It’s been 10 years since Werner Herzog’s last dramatic feature film was released, which makes the ambitious “Invincible” all the more disappointing. Based on true events in 1932 Germany — the year before Hitler and the Nazis came to power — the film explores some of the same themes and characters of Istvan Szabo’s “Hanussen” (1988), but to much less effect. The story of a naive Jewish circus-style strongman who is hired as an entertainer by a fanatically pro-Nazi hypnotist-showman needed more irony, subtlety and dramatic structure than Herzog brings to the material, and as a result, this potentially intriguing story winds up being dull and at times faintly silly. Commercial prospects are limited, though Herzog’s reputation might help the film open in some territories, especially in Europe.
Zishe, played by Finnish muscleman Jouko Ahola in his first acting role, is the son of a Jewish blacksmith and lives with his extended family and adoring younger brother, Benjamin (Jacob Wein), in a village in eastern Poland. When he defeats a circus strongman to earn extra money, Zishe is spotted by a German theatrical agent (Gustav Peter Wohler) and invited to Berlin.
He is soon employed in the Berlin club owned by Hanussen (Tim Roth), a showman who purports to be from a noble Danish family and whose support of the rapidly emerging Nazi Party is well known. Quite why the anti-Semitic Hanussen should employ the Jewish muscleman is never made very clear — but before long, Zishe is dressed up in a Roman soldier’s uniform, given a blond wig and presented as Siegfried, an Aryan superman.
Zishe is soon attracted to the club’s pianist, Marta, who, in another unusual piece of casting, is played by Russian concert pianist Anna Gourari in her first acting assignment. Unfortunately for Zishe, Marta proves to be Hanussen’s mistress, and a badly treated one at that. One evening, before a mainly Nazi audience, Zishe reveals he’s a Jew. This provokes a near-riot, but curiously Hanussen decides to keep him on. The reason for this key plot development remains a mystery.
“Invincible” tackles a fascinating period of 20th century history, but fails to make anything very interesting of it. Herzog’s pic doesn’t begin to compare with Szabo’s Weimar-era films (“Hanussen” and “Mephisto”), and part of the trouble is that his naive hero is no substitute for the kind of central character who usually works best for Herzog: the crazed obsessives of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”
Ahola’s lack of experience as an actor is quite evident in several key scenes. Gourari is rather more effective, but has far less to do.
That leaves Roth, among the main players, to hold up the film, which he does with his accustomed icy style, but his character is offscreen for long stretches at the beginning and end, and Hanussen’s questionable motivations are problems even the accomplished Roth can’t overcome.
At more than two hours, the film is far too long and would greatly benefit from extensive pruning. The early village scenes are cliched and pedestrian, and there’s a particularly awful moment when, walking to Berlin, Zishe is greeted by the happy inhabitants of a village who dance to a small band, while a girl called Delilah makes a play for him (“Better take care, Samson.”) The whole scene looks like an outtake from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
It’s noteworthy that the two most visually striking scenes in the film are taken from Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” — one a sequence filmed on a rocky beach covered in red crabs, the second the design of Hanussen’s inner sanctum, an aquarium filled with jellyfish. Such distinctively self-referential moments are no substitute for the kind of wildness and excitement Herzog might have brought to a project like this earlier in his career.
Production values are solid and the music track predictably rich.