Invincible was Werner Herzog’s first narrative feature in a decade when it came out in 2001. Ever since the ‘90s he has really focused on his documentary work, once his collaboration with Klaus Kinski ended. The last one before that was Scream of Stone, which not a pleasant experience for Herzog.
As always with Herzog, Invincible is a very interesting film, though perhaps more in theory than as something to watch. It was inspired by the story of Zishe Brietbart, a Jewish blacksmith’s son from Poland who became a sensation in Weimar Berlin as a strong man. Brietbart is played by Jouko Ahola (a real-life Finnish strong man), and his employer Hanussen, a con man and alleged mystic who ran and stared in this cabaret show, is played by Tim Roth. The clientele of the cabaret is largely Nazi, so the film is also about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the Nazi obsession with the occult. Udo Kier also appears in a supporting role. The film covers Brietbart’s struggle to hold on to his identity without becoming a Nazi, especially when he is given a blonde wig to try to look “German” when he’s actually Jewish.
It’s a really interesting movie, though overly long at times. Herzog is not a director who I would say is particularly indulgent, but Invincible goes a little too far in that direction for its own good—it could have benefited from losing about 20 minutes. The pacing is a little off-putting, which is a shame.
It’s not up there with Herzog’s greatest films, but it’s worth seeing, especially for Roth’s turn. It was certainly an important film in Herzog’s career, because it put him back in the game for doing narrative features after a long absence. It was also his last film to be specifically set in Germany. Given that his previous film was My Best Fiend, Invincible may have represented an effort to come to terms with his German background, which he is always a bit conflicted about (Herzog always says he is a Bavarian filmmaker, not a German one).
It’s well-shot, of course, and a slightly disappointing Herzog film is still always better than 90% of other films. Like many of his films, it blends fiction, reality and the surreal.
The Indicator release has a German commentary with Herzog with newly-translated English subtitles, new and archival interview with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, location footage, and some short films by Zeitlinger. In addition, there’s eth UK, German and US trailers, image gallery, and a booklet that includes and essay by Jason Wood; Werner Herzog on Invincible; an archival interview with Herzog; an account of the real-life Breitbart, who was actually called Siegmund; an overview of contemporary critical responses, and a short piece about Zeitlinger’s short films.