“My films come to me very much alive, like dreams without logical patterns or academic explanations,” said Werner Herzog, the director, philosopher and ceaseless marvel. His Invincible (2001) unravels like one such dream, telling the tale of a Jewish strongman who accurately predicted the horrors of WWII. The film is overlong, the script is far-fetched and the production is bloated, but it’s transfixing nonetheless. Exhibiting the same virtuosity that made him famous, Invincible is a must-see for any Herzog aficionado.

A classic Herzog protagonist with big dreams and a unique talent, Zishe Breitbart (real-life strongman Jouko Ahola) is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of 1932. Unlike the Terminator, Zishe has a heart of gold. When a talent scout spots him in a strength competition, he invites the muscular mensch to Berlin, where he can make a living as an entertainer. Zishe turns down the offer. He’s a simple man who belongs with his family in their Polish shtetl. When the scout takes Zishe to the cinema and shows him footage of modern marvels, Zishe is silently mesmerized.

That night, Zishe can’t sleep. He stares out the window and asks his younger brother, “Do you believe God gives to each of us a gift?” He’s a quintessential dreamer, questioning his purpose in life with Herzogian spirit. Zishe commences on the journey to Berlin to see, among other things, if God gave him the gift of strength for a reason.

Donning a blonde wig and a golden shield, he steps onstage at the Palace of the Occult. No longer Zishe, the Jewish blacksmith, he is now “Siegfried, the Iron King,” a beacon of Aryan fortitude. When he bends a sword into a knot, the audience of Nazi soldiers erupts in applause. The evening is presided over by the sinister Hanussen (Tim Roth), a conniving hypnotist who longs to be appointed the Nazi’s government’s Minister of the Occult.

Whereas Zishe feels guilty about betraying his origins and lying to the public, Hanussen has no such reservations. Fancying himself the prophet of Hitler’s coming, Hanussen wants to tell the gentiles exactly what they want to hear. Perhaps standing in for mainstream Hollywood, Hanussen is like the corporate executive to Herzog/Zishe’s independent idealist. For the faithless Hanussen, money is everything. If the point wasn’t clear enough, Herzog has Hanussen open a safe and physically point to the cash inside, showing Zishe just who his god really is.

When Zishe removes his wig and reintroduces himself as “Samson” the Jewish strongman, the audience roars with disapproval. Herzog makes a vocal cameo as one of the hecklers, shouting “Swindler!” from the crowd. If the first half of the film is snappy as a slice of Matzo, the second is thick and slow as strudel. Zishe’s revelation leads to the dramatic downfall of Hanussen, who has been keeping a secret of his own.

The music of Invincible is magnificent. The film was scored by Hans Zimmer and Herzog’s future collaborator, Klaus Badelt. The settings are equally elaborate. The Palace of the Occult is an enormous theater, thick with cigarette smoke and encircled by velvet curtains. With these large-scale components in mind, it’s jarring to learn that, at its widest release, the film played in only nine theaters, grossing less than $82,000. To this day, its score on Rotten Tomatoes is a paltry 54%.

Performances by Ahola and Roth are stilted, but it’s not their fault. The problem lies in the grandiosity of Herzog’s script, which makes actors perpetually seem as if they’re reading off some ancient scroll. Not only does Herzog weave in mystical elements, he turns Zishe’s life story into a precursor to the entire Holocaust. Only Herzog, the “consummate poet of doom” as described by Janet Maslin, could pull off such a feat. For all its pomposity, Invincible remains an imaginative and deeply felt film. When it comes to Herzog, Roger Ebert was right: “Even his failures are spectacular.”

  • Nomad

    It’s hard not to get the impression that Herzog’s made another encomium to dreamers and ma…
  • Meeting Gorbachev

    Meeting Gorbachev is a worthwhile documentary that can hopefully penetrate the now-once-a…
  • Herzog by Ebert: by Roger Ebert

    Two of the most admired and beloved figures in cinema are celebrated in this slim volume t…
  • Rediscover: Touki Bouki

    Touki Bouki is much like its protagonist: unwilling to bow to European mores nor comfortab…
  • Criminally Underrated: G.I. Jane

    The boundaries that G.I. Jane sought to push were not necessarily ones that the ‘90s were …
  • Rediscover: The Weirdo

    The Weirdo plays largely like a low-budget “ABC Afterschool Special” made by someone who s…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Oeuvre: Soderbergh: sex, lies, and videotape

Soderbergh’s first feature film was allegedly written by the director on a legal pad in ei…