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Samson in the days of Hitler

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the calm before the storm troopers, who could possibly imagine what awaited Europe's Jews?


RATING: PG-13 for some sexual content and thematic elements.


DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog


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Apparently, a burly Polish blacksmith named Zishe Breitbart, says the legend that inspired this film from German director Werner Herzog.

Breitbart was a performing strong man in Berlin during the final days of the Weimar Republic whose amazing feats enraged the brown-shirted minions of Herr Hitler while they inspired the city's doomed Jews.

He announced that he was the "new Samson" whose mission was to warn of the horrors ahead for Jews once the Nazi madness was unloosed.

Herzog, whose own sanity has been questioned from time to time, has created a rather muted, often dull, version of the modern Samson tale. "Invincible" never moves beyond the superficial to find the darkness waiting to be tapped by Nazism.

Much of this work is routine film-making, from cliched scenes of Polish shtetl life to the re-creation of Berlin in the early 1930s, a major city with a population of apparently about 50 people, half Nazis, half Jews.

The only actor of interest is Tim Roth, who plays Erik Jan Hanussen, a con man who fools Berliners into seeing him as a clairvoyant and hypnotist of incredible powers. Playing his usual nasty character, Roth manages to approach the sense of foreboding that this film so sorely needs.

Because the other two major roles are played by nonactors, Roth is even more impressive. His co-stars are a genuine body-builder, Finland's Jouko Ahola as Breitbart, and a Russian concert pianist, Anna Gourari, as Marta, an abused member of Hanussen's troupe.

There's a fourth crucial character, Benjamin, Breitbart's loving younger brother, a budding genius who puts all of his faith in the big guy. Played in annoying Tiny Tim-like style by Jacob Wein, Benjamin helps Zishe see his mission in biblical terms.

All three are wooden and awkward, however, further burdened by stilted dialogue written by Herzog. (Since the film does not appear to be dubbed -- everyone speaks English -- perhaps there were translation problems with the screenplay.)

Herzog's message is that while most Jews either ignored the warning signs or sought futile assimilation, there were those -- unlike the fraud Hanussen -- who could see the future and were ignored.

The source of Breitbart's visions (his dreams are the film's most vivid scenes) is never clear, although we are told that in every generation of Jews there are 36 "just men" anointed by God. Perhaps he was one of them.

While Herzog's strongman can play Samson on the Berlin stage, he is inarticulate in the real world. His failure, despite its poignancy, is underplayed as well.

"Invincible" needed a dose of Herzog's one-time outrageousness to give it the power and emotion its subject deserved.

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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