Invincible (2001)

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It’s not often that I find fault with Netflix. I’ve been a subscriber and unabashed fan of the service for over three years now and I am typically hard pressed to find something to quibble over when it comes to them. Oh sure there was that stretch of receiving cracked discs that was beyond frustrating, but due to the sheer ridiculous amount of them that occurred (at least six in a matter of just a few months) that I chalked the issue up to an overzealous mail carrier. Plus Netflix was so quick at sending out replacements that it was hard not to be impressed.

But there is one minor quirk that shows up from time to time that still can aggravate me. Since I live in Minneapolis I happen to be near a hub which results in some surprisingly quick turnaround times. Sometimes, too quick.

I’m not very diligent with my queue, and as a result I am often times moving a film into the number one (Ed note: Make it so!) position the day, or the day after, that I return a movie. But with turnaround times that are often less then a day, my number one (Ed note: Make it so!) selection is sometimes skipped because I have added it too late.

Such an incident occurred last week when my number one (Ed note: Make it so!) selection was skipped in favor of my number two selection, which just so happened to be Dario Argento’s Cat o’ Nine Tails.

Now for reasons unexplained, I have yet to watch a Dario Argento film. Well, at least I think I haven’t. I don’t have anything against Italian giallo films, I just have never really gotten around to watching them. And I am sorry to say that Cat o’ Nine Tails did little to convince me to hurry up.

Anna and I have recently bought an HDTV and while it has been fantastic for most films, we have noticed that any of the few full frame releases that we have watched tend to be hampered by our wide screen television. It usually isn’t too bad, with just parts of the upper and lower edges of the frame being cut off or possibly the image being slightly stretched to accommodate, but Cat o’ Nine Tails took this to new extremes.

Heads were entirely cut off as was anything below the knees, making the film about a gaggle of torsos involved in some sort of murder plot. Not since Block E mangled its presentation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (I gave up trying to get the staff to listen to me after my two separate complaints of the film being out of frame were passed along to a truly incompetent projectionist) have I witnessed a fiasco this awful.

But the icing on the cake was the horrendous transfer of the film. Looking more like a badly worn bootlegged VHS tape then a DVD, the colors were horribly muddied and the image was flat and badly distorted. I can honestly say that I have never seen a transfer so terrible, and in an effort to retain my sanity I shut the film off before then end of the first reel.

Thus I was left with few options on what to review, thankfully I had recently picked up a copy of Werner Herzog’s film Invincible the previous weekend, and it seemed worthy enough of filling Cat o’ Nine Tails rather disappointing shoes.

Zishe Breitbart (Jouko Ahola) is a simple blacksmith working in Poland in 1932. But one day a carnival comes to his town with a wrestler that has never been beaten. Pressed into a match, Zishe wins so handily that he impresses a talent scout from Berlin who wants to put him to work entertaining in that grand city. But there is one small problem, Zishe is Jewish, and Berlin is hardly the friendliest place for a Jewish superman.

While Invincible is a modern Herzog film, it certainly looks and feels more like his earlier films. One of the things I enjoy most about Herzog is his penchant for putting unique locales and individuals on display. Acting talent is rarely his chief concern, and his unique fascination with people that are visually striking (though rarely because they are attractive) captivates viewers and quickly draws them into the world of the film.

This same fascination applies to locations, as each one seems both authentic and lived in. The opening market scene almost seems as it was lifted through time and placed within Invincible, or perhaps it may be Poland’s version of Land of the Lost, a living, breathing market where honey is sold by the spoonful, blacksmiths still craft their wares and chickens are harnessed to prevent them from pursuing their freedom.

Even once the plot shifts the film to Berlin Herzog maintains the timeless feel with his choices of beautiful locations that appear to have been frozen in time since World War II. Really the only set piece that appears out of place is the framing shots of the sign for Erik Jan Hanussen’s (Tim Roth) theater where he performs his acts of the occult. Distracting, to be sure, but not enough to ruin the experience. The acting, on the other hand, often times is.

Populated primarily with non-actors, Invincible certainly already has its fair share of hurdles to overcome. Adding to the struggle is Herzog’s decision to film Invincible in English, when it clearly is not the first language for mush of the cast. This results in the inevitable use of voice actors to dub over the various actors, creating an annoying disconnect that is perhaps even more disappointing due to the immersive nature of the fantastic settings. Zishe’s younger brother Benjamin (Jacob Wein) is particularly annoying, with his high pitched falsetto his speaking voice is indistinguishable from nails on a chalkboard. That Benjamin also has a tendency to wax philosophic for minutes on end certainly doesn’t help matters.

But while the film struggles with its seeming see sawing between immersive settings and divisive voice dubbing, the most disappointing aspect of the film is the ponderous story that should have been vibrant and alluring when instead it is haggard, limp and borderline uninspiring. The story of a Jewish strongman openly flaunting the rising Nazi party in the very heart of Germany is a truly stunning tale, yet Invincible somehow finds a way to diminish the tale by saddling it with a relatively worthless love story, an interesting but unnecessary witch hunt against Hanussen, and Benjamin telling parables every moment that he is on screen.

Adding further logs to the frustration fire is how quickly Invincible races to its conclusion. Zishe’s quest to rally European Jews against the oncoming Nazi tide is afforded just a few scenes before hastily shifting gears to wrap a giant bow of tragedy around the whole project. Instead of being a true life Superman, or staying anywhere near actual events which are unarguable inspiring, Zishe is reduced to almost a secondary character in his own biopic, following along wherever the plot may go instead of his character dictating the story. From a director like Werner Herzog, who can seemingly turn anyone into a larger then life personality, Invincible is a flat, sloppy and uninspiring treatment of a fascinating mythos.