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The film is based on the true story of Zishe Breitbart, a Jewish blacksmith's son from Poland who becomes a sensation in Weimar, Berlin as a mythical strongman. His employer Hanussen dreams of establishing an all-powerful Ministry of the Occult in Hitler's government. Yet as Hitler's hold on power grows more sure, and Berlin erupts in a ferment of anti-Semitism, Zishe must decide how he will use his strength. Plagued by nightmares, he takes counsel from a local rabbi. He becomes convinced that he has been chosen by God to warn his people of the grave danger they face. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
The Nazi stormtroopers in the film are frequently shown armed with rifles and pistols. However, in 1932 the Nazi movement was not yet in power and was considered simply another political party. Armed Nazis on the streets of Germany would have drawn immediate attention and would have been met with force by the police and military. See more »
Questions of identity and assimilation in Herzog's underrated near-miss
I saw Werner Herzog's would-be comeback movie in it's English-language version, although it actually appears to have been shot in English as per most of the bigger budget European films. The film found little favor either with critics or at the box-office, but it still has much to commend it.
Although a significant supporting character rather than the titular lead, it's a far more accurate portrait of famed German psychic-showman-conman Erik Jan Hanussen, the 'prophet' of the Nazi Party, than Istvan Szabo's Hanussen which, like Colonel Redl, took ample liberties with the facts to make dramatic capitol albeit with less success. Herzog's film has it's historical failings to - in truth Hanussen's downfall was linked to his prediction of the Reichstag Fire and the large number of IOUs he collected from senior Nazi Party members, including Goebbels and Himmler. But by linking his fate to that of the Jewish strongman he promotes as the Aryan Siegfried, Herzog does offer a convincing portrait of the dilemma facing Jews in the early days of Nazi Germany: do you hide and assimilate to earn their approval or do you assert your identity all the stronger?
For Hanussen, the answer is to latch onto the rising star of the Nazi Party in the hope that money and power can insulate him (and in truth he was Hitler's personal clairvoyant and, shortly before exposed as a Jew by the communist press, in line to head the Nazi Ministry of the Occult: Hanussen privately wrote that he thought Nazi anti-Semitism was mere electioneering and that Hitler could be swayed by 'good Jews'). Ultimately he fails because underestimates the savagery and severity of the baser instincts he taps into. For the innocent strongman Zishe Breitbart, things are not so simple. As he awakens to the danger and rebels, he finds himself unable to rouse his people and is ultimately brought down by little more than a scratch. Both find themselves unable to control events, merely to predict the inevitable outcome of the terrible movement of history that will allow neither assimilation nor resistance.
It's great raw material, but it's never quite there. As a film it's intriguing and Hanussen's stage act is compellingly recreated through Tim Roth's unsympathetic playing (unlike Brandauer and Szabo's version, this Hanussen is ultimately a cruel victim of his own hubris and self-deception), but Jouko Ahola is not a strong enough pair of acting shoulders as Zishe he may be able to carry an elephant, but he can't carry the movie. His performance isn't especially bad and it's probably an accurate reflection of the real man, but there's a lack of star quality that enables Roth to walk away with the film and for his absence in the last quarter to add not just an air of futility but of 'Where do we go from here?' padding to it.
Some of the early Shtetl scenes are a little awkwardly paced, the fledgling romance doesn't really work and the script is over-reliant on the audience bringing pre-existing knowledge about the characters to the film (for example, it is never explained that Udo Kier's Count Helldorf was the infamously corrupt and perverted head of the Berlin SA who ultimately murdered Hanussen) so a non-German or less-informed audience will definitely get less out of the film. There's also a lack of context we see very little of what is happening on the streets with much of the action confined to Hanussen's lavishly recreated Palace of the Occult. But despite it's shortfalls, it's still an intriguing film that, while it never engages the emotions, has more than enough compensations to make it well worth catching.
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