Our review of Invincible (Jefery Levy Film), published June 3rd, 2003, is also available.
An invincible man. An inspirational film. An incredible true story.
The origins of myths and legends are as varied as the immortal marvels they celebrate. A fairy tale can find its beginnings in the simple sentences of sagas told at the family fireside. Other times the figure of worship is born out of complicated situations, half-heard rumors, and arcane circumstances. Then it's the streamlining effect of time that usually leads to the deification, not necessarily all the actions done. It's interesting to see the number of real world entities that somehow avoid the whole legendary status to simply maintain their earthly historical significance. There are no epic poems to Thomas Jefferson or odes to Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King is not endowed with unearthly powers, nor do artists like John Lennon or Mozart live larger than the music they created. Seems something extraordinary has to happen for someone to move beyond newsmaker or trendsetter and into the realm of the super-real. Either that, or it's the circumstance surrounding their existence, usually of an extreme nature, that makes humans resonate into the mystic. For the simple strongman, Zishe Brietbart, the time of his coming is pre-Nazi Germany, circa 1932. The situation of his celebrity is the challenge he represents to the Nazi ideal of Aryan strength and physical superiority. In the confusing, frustrating new film by once celebrated director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo), Zishe takes on the rising tide of nationalist hatred to help his people stem off a growing wave of genocide. But like most myth and legends, the saga does not end well. Tragedy creates the most endearing stories.
Facts of the Case
In a small town in Eastern Poland, Zishe Brietbart, a blacksmith, lives with his large extended family. One day he takes his little brother Benjamin to a restaurant where they are teased for being Jewish. In a fit of rage, Zishe destroys the place. The owner wants compensation for his losses and suggest Zishe attend a local circus and challenge the strongman for a cash prize. His performance that night draws the attention of a Berlin talent scout. He wants Zishe to come to the German capital to seek his fortune. Initially, Zishe and his family refuse. But as time goes by, Zishe feels the lure of the big city (with the help of a trip to the local cinema). He leaves his family and travels, on foot, to Berlin.
Once he arrives, he is immediately employed at a local nightclub featuring acts of the supernatural. Run by Eric Jan Hanussen, its shows are often frequented by the members of the rising Nationalist Socialist party. Hanussen sees Zishe as his ticket to further fortunes and favors from the Nazis. He dresses him up as an Aryan strongman (Siegfreid) and has him perform feats of strength that support the party's philosophy of physical superiority. The act is a hit and the club, and Hanussen becomes very popular, even capturing the fancy of Hitler. Hanussen is poised to become the new Minister of the Occult once the Nazi's take power. Personal meetings and clairvoyant readings with higher ups in the party secure this.
One day, Zishe's brother and mother come to Berlin to see him. During the show, Zishe removes his Teutonic disguise and announces that he is Jewish. He renames himself the New Samson and declare he will fight for his people. The Nazis are furious. The rich Jews in the audience love this new act. So does Hanussen. This unusual angle increases the box office at the club. As the shows become more and more like political rallies, with sides chanting and threatening riot, Zishe stands his ground as savior for his people. Growing in his personal dissatisfaction and angry at the way Hanussen treats a young woman in his orchestra, Zishe attacks the club owner at a boat party for high-powered government officials. The dishonored hosts demands satisfaction. The police chief of Berlin suggests a trial.
In court, Zishe accuses Hanussen of being a con man. The truth, when it comes out, is even more disturbing. No longer employed, Zishe heads back to Poland. He feels there is something evil about to happen between the Nazis and his people. He tries to rally his townsfolk to be prepared for the oncoming trouble. They ignore him. During a stunt to prove his power, something happens that seals Zishe's fate forever. In the end, we learn he has become a figure of mythical proportions to the Jewish people.
The reasons for Hitler's rise to power in post WWI Germany and the eventual madness that would transform a political ideology into the most horrendous act of man-against-mankind violence ever (the Holocaust) have been debated and illustrated for a half a century now. Some want to simply chalk the entire dismal episode to insanity and leave it at that. And it makes sense to simply argue that one man's blind hatred so poisoned a population that it allowed the deportation and extermination of millions of people as part of a plan of, not only ethnic, but ethic cleansing. How was this population of Teutons ever going to reclaim their past glories surrounded by this different looking and acting race of outsiders? But the reasons for the Holocaust are far more complicated than that. Genocide never has its roots in a single mind, but in an undercurrent of acceptance of what that single mind believes. The raging anti-Semitism in Europe during the pre-war years contributed to an initial dehumanizing of the Jewish people. It took the simple will of a despot to turn that prejudice into an excuse for concentration camps and gas chambers. And what of the Jews? Did they play any role whatsoever in their classification as "undesirables," and could they have done anything viable to prevent what happened to them?
Invincible is a movie that bases its main narrative line in a fabled Jewish myth but utilizes the political, racial, and cultural dynamic between the German people and the surrounding Jewish population to paint its ancillary themes and arguments. It's a film that shows how gullible and eventually submissive everyday citizens were in the rise of and destructive power given to the Third Reich. Like Cabaret with its decadent Kit Kat Klub, Invincible uses the Theater of the Occult as a stand-in for the national bully pulpit of outlandish ideology and an accepted haven for race baiting. Within its walls of black magic lie the seeds of a nation's misguided belief in itself and its purity. But Invincible also lays some blame at the doors of the nation's Jews. In its character of Zishe, the film offers a champion, a martyr willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his race, all in the name of preventing the "unspeakable evil" he sees looming for his people. He finds the ruling party weak and his native people uninspired. Having spent months in Berlin as both the toast and the jester of the brown shirts, he has been "to the mountain" and has "received the word": they need to band together to save their race. A combination of Moses and Samson (he even refers to himself as the new biblical strongman), Zishe exemplifies the Nazi's worst nightmare and it turns out, the Jewish people's fatal flaw. If the entire Hebrew nation stood up and felt/fought as Zishe did, then the Holocaust might have been a more "difficult" proposition to carry out. As it stands, he faces the apathy of disbelief that seals the Jew's fate.
Occasionally beautiful, sometimes harsh, and continually frustrating, Invincible is a film that fails to generate the drama its story and themes want to exude. Overloaded with symbolism and allegories—so much so that they tend to crisscross and negate each other—the film strives to be an emotional tale of one man's inner and outer strength against a nation of hate. But by the time the credits roll, we have crept through a movie that is misguided in parts, perfectly realized in others, that knows exactly what it wants to say most of the time but doesn't have the vision to say it properly. It is a film of several beginnings and a few false endings. This is a new entry into the litany of Nazi/Jew historical cinema, a catalog of such diversity as the magnificent and moving Schindler's List and the aggravating and insulting Life is Beautiful. Here we have a decidedly Jewish tale told through the eyes of one of Germany's most representative voices and yet, instead of seeing something magical, that challenges the standard ideals that both entities represent, we are saddled with a result that is mostly dull and lifeless. There are moments when the narrative springs to life and other times when the set design and lighting threatens to overpower everything onscreen. For some reason, Invincible is a very stagy, narratively irregular movie that takes a human tale of struggle and reduces it to a nightclub act.
There is just something wrong with the flow of scenes in Invincible. The nightclub material feels disconnected from everything else around it. It doesn't help that much of the outside story sequences are shot in a shaky, handheld camera style in an obvious attempt at a "you are there" documentary look. But the minute the frame locks down for a speech by Hanussen or a feat of strength by Zishe, it's as if we are watching another movie directed by someone else. Similarly, the tones don't quiet gel in Invincible. At one moment, we are experiencing brutal anti-Semitism, the next it's fun time at the Polish version of Cirque De Soleil. Hanussen puts on an ominous show filled with ethereal psychobabble and political rhetoric that rivals the best of Hitler's balcony rants, but then we turn around and have a scene of Zishe crying for his home or a mime doing a funny suitcase bit. Frankly, Invincible doesn't know if it wants to be maudlin or mighty, fiery or fatalistic. For every moment of casual character development, we get an equal of overblown oratory or pointless pandering. Nothing seems to match, like pieces of a puzzle that looks like they should fit but just don't. In the end, it's hard to tell of Invincible is meant as an indictment of the German people, the rural Jewish communities, the populace who would kowtow to either, or merely a wistful fable of forgotten lore brought brightly to life. One thing's for sure, it is not the epic drama it obviously sets itself up to be; with a title like Invincible, there is a definitive shooting for the stars quality.
It is not the fault of the acting. Tim Roth, playing the central role of the con man, master of the macabre ceremonies, Eric Jan Hanussen, gives the role the proper teeth clenching gusto of a charlatan walking a narrow precipice between potential ultimate power and final devastating betrayal. He is really needed more in the film, since every time he comes on screen, you expect (and get) the unexpected. In the all-important role of Zishe, Finnish born World's Strongest Man winner Jouko Ahola does something uncommon for a major motion picture. Affecting a very strong accent and playing most of his scenes in a kind of deadpan sincerity, he attempts to achieve a sense of inner peace while at the same time exuding a silent power. Many critics have labeled this lack of animated outer emotion dull and amateurish. But to this critic, his work is refreshing in its honesty and lack of pretense. Zishe wants to be a man of action, not words. He is not used to speaking up or for himself. His whole life, his arms, legs, and torso have spoken for him. Toward the end, when he sees that he must stand and fight for his people, Ahola does a really good job of showing frustration with his inability to communicate the urgency and importance of his cause. If he could find a physical, non-verbal way to showcase it, he would. But left to his speaking, not lifting skills, he is stymied. Along with a brief appearance by Udo Kier as the police chief of Berlin, the performances here are all uniformly good. Unfortunately, they come at the service of a film that is not quite sure how to properly utilize them.
Perhaps the burden of this movie's failed ambitions can be placed on the head of its once heralded director, the now seemingly lost Werner Herzog. Considered a great of world cinema, a decade or more immersed in low profile documentaries and less than successful fiction film has moved this once mighty presence off the cinematic radar and into "used to be great" near obscurity. Invincible can be viewed as his attempt at regaining a kind of cinematic clarity, to purge the troubled spirit of his glorious collaborations with motion picture madman Klaus Kinski and redirect his career. Indeed, it seems most of the last ten years Herzog has been dealing with his demons derived from that long strange trip with his best friend/grand tormentor/artistic collaborator. What better way to find one's self than to delve directly into one's own cultural past to make sense of actions and atrocities that seemingly have none. In the story of Zishe and the rise of Nazism, Herzog has fertile material to explore the passion he's made famous in his films. Hanussen, after all, wants power so badly he can and will deceive for it. Zishe wants to protect his people so completely he is willing to die for them. So it seems odd that Invincible would feel so devoid of feeling, as if Herzog purposefully drained the obsession to move as far away from his past triumphs as possible. Whatever it is, from the mixing of camera styles to the overall meandering arch of his story, Herzog fails to give his fable the proper moralistic mantle. Only during Zishe's dream sequences where he envisions the world (Europe) overrun by hordes of violently red crabs (Nazis) are there images to match the command Herzog wants to offer with this story. Buried at the heart of Invincible is not darkness or madness, but a strange stagnation. And when was the last time you could say that about a film by Werner Herzog?
A line from the fine film Educating Rita may best describe what is wrong, inherently, with Invincible. In a scene of great emotion power and telling plot importance, Rita recalls how she caught her mother crying uncontrollably during a seemingly happy pub singalong. When questioned about her tears, the mother replied, "There must be better songs to sing than this." That sentiment applies directly to the tale told in Invincible. There is either a better version of this fable waiting to be explored (there is a far more heralded version of Roth's Hanussen character in the Klaus Maria Brandauer film called Hanussen) or a better way of telling it. Herzog gambled on a simple story of passion misguided and strength untapped and lost, basically by failing to highlight either. But this does not mean that Invincible is a bad film, it just means it's a frustrating one. The tale of a mythic figure, possessed of a superhuman power and stuck within the very rational irrationality of the modern world could have underscored a great many issues and illusions regarding the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust during WWII. Reshaped, rethought, and reimagined, the story of Zishe could be as potent as the arms and back possessed by this unbelievably strong man. Here, though, we only have Herzog's Invincible. Occasionally brilliant, unusually frustrating, and sadly disappointing, this film is not destined to resurrect Herzog's status among the great directors of the world. Once he was mighty. Now he seems muddled.
Offered by New Line Cinema in a bare bones, trailer and DVD-ROM only treatment, we at least have a spectacular picture and sonic structure to make up for the lack of extras on this disc. Invincible's image is indeed unbeatable. There is great depth of color and unusually high clarity in the anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen print. Especially effective are the sequences in Hanussen's private "reading" room, where he offers personalized "medium" service. The walls are made up of deep blue aquariums filled with near translucent white jellyfish. During these scenes the undulation and beauty of these luminescent sea creatures is remarkable. But that does not mean the dirt-poor poverty of Poland looks horrible here. Absolutely the opposite, as the print's excellent details bring out the hidden wonders to be found all around. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround also does a tremendous job of adding to the aural ambience of the film. Little sonic details in the village and during the nightclub scenes really intensify the immersive aspects of the film. As said before, the only place this DVD fails is in the added content department. Frankly, a commentary track was a must for this film. Herzog is not one to mince words and it would be interesting to hear his take on how successful/unsuccessful he was here. Also, it would be nice to have some background on the legend/myth being explored here. Zishe is a folk hero to the Jewish people. The hows and whys of that would also make for interesting contextual information. As it stands, we have a great picture with brilliant sound that is as much of a mystery in its intentions as the actual film itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The fact that this film fails to resonate with the viewer should really not dampen its cinematic impact. There are lots of films that offer intriguing tales or real life ripped from the headline documents that demand attention even as they misstep in their efforts to entertain. Invincible does suffer from a kind of cinematic distance, of a filmmaker spending too much time on their character and not enough in their character. Zishe may not be any more complicated than his constant admissions of being a simple blacksmith, but by the end he has developed a sixth sense about the Jews' destiny in Europe, and a little more focus on that would help. But overall, there is a very moving, very touching film presented. Tim Roth is indeed a tragic figure, brought down by his own arrogance and belief in his influence to captivate. Zishe is also a figure of great sadness, but this comes from the innocent, desperate way fate deals him his final hand. Most of the exchanges between Zishe and his little brother Benjamin are warm in their truth and commanding in their love. So what if the film doesn't offer some kind of apocryphal final act where magic and menace meet to paint the true picture of the impending Holocaust? Years from now, when critics are eyeing the films of the past in an attempt to draw a clear cinematic framework of non-combat WWII, Invincible will be included because it provides another way of looking at the worst tragedy ever to befall mankind: from the viewpoint of indifference.
The story of Zishe Brietbart is at once a natural for the stuff of legend and at the same time seems to suffer from a "much ado about nothing" syndrome. Maybe it's in the way that Invincible tells his story, underplaying his grandeur while over-symbolizing his actions to create a kind of hollow god, a man bent on salvation and martyrdom who can't get the first citizen to care that he is willing to die for them. All they are interested in are tricks, feats of physical fitness that will wow and amaze. Zishe can easily accomplish these mandated desires. But when he tries to mix them with a message of personal threat and security, the audience tunes out. Perhaps it is in his helplessness that Zishe finally reverberates as a hero. To face an obstacle as daunting as the complete apathy of his people when Zishe has seen the potential violence and actual hatred that is coming their way indeed makes him an epic figure, one willing to constantly confront the challenge of changing unswerving minds. It's too bad that Invincible is not a more stirring motion picture. A story like Zishe's needs more focus, more spice and more heart than what director Herzog gives it here. The story of the Nazi's rise to power, the tapping into of a growing anti-Semitism and one brave Jews desire to confront it all should be a riveting cinematic experience. Instead, Invincible is pretty and pale, offering wonderful images that add up to very little. Hardly the stuff of lasting mythology.
Invincible is found guilty of being an underdeveloped, over symbolized work of mendacity and is sentenced to two years in script re-writing prison and another year in a cinematic narrative shaping half-way house. Director Werner Herzog is sentenced to four years in the Amazon, hoping that he can reconnect with, or even find, the fire he once had to make films of such fiery passion as Fitzcarraldo.
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