“Invincible” Herzog does it again
Werner Herzog recently released his first non-documentary in the U.S. in 18 years, Invincible. This auteur’s challenging career is studded with troubling cinema. Films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1975), Stroszek (1977), the remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1979), and Fitzcaraldo (1985) have established Herzog as artist-king of no-man’s land. Herzog explores the souls of men sodden with compulsion. While he obsesses on obscure and offbeat subjects, he captures the zeitgeist as well as any director working today.
Herzog performs his pas de deux with cinema around the wastebin of history, pushing himself, his cast and crew, as well as his audience, into the outer limits of endurance. Herzog takes no prisoners. He lacks a light touch. He’s not fun. He’s in your face. Love him or hate him, no one is indifferent to his films. Maybe this is why Herzog needs to genuflect before the altar of high art. Or perhaps he’s a holy fool tilting at windmills. But the movies of Herzog are unique. They are films like no others.
Invincible opens in 1932 in a shtetl in Eastern Poland. The main character, our likeable, lovable Everyman, is a Jewish blacksmith’s son named Zishe Breitbart (played by real-life Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola). A canonical idiot savant in the Kaspar Hauser tradition, Breitbart, in addition to being a Jew living in Poland before the start of WWII, is blessed with uncanny strength.
The film introduces Breitbart being baited by anti-Semites. He wrecks a tavern and busts some racist heads, but in order to pay for the damage, Zishe must fight a circus prop named Hercules. Undefeated in more than 20 years as a pro, Hercules looks indestructible, but Zishe flattens him without breaking a sweat. Zishe pockets his 500 zlotys and announces to the crowd: “I can do more! I can do more!”
Unbeknownst to Zishe, a talent scout for Variety Artists is sitting in the audience. This agent specializes in “dancers, jugglers, magicians” and believes Zishe has a future in the biz. The simpleminded weightlifter begins to wonder about life in faraway Berlin. Zishe is the big Jew with the big muscles and the big heart and the big dream of making it big time. There’s only one small problem: He has to perform in a joint called Palast des Okkulten, the one and only Palace of the Occult, a sham operation run with aplomb by a metaphysician named Hanussen (portrayed by the always brilliant Tim Roth).
Erik Jan Hanussen is the darkness to Zishe Breitbart’s light. Hanussen is a hypnotist, seer, clairvoyant, visionary, and all-around Ubermensch. Hanussen foresees Hitler’s rise to power and positions himself as a candidate for the Office of Minister of the Occult in the National Socialist Party. Ambitious to the bone and keenly aware of the whims of his loyal fans, an audience of Nazi brass and their molls, Hanussen browbeats Breitbart, his new Man of Steel, into masquerading his Jewishness.
“We will Aryanize you,” he says.
The opening act for Zishe’s debut features dancing girls and a leering emcee with the attitude of Joel Grey in Cabaret. He sings such pointed ditties as “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” and “Sweet and Lovely” in a light, high, mellifluous tenor. Goosed by a crooner in lipstick and rouge and a psychedelic whirl of chorines, Invincible starts looking like Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend. But looks can be deceiving. When the music stops it’s time for sidesplitting comedy, and nothing is funnier than watching a mime perform “Herr Rothschild the Banker is trying to run off with the Profits of the Great War.”
When Breitbart finally takes to the stage at the Palace of the Occult as the Strongest Man on Earth, Zishe looks like Richard Wagner’s Siegfried (another world-class idiot savant) in a fur cape, a blond wig, and a ho-yo-to-ho winged helmet.
The Nazis eat it up like it was bratwurst in Valhalla.
In no time Zishe becomes eyewitness to mass hysteria. He senses all along that something stinks in Weimar, but nothing ever fully registers. When he has misgivings about his Siegfried shtick in Deutschland (“I don’t feel right with the audience. Perhaps I’m too Jewish?”), Hanussen informs him, “Now, listen, my boy. We are entertainers. We articulate their collective dreams.” But Hanussen only collects dreams of absolute power. “I want to be to the present what the Oracle of Delphi was to antiquity.” One man’s dream is another man’s nightmare.
With the help of a woman pianist named Marta (Anna Gourari) who has fallen under Hanussen’s spell, with some prodding from his mother and brother who arrive in Berlin to remind him of his roots (“Zishe, you changed so much.”), Zishe finally has his satori. He remembers that he was a Jew, is a Jew, will always be a Jew — and he lets the blackhearts at the Palace in on the secret. Zishe goes public and is suddenly reborn as Samson the Strong, Scourge of the Storm Troopers, prototype of the Jew of the Future.
The Nazis refuse to believe that the Strongest Man on Earth is Jewish, so they riot in the face of his insolence. The Jews in the community, on the other hand, think Zishe is the greatest thing since chopped liver, so he now becomes an even bigger sensation. “They want to see their New Samson,” sneers Hanussen. Elders from the synagogue come to feast their eyes on the unlikely Jewish hero, while the Nazis hang around to heckle the Hebrew. Third Reich luminaries Joseph Goebbels (Propaganda Minister) and Heinrich Himmler (Reichsfuhrer SS) visit the Palast des Okkulten to see the Greatest Show on Hitler’s Earth.
“Who are they?” asks Zishe the Clueless. “Movie stars?”
Another riot ensues at the theater. With a few forceful words Hanussen restores order. “Nature doesn’t care what we think of it,” he says. “There is no future. Just a state of things and events.” What was under Hanussen’s control is out of control forever. The disastrous theater engagement leads to a disastrous boating party that leads to an even more disastrous trial. (Hanussen tells the court: “I’m of the opinion that even God bluffed in His creation. Otherwise, how could He have come this far?”) The porous nature of identity and self-delusion deftly take center stage. The Palace of the Occult and all it stands for starts to teeter. The deus ex machina waiting in the wings propels the protagonist (Zishe) and the antagonist (Hanussen) into a duet of comprehension and extinction.
Based on a true story, Invincible marches upon well-trod Herzogian turf. The clash of cultures, collective madness, and the cruelties of civilization are themes that resound throughout the director’s oeuvre. Invincible‘s probe of the Nazi era is of necessity downbeat, but by personalizing the curse of Zishe Breitbart, the good man who was too good for his own good, and turning it into a pox on all our houses, Invincible remains relevant, touching, timeless. Herzog dusts off Beethoven for the soundtrack and as a subplot in the film. The humanity and promise and hope of Ludwig van contradicts the cult of the swastika.
Structurally, the movie is divided into three parts. The body of the film is bracketed with scenes of prewar Poland (actually filmed in Latvia and Lithuania). The somber cinematic palette in these sections, the grays, the tans, the beiges, the browns, captures the elegiac feel of the end of time. The film’s middle section, the Berlin portion of the trilogy, is all bright lights big city, formal, stylized, magisterial, almost operatic in its contempt of convention.
Herzog’s use of non-actors in lead roles guarantees the film’s compass is always skewed, and his Weltschmerz, his weariness at the world and its ongoing historical delirium, illuminates each frame. Herzog is filmmaker as pacifist and dreamer and moralist, a storyteller with art history at his fingertips. Invincible samples and pays homage to the tragic grandeur of the photographs of Roman Vishniac, the biting satire of George Grosz’s watercolors, and the prophetic mise-en-scene of director Fritz Lang. But Invincible is pure, unadulterated Werner Herzog. It could be by no one else.
Nowadays the name Adolf Hitler is used as an insult and tossed back and forth between nations. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a dead ringer for Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove) compares Saddam Hussein to Hitler to justify America’s crimes. Germany’s Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin compares George W. Bush to Hitler so Gerhard Schroeder can get reelected. Their name-calling cheapens language. It turns history into a soundbite, the holocaust into a plaything for realpolitik.
As Herzog stated in a recent interview: “The century that we are going to live now will be the century of solitudes. It’s not isolation. It’s solitudes.”
Werner Herzog got it right. I can feel the walls closing in already.