“The Invisibles” is part documentary, part dramatization -- a hybrid that makes the film enlightening but, at the same time, frustratingly disjointed.
Unfortunately, that means this story of four young Jews who survived the Holocaust and World War II by “hiding in plain sight” in Berlin loses some of its power because of its form, even as the effectively filmed dramatizations create thriller-like tension.
The film opens with the notation that some 7,000 Jews in Berlin managed to avoid capture when the Third Reich deported Jews to the death camps at the beginning of the war. About 1,500 of them survived. The film is the story of four of those survivors.
They are: Cioma Schonhuas, Ruth Gumple, Eugen Friede and Hanni Levy, each of whom, about a decade ago, sat for the camera of director/co-writer Claus Rafle to recount their stories. Then in their 80s, they recall incidents and atmosphere, people, places and feelings.
To deliver those observations, Rafle intersperses dramatic re-enactments of each of the stories -- there’s no overlap between them -- they as they say felt entirely alone, doing what they could to survive on their own.
Art student Schonhaus (played by Max Mauff) turned his skills into a passport forgery business, so successful that he had enough cash to buy a sailboat and contacts throughout the upper reaches of Berlin society.
Separated from her family, Gumpel struggled in isolated fear, sometimes sleeping on the streets before being hired as a maid by the unlikeliest of employers while Levy dyed her brown hair blond and spent her days on the streets blending into the crowds, sometimes sleeping in movie theaters.
Friede, just 16 when the war began, was housed by family friends, at first pining for his girlfriend, then forgetting her for the household’s flirtatious daughter. But that arrangement couldn’t hold and he becomes sheltered by a very active member of the resistance.
Those “ordinary Germans” are key to the story -- the government lawyer who hires Schonhaus to make dozens of passports, the woman who “looks like a farm wife” who shelters one of the young Jews, the resistance activist who escaped from a camp and returns to Berlin to tell of the horrors the Nazis are creating there.
The quartet, obviously, would not have survived without them. But they’re not interviewed for the documentary sections (they likely would have been nearly impossible to find if still alive) nor are the characters developed in the dramatizations. That, I guess, would be another movie.
That, however, doesn’t detract from the stories that Rafle brings to the screen. Like every documentary that features the on-camera reflections of its subjects, the ending of “The Invisibles” is clear when the movie opens -- the four are going to survive, the picture is going to show how.
And, those stories, from the close calls with Jewish informer Stella Goldschlag to Schonhaus's escape to Switzerland can be gripping, dramatic and, on another level, amazing.
The structure of the film diminishes some of the drama, but it still reveals a set of stories of courage, resilience and survival that should never be forgotten.