FILM REVIEW: INVINCIBLE
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
When a director with a lofty reputation makes a film that seems pretentious or flawed, there's a tendency among some critics and audiences to mercilessly attack. I hope that won't be the case with "Invincible," though the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog ("Aguirre: the Wrath of God," "Kaspar Hauser") is the sort of cineaste who elicits such fierce reactions. His movies, which are slow, strange, moody and, for many, inexplicable, can alienate or irritate unwary audiences. "Invincible," Herzog's first dramatic feature released here since 1991's "Scream of Stone," has the added disadvantage of being erratically acted and, at times, clumsily written.
That may sound unappetizing. Yet "Invincible" is fascinating for all its flaws. It's an unusual, thoughtful bio-drama with a rich subject and some fantastic moments and scenes. Like most of Herzog's best work, it has a hypnotic rhythm and look, and a gloomy, even tragic viewpoint. Set in Poland and Germany in the early years of the Nazi era, the film follows the real-life careers of clairvoyant and illusionist Jan-Erik Hanussen (played by Tim Roth) and Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart (played by Finnish weightlifting champion Jouka Ahola).
Herzog turned to documentaries in the '90s, and this real-life story is one of the most interesting he's ever made. Herzog establishes his signature bleak mood almost immediately. We meet Zishe in the early 1930s in his tiny Polish village, under overcast skies, surrounded by an isolated provincial Jewish community. Then we travel with him on foot to Berlin, where under the gathering storm clouds of German fascism, the stage hypnotist and the strongman join together to delight the post-Weimar cognoscenti.
Hanussen, a shrewd showman, recognizes the potential of the naive, untutored Zishe and turns him into "Hercules," a brawny muscleman in a Siegfried wig, lifting up to 900 pounds before astonished audiences that include high-ranking Nazis. For a while, Hanussen, with his sinister demeanor, mesmeric skills and surprisingly accurate predictions, and Zishe, with his amazing feats of strength and his campy outfit, are a sensation. But when Zishe reveals himself on stage as Jewish, and Hanussen decides to exploit his origins for the act, their stage show suddenly becomes a battleground. The two head toward the chaos and wreckage into which much of the world would plunge by decade's end.
Herzog, as always, tells this bizarre story with an unsentimental yet enraptured eye and a distanced camera. Though he refuses to sentimentalize, it's a subject that clearly strikes resonant personal chords. Like Hanussen, Herzog is a showman and illusionist who exploits the naive or instinctual genius of some of his players.
If the potential of "Invincible" seems clear, the flaws are painfully obvious, too. Herzog wrote the script himself, and he's awkward with English. (Since Herzog has relocated to Los Angeles and seems bent on making English-language films, he would be wise to find a good English-speaking collaborator, as Billy Wilder did.) Some of his actors, notably the professional strongman Ahola and classical pianist Anna Gourari (who plays Marta, Hanussen's pianist/assistant), are foreign non-professionals who speak hesitantly in their second language.
Herzog's visual style is so traditional and non-flashy, and his tempo so slow, some audiences will simply dismiss the whole picture as amateurish. But the art of the film shines through anyway. Roth's performance has a malevolent gleam, and scene after scene pulses with the eerie power Herzog can summon up in his portraits of misfits, the doomed and damned. Had it been a German-language film, "Invincible" might have been great. As it is, it's a movie nightmare that both disappoints and haunts your mind.
Directed and written by Werner Herzog; story researched and compiled by Gary Bart; photographed by Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini; production designed by Ulrich Bergfelder; music by Hans Zimmer, Klaus Bedelt; produced by Bart, Herzog, Christine Ruppert. A Fine Line Features release; opens Friday, Oct. 4. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG (some sexual content and thematic elements).
Jan-Erik Hanussen - Tim Roth
Zishe Breitbart - Jouka Ahola
Marta Farra - Anna Gourari
Master of Ceremonies - Max Raabe
Benjamin - Jacob Wein
Zishe's Father - Gary Bart