Invincible (2001)

Fiction features by Werner Herzog have been an endangered species in the last 20 years; this was his first in 10 years when he made it. It’s based on a true story (which some would say is the case with his documentaries too), or rather two true stories: that of the Polish strongman Zishe Breitbart and that of the fraudulent clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen. It is, obviously, somewhat fictionalised (the historical Breitbart died in 1925, seven years before this story is set, i.e. 1932 as the Nazis were rising), but why would we expect Herzog to tell a story straight? Unfortunately, when it did come out not everyone was thrilled by his return to fiction, and perhaps not without reason. Jeffrey Anderson’s comment—”If I wasn’t absolutely sure I was watching a Herzog film, I would have guessed that Invincible was made by some obscure refugee from the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category”—is a bit harsh, but not entirely unfair; I’ve seen Herzog make more “Herzogian” films than this. It’s an interesting alternate perspective on the rise of Nazism, the tale of a Jewish strongman making it big in pre-Hitler Berlin under the aegis of the con-man Hanussen, becoming a hero to the local Jewish community when he eventually casts off the “Aryan” pose Hanussen insists he adopt for his Nazi clientele, just like Hanussen himself did. Jouka Ahola, a professional strongman, is good as Zishe, his non-actorliness actually works really well at selling this naive boy from the Polish countryside, somewhat out of his depth in the big city… unlike the actorliness of Tim Roth as Hanussen; he’s just over-cooked here and really irritating in a way that I don’t think is meant to be just the character he’s playing. He’s a pretty big problem in what isn’t really a bad film by any means, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anderson’s Oscar reference isn’t that far off the mark.

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