Buried deep in Werner Herzog’s rich and varied curriculum vitae, winking at the millennium celebrations behind it and trailing his remarkable lone air crash survivor documentary Wings of Hope, his unhinged turn in Harmony Korine’s Julian Donkey Boy and periods directing opera in Genoa and Houston lies the neglected and significant biographical drama Invincible.
Ostensibly about Polish Jewish blacksmith turned variety act strongman Siegmund Breitbart (Jouko Ahola) whose swift rise and fall predated the dangerous march of Hitler and the National Socialists by only a matter of weeks, Invincible is a film about the mania of hatred, dissatisfaction and blame that heralds any genocide. Invincible was released in cinemas in 2001 and garnered good reviews but slipped from screens all too quickly and remains little seen, and yet what Invincible can tell us about the direction of both Germany in the early 1930s and Herzog’s career in general is fascinating.
As with Fitzcarraldo before it, Herzog was determined to bring the opera to bear on this tale of mysticism and eccentricity. By its very nature Breitbart’s sorry tale lends itself to Wagnerian analogy and yet at its heart there is something more intricate and intriguing about this disarming film. With it’s pared down sensibility, raw acting and skewed morality the film Invincible can most easily be compared to is Louis Malle’s queasy tale of collaboration and oppression in wartime France – Lacombe Lucien. Yet Malle’s film, as good as it is, is about the seduction of power, Invincible is about the survival of power’s universal essence.
Real life celebrity Erik Jan Hanussen – the Austrian-Jewish clairvoyant, publicist, hypnotist, mentalist, occultist and owner of the occult cabaret where Breitbart finds employment and fame, represents that essence. As played by Tim Roth, Hanussen is equal parts Caligari and Rasputin. Having been immortalized on screen already by Klaus Maria Brandauer in István Szabó’s underrated biopic Hanussen in 1988, Roth keeps the villainy light and the delusion heavy. Hanussen’s role as Hitler’s spiritual advisor and later possible victim is well documented but it is the existence of this eccentric that gives Breitbart’s trajectory its heart and moral equivalence.
The story of Hanussen and Breitbart has long since fascinated those obsessed with the occultist ley lines that cut through time and culture. Indeed in 2001 Mike Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy graphic novel series was finally getting the recognition it deserved thanks to a sustained assault of soft back reprints, and Breitbart and Hanussen’s influence haunt Hellboy like a stinking green undead mist. Squint and it is easy to see Breitbart resurrected as a demonic investigator for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, Hanussen’s influence is there in both the Nazi occultists Hellboy frequently fights and even in the passing kindness of Hellboy’s surrogate father Professor Bruttenholm.
Aesthetically Invincible’s most noticeable influence however is the pre-World War II Yiddish cinema, the best known of which – Michael Waszynski’s The Dybbuk and Joseph Green’s Yiddle with a Fiddle tread that fine line between melodrama and empathy with a rootsy base charm that asks little of the audience but patience and understanding. Visually simple and sonically charged by composer Hans Zimmer, Invincible is an all too modern paean to these wonderful films. The rise of the Nazis and the subsequent Holocaust put an end to this cinematic tradition much as it did to the careers of Breitbart and Hanussen and all those involved in occult cabaret but Invincible survives.
Like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo and even Rescue Dawn, Invincible is about that place where madness, talent and the human spirit leads us all when everything is going to hell around us.