Invincible, Werner Herzog‘s first narrative feature following a decade of documentaries, opens with a realist eye on a busy shtetl marketplace in 1932 Poland. Under a gray spring sky, cheery Jewish vendors weigh vegetables and sharpen axes, while sober elders discuss the Scriptures, and Zishe Breitbart, a blacksmith, sits amid the hubbub with his little brother, Benjamin. In a childish, dreamy peep, Benjamin tells Zishe the story of a prince who thinks he’s a rooster. The prince, chirps Benjamin, is cured by a shrewd sage who convinces the addled royal to act like a man without trying to dispel his avian dreams. ”‘Don’t ever think,‘ said the sage, ’that by eating like a man, with other men at the table, a rooster ceases to be what he is.‘“ The parable, like Invincible itself, is classic Herzog, a rapt, if roundabout affirmation of the filmmaker’s conviction that, in the face of man‘s most determined efforts to thwart nature, nature will out.
A big, strong lug, Zishe is not especially bright, but his heart is pure, his manner tender and, most important, he knows who he is. (In a nifty casting move, Zishe is played by Jouko Ahola, a Finnish two-time winner of the World’s Strongest Man tournament, whose uneasy screen presence is counterpointed by a disarmingly genuine smile.) When a Berlin agent (the great German actor Gustav Peter Wohler) happens to catch Zishe besting a traveling circus strongman for prize money, he lures the innocent first to a local movie house, where the wonders of the outside world are revealed, and then to Berlin, where he lands a job as the new attraction at Hanussen‘s Palace of the Occult.
The Palace is a place as fantastical as the shtetl is homely — a gorgeous, gilded and starry-lit wonderland where luminescent jellyfish pulse in the walls and where the house magician (Herzog’s son Rudolph) warns Zishe straight off that nothing is as it seems. The king of this castle is Hanussen (Tim Roth), a hypnotist and clairvoyant who rules without mercy over his fiefdom, while unctuously courting his Nazi audience. Hanussen‘s first order of business is to mask Zishe’s Jewishness — one blond wig and a winged helmet later, and Siegfried the Iron King is ready to take the stage.
Meanwhile Hanussen, sensing which way the winds are blowing, has thrown in his lot with Hitler, proclaiming himself ”the prophet of his coming“ and angling for an appointment as Minister of the Occult. Herzog has called Roth ”an actor who has the grace of God,“ and while that may be pushing it, Roth is by turns scary, hypnotic, detestable and alluring, a grand romantic villain in the tradition of Erich von Stroheim — the man you love to hate. Like the prince in the parable, Hanussen seats himself ”at the table“ with the ascending party — literally, at a glowing alabaster counter where he conducts private seances with, among others, Goebbels and Himmler. But when Zishe reveals his true identity onstage, removing his wig and, in a burst of inspiration, declaring himself ”the New Samson,“ he becomes a sensation that, in turn, sheds light upon the true natures of those around him, particularly Hanussen.
Invincible is based on a true story — there really was a Jewish strongman named Zishe Breitbart who became famous in Weimar Germany, and a showman named Hanussen who helped him do it. Herzog has admitted to taking greater liberties with Zishe‘s story than Hanussen’s, but the film as a whole has a fairy-tale ring to it that‘s sweeter and more reverent than almost anything else the writer-director has done. Which proves a mixed blessing: The dialogue is in English, rather than German, and though Herzog’s international cast is mostly very good, there are serious second-language cadence problems, which come powerfully to the fore when things get too solemn. Or gooey — Benjamin, for one, has a wide-eyed intensity that more closely resembles a kitten poster than it does precocious wisdom. More to the point, while the divine has always figured in Herzog‘s work, the Almighty makes its presence known much more overtly here. The movie is littered with references to chosen ones, both genuine and false. A rabbi tells Zishe that he may be one of the ”36 unknown just men“ selected by God to be an anonymous savior, while, back at the Palace, Hanussen — who has dared to declare himself an agent of destiny — stands onstage, singled out in a heavenly spotlight that, in fact, is just another part of the Palace’s celestial scenery. The shot is breathtaking, but Herzog‘s obsession with the dangers of trying to force fate takes on an uncharacteristically pedagogical tone in Invincible, as if the filmmaker, unsettled after his long absence from narrative, or by working in a language that is not his first, must also force the issue.
Still, Invincible is a wonderful movie. For every misstep there are the sublime expressions of agony and ecstasy of which Herzog is a master. In one sequence that comes seemingly out of nowhere, thousands of bright-red crabs make their way to the ocean, blanketing a seaside landscape and moving inexorably to their destination over a set of train tracks as a massive locomotive bears down slowly upon them. The crabs appear again in a beautiful dream scene at the movie’s end and — like the monkeys in Aguirre, or the rats in Nosferatu, or the parable of the prince — they signify nature‘s indomitable will, a will to which Herzog, as instinctive a filmmaker as Zishe is a strongman, happily submits.
Das Experiment stars Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) as Tarek, a disaffected journalist turned cabdriver who signs up as a guinea pig for a 14-day experiment in the dynamics of prison behavior. Tarek has heard that the project is being run by the military, and his instincts for the scoop are inflamed enough to send him back to his old editor, who outfits him with a special pair of video specs to document the fun. What follows is far-fetched and wearying, as 20 men are divvied up into guards and prisoners and set to it in a chrome-plated faux prison, while a staff of pinched-looking Teutonic scientists watches through a phalanx of surveillance cameras. The power structure emerges soon enough, and within the first two days, Berus, a nebbishy airport worker, goes from being the derided loser of the fake guards to their slicked-hair leader in brutal domination. Tarek, a prisoner and ever the rebel, becomes their primary target.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, making his feature debut after several years in German TV, and writers Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt and Don Bohlinger, want to show us how quickly things can go wrong in an isolated setting, and how the us-against-them mentality can breed a blind acquiescence to following orders. But their film is too much of a mess to say anything with assurance, pieced together as it is from mismatched institutional movies such as Cool Hand Luke and Shock Corridor — with Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure — and turning on plot points that simply don’t wash. (At one point, the two head scientists both take off, leaving the increasingly unstable project in the hands of a wide-eyed underling.) As the film dissipates into standard action-movie conventions, even the filmmakers seem to lose faith in the viability of their potentially provocative themes.
INVINCIBLE | Written and directed by WERNER HERZOG | Produced by GARY BART, HERZOG and CHRISTINE RUPPERT | Released by Fine Line Features | At Laemmle‘s Fairfax
DAS EXPERIMENT | Directed by OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL | Written by MARIO GIORDANO, CHRISTOPH DARNSTADT and DON BOHLINGER | Produced by NORBERT PREUSS, MARC CONRAD and FRITZ WILDFEUER | Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films | At the Nuart