A documentary-dramatization-archival hybrid, Germany’s “The Invisibles” is the kind of cinematic mashup that probably shouldn’t work. But it manages to do so on the strength of its urgency and its subject matter.
During World War II, at the start of the Third Reich’s mass deportations to the death camps, 7,000 Jews avoided capture and remained hidden in Berlin. By the war’s end, 1,500 had survived. The movie interweaves the stories of four of them.
It does this first through talking-head reminiscences of the elderly Cioma Schönhaus, Ruth Gumpel, Eugen Herman-Friede and Hanni Lévy. Then it moves to slickly filmed dramatic recreations of their experiences as teenagers in hiding, dodging the Gestapo and finding sanctuary with various Germans with varying motives. More than anything, the film is a testament to the tenacity of human kindness in the face of state-sponsored terror.
Director/co-writer Claus Räfle intercuts among the four story lines. Schönhaus’ tale is the most naturally suspenseful, as the resourceful young artist, played by an appealing Max Mauff, develops a passport-forging career that puts him in contact with anti-Nazis at all levels of Berlin society while providing a living wage and surprisingly open lifestyle.
By contrast, Gumpel (Ruby O. Fee) is separated from her family and skips from one tenuous situation to the next, at times sleeping in the street. Lévy (Alice Dwyer) dyes her hair blonde and blends into the crowd but, afraid to talk to anyone, fears going mad from the isolation.
The fourth figure is Herman-Friede (Aaron Altaras), a strapping 16-year-old who finds himself staying with well-off German family friends — including a flirtatious daughter — and thinking that maybe the war’s not so bad after all. At least, for a while.
Jumping among the stories keeps any one of them from developing momentum. Plus, the presentation feels too decorous at times, with the dramatic scenes compelling but scripted next to the raw power of the survivors’ testimony and the archival footage of wartime Berlin that is used to stitch the segments together.
The simple suspense of these stories grabs and holds a viewer’s interest nevertheless. The film offers many portraits of sacrifice and courage, both among the Jews remaining unseen in the midst of a bustling city and the Germans who helped them remain unseen.
Some of those Germans are active resisters, like a gangly burgher and family man (Andreas Schmidt) who takes Herman-Friede in and by the war’s end is cranking out mimeographed anti-Nazi leaflets. Others are more circumspect, like an upper-class doctor (Robert Hunger-Bühler) secretly providing forged papers to refugees. Still others are cynical mysteries, like a German army officer and black marketeer (Horst Günter-Marx) who hires Gumpel and her friend as maids, knowing full well they’re Jews while protecting their identities from his drinking buddies.
Ultimately, “The Invisibles” favors quantity of remembrance over quality of any one experience. It’s worth attending to, obviously, even if the movie somehow manages to do less with more.