A documentary-dramatization-archival hybrid, Germany’s “The Invisibles” is the kind of cinematic platypus that shouldn’t be able to move, let alone move an audience. It manages to do so on the strength of its urgency and its subject. During World War II, at the start of the Third Reich’s mass deportations to the death camps in the East, 7,000 Jews avoided capture and remained hidden in Berlin. By the war’s end, 1,500 had survived. The movie interweaves the stories of four of them.
It does this both through talking-head reminiscences of the elderly Cioma Schönhaus, Ruth Gumpel, Eugen Friede, and Hanni Lévy, and through slickly filmed dramatic recreations of their experiences as teenagers in hiding, dodging the Gestapo and finding sanctuary with various Germans with varying motives. More than anything, the film is a testament to the tenacity of human kindness in the face of state-sponsored terror.
Director/co-writer Claus Räfle intercuts among the four storylines with an ease that keeps our interest while preventing any one individual situation from really gathering steam. Schönhaus’s tale is the most naturally suspenseful as the resourceful young artist, played by an appealing Max Mauff, develops a passport-forging career that puts him in contact with anti-Nazis at all levels of Berlin society while providing a living wage and surprisingly open lifestyle. (Schönhaus even bought a used sailboat and took it out for spins.)
By contrast, Gumpel (Ruby O. Fee) is separated from her parents, brother, and boyfriend, and skips from one tenuous situation to the next, at times sleeping in the street with a friend (Victoria Schulz). Similarly, Lévy (Alice Dwyer) dyes her hair blonde and blends into the crowd but, afraid to talk to anyone, fears going mad from the isolation. “Above all else was the matter of food,” Gumpel says. “No one had enough. We were always hungry.”
The fourth figure is Eugen (Aaron Altaras), a strapping 16-year-old who finds himself staying with well-off German family friends — including a flirtatious daughter — and thinking that maybe this war’s not so bad after all. That doesn’t last long, and the climactic scenes of the boy’s story are among the few moments that directly confront the characters’ personal losses.
Otherwise, “The Invisibles” feels too decorous at times, with the dramatic scenes compelling but scripted next to the raw power of the survivors’ testimony and the archival footage of wartime Berlin, in both black-and-white and color, that is used to stitch the segments together.
The simple suspense of these stories grabs and holds a viewer’s interest nevertheless, as does an occasionally voiced fury toward the Third Reich and those Germans bent on carrying out its genocidal aims. “The Invisibles” offers many portraits of sacrifice and courage, both among the Jews remaining unseen in the midst of a bustling city and the Germans who helped them remain unseen.
Some of those Germans are active resisters, like the gangly burgher and family man Hans Winkler (Andreas Schmidt) who takes Eugen in and by the war’s end is cranking out mimeographed anti-Nazi leaflets. Others are more circumspect, like the upper-class doctor (Robert Hunger-Bühler) secretly providing forged papers to refugees. Still others are cynical mysteries, like the German army officer and black marketeer (Horst Günter-Marx) who hires Ruth and her friend as maids knowing full well they’re Jews while protecting their identities from his drinking buddies.
Further ironies abound. The notorious real-life Jewish informer Stella Goldschlag (Laila Marie Witt) turns up in more than one of the storylines, including a run-in with Cioma that may be factual but doesn’t ring true. Another, more believably recurrent character is Werner Scharff (Florian Lukas), a peppery resistance activist who was legendary for escaping from the Theresienstadt concentration camp and making his way back to Berlin, where he joined forces with Winkler.
Just as astonishing is hearing about Cioma Schönhaus’s eventual escape from Germany: He bicycled 500 miles to safety in Switzerland, where he lived until he died, in 2015. That’s a story ready made for the movies, but “The Invisibles” favors quantity of remembrance over quality of any one experience. It’s worth attending to, obviously, even if the movie somehow manages to do less with more.
Directed by Claus Räfle. Written by äfle and Alejandra López. Starring Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras. At Kendall Square. 110 minutes. Unrated (as PG: life-and-death situations). In German, with subtitles.