Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nobility in Barbarous Times

After a slightly circuituous journey, my dvd of Werner Herzog’s Invincible has finally arrived this week. The company delivered the wrong dvd at first, a film of the same name released the same year, starring Billy Zane as an immortal swordsman turning against his people to fight for humanity. The film that I actually wanted to watch was Herzog’s adaptation of the life story of Zische Breitbart, an early twentieth century Jewish strongman into a parable about justice, hope, and kindness in 1932 Berlin starring Jouko Ahola and Tim Roth.

Invincible is the story of a naive Jewish blacksmith in eastern Poland who becomes a famous strongman performer in Berlin, and a lightning rod for tensions between the rising Nazi party and the local Jewish community. The story begins when Breitbart gets into a fight in a restaurant with some local anti-Semites, and competes against a travelling strongman for a prize to pay back the damages. He’s seen by an agent, who books him to perform in a variety/occult club in Berlin, working for Tim Roth, a hypnotist and clairvoyant who is cruel and demeaning to his lover Anna Gourari, and is courting for a position of power in the Nazi party. Ahola is first dressed up as Siegfried in a blonde wig and viking armor, but eventually decides to be true to his own identity and declare himself the new Samson. The real Breitbart died in 1925, but Herzog uses the man as inspiration for this story.

The more of his films I watch, the more satisfied I am at my choice of Herzog to be the centre of this philosophical project. Having familiarized myself with his classic period, 1970-82, I can easily spot the common themes and ideas in his more contemporary work that originated there. The faux-metaphysical proto-new-age nonsense that Roth spouts onstage during his hypnotism act reflects Herzog’s irritation at the attitudes of most professional hypnotists that he developed while working on Heart of Glass. It also brought a smile to my face when I recognized Herzog's son Rudolph, himself a magician, in a cameo as the club's magician, and Herzog's voice denouncing Ahola from off camera. Invincible is the most direct engagement Herzog ever made in his work with what he calls the barbarism of the Nazi period. Even here, he never addresses the war directly: he doesn’t need to, because in 2001, when the movie was made, we all know what will happen.

One thing that struck me when I was researching the film was the criticism of its acting. Among the three leads, only Tim Roth is an actor by trade. Jouko Ahola is a strongman athlete, and Anna Gourari is a classical pianist (her performance of Beethoven’s third sonata is the centrepiece of the film’s story and the fulfillment of the character arcs of herself and Ahola). Roth gives a highly nuanced performance, embodying stealth, viciousness, ambition, while slowly engendering sympathy as his plans are ruined. Ahola, in comparison, is almost naive in the transparency of his performance; Gourari is stilted and uncomfortable at almost all moments when she isn’t playing piano.

But watching the film, particularly the development of its story, the style of performance was itself integral to the narrative. Invincible doesn’t really have a plot, if by plot you understand events that push the characters to a climax. It has a storyline: these three characters are brought together and transform each other’s lives, physically and ethically. Roth’s hypnotist is a con man who has lived his entire life as a series of cruel deceptions, and when he meets Ahola, he presumes that this Jewish performer in Berlin will also embrace a new identity. But Ahola’s strongman is honest about himself, his feelings, and his motivations. He tears away his disguise because the only way for him to live is to be who he is.

Ahola’s strength is obvious, physical, part of his very identity. Roth’s strength comes from his mind, his ability to deceive and manipulate: physically weak, he finds ways to turn the strength of others to his advantage. He succeeds with Ahola at first, but the strongman eventually learns how to direct his strength of body and character in a more noble direction as a symbol for the confidence of his people. The simplicity of his performance fits the simplicity of his character’s spirit, given purpose in collision with a duplicitous man. Herzog created in his Breitbart a flickering beacon of nobility of spirit in a descent into barbarous times.

Here's the trailer that Peter Zeitlinger, the cinematographer, uploaded to youtube himself.

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