Friday, May 8, 2009
When Werner Herzog made Invincible in 2001, he had not made a fiction feature in a full decade, since 1991's Scream of Stone; the director once best known for his features starring Klaus Kinski had, while making little distinction between fiction and documentary, increasingly dedicated himself wholly to the latter. As Herzog's return to the form of the fiction feature, Invincible is certainly a strange and awkward movie, a would-be epic in which nothing much actually happens even with a bloated running time of over two hours. It's a curiously inert and stilted film, with a rather graceless script, written by Herzog himself but without many traces of the grand, eccentric poetry that Herzog, a gifted writer, so often inscribes into his best work. Or maybe it's just that his lines, delivered by a cast consisting mostly of inept non-actors, are smothered by the hesitancy of the performers. In any event, this was an inauspicious return to the feature for a director whose work has remained powerful and relevant into his late career, even as his interest in and talent for the fiction feature seem to have abandoned him.
Nevertheless, the film's central character, Zishe Breitbart (real-life bodybuilder Jouko Ahola), is an archetypal Herzogian protagonist. He is a strongman, a powerful young man who is discovered as a blacksmith in a small, tight-knit Jewish town in Poland, where he lives with his family. He is enticed to leave this life behind and move to Berlin, where he gets a job as a stage performer at the occult theater of Erik Jan Hanussen (Tim Roth), performing feats of strength before appreciative audiences. The story is based on a real strongman, but Herzog has shifted the timeline so that Zishe is in Berlin as the Nazis are just gathering power: the streets and theaters are filled with men in Nazi uniforms and armbands, heckling Jews and expectantly awaiting Hitler's rise to power. Hanussen is another historical character, a hypnotist and clairvoyant who was closely associated with the leaders of the Nazi party in the years preceding Hitler's election. He is a fascinating figure, a Jew who posed as a Dutch aristocrat and entertained the Nazi elites, and the film's most compelling segments are the ones dealing with this strange and slightly sinister man. Roth plays him with a quiet intensity, nearly whispering much of the time, his voice rising and falling in a hypnotic wave-like cadence.
The rest of the cast are, unlike Roth, mostly amateur actors, and unfortunately it shows. Ahola's earnest awkwardness is sometimes appropriate to Zishe's character, his small-town shyness and unfamiliarity with the big city, but at other times it's all too apparent that the professional bodybuilder (who was declared "World's Strongest Man" in 1997 and 1999) is just stiff and uncomfortable on screen. The same is true of Anna Gourari, who plays the pianist at Hanussen's occult theater. Her scenes with Zishe are especially painful and labored, and it's hard to believe that Herzog, who once guided brilliant and precisely controlled performances from the notoriously difficult Klaus Kinski, was happy with these scenes. There's a strange indifference to many of the dialogue scenes, an odd clipped quality, and the pacing seems subtly off. Scenes end abruptly without reaching any obvious point or climax. This contributes to the weird stretching of time here: the elliptical editing gives the impression that quite a long time is passing by, but when Zishe returns to his family at the end it becomes apparent that he hasn't actually been gone very long.
Because of the inconsistent quality of the performances, some of the film's best scenes are the actual performances at Hanussen's club. Hanussen's demonstrations of his supposed hypnotic powers are staged as long closeups on the mystical guru's face as he speaks softly to his subjects, lulling them into a trance, Roth staring intently into the camera as though he was hypnotizing the audience as well (as Herzog once toyed with doing as an introduction to Heart of Glass). Herzog seems to love the vaudeville aspect of Hanussen's stage shows, and he indulges in some elaborately choreographed Busby Berkeley fantasias in which costumed showgirls dance themselves into complex patterns on the stage.
Zishe's own stage show is fascinating as an examination of issues of Jewish and Aryan ethnic identities and the developing tensions within Germany during the immediate pre-Nazi era. Hanussen, who hides his own Jewish heritage behind virulent pro-Nazi rhetoric, has Zishe appear in a blonde wig and ridiculous Viking armor as the Aryan hero Siegried. As he performs his feats of strength, he is applauded by the uniformed Nazis in the crowd, who embrace him as one of their own, cheering him as though his actions reflect well on the entire Aryan race. The irony is obvious, and Zishe soon enough reveals the truth, which outrages his former supporters but makes him a hero to the Jewish people. These tensions are interesting and potentially explosive, but Herzog never does enough with them, never pushes things far enough. The normally apolitical Herzog isn't really interested in doing a direct historical drama about the rise of Nazism in his home country, but nor does he find enough depth in the character studies of Zishe or Hanussen (the latter, one suspects, would have been a far more interesting protagonist for a film like this). The resulting film is uneven and rather aimless, with some of its best ideas and moments buried by the meandering plot and leaden acting.