The Invisibles is just too Hollywood

This documentary about WWII offers a lot of insight, but drowns it in overly-slick filmmaking.

At its core, The Invisibles is an interesting concept. Blending talking-head interviews with recreations, the film traces the stories of four young Jews who learned to survive in Berlin during World War II. Hiding their identities in order to survive, we learn of their close-calls and acts of resistance. The testimonies are fascinating and often unearth stories about the Holocaust that have been mostly untold. However, the film’s structure negates its impact, ultimately lessening the intimacy and harsh reality of the interviews.

Moving between four different storylines, it becomes difficult to connect with any specific story. The way of moving from one narrative to the next does not always feel organic, and the accounts do not blend seamlessly into the other. We are given fragments of story or experience, only to move on to the next person. Transitions, often in the way of archival footage, are used as signal posts that we’re moving on to another interview. There are few thematic, emotional or narrative links to hold together all the threads.

The recreations themselves are nice, even if it is difficult to connect with the individual “characters” as we spend so much time jumping around. While the structure invites comparisons to History Channel programs, the footage often undermines that presumption. The casting and performances are strong, and the quality of the image is rich in colour and intention. The way things are shot amplifies the sense of the film’s title by focusing on an unusual cinematic gaze that quickly turns away with a harsh cut and is often focused down. In the fear of being seen, the filmmaking showcases a point of view that mirrors an averted gaze.

While few Holocaust films are able to compete with Shoah, Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust (which includes no recreations or archival footage), the film’s philosophical invocation of memory and witness hangs over all Holocaust films that came afterward. His insistence on the importance of memory and testimony as a means of humanizing the atrocities committed during WWII is undeniably effective and shed discomfort on films that use fiction to distance the viewer from the experience of survivors.

While The Invisibles uses interviews, they are consistently undercut by the recreations. Beyond being cut together in a way that belies investment, the Hollywood treatment further depersonalizes the testimonies. There is a sense of fantasy in its treatment of clothes, decor and period accuracy that rather than be illuminating serves to fictionalize. We are not brought closer to the time or era but driven further away from it.

In general, there is a reason why documentary filmmakers are increasingly moving away from talking heads mixed with recreations. Beyond the ethical considerations posed in bringing history to life and maintaining a sense of truth, these films often have the opposite of the intended result. Rather than bringing life to the past, they end up alienating us from it. While all documentary has elements of fiction, recreations have a way of transforming truth into melodrama. Even if that isn’t a conscious or over the top choice, instinctually, it often belies the need for documentary in the first place. Inauthentic is a strong word to be hurtling around, but it is also, unfortunately, an inescapable feeling in regards to this particular film.

That being said, The Invisibles still has a lot of appeal. It offers a story from WWII that is rarely told, which at this point is increasingly rare. While it doesn’t quite work as a whole, you can’t say the film isn’t made with care and sensitivity. It resonates to a point, largely through the actual interviews, but fails to come together completely. ■

The Invisibles is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here: