Written and directed by Claus Räfle
Starring Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes
MPAA rating: not rated
by Deborah Krieger
In terms of narrative technique, The Invisibles comes across as a sort of reverse American Animals. Both films combine documentary interviews with extensive staged reenactments of real events, going beyond the more usual methods (as seen in documentaries like 1971 where we aren’t meant to connect with the staged portions of the movie as much as they exist to give us a break from endless talking heads after the fact. Yet the choices made in how to balance reenactment footage—to allow it to make the movie almost a biopic—distinguish American Animals and The Invisibles, resulting in films of distinctly different quality. American Animals is mainly a fictionalized narrative film, and it only uses interviews with the real people who attempted to steal the Audubon book sparingly, chiefly to remind us that everyone involved has their own version of the story. Even the narrative parts starring Evan Peters (who was robbed of awards attention for this role) are told through a specific lens: the filmmaker’s. American Animals is as much about the unreliability of our own personal narratives as it is about a failed book robbery. The Invisibles, sadly, comes across as extremely didactic, as if it is inherently unsure of why so much of the movie is reenacted by professional actors.
It’s a truly amazing story, and one I certainly didn’t know about: even as the Nazis declared Berlin to be “free of Jews” in 1943, there existed thousands of Jews who took new names, cut the yellow stars off their clothes, and continued to try and live their lives in plain sight. The Invisibles focuses on four protagonists: Cioma Schönhaus (played by Max Mauff), Hanni Lévy (played by Alice Dwyer), Ruth Arndt (Ruby O. Fee), and Eugen Friede (Aaron Altaras), all of whom face incredible danger on a regular basis in their attempts to remain in Berlin. Schönhaus, Lévy, Arndt, and Friede all appear in The Invisibles as well, in talking-head interviews where they discuss how they managed to hide, and to survive—the logistics of figuring out where they could sleep at night, the sense of loneliness they dealt with, the worry over whom to trust, if anyone.
The problems, from an entertainment standpoint, come when Schönhaus or one of the other three will describe an event, and then we cut immediately to their respective actor, playing out that exact same event. It’s a strange combination of both showing and telling, and it comes across as incredibly repetitive. The storytelling rhythm of The Invisibles is also hindered by this structure: just as we are following along with Max Mauff-as-Schönhaus as he begins work as a passport forger, beginning to be absorbed by the recreation of 1940s Berlin, we immediately cut to talking head commentary by the actual Schönhaus, resulting in a jarring pacing that doesn’t allow the actors cast to really shine in their performances. Mauff makes Schönhaus come across as the most naive and absent-minded of the bunch, a potential problem when his work involves forging important government documents that he manages to lose track of twice, and it’s not clear how much of this is Mauff’s interpretation of Schönhaus or a lack of deep interrogation of the character.
In contrast, Dwyer’s performance of Lévy is more effective even as it occupies what feels like less screen time: Hanni Lévy, who dyes her hair perfect Aryan blonde as part of her disguise, is a little more guarded, a little more brittle, a little less likely to believe in the goodness of others even when she encounters it. But because of the presence of the real-life Schönhaus, Lévy, Arndt, and Friede interwoven into the fabric of The Invisibles, there isn’t as much of a reliance on the actors themselves to carry the emotional weight of these stories, meaning the performances are a bit blank overall. The use of voiceover is also inconsistent: sometimes we will see the actors while the real people comment in voiceover in the past tense, while at other moments we hear the actors’ voices, as if in real-time thought processes, but switching between past and present tense often from sentence to sentence.
In The Invisibles, the focus is on the suspense that is naturally derived from narratives where people must live in secret—peering around corners for leather-clad Gestapo, surveilling a cafe before entering to make sure no one recognizes your face—but the pace of the film doesn’t really pick up until about halfway through. A brief subplot where Arndt and another friend in hiding are recognized by Stella Goldschlag, a known Jewish informant for the Nazis, flirts with danger, but is insufficiently resolved. The hapless Schönhaus goes on a date with Goldschlag, and foolishly tries to bring her back to where he is in hiding, only for her to mysteriously decline and let him go, unharmed. On the other hand, perhaps there is just too much fascinating material for one feature film: with a little more room to breathe (in, say, a mini-series), we could have learned more about the people who risked their lives to help Jews go into hiding. Beyond their immediate interactions with the subjects of the film, they aren’t given much attention—certainly, their deeper motives and uncommon bravery go unexamined in a way that is unsatisfying.
The true missed opportunity in The Invisibles, though, comes from a lack of investigation with how these four young Jews dealt with the suppression of their identities as Jews—how having to hide this part of themselves affected them on an emotional level. Of course, Schönhaus, Lévy, Arndt, and Friede might all have been secular Jews, but if that is the case, that could have led to another storytelling element, rather than a key element of these characters—and real people—that is curiously overlooked throughout. Indeed, the emotional climax of the film, where Arndt’s brother and another friend in hiding are held at gunpoint by Russian soldiers and must recite Hebrew prayers to prove they are not Nazis, is not only maudlin and overwrought, but also appears to come out of nowhere. In The Invisibles, Jewish identity is treated as a heritable quality, related to physical characteristics—Lévy’s dye job, Arndt’s suspiciously dark eyes—but not a religious identity. It’s a feature of their lives that has put them in serious jeopardy, but not actually an active part of how they see themselves. Did they feel guilty that they couldn’t observe Shabbat, the day of rest? Did they miss the rituals of Jewish life that they had enjoyed with their families and friends? Or were they more focused on living to see the next day?