The Invisibles puts you off-balance from the start by looking at four survivors of the Holocaust, who as teenagers managed to live through the war right in the city of Berlin — a place Goebbels had declared free of Jews.
Director Claus Räfle joins interviews with the four many decades later, with sequences that dramatize their lives at the time, and bits of archival footage of Berlin during the war. The four were young, sometimes foolish, and sometimes they didn’t realize the dangers.
Cioma Schönhaus forged documents. Eugen Friede lived with a non-Jewish family and even went out on the streets in a German army uniform. Ruth Gumpel describes dancing with her friends — barefoot so neighbors would not know of a roomful of Jewish children. And Hanni Lévy, at 17 an orphan, dyed her hair blond and managed to pass as Gentile. According to the movie, 7,000 Jews hid out Berlin — 1,700 survived.
The Invisibles shows an unexpected image of Jews living under Nazism. Instead of black and white pictures of haggard, haunted people in filthy gray striped camp uniforms, here are young people looking healthy and full of life.
Their situations are dire; they constantly worry that they’ll be discovered; a slight hint of danger sends them scurrying off to find another hiding place. They rent rooms, sometimes from friends of friends, or sometimes from the family of an SS officer. Eugen Friede sits at dinner with an officer whose head still bears the crease of his officer’s cap. The Invisibles is not an accurate title, because none of the four were invisible at the time. They mostly hid in plain sight.
Watching them decades later is a disconcerting experience. They look comfortable, their voices composed, and because the interviews took place some time ago, the faces are younger than you might expect.
The four have fascinating, harrowing stories, of course, but the film itself lacks urgency. There’s not much sense of how terrifying it must have been to walk down a Berlin street, passing as German, knowing that any break in your facade could mean interrogation, torture and an extermination camp.
The Invisibles avoids the question of survivor guilt. By using their wits, their nerve — and being blessed with incredible luck — these then-young people escaped the fates of their parents, brothers and sisters and friends.
When Cioma Schönhaus and his parents are sent to a deportation processing center, before they’ll be shipped off to the East, he concocts a story about being essential in a machine gun factory — and he’s forged the papers to prove it. He tells the clerk that he assembles a fantastic number of gun barrels an hour. The dull-witted paper shuffling clerk gives Schönhaus permission to leave.
But that means that Schönhaus separates himself from his parents, who are then shoved away by a guard also wearing a yellow Jewish star on his coat. The parents in fact were murdered not long afterward. And how was it for this boy, now a man to carry that burden as he fakes normalcy while he moves around Berlin. And how is it when he’s old?
So, The Invisibles strikes an unexpected and uneasy tone. You want to say to these survivors something like, “Well, you did OK.” But, of course they didn’t. Just because they weren’t tortured or murdered doesn’t equal getting a good break.
In one of the many wrenching moments in the greatest of the Holocaust documentaries — Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah — a Jewish man whose job at a camp was to herd people into gas chambers, describes how in his despair he walked into the chamber with a group of women. One of them told him to get out. She knew what was coming, and she said that he was obligated to live if he could, and then he might bear witness, which is what he did, and what these once-young people do in this movie.