"Invincible" is a great title for a Werner Herzog movie. Throughout his four-decade career, the New German Cinema pioneer has determinedly portrayed the outer limits of human experience. In his documentaries and fictional films, men and occasionally women are driven to pursue the most formidable goals and to try to overcome the most daunting challenges, whether deep in a jungle or deep in their own crazed minds--or both.
Herzog's first fictional theatrical release in a decade is not a great film. The movie, in English, is too long and marred by a certain stiffness because many of the actors aren't accustomed to the language. This is compounded by Herzog having cast several inexperienced actors in leading roles. At least no one is dubbed.
Herzog is a powerful, unique visionary, and his material is confounding and congenial to his impassioned, romantic sensibility. It's difficult for a longtime admirer of his work to not be swept up in "Invincible" and overlook its drawbacks, rooted as they are in the perils and necessities of the international co-production that allow such extravagantly distinctive films to be made.
"Invincible" is not the best introduction to the director of such challenging masterworks as "Every Man for Himself and God Against All," "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo." But perhaps there are those who would rather embrace a flawed Herzog work for its strengths than dismiss it for weaknesses.
Like many of Herzog's films, "Invincible" is based on a true story so improbable that hardly anyone would dare invent it. Early in 1932 a Berlin talent agent (Ben-Tzion Hershberg) discovers in an Eastern Poland shtetl Zishe Breitbart (Jouka Ahola), a young blacksmith of astonishing strength. A simple, naive, inarticulate but not stupid man, Zishe is content to stay in his idyllic village.
But the agent is persuasive and knows what to do with Zishe when he arrives in Berlin: Get Hanussen (Tim Roth) to feature him at his fashionable, elegant cabaret. Hanussen is a clairvoyant and magician who is popular with the increasingly powerful Nazi party, acclaiming Hitler as a savior of the nation who will soon take over.
Decked out in a silly Siegfried costume, Zishe represents strength of body and Hanussen strength of mind. Zishe becomes alarmed by open displays of anti-Semitism and Nazi aggression and brutality and by Hanussen's abusive treatment of his lover, Marta (Anna Gourari), an aspiring but stateless Czech concert pianist. What transpires is not easy to predict, and the film's ironies compound.
Working from a story and research compiled by Gary Bart, a relative of Zishe (who plays Zishe's father), Herzog tells his story with simplicity and heightened reality of a fable. Herzog's style is operatic, his key scenes like stately tableaux of the German Expressionist silent classics, with performances stylized accordingly.
Roth, as a fraud yet a compelling and brilliant figure of evil, is the forceful presence we expect him to be, and his glowering manner teeters amusingly on the edge of excess. And making a credible screen debut is Ahola, a Finn who is twice winner of the World's Strongest Man title. Ahola brings an innate sweetness to the courageous, reflective Zishe and seems a natural actor.
Gourari is striking-looking but overly self-conscious, while as Benjamin, Zishe's beloved little brother, Jacob Wein is a tiresomely precocious angel who delivers his lines by rote. Such familiar stalwarts as Udo Kier and Hark Böhm lend welcome support.
For all his exalted sense of grandeur, Herzog, in one of the film's key achievements, is adept at evoking an intimate and complex psychological tension between Hanussen and Zishe. It gives the film a charge that might have been better sustained if "Invincible" had been trimmed; even so, the film leaves a stirring impact.
The period is evoked with care and imagination, and the film glows with Peter Zeitlinger's cinematography. It has some bravura images and surreal moments typical of Herzog, and composers Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt have contributed a lovely score.
István Szabó's "Hanussen" (1988), which tells a different story, is the more polished and coherent film and boasts a superb Klaus Maria Brandauer in the title role. But "Invincible" is riskier and covers more territory, and it is idiosyncratic. Nobody but Werner Herzog could have made it, and that he got to do it at all is reason to be grateful for "Invincible."
MPAA rating: PG, for some sexual and thematic elements. Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations.
Jouka Ahola...Zishe Breitbart
Anna Gourari...Marta Farra
Max Raabe...Master of Ceremonies
A Fine Line Features release of a Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/TATFILM/Little Bird/FilmFour presentation in association with various other entities. Writer-director Werner Herzog. Story researched and compiled by Gary Bart. Producers Gary Bart, Warner Herzog and Christine Ruppert. Executive producers James Mitchell and Lucki Stipetic. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Editor Joe Bini. Music Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt. Costumes Jany Temime. Production designer Ulrich Bergfelder. Art director Markus Wollersheim. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
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