By Liam Lacey
Dramatic re-enactments, the bane of TV tabloid news magazine shows, always raise categorical problems. Is this news or entertainment? These issues are at the heart of The Invisibles, a hybrid documentary-drama by German director Claus Räfle which tells the story of four Jews who survived — by luck, courage and skill — in Berlin through the duration of the Second World War.
In 1933, the German capital was home to about 160,000 Jews. After years of Jewish emigration, followed by the mass deportations to the camps, in 1943, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared there were no Jews left in Germany. In fact, about 7,000 Jews, sometimes known as “U-Boats” continued to live underground in Berlin, sometimes sheltered by German families or in various forms of disguise.
After interviewing more than 20 of these survivors, Räfle decided to focus on the stories of four of them, two women and two men: Hanni Levy, Ruth Gumpel, Cioma Schonhaus and Eugen Friede. Hanni, an orphan, was homeless. She changed her name, dyed her hair blond to look more German, and spent her days hiding in movie theatres, fearful that someone might recognize her. Ruth and a friend pretended to be young widows, then worked as a domestic for a Nazi officer who knew she was Jewish.
Cioma, an art-school graduate, forged hundreds of passports, making enough money to buy food stamps and even a used sailboat before making his escape. Eugen not only hid but worked actively with a network of socialists and Christians, writing leaflets to undermine the Nazi cause. These stories, calmly told by their aged but able subjects, have an understated matter-of-factness that reminds us how some experiences can’t be put into words.
The second dramatic part of the film is where the trouble lies. The scripted re-enactments of the stories illustrate the stories, with attractive young actors and actresses in period dress and historically appropriate interiors. Ruth (played by Ruby O. Fee) as a 17-year-old, strategically serving black-market wine and food to rooms full of drunken Nazi officers. Eugen Friede (Aaron Altaras) hides behind doors while Gestapo inspectors tramp through his home, and distributes leaflets to undermine the Nazi war effort. Most memorable, perhaps, is Max Mauff’s Cioma, the forger, privately terrified, publicly brazen. There are overlapping stories involving the notorious young Jewish informer Stella Goldschlag (Laila Marie Witt) who sold out other Jews to save herself.
The Invisibles doesn’t feel offensive but it is awkwardly misjudged. The dramatic action and music borrow from the vocabulary of a thriller, intended to make the stories relatable to a young audience but before the dramatic characters are allowed to develop, the film shifts to the interview subjects.
In between are bits of vaguely relevant black-and-white archival footage of Berlin during the war. Neither version of the film — the talking-heads documentary or the period drama — has the depth to achieve much impact.
The Invisibles. Directed by Claus Räfle. Written by Claus Räfle and Alejandra Lopez. With subjects Cioma Schonhaus, Hanni Levy, Eugen Friede and Ruth Gumpel. Starring Aaron Altaras, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby Fee, Victoria Schultz, Florian Lukas, Andreas Schmidt and Sergei Moya and Lucas Reiber. Opens April 5 at Toronto’s Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, Hamilton’s Playhouse Cinema and Ottawa’s Mayfair Cinema.