Invincible FILM review [Warner Herzog]

Film / Video Reviews
Invincible FILM review [Warner Herzog]
Sep 20, 2002, 18:36

Tim Roth as Hanussen in Invincible

INVINCIBLE written and directed by Werner Herzog; Fine Line Films, 2002

For more than three decades, Werner Herzog has obsessed over the rise and fall of small men with giant dreams. There were the pint-size reprobates in Even Dwarves Started Small. The megalomaniacal conquistador in Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The tortured private in Woyzeck. The noble idiot in Stroszek. The dreamer who tries to haul a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. It's no surprise then to see the German director taking on Invincible. The film is based on a true story of a strongman living in the chaos of pre-Nazi Germany. But—all Herzog's films have that “but” in them, signaling the chosen and doomed fate of his characters—he isn't just any strongman.

Zishe (Jouko Ahola) happens to be Jewish. He's also a visionary who sees the oncoming horror. And he believes that he is the new Samson: a leader who will protect his people from the Nazis. Sounds like another heroic story about heroism lost? Well, almost. Invincible has all the makings of a classic, if only the direction and casting were as strong as the story. The pacing borders on epileptic. Some scenes linger on long after it's time to move on. The most compelling ones—like the ones of Zishe, dressed in a blond wig and gladiator armor, performing before an audience of Nazis—seem to come and go in a blur.

Herzog's dialogue, meanwhile, has never been so stilted. Rather than make Invincible in German, he opted for English, even though his cast is mostly made up of amateurs who barely speak it. It isn't uncommon for Herzog to cast amateurs. He enjoyed remarkable success casting a mental patient, Bruno S., in The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek. Herzog enjoys similar success with Ahola in the role of the good-hearted strongman. A Finnish athlete and winner of World's Strongest Man competitions, Ahola is appropriately clumsy, a noble savage trapped in a tumultuous moment in history.

When Zishe proclaims himself the “new Samson and protector of the Jews”—and a potent threat to the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority—he is a portrait of pity, not power. He just seems so clueless as to the wretched ways of the world. When Herzog's casting tactic fails, however, Invincible lapses into amateur hour. Enter Marta, a musician at the club where Zishe performs. Played by Anna Gourari, a piano player in real life, she is also the strongman's love interest. The problem is that Marta can barely act or talk. Her clumsiness is so stifling to the story, it makes you wonder what Herzog saw in her, aside from musical talent.

All this is not to say that Invincible doesn't have some brilliant moments. Tim Roth is superb as Hanussen, the owner of the Palace of the Occult—a cabaret hall that mixes the decadence of Weimar Germany with the fascist pronouncement of the soon-to-be New Order. Hanussen, who aspires to be named Minister of the Occult in a new Nazi government, also happens to be Jewish. Unlike so many Holocaust film directors, though, Herzog resists the temptation to explore Hanussen's “Jewishness.” First and last, Hanussen is a hypnotist, opportunist and con man, a Hitlerlite able to cast a spell until the hypnosis wears off. He's also a perfect foil to Zishe, who sees only the simple truth in things. Zishe wants to affect change not through hypnosis, but by noble deeds.

In many ways, Invincible is a study of these two men: their visions of transcendence and the wounds they receive when they try to fly high. And in some ways, Herzog is just like them. He aims high and comes very close, but ends up crashing into the same problems that have brought down many a mortal director before him.

-John Petkovic

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