The strange and briefly conjoined careers of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart and mentalist Jan Erik Hanussen are both proof that truth is far stranger than any fiction. But in bringing their stories to the screen, Werner Herzog inexplicably opted for the latter. In his first theatrical feature in more than a decade, Herzog conflates the lives of these fascinating...read more
The strange and briefly conjoined careers of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart and mentalist Jan Erik Hanussen are both proof that truth is far stranger than any fiction. But in bringing their stories to the screen, Werner Herzog inexplicably opted for the latter. In his first theatrical feature in more than a decade, Herzog conflates the lives of these fascinating showmen to fashion a fable of assimilation, deception and Jewish identity on the eve of the Holocaust. By 1932, the year before Hitler's ascendancy to Germany's chancellorship, the real-life Breitbart (played here by Finnish weight-lifter Jouko Ahola) had already been dead seven years. But for purposes of parable, Herzog has him still an unknown blacksmith, leaving his Polish shtetl for the very first time for the bright lights of Berlin. An enthusiastic theatrical agent lands Breitbart a gig at Hanussen's Palace of the Occult, on a bill headlined by the slithery clairvoyant himself (Tim Roth). Hanussen, who claims to be a Danish aristocrat, insists Breitbart be "Aryanized" for his anti-Semitic audience: "Zishe" is traded in for "Siegfried" and the swarthy Goliath is disguised in a long blond wig and gladiator garb. He's an instant sensation: Breitbart's feats of strength bending swords, breaking chains, etc. prove the perfect counterpart to Hanussen's darker, more arcane powers of clairvoyance, prognostication and mind control. Together, Hanussen claims, they represent the fulfilled potential of Germanic ideals of mind and body, and he predicts the coming of a powerful leader who will one day help the fatherless nation achieve its destiny. But Breitbart is shamed by the deception, and when he reveals the truth of his origins, he's both hailed (by Jews) and derided (by Nazis) as a symbol of Hebraic strength; Hanussen's own megalomania, meanwhile, leads to his downfall when he's revealed to be anything but a Nordic nobleman. While Herzog's conception of Hanussen is closer to the truth than the central figure in Istvan Szabo's HANUSSEN (1988), the film still steers clear of historical accuracy. Herzog is obviously looking for a moral to his fable, but the notion that a strong, unified showing among European Jews might have changed 20th-Century history is undermined by Ahola's inadequate performance. Twice judged the "Strongest Man in the World," he has the requisite physique, but none of the necessary acting range to put across the film's already simplistic message with much conviction.
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