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The Invisibles

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 25, 2019
'The Invisibles'
'The Invisibles'  

With "The Invisibles" co-writer and director Claus Räfle explores a harrowing tale of survival in the very heart of enemy territory: In the early 1940s, thousands of Jews defied Nazi orders to board trains and be shipped out of Berlin to their deaths. They sought refuge with sympathetic non-Jewish countrymen, obtained forged papers, changed their appearances, and even endured bouts of homelessness in order to survive, and some of them managed to make it to the war's end and the fall of the Reich.

Four actual survivors — Cioma Schönhaus, Hannelore "Hanni" Lévy, Ruth Arndt, and Eugen Friede — tell us their stories via interviews preserved on video. Four actors — Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, and Aaron Altaras, respectively — portray these survivors in well-produced passages that re-create those dangerous years. The four do not belong to the same group and their stories are only tangentially connected — by a Jewish collaborator working with the Nazis in one case; by a cinema outside which a couple characters linger at different times in another case — and after the war they all ended up in different places, but their courage, luck, and ingenuity serve as a common denominator for their very different stories.

Cioma, a former art student, took to forging passports to help get people out of the country. He did this in cooperation with a senior government worker who was able to access crucial information when needed and ensure that the people who needed papers in order to flee could get them. Despite the peril — and a couple of disastrous setbacks that endangered his operation — Cioma recalls actually enjoying the thrill of it all, though a few of the people who helped him survive ended up arrested, even tortured — and perhaps worse.

Ruth's entire family were forced into separate situations; she managed to team up with a friend, the two of them disguising themselves as a war widows and eventually working as maids for a highly-placed German army officer who, though knowing they were Jews in hiding, took some pains to protect them both. "We live hour by hour, day by day," is how she describes the experience; really, what other option did she have?

Hanni began passing herself off as a Gentile at age 17, dying her hair blonde and learning to walk around town with the kind of confidence that those with nothing to fear from the authorities could project; even more so than the others, she was hiding in plain sight. ("No one could harm me, because I wasn't there," she explains.) Homeless from time to time, she went to the movies to keep warm, and as a result ended up befriending a box office worker who took her in and helped her keep up the pretense. "I had met people again were actually people," she recollects.

Eugen found shelter with a well-to-do family (no rationing for them, and they had a lovely daughter besides), but so heightened was the nation's level of suspicion and surveillance that when the local butcher questioned why the family needed and extra portion of meat he had to leave for his own safety and theirs. He ended up with a Gentile family of four who were much less well off, living in cramped quarters — only two rooms — and yet who still took him in without hesitation. When an escapee from an extermination camp showed up at the door with a horror story about what was really happening to the Jews, the family took the extraordinary risk of printing up and distributing thousands of letters informing ordinary German citizens of the unimaginable truth.

Ironically, in 1943 Goebbels — Nazi Germany's infamous Minister of Propaganda — declared that Berlin was "free of Jews," but thanks to the tenacity of the survivors, and the humane will to decency of their Gentile protectors, that — like so much of the Nazi ideology — was mere fantasy. When the Russian tanks rolled in after a concentrated bombing campaign by the Allies, they were astonished to find Jewish Germans still alive in the rubble. In one profound scene, a Russian soldier, holding two Jewish men at gunpoint, demands that they recite a prayer in Hebrew... which they do. The moment becomes a powerful scene of fellowship across nations: The officer, too, is Jewish, and his urge to eat revenge on the Germans pivots into relief to find anyone of his faith still alive in the heart of the now-destroyed Third Reich.

But these survivors' tales are the exception. We learn that of the 7,000 Jews that hid away in the city in 1941, only 1,500 made it to the end of the war.

Even them, though, their success was not at an end. One of the survivors tells her interviewer that she harbored no hatred or rage against the Germans; after all, it was Germans who put themselves at risk on her behalf. Speaking of one of his own benefactors, another now-elderly survivor remarks that she put herself at risk not just for him, but, as she put it herself, "I wanted to save my country."

Words to hear, understand, and ponder deeply, as America continues its own current flirtation with nationalist — and eliminationist — sentiments.

Though the dramatic, narrative passages are very much in service to the documentary sections (which shape the film in voice-over, sometimes with the four survivors voicing their own stories and at other points with the actors doing the narrating for them), the film as a whole delivers the emotional wrench of a feature film together with a documentary sense of immediacy and authenticity. The narrative passages pop with period detail; archival footage is used for establishing shots (street scenes, building exteriors), but the overall documentary structure allows these shots to blend in and bolster the film.

More telling, though, are details of another sort: The small, day-to-day humiliations and examples of bullying that the Jews endured at the hands of their merciless oppressors. For every kind soul willing to extend a helping hand, hundreds — if not thousands — stood ready to clap on the manacles or prove their "superior" status by belittling and badgering the Jews — who, of course, had zero legal recourse.

Part narrative feature, part docu-film, an entirely fresh and unforgettable take on the horrors of the Holocaust; this movie may be examining a facet of the worst crime in human history, but it has found a way to enjoy the best of both cinematic worlds.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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