The Holocaust is a topic with limitless cinematic potential. In The Producers, Mel Brooks used ridicule to effectively spotlight the monstrosity of that dark past --Roberto Benigni went a similar, but less sublime, route in Life is Beautiful. Werner Herzog's unintentionally comic Invincible just might be the oddest take yet on the Nazi era. Judge for yourself when the film unspools February 22 at 7 p.m. in Dartmouth College's Loew Auditorium.
Herzog, the idiosyncratic German director best known for Fitzcarraldo, zeroes in on the strange, real-life saga of Zishe Breitbart, portrayed by newcomer Jouko Ahola. This muscle-bound Jewish blacksmith is discovered by a theatrical agent while successfully competing against a traveling-circus wrestler. From a humble existence in his remote Polish shtetl, Zishe skyrockets to fame in the decadent culture of 1932 Germany. There he demonstrates his prowess at Berlin's Palace of the Occult. "God made me strong," he suggests as a way of rationalizing his decision. "Don't you think he made me strong for a reason?"
Not long after Zishe arrives in the glittering metropolis, he is persuaded to oblige the country's anti-Semitic climate by hiding his true heritage. The incredible hulk dons a blonde wig and outlandish costume to pass as an Aryan superhero dubbed Sigfried. He's an innocent caught up in turbulent times. His cabaret act, which includes an obligatory breaking free of iron chains, is an instant hit because the "master race" adores any symbol of Germanic male dominance.
The popular nightclub is owned by Hanussen (Tim Roth), a sinister clairvoyant-hypnotist in a black cape who expresses his admiration for Hitler. "I am the prophet of his coming," he announ-ces, after predicting that the Fuhrer will soon emerge as the nation's savior. This pleases the audience's rowdy storm troopers, whose uber-ideology is tinged with mysticism.
As a slinky and effeminate emcee, Max Raabe employs an intriguing vocabulary of insinuation that somehow suits the Third Reich ambiance. His ominous rendition of "You're the Cream in My Coffee" could convince a post-World War II listener to give up caffeine forever.
In the midst of all this, Zishe is homesick for his loving family, especially a wise little 9-year-old brother played by Jacob Wein. Adrift in the city of sin, the Hassidic Hercules is a peasant at heart. So we know there can't be much of a future for romance when he falls for an educated Czech pianist (Anna Gourari), who is also Hanussen's reluctant and abused mistress.
Once the guilt-ridden Zishe finally reveals his true identity, the city's Jews swarm to the Palace of the Occult to witness their "new Samson." This is a box-office bonanza for the club, but a circumcised Sigfried just doesn't cut it with the fascists.
The English-language Invincible starts off with Herzog's fanciful zeal -- he's such a fan of freakiness -- before deteriorating into something much loonier. In one hallucinatory sequence, Zishe imagines a world crawling with red crabs. Part of the problem is casting: the two lead characters are clearly new to the acting profession. Sounding a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and with an even bulkier physique, Ahola gives a wooden performance; Gourari speaks in a dull monotone.
Although Zishe faces a substantial arc of change in the story, he doesn't display any genuine transformation. Roth, on the other hand, is positively mesmerizing as a chameleon disguised as a charlatan. Udo Kier, who appeared as a creepy sailor in Breaking the Waves, initially plays it low-key in the role of Berlin's police chief but grows increasingly bizarre along with the movie.
Invincible is all the more disappointing because the 61-year-old director has often been visionary, albeit obsessed. My Best Fiend is his riveting 1999 documentary memoir of collaborations with the late Klaus Kinski, a fiercely talented and intense actor. He starred in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Woyzeck and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The volatile love-hate relationship between these two dynamos resulted in some legendary drama on the big screen.
In a sense, Herzog is a filmmaker in search of another muse. Despite gorgeous photography by Peter Zeitlinger and a tale well worth telling, Invincible suffers primarily from the limitations of its central figure -- a massive figure, to be sure, but not a very convincing one. Ahola may be imposing, but he's certainly no fiend.