Invincible, the first fiction film by combustible cinematic wayfarer Werner Herzog to be released here in the 18 years since Where the Green Ants Dream, is also the erratic German visionary’s first consideration of the Nazi era since his debut, Signs of Life (1968). Herzog has always been a global holy fool, fixating on the poetic ironies that arise from the collision of man and earth, but the new movie takes 20th-century Euro-history at face value, as a drama between morally opposed forces. It may be the most traditionally conceived film he’s ever made. His subject, in itself, couldn’t be more Herzogian: Zishe Breitbart, a Polish blacksmithing Jew who, on the eve of the Nazis’ ascension to power, gained fame as “the strongest man in the world” in the Grand Guignol-like Berlin freakshow-nightclub run by con man-clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen. A softhearted innocent, Zishe is as much a stranger in a strange land as Herzog’s Stroszek, dimly breaking chains across his chest before crowds of bedazzled SS.
Hanussen is a popular avatar for Germany’s postwar culpa: He was secretly a Jew, so his role in the Nazi machine had to be a misguided, self-hating delusion. Weren’t they all? Herzog makes no excuses for him, as Istvan Szabo (and numerous writers) have; played by Tim Roth, Hanussen is a serpentine goldbricker with dreams of übermensch supremacy. (Roth is also a spot-on physical likeness.) Zishe (real-life Finnish “strongest man” titleholder Jouko Ahola) also masks his heritage at first—being made to don a blond wig and perform his stunts as “Siegfried”—but when this personification of German strength righteously admits his Jewishness to the mixed audience (including Himmler and Goebbels), a table-throwing riot ensues.
Ahola is no actor. Typically realist, Herzog has stocked the cast with genuine athletes, magicians, and musicians—better to see them exercise their uniqueness than feign convincing characterization. Never a filmmaker much concerned with believable performance (actual bugouts like Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. brought their own disquieting energies to the table), Herzog offers him little help, and often enough Invincible lumbers aimlessly along with him. What’s more disappointing is how filthy Invincible is with missed opportunities for Herzog to be Herzog.
When the guileless Zishe stands in the spotlight, bending a thick sword around his forearm as the throng of storm troopers cheer and the Hans Zimmer score begins to earnestly weep, Invincible attains a kind of melancholy grandeur. But the overlong film skimps on imagery. The hero’s dreams unaccountably visit the masses of red African crabs already seen in Herzog’s Bokassa doc Echoes From a Somber Empire, but otherwise Herzog fails to find the visual heart of Zishe’s story.
Which doesn’t amount to much after all—unlike Hanussen, who was assassinated in 1933 and buried without inquiry, Zishe lived, returned to the shtetl, and died an accidental death years before the war. There are echoes of golem myth in Zishe’s late insistence on being a “new Samson” to his people and his urgings that they arm themselves for the oncoming catastrophe. But it’s an association Herzog barely acknowledges; beyond a lovely Passover matzo-scramble, he has little grasp on his milieu’s Jewishness. You can’t help but think that a remake of The Golem would be, in fact, a more aptly Herzogian project.
Or Herzog could take on the sheer freakishness of Goldie Hawn, a proto-implanted, lip-swollen, leather-tanned, 56-year-old Beverly Hills monster of aging anxiety and passé cachet, to whom nature and time are devilish forces to be battled, padded, bleached, surgeried, and starved. But Hawn takes it on herself, in Bob Dolman’s The Banger Sisters, essentially incarnating the desiccated modern maturity of Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous. The movie may play in broad outline as pandering middle-age buddy-comedy, but it occasionally—occasionally—surfaces from its Baby Jane pancake to scan the empty life of Hawn’s lonely, spunk-weathered Whisky A Go-Go cocksucker. For a few brief moments, it’s the bravest work this Hollywood gargoyle has ever done.