Has any tragedy contributed more to the world of cinema than the Holocaust? If we count every filmic narrative touched by one of humanity’s darkest times, we’d probably never stop counting. As awful as it is, one of the cold, hard truths of human existence is that tragedy begets art. It’s not required (I firmly believe we would do well to divorce ourselves from such a notion), but it certainly does help.
With the wealth of Holocaust/WWII stories being told, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost become a trope. It used to be that if a filmmaker wanted to pull heartstrings with abandon, and gather some awards recognition in the process, all they needed to do was invoke this massive historical stain and let the Academy do the rest. We’ve since moved on to other tragedies from which to mine stories, but one would still be understood to assume that pretty much every nook and cranny of historical Nazi evil has been explored on the silver screen.
Yet one would be wrong. While I’m sure such a thing exists, it wasn’t until Claus Räfle’s The Invisibles that I remember watching a film about the Jews who decided to remain in hiding in Berlin, even after it was declared by Joseph Goebbels to have been purged of their kind. The film consists of intercut reenactments of the turmoil the four subjects endured in trying to survive, with narration pulled from video interviews with each. The four stories don’t interconnect, but the film displays them in adjacent chunks, dipping into each in a sort of faux real-time with the others.
It takes a few minutes to learn how to watch the film, but once the structure becomes apparent, it’s easy to settle in, even if it’s not optimal for full engagement. By interweaving the individual narratives, there’s a missed opportunity for both clarity and narrative cohesion. The episodic nature creates an easily digestible product, but had the film presented each story individually in full, it would maintain consumable simplicity without feeling so, well, episodic. This isn’t to say that the structure is cryptic, per se, but to adopt an anthology format would lead to considerably less “wait, who is that again?” Then again, it to do so would introduce a few problems of its own. Namely that saving one story for last would be to subconsciously elevate it as the story to end them all. None of the tales feel particularly more or less urgent/thematically resonant than the others, but it would be a tough bias to shake.
So really, my one big criticism of the film is one which may be inherent to the very nature of it. No matter, the film works more than it doesn’t, and even when it’s lacking in raw cinematic flourish (the reenactments are pretty, if not particularly showy), it is nonetheless important material being handled quite well. The value here being that the stories told by these remarkable survivors do indeed seem as if they are ripped from the silver screen. Yet every bit of it actually happened, and relatively recently to boot.
The Invisibles is another one of those good-not-great movies which will find its way into darkened high school classrooms everywhere, on days when the teacher is too hungover to lecture, and the kids are too naive to notice. I suspect most of them will enjoy the film, and all of them will learn something from it.
Philadelphia run begins 3/15 at Ritz at the Bourse. landmarktheatres.com