What Happens When a Holocaust Documentary Meets a Wartime Thriller
Holocaust documentaries usually follow a certain format – talking head survivor accounts coupled with footage from the time period, often depicting Nazi atrocities. While some of that can be found in Claus Rafle’s new film, The Invisibles, the majority of its runtime is fictionalized, making it more like a thriller. The result is gripping, informative, and highly entertaining.
In title cards, we learn that Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels declared Berlin free of Jews in 1943, when in actuality there were approximately 7,000 Jewish people who successfully went into hiding, of which 1700 survived. The Invisibles (in German with English subtitles) tells the true story of four survivors, two men and two women, all teenagers at the time, who escaped deportation by staying incognito in Berlin. Their strategies to evade detection included posing as a war widow, assuming the guise of a German pedestrian wandering the Kurfurstendamm, and pretending to be a bombing victim assigned new lodgings by the Accommodations Office.
The fourth survivor, Cioma Schonhaus, is a graphic artist who forges documents in exchange for food rations. His skills soon come first to the attention of a friend, who enlists him to create more fraudulent papers, and then to a resistance figure, who hires him to create passports, 20 at a time. As the other three survivors scramble to stay warm and keep from starving, Cioma dines in restaurants and buys a sailboat.
All the survivors are shown years later, in talking-head style interviews, but their words are often used as voice-over for the fictional retelling of events. Cioma is played with wide-eyed charm by actor Max Mauff (Sense8, Bridge of Spies). The caliber of the acting and scene work in general is so polished that the recreated scenes resemble a prestige piece much more than something commonly found in a true crime expose. It’s done so well, you almost wish the documentary bits were dropped altogether in favor of a film based on true events.
Although the stories are mostly distinct and separate, the protagonists face common struggles and encounter recurring figures.
All the survivors are terrified of being recognized. Hanni Levy goes through the most extreme measures to ensure this doesn’t happen, dying her hair blonde and having it cut in the latest German fashion. She wanders around the center of the city, avoiding eye contact, hiding in plain sight and, with no one to speak to, “feeling like she’s going crazy.”
Both Cioma and Ruth Gumpel, on the run with her entire family, bump into Stella Goldschlag, a beautiful Jewish woman who works as an informant for the Gestapo, rooting out Jews in hiding. Cioma and Eugen Friede, the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, both cross paths with Jewish resistance fighter Werner Scharff, who enlists the latter in distributing leaflets informing the German public as to the true course of the war. These odd happenstances of fate show that despite being a major city, Berlin could also be tiny, making it tricky to constantly navigate its streets undetected.
To Rafle’s credit, as the movie progresses, the time spent between stories shortens, ratcheting up the tension as all four hit major bumps in the road. They run up against the sheer odds of remaining secret for so long and a new danger, the allied bombing of Berlin. As Ruth puts it, she had “conflicting feelings. [But] obviously [she] wanted them to be bombed, of course.” For some, like Ruth, the only thing to do is continue to hide, for others like Cioma, with the Gestapo closing in, it’s time to hop on a bicycle and make a perilous ride for Switzerland.
For those still inside the city at the war’s end, their stories seem so bizarre that the liberating armies don’t believe them. Ruth’s brother is held at gunpoint by a Russian soldier who tells him “the Jews are all dead” and demands he prove he’s Jewish by reciting the Sh’ma. After her brother is able to blurt it out, the soldier embraces him and weeps. He too is Jewish.
The Invisibles is a harrowing retelling of how a fraction of Berlin’s Jewish population put the lie to the boast that the city was Judenfrei, cleansed of Jews. Their stories, told here in riveting fashion, serve as a Holocaust tale both rebellious and triumphant.
The Invisibles opens on Friday, January 25, 2019 for a one-week run. Watch the trailer.