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The Strongest, Most Vulnerable Man on Earth

by Tom Tugend

August 29, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Jouko Ahola, left, and writer-director Werner Herzog on the set of "Invincible."

Jouko Ahola, left, and writer-director Werner Herzog on the set of "Invincible."

"I do not see Jews as victims fated to perish in a Holocaust," says German filmmaker Werner Herzog. "I see them as the strongest and most confident people in the world."

True to this vision, Herzog has titled his latest film "Invincible." At its center, he has put Zishe Breitbart, an actual, shtetl-raised, pious blacksmith, who in the early 1930s was acclaimed by German and American audiences as "the strongest man in the world."

It would be easy to perceive Zishe as Herzog's personification of the Jewish people, but the director, famous for his creation of multilayered characters struggling against fate, urges caution.

"You can read into Breitbart whatever you want, keeping in mind that the strongest man in the world is also the most vulnerable," observes Herzog during an hour-long interview.

Herzog, who just turned 60, is an auteur of the old school, who has written, produced and directed all of his 50-plus films and documentaries. "Invincible" is his first work focusing on a Jewish character and theme, yet it is propelled by decades of soul-searching.

"The relationship between Germans and Jews has accompanied me all my thinking life," he says. "As a German filmmaker, and coming from a German culture, I could not be a coward and bypass the subject.

"During the Hitler regime, some of the bearers of German culture were exiled or killed, while most sided with the Nazi barbarism," Herzog says. "So we young Germans of the post-war generation were cultural orphans and had to reach back to our 'grandfathers' of the Weimar Republic for reconnection. For me, as a filmmaker, they were such directors as Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, and the great film historian Lotte Eisner, who was my 'mother' and mentor."

When Herzog first read the story of Breitbart's life in a script by the strongman's great-nephew, Gary Bart (see story, below), the director saw its possibilities, but started searching for an "intensified truth" about the man.

In a nine-day writing marathon, Herzog evolved Breitbart's character into a man who sees himself as a latter-day Samson who must try to save his unwilling people from the looming Nazi danger.

In Herzog's own interpretation, Breitbart is also part Moses, a powerful man of "heavy tongue" who needs an Aaron, in this case a 9-year-old brother, to speak for him to the people.

Herzog is notorious among actors for his obsessive veracity of details, which is why he doesn't use digital tricks or special effects. For example, he cast Finnish acting novice Jouko Ahola, thrice winner of the world's-strongest-man competition, as Breitbart in the English-language film.

"When we show Jouko lifting 900 pounds, he is actually lifting 900 pounds," Herzog notes.

"Invincible" got bad to vicious reviews in Germany, which Herzog ascribed to a lifelong vendetta between him and German critics; but he also got the longest standing ovation of his life when "Invincible" was shown at the Venice Film Festival, he says.

In any case, he is more concerned with how the movie will be received in Israel and by Jewish audiences in America.

"I might just put a film print under my arms and take it to Israel," he says. "I have a feeling that it will be appreciated there."

He is even more curious how Jewish audiences in America will react. "That will be a real test for me, and the outcome means a lot to me, but I really don't know. I get sweaty palms just thinking about it."

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