invincible (2002)


director: werner herzog

tim roth, jouka ahola, anna gourari, udo kier

Any film that begins with a shot of a bustling Jewish shtetl market and the title "Eastern Poland, 1932" is preparing you for tragedy of the most wrenching sort. Werner Herzog's Invinicible is based on the true story of Zishe Breitbart, a Polish Jewish strongman who enjoyed a brief fame in the 1920s, and Eric Jan Hanussen, an magician, occultist and Nazi propagandist whose seemingly unstoppable career as the Third Reich's Minister of the Occult was cut short when it was discovered that he was a Jew.

It's a remarkable story, in that Breitbart and Hannusen worked together briefly, but Herzog reimagines it liberally, placing the two men together on the eve of Hitler's rise to power, as a kind of fable about a lost chance for Jewish revolt against a looming, awful destiny.

As Hanussen, Tim Roth cranks up the sinister and seething element in his repertoire, aided by Hanussen's tuxedoed wardrobe and the low, bleach-white light that Herzog uses to make the fraud magician all the more satanic. The tragic and hopeless nature of Hanussen's deception isn't explored as much as it should have been, and Herzog places the burden of the film squarely on Jouka Ahola's Zishe.

Ahola is suitably massive, a Finn who won the title of "World's Strongest Man" twice. A non-actor, in the long tradition of non-professionals in Herzog films, he holds our attention through sheer guilelessness, making up for a limited range of expression by struggling endearingly to embody earnestness and virtue in a world clearly heading past decadence and corruption into a nightmare of political evil. It's not a neatly-told tale, but Herzog has never valued dramatic slickness. Like Ahola's Zishe, he wants to appeal to our love of decency, and our sense of sadness at a brutal world that places little value on it, or any other virtue.