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Invincible (2001)

It's a legend tailor-made for the Hollywood treatment: Polish strongman Zishe Breibart (Jouko Ahola) is discovered in a local circus and whisked away to early 1930s Berlin, where he submits to fantastic tests of strength at Hanussen's House of the Occult for an audience composed mostly of Nazis seeking reassurance in the abiding tenaciousness of the German character. But there's a kicker — Zishe Breibart, who dons a blond wig and goes by the stage name Siegfried, is a Jew. A film about the illusion of might versus the very tangible reality of true strength, and how both can be manipulated in appearance to provide equal enchantment for good or evil, Invincible (2001) is a serviceable fable directed with a minimum of fuss by a very sedate Werner Herzog, who, ten years earlier, would've seemed an unlikely choice for this kind of material. But, like many great filmmakers, even the one-time reckless and maniacal Herzog has grown stylistically timid in his old age, toning down the unflinching hand-held immediacy of his best work and allowing an unmistakable Hollywood gloss to be applied to this film, which he also wrote. The story is told in a stubbornly straightforward chronological manner, beginning with the good-hearted Zishe's being lured away from his large, loving family in Poland (most importantly, from his favorite brother, the prodigious Benjamin) by a talent agent, who quickly places him in the employment of the clairvoyant Hanussen (Tim Roth). Hanussen is a nasty, venal, and above all power-hungry man who has won the favor of the Nazi party — into which he hopes to be appointed as a latter-day Oracle of Delphi — by frequently rigging his predictions to lend credence to Hitler's position as Germany's savior. But persuasive as he is with his abilities as an uncannily accurate seer and hypnotist, Hanussen is no match for the wildly popular Zishe, whose massive physique and feats of strength wow the Nazi rank-and-file. Eventually, though, Zishe experiences a crisis of conscience and reveals his Jewish identity on-stage. What first appears to be a disaster turns out to be a financial boon for Hanussen when Jewish audiences start lining up around the block to see their savior in action. But it also creates a rift between Zishe and Hanussen, which is further widened by Zishe's deepening affection for Hanussen's kept mistress Marta (Anna Gourari). This conflict finally comes to a head in a courtroom challenge to Hanussen's mystic authenticity, by which point Zishe begins to have genuine premonitions about his spiritual importance to the Jewish people. As a simple fable, Invincible is involving when it needs to be. The crucial moments — Zishe's revelation to a hostile Nazi crowd, the courtroom scene, and Marta's wish-fulfillment performance of Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto — are suitably rousing and/or moving, and the performances are mostly solid (particularly worth noting since both Ahola and Gourari are relative amateurs) But at 135 minutes, the film suffers from some irksome bloat. There's something to be said for allowing an epic to breathe, but some sequences run long for no apparent reason. A couple of cabaret numbers are the prime offenders here, and Herzog does them no favors by shooting them in static full shots. Also, Tim Roth, who can be as good an actor as there is working today when on his game, is mannered and thoroughly unconvincing as the darkly conflicted Hanussen. One hopes, considering his uninspired work in recent efforts like The Musketeer or Lucky Numbers, this isn't symptomatic of a prevailing boredom with a craft he mastered long ago. New Line presents Invincible in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras are limited to trailers (for this film and other New Line releases) and strictly promotional DVD-ROM material. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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