a career as an entertainer, because there is an agent in the audience. After a magical experience of seeing his first movie (Herzog himself did not see any movies as a child), Zishe walks to Berlin (rather than using the first-class train ticket he wants to cash in and give the money to his mother). Surprisingly, he knows how to use a pay phone (and has German coins...).
Zishe is based on a real person and so is the impresario, Erik Jan Hanussen (played with great intensity and less-than-usual scenery-chewing by Tim Roth), a clairvoyant cherished by Hitler for predicting the Hitler would become chancellor at a time when the Nazi Party vote was in decline. Hanussen's story is quite amazing. It was significantly distorted in István Szabó's 1988 movie "Hanussen" with Klaus Maria Brandauer in the title role. A biography by Mel Gordon (Erik Jan Hanussen considers evidence that Hanussen was able to predict the Reichstag fire that led to Hitler's consolidation of power because he hypnotized the arsonist or was privy to Nazi plans. In "Invincible" Herzog has Goebbels blab the plan on Hanussen's boat, but does not show any of Hitler's consultations with Hanussen that reassured him of being the destined restorer of German greatness when his self-confidence was wavering.
The twist is best experienced in the movie without any further foreknowledge of who Hanussen was. In the movie, Hanussen caters to an audience almost as filled with brown-shirts as the final scene in "Cabaret." Hanussen is not as decadent as Joel Grey's emcee (nor is he the emcee in his own cabaret theater), but is as knowing and ready to pander to audience prejudices. His aim is to become Minister of the Occult in Hitler's future regime. Seeing the rising Nazis as his own ticket to power, he can't have displays of Jewish strength on display in his theater. Therefore, he has Zishe don a blond wig and Teutonic helmet, so that his feats of strength are representations of German strength in the Nazi-favored Nibelunglied idiom. The show also features a travesty Rothschild trying to make off with his profits from the previous War.
Zishe is not comfortable in his role or in the show pandering to Nazi mythologies. Throwing off his wig and announcing his Jewishness surprisingly increases the box office and Zishe is recast as Samson, a role model for the beleaguered Jews of 1932 Berlin. From Siegfried through Samson, Zishe's role metamorphoses on to being more than a little like Cassandra by the end, as his vision of coming disaster and the need to strengthen to oppose the onslaught no one else sees coming is laughed off by apathetic Jews in his homeland of Poland. Herzog and/or Ahola don't really pull off the transfer of clairvoyance from the fake psychic Hanussen to the tongue-tied village blacksmith. The romance between Zishe and Marta (pianist Anna Gourari) doesn't really work either, though he makes one of her dreams come true.
Having just heard Herzog comment that he let some takes go on too long in "Cobra Verde," it was disappointing that he did not apply the insight in "Invincible," which has some scenes that go on too long (including the rendition of the slow movement of the Beethoven third piano concerto and the hypnosis act) and others that could be dispensed with altogether (the two song and dance numbers, and, arguably the swarming crabs that recur in Herzog movies; his "Cobra Verde" commentary track notes that he finds crabs particularly terrifying). The movie runs two and a quarter hours even without any Hanussen-Hitler meetings or Reichstag fire scenes.
Although I think that the stories of Zishe and Hanussen should have been better told, there are some genuinely great scenes in "Invincible." and some memorable images as in all Herzog films. Jouko Ahola doesn't just look the part, but is very good at playing a villager with a calling to warn his people of a danger beyond his imagining. He can't match Roth/Hanussen in artificing, but his character has purity of heart rather than gifts for repartee and is supposed to be inarticulate.
"Invincible" is not as compelling a representation of Jews passing as Aryans to Nazis as "Europa, Europa"(1991). Set before the Nazis took power in Germany it is not directly comparable to "The Pianist" and "Schindler's List" (both of which seem to me superior to it) or the hideous "Life Is Beautiful" (which is, however, similarly concerned with artifice and perfomativity).
Tim Roth's twisted Hanussen has, shall we say "mesmerizing" (Caligari-like) power. It is unfortunate that the real Hanussen did not use his power on Hitler instead of aiding him. Hanussen had an Oscar Wilde-like overreaching and Roth's exit has Wilde-like flair.
Herzog himself overreached in symbolism and subplots, but underreached in dramatizing the rise of the Nazis and the complex relationship between Weimar entertainments and Nazi propagandizing (even with a Goebbels character appearing in several scenes). Herzog has specialized in putting monomaniacs oblivious of ordinary reality on screen. Tim Roth received top billing and Hanussen fits this pattern, though in ways quite different from those portrayed by Klaus Kinski's deranged protagonists. However, the title character, the one who is onscreen the most and from the beginning to the end is Zishe. Zishe underestimates the complexity of German environment in which he finds himself and has a simplistic solution, but is better balanced and more ordinary a person (albeit with extraordinary physical strength) than most Herzog protagonists. A case could certainly be made that at the end he is a doomed monomaniac in the Aguirre tradition. The "Fiddler on the Roof" opening and closing don't mesh with the "Cabaret" middle. Though frustrating in many ways, "Invincible" is rarely dull.
I turned on the subtitles and tried to find what I assumed was the original German soundtrack. The DVD has three English soundtracks and was shot in English (giving Roth a further advantage over the rest of the cast, who are not native speakers of English). The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer for the movie. There are weblinks from the disk for Windows ROM that I cannot report on. The lack of a commentary track from the lucid, entertaining, and ever-insightful Herzog is most unfortunate
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Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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