Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Breathing cinematic life into Holocaust documentaries

Breathing cinematic life into Holocaust documentaries

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Laila Maria Witt plays Stella Goldschlag, real-life Jewish spy for the Gestapo in The Invisibles (FilmsWeLike photo)

In the months leading up to October 1941, some 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin. Over the next four years, as the vast majority of them fled or were sent away, a mere 7,000 remained, either for lack of options, or simply out of their determination to stay in their home city. Some dyed their hair, others forged fake documents. By the war’s end, only 1,500 Jews survived, often by bouncing between the homes of sympathetic Germans and scouting hiding spots in abandoned buildings.

The Invisibles, the debut feature film by veteran German TV director Claus Raefle, tells the story of four such survivors: Cioma, an artist who thrives by crafting fake documents; Ruth, who wears a veil to walk out in public freely, pretending to be a German widow; Eugen, who sparks a steamy love affair with his host family’s daughter; and Hanni, who dyes her hair blonde and disappears into a movie theatre every day.

A typical film would flesh out each story and create dramatic scenarios that seem impossible to believe. “Well, it’s still a movie,” audiences might say. “Of course it’s not real life.”

Raefle cuts off such criticism by making The Invisibles neither a typical re-enactment nor a documentary, but a docudrama – a hybrid of narration and documentary rarely seen in feature length. Each story is narrated by its real-life survivor, based on extensive interview footage from 2009. It’s one thing to watch a German agent shout a roll-call name into a group of scared Jews, but it’s far more chilling to hear the survivor shout the same name, as if the agent is echoing his voice, cementing the scene as something definitive, something real that we can witness firsthand.

All the survivors are cogent and amiable, telling their stories with precision and gratitude. In lieu of expository shots, Raefle uses black-and-white stock footage from the era. It makes for a dynamic Holocaust story that transcends the horrors of the Holocaust itself, in a way concerning itself more with human life than facts and data.

Yet by adhering so strictly to real-life narrators, Raefle restricts himself as a writer and a director. It’s unpleasant to say, but some stories make better movies than others, and the four on display here are regrettably unequal. Both versions of Cioma – the actor and the survivor – are the clear stars of the show, with a daring, reckless tale of espionage and a penchant for storytelling. Hanni ranks second, transforming herself into the all-but-adopted daughter of the German woman who takes her in.

Ruth, an endearing narrator, creates more red herrings in her story than anything. She bounces all over the place, introducing plenty of characters that are too fleeting to be properly developed. Eugen, meanwhile, suffers from the flattest story of the bunch, surprising audiences only at the end with an inexplicable (and unexplained) twist.

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All this might sound a bit uncharitable to Holocaust survivors, but the medium chosen here is cinema – and, as cinema, The Invisibles is emotionally and narratively uneven. One wonders why Raefle chose these four survivors and whether he would have been better off expanding on three. Juggling four lives in less than two hours feels more ambitious than skillful.

But in his stride, Raefle crafts genuine moments of tension, while paying an important personal tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations. As a film, The Invisibles might be shaky, but as a tribute, it is an invigorating reminder of the power of the human spirit in the worst possible circumstances.

 

The Invisibles opens this month in select theatres in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and London, Ont.