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The great German filmmaker Werner Herzog hasn’t made a feature film in two decades (though he has made some documentaries). He has finally returned to the big screen with Invincible, the true story of a Jewish strongman who became a symbol of Aryan power and glory.

A Jewish Siegfried

Tim Roth mesmerizes the Nazis in Herzog's InvincibleZisha (Jouko Ahola) is a blacksmith from a large family in a Polish village. It is 1932, but the only difference from the Middle Ages is that hand-drawn carts have inflated rubber tires. One day the circus passes through town and Zisha beats the circus’ strong man. This earns him the notice of a talent scout, who recruits Zisha for a gig in Berlin.

Eric Jan Hanussen (Tim Roth) owns the Theater of the Occult, a nightclub that caters to the egos of the Nazis, who are already rising into power. Hanussen proves his mental powers by hypnotizing volunteers from the audience, reading personal information from the crowd, and putting his piano player into a stiff-body trance. For his climax, he predicts the rise of Adolph Hitler, which makes the crowd go wild.

Hanussen’s other acts are equally message-heavy. The physical comedian who pantomimes a heavy suitcase is introduced as a Jewish banker “trying to run off with the profits of the Great War.” As for Zisha, Hanussen tells him “we will Aryanize you.” He assigns Zisha the role of Siegfried, the Wagnerian hero with legendary strength.

Invincible’s last two acts portray the downfall of Hanussen’s club, and Zisha’s return home, both set against the continued rise in power of the Nazi party.

Acting, Schmacting

There is some bad acting in Invincible. Zisha’s nine-year-old brother Benjamin is wise beyond his years, which makes his dialogue sound unconvincing, too written, and too much for this child actor to handle. And in the third act, Zisha begins to see visions that he can’t articulate; he becomes a Cassandra. Unfortunately, on film it looks more like Ahola can’t deliver complex dialogue than Zisha being inarticulate.

Even so, Herzog seems not to mind. As a director, he is more interested in the meaning of his movie than in the performances therein. A little stiffness in a few performances is not even an issue, so long as the rich meaning and metaphor survive the translation to film.

For some directors, this would be a cop-out, but for Herzog, it’s really true. The performances really are less important than what happens and what is said.

The Rooster and the Prince

Professor and filmmaker Stan Brakhage taught a course on Herzog at CU a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to sit in on a few of the classes. They included some of the liveliest discussions about film I’ve had the privilege of participating in. Like Invincible, some of the films had sub-par performances (e.g., Even Dwarves Started Small). But the quality of the acting was a non-issue in the rich discussions of the movie.

Just as one example, here is a conversation-starter for after you see Invincible. It opens with Benjamin telling a story about a prince who one day believes that he is a rooster. The prince hides under a table, refusing to associate with the humans, until his advisor convinces him to come out and act like a prince, even though they both really know that he’s a rooster.

On one level, the fable seems to presage Zisha’s experience playing an Aryan on stage but maintaining his true Jewish identity underneath. But the rooster story involves another twist and a measure of foolishness. Perhaps it’s meant to refer to Eric “Van” Hanussen, who had deliberately subverted his true identity but was unable to escape deny it in the end. Which is the greater fool, the prince who believes he’s a rooster, or the rooster who pretends to be a prince?

Invincible has many such moments, too many to discuss here, all rich topics for conversation. See Invincible with your smartest friends and book some conversation time after the movie.