In 1943, Joseph Goebbels proudly declared Berlin “free of Jews.” Though he did come markedly close to his goal, around 1,700 Jews managed to endure in secret through the war. “The Invisibles” tells the stories of a few of these survivors, bringing their astonishing histories to life in straightforward but consistently compelling fashion.
Director Claus Räfle interviews four Jews who are now in their 90s, all of whom eloquently share their experiences as teenagers in Berlin. Interspersed with their memories are dramatic re-enactments, a risky approach handled with enough skill to add to the film’s depth.
Hanni Weissenberg was an orphan when she was forced, at 17, into a terrifying homelessness. As played in flashback by Alice Dwyer, she dyes her hair blonde and spends her days seeking refuge in movie theaters. Every soldier who flirts with her brings untold danger, but one winds up offering crucial salvation.
Ruth Arndt (played by Ruby O. Fee) and her friend Ellen (Victoria Schulz) are young women who also have to tread very carefully. They are lucky enough to have each other to rely on, but together, they become a larger target. Posing as war widows, they find a very precarious safety by working for the family of a Nazi leader. They also have to evade the notorious Stella Goldschlag (Laila Maria Witt), another Jewish student — and a fascinating historical villain — who protects herself and her own family by turning her friends in to the Gestapo.
Eugen Friede (Aaron Altaras, “Mario”) finds himself in a more fortunate situation: Aided by sympathetic Communists, Socialists and Christians, he lives relatively openly in nice homes with plenty of food. But as risks increase and neighbors betray neighbors, he has to go further underground. He winds up joining a resistance group led by the famously heroic Hans Winkler (Andreas Schmidt) and Werner Scharff (Florian Lukas, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Also connected with Scharff is Cioma Schönhaus (standout Max Mauff, “Sense8”), who erases his own identity while creating new ones as an expert passport forger. Even as his work saves dozens of other lives, he repeatedly endangers his own.
Räfle’s docudrama approach comes with the risk of disjointed storytelling. But he handles each element with a sure hand, bringing us both a fascinating documentary and a suspenseful drama. Crucially, the screenplay and uniformly strong performances support, rather than undermine, the true-life narration. And though we see the aged subjects intermittently interviewed in comfortable surroundings, we are fully invested in the tenuous experiences their younger, dramatized selves endure.
Their stories are so unique as to seem impossible, but the survivors all have qualities in common. Foremost, in both the present and their depicted past, they are all strikingly practical. Though still baffled and saddened by the inhumanity they faced, they also recount their persecution and personal valor in purely matter-of-fact fashion.
Each also takes pains to highlight two other crucial elements of their survival. They all made it through the war thanks to both unusual good luck and the extraordinary kindness of others. There were, of course, millions of Germans who either turned a blind eye to their leaders’ cruelty or actively supported it, but there were many others who resisted, often at great danger to themselves. According to Räfle, as many as 10 people had to risk their own lives to hide a single Jewish friend or neighbor.
“The Invisibles” is a powerful testament to the remarkable courage of those forced into heroism, and to the exceptional strength of those who chose it freely.