The Invisibles: hiding in plain sight in WWII Berlin
There are remarkable stories of Jews hiding in plain sight in 1943 Berlin, when Joseph Goebbels declared the city “free of Jews.” Director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s ambitious documentary-drama, The Invisibles, recounts the stories of four of the 7,000 Jews who remained—Cioma (Max Mauff), Ruth (Ruby O. Fee), Hanna (Alice Dwyer), and Eugen (Aaron Altaras). They are presented through interviews with the real-life individuals as well as dramatic re-enactments that depict the experiences being recalled.
The Invisibles has some very interesting and important stories to tell. There is tension in Cioma’s segments which depict him working on forging passports for Jews who needed them. As documents are destroyed, or Cioma becomes a wanted criminal, the drama plays out like a thriller. Likewise, when Hanna recalls dying her hair and changing her name, or Ruth describes not sleeping all night, or Eugen has to hide in a wardrobe whenever there is a knock at the door, the difficulty of their situations—“being illegal”—comes into bold relief. (It also reflects what life might be like for undocumented workers “hiding” in America today.)
In addition, Räfle reveals details about the families that hid these Jews, and the risks they assumed. There were sometimes rewards; when a widow takes in Hanna, they become surrogate mother and daughter. The film also touches on a fascinating story about a Jewish woman who informed the Nazis about Jews in hiding. (She was promised that her parents would be spared.) These subplots magnify the four main stories and provide some context for how others behaved during wartime.
But the film’s hybrid structure is both the blessing and the curse of The Invisibles.It is as if Räfle had four interesting interviews with the survivors and he wanted to flesh them out to a full-length feature. In doing so, he dilutes some of the power of the narratives by creating re-enactments that fail to add anything to what is being said in the interviews. Alternately, the re-enactments could have worked fine on their own. But Räfle must have thought without the real-life stories being told, these strange-but-true tales might not be believed. Whatever the reason for the approach, it is clunky and causes the film to drag. Moreover, the dual narratives are repetitious or sometimes create information overload, with people being introduced to the point where a scorecard may be needed to keep track of everyone.
But the dramatic nature of what happened to these Jews in Berlin in particular and Jews during WWII in general is still essential, and the film’s value comes from relating these stories. As Cioma, Ruth, Hanna, and Eugen experience reversals of fortune or are afraid of being caught, they express their thoughts and feelings. This can be insightful, when Hanna explains how she reacts differently while “passing” as a young blonde German woman. Unfortunately, the film does not go deep enough when Ruth gets a job working for a Nazi family. Nevertheless, The Invisibles does have some powerful moments—most notably when the bombing of Berlin happens, and the Russian soldiers come to liberate the city.
But in telling four stories twice, this film is only half good.
The Invisibles opens in Philly theaters today.