Director: Werner Herzog
Studio: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
Synopsis: Zishe Breitbart moves to Berlin to seek his fortune as a strongman, and comes under the management of the hypnotist and fraudulent mystic Hanussen. But this is 1932, and the Jewish Breitbart is increasingly disturbed when he realises what Germany’s new government is planning.
The Problem: Positioned as a major comeback for Herzog, Invincible instead received poor reviews for its traditional style and the lead performance by real-life Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola.
Watching Invincible at Cannes in 2001, it’s easy to see how it could have disappointed. Herzog hadn’t made a fictional feature since 1992’s forgettable Scream of Stone, and unlike most of his contemporaries in the German New Wave he’d never tackled Nazism directly. The opening half hour, with its gentle, sunny scenes of rural life, completely lacks the visionary, Romantic edge that made him a legend. And yes, Ahola isn’t the most natural actor.
The comeback everyone predicted actually came four years later, with Grizzly Man, and it’s fair to say Herzog is more famous and popular than ever now. Which makes it a good time to revisit Invincible without the weight of expectation that sank it. It displays a political, angry side of Herzog which he rarely shows, and casts new light on his career-making 1970s run.
The major political project of the German New Wave was to reclaim their country’s cinema from the legacy of Nazism, which was an even harder task than you might think. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer accused German silent cinema of setting the stage for fascism, noting that its frequent motifs of heroic explorers, sinister hypnotists and happy peasants lined up uncannily well with how Nazis portrayed themselves, the Jews and the German people respectively. Whereas Herzog’s contemporaries attacked fascism directly in films like Brutality in Stone and Berlin Alexanderplatz, Herzog chose to both celebrate and subvert Weimar-era tropes. He took the Nazis’ beloved heroic explorers and turned them into Lope de Aguirre, and took the happy, dancing peasants and made them into violent dwarves.
Herzog had also tackled hypnotism in Heart of Glass, but Invincible moves that troubling motif to the centre of the Nazi project. Erik Jan Hanussen, played magnificently in this film by Tim Roth, was a real person who advised Hitler on stagecraft. He was an unashamed con artist who, in his youth, wrote a book about how to fake psychic abilities, then bought up and destroyed all the copies to prevent Hitler reading it and firing him. The brilliance of his portrayal in Invincible is that he embodies every stereotype the Nazis had of Jews – cosmopolitan, rootless, lecherous, manipulative, full of dark secrets – and he doesn’t even notice.
By contrast, Zishe Breitbart is sweet and honest, qualities that are arguably enhanced by Ahola’s naive performance. It can feel a little unfair putting him up against Roth on top form, but it does increase the sense that Breitbart is dangerously out of his depth here. Herzog’s script comes up with some shrewd observations about bigotry and the madness of crowds, particularly when Breitbart laughs along with an anti-Semitic stage act Hanussen performs. It’s teasingly unclear whether he’s missed the racially charged introduction to the routine, or whether he’s just laughing along to avoid being singled out by the predominantly Nazi crowd.
In the end, Hanussen’s hatred only makes Breitbart embrace his Jewish identity, performing as Samson rather than the Wagnerian routines his manager creates for him. Hanussen and Breitbart never met in real life, but Herzog includes plenty of unbelievable-but-true facts from both men’s biographies. Placing them together, he felt, exposed a deeper truth about German anti-Semitism, and looking at the finished film it’s hard to disagree. In tracing the attitudes that created the Holocaust back into the popular culture and popular attitudes of the day, it feels like a film the Bush-era world wasn’t ready for, but the Trump-era world might get a lot out of.