Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tim Roth, Jouko Ahola, Anna Gourari, Max Raabe, Jacob Wein, Gustav Peter Woehler, Udo Kier, Herbert Golder, Gary Bart, Renate Krößner, Ben-Tzion Hershberg, Rebecca Wein, Raphael Wein, Daniel Wein, Chana Wein
Written by: Werner Herzog, E. Max Frye
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and thematic elements
Running Time: 135
Date: 03/09/2001

Invincible (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sideshow Biz

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I should preface this review by saying that I am a big Werner Herzog fan. I believe that he may be one of our greatest living film directors, with a fierce and fearless personal vision and a reckless, foolhardy filmmaking technique. His Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Lessons of Darkness (1992) at the very least rank among the greatest films ever made. Hence, I was very excited to be invited last year to an advance screening of Herzog's new film (well, almost new... he's made three since then), called Invincible. And I have to admit I was perplexed to watch it unfold with an astonishing lack of passion or uniqueness. 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.

Certainly Herzog had good material to start with. His hero, Zishe, played by real-life circus strongman Jouko Ahola, echoes his 1974 classic The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and its star, Bruno S. -- a real-life outcast from asylums and halfway houses. But Zishe never grows beyond an idea into a character. He's meant to represent innocence and goodness, and he's just terribly uninteresting. His most potent moment comes when he tries to warn his village of the coming Nazi terror and no one believes him. But aside from the obvious heartstring-tugging we still don't know what he's feeling. On the other side of the coin, Herzog has cast Tim Roth -- that cold, hard, beady-eyed character actor who lends such energy to so many films -- as Invincible's villain, mind-reader and hypnotist Erik-Jan Hanussen. Roth goes the other direction. As if to make up for the non-actors in the cast, he pushes the envelope way too far, and Herzog (perhaps because he is accustomed to dealing with Klaus Kinski's hysterics) doesn't know when or how to stop him.

The story begins with Zishe living in a provincial German town circa 1932 when he's discovered and spirited away to Berlin to join Hanussen's freak show. In the big city, the sadistic Hanussen entertains Hitler's followers with his antics, and warns Zishe not to use his real name or reveal his Jewish background. As with Kaspar Hauser, Herzog has based his new film on a true story but seems more interested in turning it into an allegory using archetypes rather than characters. (It doesn't help that the film is in English and not German.) The characters' interactions -- from Zishe's schoolboy crush on Marta (Anna Gourari), another member of the company, to Hanussen's violent treatment of his employees -- fall flat. We understand them and we've seen them before but we can't connect. It's fairly clear that Herzog is trying to present the Nazis as a form of circus sideshow, but I don't think I've ever seen him waving flags with such graceless obviousness. His other films almost always have something poignant to say, of course, but he usually makes his point by focusing on one person, whose suffering illustrates how he or she fits into the world at large. With Invincible Herzog shows us the characters but also tries to show us the world, and the film deflates and goes soft under its own weight.

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