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Invincible Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

The presence of a great director may not always be sensed in his best works, as these are the obvious benchmarks of an esteemed career-the films where "everything came together". The only directorial career absolutely filled with brilliance was Jean Vigo-and he died after two movies. It’s the films that don’t work as well that speak volumes about their creator. Invincible, the latest from the German master Werner Herzog, is plagued by length, acting, and a number of awkward scenes, but is nevertheless entertaining and affectionate-a testament to Herzog’s remarkable talent.

The poignant story follows Zishe (Jouko Ahola, who looks like Guy Pearce after the Barry Bonds steroid program), a Jewish blacksmith in a small Polish village with a large number of siblings and religious parents. A chain of events eventually leads him to Berlin, where he becomes a celebrity as a strongman performer for Hanussen (Tim Roth), a rising star who wishes to become the Minister of the Occult for Adolf Hitler when he completes his inevitable rise to power.

Herzog wrote the script in German, and it was then translated and filmed in English. As such, virtually every character-except Roth-is of eastern European origin. And they’re speaking not just English, but second-generation English. Several actors struggle, particularly the main love interest-although Zishe's little brother inexplicably has a British accent. Ahola actually manages to pull off the delivery with his sort of bumbling demeanor, although he interrupts himself with "I mean…" more often than a nervous 6th grader at a Valentine social.

There are also overly conventional scenes pasted in which will cause any filmgoer to squirm in their seat. In fact, the entire denouement of the film suffers from such conservative direction, most notably a scene where Zishe predicts the forthcoming Holocaust. It’s sort of a ludicrous proposition in the first place, and Ahola’s delivery-as well as the village reaction and the general feel of the scene-almost cheapen everything that preceded it.

The first ninety minutes of the film are, despite the aforementioned communication problems, completely powerful and fascinating. Herzog sets it up so deftly, and with such confidence, that circus scenes and a cliched trip to Berlin are able to overcome their contrived circumstances. Ahola’s performance recalls that of another relative non-actor in a Herzog film-Bruno S. from the unforgettable Every Man for Himself and God Against All. It’s such an honest and appealing -if vocally unstable-performance that it’s difficult to ignore.

The central conflict is also a wonderfully Herzogian paradox. He skillfully pits the human strength of Zishe with the supposed psychic and intellectual powers of Hanussen, and then traces these both to their cultural sources-Judaism and Nazism-and leaves time to, again, reflect on the nature of God. As Hanussen manipulates Zishe’s power as a performer (dressing him up as an Aryan, using him as inspiration for the Nazis), he comes into conflict with his own ambition-and Zishe reflects on his plight, first as a performer and then as a martyr. This is thought-provoking stuff, and while thematically similar to spiritual explorations in other Herzog films, the pertinence of Nazi Germany gives the film some sense of urgency-as opposed to the narrative plodding of past works. The film, it should be noted, is also based on a true story.

The real stroke of brilliance comes when Herzog has Zishe reveal his identity-its completely unexpected, and also trips the audience up for the last trick Herzog drops out of his sleeve. And, despite the comparatively slow final half hour, Herzog manages to eek out some of the most beautiful scenes in recent memory-one particular shot had this reviewer’s audience crying like a schoolgirl with a skinned knee.

Herzog, whose last major work was as some ill-advised acting in Harmony Korine’s awful Julien Donkey-Boy, fumbles much of the film, and is surprisingly conventional-especially when compared to the unforgiving nature of some of his best films. Despite tepid acting and inconsistent staging, Herzog’s personal ideas and questions throw themselves at the audience’s feet with such resounding and powerful force. It may not be as compelling as Aguirre, The Wrath of God or as inspiring as Fitzcarraldo, but Invincible is indicative of a director who still knows what the hell he’s doing.

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