Werner Herzog: Brains behind the brawn

Invincible - about a Jewish strongman - is the first film by Werner Herzog on Germany's Nazi past. No it isn't, says the director. Ben Thompson talks to a master provocateur
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The Independent Culture

There's no more eloquent testimony to Hollywood's hallucinogenic legacy than the moment when a cinema audience sees something really happen on screen and assumes it must be an illusion. Or at least, that is what Werner Herzog would like you to think.

See the straining sinews with which the hero of the legendary German maverick's new film Invincible completes a series of Herculean trials of strength! The unfamiliar quality of his muscular endeavours can at least in part be ascribed to the fact that the actor concerned – Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola – is actually lifting that improbable barbell. There's a little more to it than that, though.

As if the physical weight wasn't enough, Ahola (who was crowned the World's Strongest Man in Las Vegas in both 1997 and 1999, and only missed out by a grunt in the intervening year) also has to carry a mighty conceptual burden. He plays the strongman Zishe Breitbart – a Jewish blacksmith's son from Poland who becomes a sensation in Weimar Berlin. Performing at an occult cabaret favoured by Nazi bigwigs, he whips off his embarrassing Aryan hairpiece and proclaims himself proud to be Jewish, later becoming a proud symbol of resistance for an increasingly embattled German Jewry.

The bare bones of the story suggest Breitbart as a kind of Semitic Jesse Owens – confounding the pernicious ideology of the emerging Nazi state with a series of heroic physical feats. And the narrative in its early stages does have some of the exhilaratingly rudimentary qualities of, say, Barbra Streisand's Yentl, but as the story proceeds, it becomes progressively more complex, culminating in a shockingly low-key finale that confirms Invincible as a suitably bizarre and fascinating addition to one of the most remarkable canons in world cinema.

Asked via a crackly transatlantic phone line why he chose to return to feature films after years spent concentrating on documentaries, Herzog replies that he doesn't recognise the distinction, as his goal has always been to blur the boundaries between the two.

"I want to say something provocative," he continues, provocatively. "I think that Fitzcarraldo [Herzog's 1982 masterpiece about a crazed colonialist building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle] is my best documentary."

Presumably, that would make Les Blank's Burden of Dreams – the compelling story of the making of that film, which sealed Herzog's reputation as a relentless visionary and part-time madman – the celebrated documentary-maker's finest work of fiction? Herzog chuckles and mumbles a Germanic equivalent of Francis Urquhart's "I couldn't possibly comment".

The line between Herzog's contempt for cinéma-vérité ("the accountant's truth – the surface of facts that is not what cinema can really achieve") and his oft-stated desire "to put the audience back into a position where they can trust their eyes and ears again", is a hard one to get to the bottom of at first. While Invincible was based on a true story – a descendant of the legendary strongman having approached Herzog with a collection of material about the life of his ancestor – the writer-director "felt the need to reinvent the character" since "the facts themselves would not have made a good movie".

Herzog often describes film-making as a quest for "ecstatic truth". This rather intimidating notion can perhaps be most productively understood as "stuff that would have made the world a more interesting place if it had actually happened, done on camera as if for real".

"In the case of a strongman," Herzog explains, "there is an instant question of credibility. You cannot let the audience down with an actor who has some sort of muscles trained on him in an aerobics studio." The director has successfully cast newcomers before – most mythically, lifelong asylum and prison inmate Bruno S in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek – and makes no distinction between trained and untrained actors, insisting that: "To me, they are professionals if they radiate something from the screen that no amateur could".

Jouko Ahola is one of three of Invincible's casting coups. Alongside the Scandinavian muscleman (whose performance is actually a quite mesmerising blend of innocence and guile, strangely reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's in Pumping Iron) and Tim Roth's characteristically sinister turn as the occultist Hanussen, Invincible also marks the big screen debut of Russian classical pianist Anna Gourari.

Having been struck by Gourari's "magnetism" on first seeing her play in the mid-Nineties, Herzog informed her there and then of his intention to cast her in a film. Five years later, the no doubt somewhat bewildered musician received a letter. "I am planning a grand film epic in which you are to play the female lead," Herzog informed her commandingly, going on to suggest that she might like to work on the second movement of Beethoven's third piano concerto, and emphasising that he "would be most unwilling to take no for an answer".

Needless to say, Herzog got his pianist. After all, which classical musician could turn down the chance to have Tim Roth point at her posterior and utter the immortal words: "Look, my boy – the roundest butt in God's wide earth and it's mine, all mine!"?

There is an element of high camp as well as old-school Hollywood Gothic in Invincible. The positive reactions of the Jewish community- leaders that he invited to the German premiere reassured Herzog that he had "gone about things in the right way": "There was great relief among Jewish spectators," the director explains, "that in this film their people are seen as strong and self-confident, and not just victims or survivors of the inevitable."

Presumably, the filming itself had to be handled sensitively, as the spectacle of gangs of actors cavorting about in National Socialist garb must have caused a certain amount of unease on the streets of the new Germany. Herzog remembers only "one very significant incident". They were filming a party sequence on a lake, and across from where the boat was, an elderly Dutch man became very upset at the sight of people in Nazi uniforms near what turned out to be the site of one of his relatives' death by summary execution.

"That was a deeply disturbing and painful moment," Herzog remembers, "which helped us to understand that this barbaric culture that occupied Germany is never going to vanish from the consciousness of all decent human beings."

It seems strange that a film-maker of Herzog's tireless industry (especially one born in Bavaria in 1942) should never have previously focused on his homeland's disturbing recent history. One might even interpret his epic cinematic journeys through Africa or the Amazonian jungle as a means of leaving this savage heritage behind. Herzog catches a sniff of this suggestion and is not impressed. "Are you suggesting," he demands imperiously, "that I am some kind of escapist?"

When Herzog describes Invincible as his "most straightforward attempt" to grapple with the shadow of Nazism, he seems to be implying something that should have been obvious all along – that his entire oeuvre (from the ruthless empire- building of Aguirre, Wrath of God to the abusive patriarch that he acted so brilliantly in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy) might at least at some level be taken as a response to that same grisly spectre.

"Because the German film-makers who preceded us were all either exiled or put in concentration camps or sided with the Nazis," Herzog explains, "my generation had no fathers and no legitimacy: we were orphans."

As painful as this lack of ancestry must have been, was there some way in which – for Herzog or, say, Fassbinder – it might also have been an asset, in that it encouraged them to start from scratch?

"I am glad you noticed that positive aspect," Herzog says, and it is hard to be sure over the phone if he being sincere or sarcastic.

"We all had to reinvent cinema without teachers."

'Invincible' is out on 29 March