The Invisibles, directed by Claus Räfle, works diligently to serve as a reminder of the horrors of life under an ethnocentric regime.
There was a time the recent past when there was a tragic ease to finding Jews who had survived Nazi Germany. Some were neighbors. Others volunteered to go to schools and tell the stories of their experiences and honor those they had lost to Nazi ethnic cleansing. Time has taken most of these survivors, though a great many projects exist to maintain their oral history. Despite its flaws, The Invisibles, directed by Claus Räfle, works diligently to serve as a reminder of the horrors of life under an ethnocentric regime. Räfle and his co-writer, Alejandra López, recount the stories of four of the seven thousand Jews who hid in Berlin after the mass deportations that sent hundreds of thousands of them to the camps. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had declared the German capital free of Jews, but scores passed among the citizenry every day, trying desperately to avoid the final solution.
Räfle combines interview footage of the principals, dramatization of the events they describe and archival footage of wartime Berlin to ground his work with an initial unique vitality. There is a great power in hearing Cioma Schönhaus, old and thick-browed, describing the way he forged a work permit to escape the trains out of Berlin, then watching young actor Max Mauff play him almost bumbling through his own survival while selling forged documents on the black market. Hanni Lévy appears onscreen an old woman with wrinkles and dyed red hair, but she was a beauty in her time who dyed her hair an Aryan blonde. All these stories rely on the common thread of the decency of strangers who were unwilling to let people die for their religion, but Hanni (Alice Dwyer) found a family in a place that brokers in happy endings: the movie theater. Ruth Arndt and her family were dispersed in hiding places throughout Germany. Boredom led her to don the black veil of a war widow and traverse Berlin at night. Played by Ruby O. Fee during the docudrama, Ruth eventually finds work at the home of a sympathetic Nazi general, cleaning and watching over the children. She is as safe as anyone until the American bombing campaign reaches Berlin. And finally, Eugen Friede describes his time hiding in Berlin among the gentile friends of his stepfather, a Christian. Initially, his survival remains comfortable and middle class, but degrades the longer he is in Berlin. Played by Aaron Altaras in the film, Eugen is eventually smuggled outside of Berlin where he helps form a resistance movement.
When the film is at its best, the interviews, docudrama segments and archival footage blend together seamlessly. But the longer the film lasts, the more the interviews overshadow the good intentions of the rest of the film. The old survivors are all compelling storytellers, some more haunted than others, and a straight documentary of their stories would likely have served the purposes of the filmmakers. The docudrama sequences suffer as the film plays out, as memories of other WWII-themed movies come to mind the longer we stay in this fictionalized Berlin. A beautiful blonde helping to run a movie theater is an image that belongs to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds the same way the harrowing life of a Jew working as domestic labor recalls Schindler’s List. There are no dramatic stakes for the fictionalized portions of The Invisibles. The survival of the main characters is guaranteed by the interviews. The duration of the film even robs the newsreel footage of its effectiveness. What began as fascinating images that provided context for the lives of the movie’s interview subjects starts feeling like a cost-saving measure as the film goes on. Why pay to dress a street to look like the 1940s when cutting to interiors between archival footage of Berlin is so much cheaper?
The 1990s saw a devotion to preserving the memory of the Holocaust in cinema and literature. The quantity of narratives about escaping, surviving and dying by Nazi edict grew so pervasive that it spawned a dramatic subgenre that bordered on parody by the end of the decade. Hoping to reclaim the successes of Maus and Schindler’s List, these stories were seen as easy awards fodder, the saturation obscuring the importance of the subject. While films that examine the Holocaust have not vanished, a dearth has formed in recent years. Combined with denialism and other avant-garde internet conspiracy theories, this shortage has helped give space for the recent resurgence of Nazism. If the desire 30 years ago was that we’d never forget, a disturbing amount of us have. The Invisibles is an imperfect reminder that we shouldn’t.