'Invincible' Review: I See Your Future
When I think of Werner Herzog, I primarily think of documentaries and nihilism. Admittedly I have only seen a few of his features prior to this month, and the majority of my opinion on his body of work seems to be garnered from word of mouth and a few interviews I've seen. I knew he is uncompromising in his films' messages, that he often focuses on less than mainstream settings and characters, and that within the entertainment industry and critic circles he is considered one of the most influential film makers of all time. That being said, I was pessimistic about this month's focus on one auteur's films. Especially one who so famously sends a message with his movies. I go in to the month worrying that by the end I will be waited down with emotion, and empathy, and sympathy for the struggles of flawed characters in troubling times. For my first written review of Werner Herzog Month, I was assigned the 2001 Narrative fiction film Invincible, and it has done little to dissuade me of my fear of an intense lack of fun in this month's movies.
Invincible is a feature starring Tim Roth and Jouko Ahola as Erik Jan Hanussen and Zishe Brietbart respectively. Zishe is a Polish Jew working as a blacksmith with his family in the small village that they call home. Just as Hitler and the NSP are beginning to gain power in Berlin, Zisha challenges a circus strong man to a test of strength and wins. A talent scout witnesses the competition and hires Zisha for a stage show in Berlin. When Zisha arrives he is greeted by the owner, Erik. Erik is a hypnotist and prophet and performs various feats of mental power. He sees the future of Germany and knows to pander to the Nazis in order to make money, and so he dresses Zisha up like an Aryan, fake blond wig and all, and uses him as an example of the qualities inherent in all Germans. When Zishe declares on stage that he is Jewish, the nazis in the audience scream and shout, but the next day the line for tickets is three blocks long and filled with Jewish men and women, desperate to “see their new Sampson”. The theater becomes a nightly depiction of the future of Europe, with the Nazi soldiers throwing violent fits against the Jewish audience members whenever Zishe lifts some incredible weight.
Eventually Zishe and Erik are forced in to a direct conflict over a woman, the piano player that Erik essentially owns, as well as their opposing ideals about how much of themselves they are willing to hide in exchange for wealth and power. Erik regularly mentions his prediction that Hitler will lead the German people to a new era of supremacy in the hopes of becoming Hitler's head of the occult once the Nazi leader finally takes power. Zishe refuses to hide the fact that he is a Jew, despite the ever growing pressure to do so. Of course it is eventually revealed that Erik himself is actually a Jew named Herschel, and suddenly his hopes and dreams are dashed and he is taken in to custody by the German state. Zishe witnesses this reaction to the revelation of Erik's Jewish blood and suddenly sees the coming storm of the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. Zisha returns to his home and attempts to convince his people to prepare for an invasion by the Germans. When they demand a show of strength to prove that he can train them to defend themselves he accidentally drives a nail through a board and in to his knee, which gets infected, forcing the doctors to amputate his leg. Zishe dies of the wound two days before Hitler takes control of the German government. The final scene is a dream in which Zishe helps his younger brother fly away from a small island packed with crabs, presumably an illustration that Zishe's actions have some how saved his brother from the impending holocaust he spent the last fifteen minutes of the film trying to prevent.
Unfortunately the film manages to be a relatively boring, predictable, and lengthy look at the plight of the Jewish peoples of Europe during the early days of the National Socialist Party's rise to prominence. At two hours and six minutes in length, Invincible deals with a complex and tense point in time through the standard and almost paint by the numbers series of plot points and dialogue. Things simply happen and characters simply do things because that's what they are supposed to do to further the story along in it's leisurely pace. The talent, aside from Tim Roth, simply say their lines with roughly the same emotion and conviction as one might find in a middle school stage play. There are brief glimpses of real feeling such as in Tim Roth's monologues spoken almost directly to the viewer, or Udo Kier's expression of the Nazi's lack of style to Goebbels. However the majority of the lines are great;y understated. It is also unfortunate that at times the writing feels out of place and unmotivated simply to make a statement upon the Nazi party.
The film also feels very much like a documentary. The dialogue is not written for the ear as professionals like to say, with lines broken up by filler words such as “like” and “I mean”. The shots are either hand held following a moving character or simply static despite what interesting visuals may or may not be happening around the camera. It also suffered from poor scene transitions, which were frequently long fade to blacks that seemed more suited to a commercial break in a television show than a simple scene transition.
I will say that despite the flaws which I have already stated, there are good parts to the feature. The premise is interesting, as with most of the Herzog works that I have scene there are certainly compelling points of commentary within the film, Tim Roth provides an outstanding performance as the Jew trying to pass as a Nazi, and when viewed simply as an allegory for the situation of an entire group of people in a turbulent point in human history it draws many excellent parallels. Unfortunately, such positive aspects do not make up for the negative, and while Invincible was not necessarily a bad film, it was far from entertaining or good enough for me to suggest to you, our readers.