Invincible (2001) Movie Review

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Admittedly, Invincible is not one of Herzog's crowning achievements. It is not an epic testament to the limits of human (and occasionally, cinematic) experience, as his masterpieces tend to. That said, this might not be an appropriate introduction to the man behind such difficult (I guess that would be the word) achievements as Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo. However, Invincible is Herzog's first film in 18 years to be released theatrically and his first return to the Nazi era in almost twice as many years -- since his debut with Signs of Life (1968). Which begs the question: has Herzog lost his edge?

Based on a true story, Invincible chronicles Zishe Breitbart's (Jouka Ahola) journey from a young, Jewish blacksmith of great strength to the renowned "strongest man in the world" in a Berlin nightclub just before the Nazis come to power. Zishe gets his start after he beats the strongman in the circus and an agent offers to find him work in Berlin as strongman. Initially resistant, Zishe ventures to Berlin on the belief that God has something in mind for him, leaving behind his family, including his favorite brother Benjamin (Jacob Wein), the most intelligent nine-year-old his East Poland town has ever seen. In Berlin, Zishe gets a position immediately in a nightclub run by a con man -- clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen (Tim Roth) -- playing the historic German hero Siegfried in the club's variety show. At first, Zishe is too overwhelmed and intimidated to see the what is happening to the Jews (then again, who wasn't?), but, after Zishe's mother and brother Benjamin come for a visit, Zishe reveals himself as a Polish Jew to a room full of Nazis and the precarious balance is tipped.

Herzog is obviously interested in the dynamics of power as the strongman, the brainy nine-year-old, and the swindling clairvoyant become symbols not of power itself but rather of methods for wielding power. Judging from what becomes of both the strongman and the clairvoyant, the power of the mind has far reaching effects for Herzog, for ultimately it was not the physical force of the Nazi army (only 100,000 men at the time the party took power) but the persuasive propaganda machine and its charismatic leader, both fueled by brains not brawn, which led to its success. Toss in a wary national psyche and you have a dangerous situation.

While the film invokes many interesting ideas beyond this abstract theme and finds a very fresh approach to the now cliché dramatics of film set in Nazi Germany, the film ultimately remains Zishe's, and, at times, the drama and complexity are too much for non-actor, real-life strongman Jouka Ahola, who plays Zishe. We never really feel involved with the story, as all of its ideas remain just that: abstract ideas. Ahola does a fine job most of the time, but crucial scenes - especially those opposite the talented Tim Roth - fall flat. It doesn't help that the film runs long, well over two hours. Invincible is, however, filled with some wonderful moments. For example, Zishe and Benjamin's first trip to the cinema is a touching scene in which Benjamin's voice over, as he describes the wonder of seeing things he has only read about in books, is very affecting. Or Hanussen's terrific, character-revealing monologue which replaces the power of God with a safe full of money. And the film has the best line I have ever heard about showbiz agents: "You are like a shopkeeper with empty shelves, you have nothing to sell." Invincible does have something to sell; it just doesn't do it very well. Herzog hasn't lost his edge completely; it is simply not as sharp as it once was.

One thing I did like about the film - albeit it takes some adjusting to - is Herzog's theatrical style, which he uses not just in the nightclub performances (which are great) but also throughout the film, and this type of staginess is present in most of his film. It seems contradictory for someone so concerned with filming the real (see Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo) to make films that end up seeming so overproduced, staged like a play, but it certainly makes for a different kind of viewing experience. It's an experience not often found in the cinema, but an interesting (and wholly cinematic) experience, nonetheless.

Aka Unbesiegbar.

All hands for Mr. Roth.

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Invincible (2001) Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, 2001

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