There are hundreds of movies about the Holocaust, which has been examined in most of the major movie-producing countries in the world from every angle: survivor documentaries, camp horrors, conflicted guard studies, partisan-struggle war movies, B-movie sexploitations, quasi-comedies, escape capers, survivors in the immediate aftermath, Righteous Gentiles and so on.
So it was a pleasure that Claus Räfle’s documentary The Invisibles looks at the subject from an unexplored viewpoint.
A mix of reenactment, survivor interviews and archival footage, The Invisibles tells the true stories of four Jews who hid in plain sight in Berlin in the last days of the war. Their paths intersect here and there, but for the most part, they are unaware of the existence of the others. It is a movie about teenagers forced to act as adults under the direst circumstances, as their parents are deported and they’re left to fashion lives for themselves in the seat of Nazi power.
The reenactments are serviceable, if unspectacular. Each of the four survivors portrayed — Cioama Schonhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Gumpel and Hanni Levy — are made to look like Burberry models in the reenactments and mostly smolder at the camera.
It’s also about loss. This may seem obvious, but the manner in which the hits keep coming — Euegen Friede can no longer sit on the bus, Cioama Schonhaus loses his parents in the opening scene of the movie, Ruth Gumpel lives on the street — really drive home the emotional cruelty of Nazism, which beggared the soul right along with the body.
This is especially apparent in the story of Levy. Levy changes her name to Hannelore Winkler, and dyes her dark brown hair an Aryan blonde, drawing attention from German men on the street.
She is free to walk the boulevards as she pleases because of her efforts to remove any Jewish trace of herself, just as the other three subjects are able to do. Viewers will feel a little swell of pride watching each subject go about their day even as Berlin is declared “Judenfrei.” But you also wonder what their sense of being Jewish will be after the Holocaust; if self-preservation means erasing religion and identity, is there any way back?
Räfle relies too heavily on certain visual motifs. I lost count of how many times a small group of Jews in hiding are either huddled around a table or in carefree conversation, only for each of them to whip their heads around at the sound of a knock on the door, as the non-Jew in the room motions for them to hide. If the director wished to make it known that Jews living in Berlin during the Holocaust had to be on constant alert for the Gestapo, he succeeds in this endeavor many times over.
That overreliance, aside from being tiresome, comes at the expense at what could have been more interesting questions begged by the story. Schonhaus survives by forging passports and other documentation at the direction of a sympathetic government official, a relationship that goes largely unexplored. Ruth and a friend are hidden by a Nazi official and his wife, who keep them in their employ as maids and nannies. This startling fact is simply stated, and then we’re off to the next scene.
The movie is not without its merits. Räfle blends the sound of bombs falling in Berlin and moving trains with the interview footage, nearly drowning out the sound of the survivor speaking. What better way to emphasize the still-aliveness of these stories for them? And Alice Dwyer, who plays Hanni Levy, really does seem to carry the emotional weight of forced assimilation that the story calls for. Lastly, the survivor interviews are strangely, pleasantly light-hearted at times — we know, on some level, how each of their stories end — which is an interesting tone to strike in a film about the Holocaust.
Which is to say: This is a period of history so vast, fraught and overflowing with stories, there are more movies to be made about it.
The Invisibles opens at Landmark’s Ritz at the Bourse Cinema on March 15.
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