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Arts & Culture in Latest Film, German Director Herzog Focuses on Real-life Jewish Strongman

September 24, 2002
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“I do not see Jews as victims fated to perish in a Holocaust,” says German filmmaker Werner Herzog. “I see them as the strongest and most confident people in the world.”

True to this vision, Herzog has titled his latest film “Invincible.” At its center is Zishe Breitbart, a shtetl-raised, pious blacksmith, who in the early 1930s was acclaimed by German and American audiences as “the strongest man in the world.”

It would be easy to perceive Zishe as Herzog’s personification of the Jewish people, but the director, famous for his creation of multi-layered characters struggling against fate, urges caution.

“You can read into Breitbart whatever you want, keeping in mind that the strongest man in the world is also the most vulnerable,” Herzog observes during an hourlong interview.

Herzog, who just turned 60, is an auteur of the old school who has written, produced and directed all of his 50-plus films and documentaries. “Invincible” is his first work focusing on a Jewish character and theme, yet it is propelled by decades of soul-searching.

“The relationship between Germans and Jews has accompanied me all my thinking life,” he says. “As a German filmmaker and coming from a German culture, I could not be a coward and bypass the subject.

“During the Hitler regime, some of the bearers of German culture were exiled or killed, while most sided with the Nazi barbarism,” Herzog says. “So we young Germans of the post-war generation were cultural orphans and had to reach back to our ‘grandfathers’ of the Weimar Republic for reconnection. For me, as a filmmaker, they were such directors as Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, and the great film historian Lotte Eisner, who was my ‘mother’ and mentor.”

When Herzog first read the story of Breitbart’s life in a script by the strongman’s great-nephew, Gary Bart, the director saw its possibilities, but started searching for an “intensified truth” about the man.

In a nine-day writing marathon, Herzog evolved Breitbart’s character into a man who sees himself as a latter-day Samson who must save his unwilling people from the looming Nazi danger.

In Herzog’s own interpretation, Breitbart is also part Moses, a powerful man of “heavy tongue” who needs an Aaron — in this case a 9-year old brother — to speak for him to the people.

Herzog is notorious among his actors for his obsessive veracity of detail, in one famous instance forcing the crew and cast of “Fitzcarraldo” to haul a large ship across a mountain range.

“I want audiences to trust their eyes again,” says Herzog. “I don’t use digital tricks or special effects.”

True to his credo, he cast Finnish acting novice Jouko Ahola, three-time winner of the world’s strongest man competition, as Breitbart in the English-language film.

“When we show Jouko lifting 900 pounds, he is actually lifting 900 pounds,” Herzog says.

The director’s insistence on truth in moviemaking is even more apparent in a brief, repeated dream scene in “Invisible,” in which Breitbart stands amid millions of crabs scuttling across wave-swept rocks.

To get this particular footage, Herzog waited for six months after the rest of the film had been completed to transport crew and star to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Once there, they had to wait 12 more days for the beginning of the monsoon mating season, when 80 million crabs gather at this particular spot.

What’s the meaning of this very expensive dream sequence? Herzog was asked. Does it symbolize Nazi brownshirts crawling across Europe?

“I don’t have an answer,” he responds. “There is a very disturbing metaphor in this scene, but I can’t tell you what it means. There is no clear-cut symbolism, yet I believe it belongs in the film.”

“Invincible” got bad to vicious reviews in Germany, which Herzog ascribed to a lifelong vendetta against him among German critics, and to his countrymen’s penchant for “bashing their living poets.”

By contrast, says Herzog, he received the longest standing ovation of his life when “Invincible” was shown at the Venice Film Festival.

He is more concerned about how the movie will be received by Jewish audiences.

“I might just put a film print under my arms and take it to Israel,” he says. “I have a feeling that it will be appreciated there.”

He is even more curious how Jewish audiences in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora will react.

“That will be a real test for me and the outcome means a lot to me, but I really don’t know,” he says. “I get sweaty palms just thinking about it.”

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