The Strongest, Most Vulnerable Man on Earth

"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."

‘Invincible’ Obsession

In the 1920s, the son of a destitute blacksmith from Lodz, Poland, amazed the world with his feats of strength. Heralded as the modern Samson and the Iron King, Zishe Breitbart became a Jewish folk hero, twisting bars of iron, pulling trains by his teeth and killing bulls with his fists.

While other kids heard bedtime tales of princes, frogs and giants, my brother, Gary Bart, and I were weaned on the Circle of Death, a motordome balanced on the strongman’s chest bearing two motorcycles chasing each other in a circle.

The fact that a Jew had become famous for his strength was remarkable; the fact that he was a cousin was riveting.

While I moved on to other things, the little boy who was my brother — so fascinated with the strongman’s heroic deeds that his friends actually began calling him "Zishe" — became obsessed, and when "Invincible" opens in Los Angeles in September, my brother, the producer, will have realized a lifelong dream.

"I felt since childhood that I was on a mission to discover everything about him," he says, "and tell the world that at a time when there was a great perception of Jewish weakness, there was an enormously strong Jew who defended and inspired his people."

My brother’s quest led him through archives and libraries where he discovered that almost everything written about Breitbart was in Yiddish, German, Polish, Czechoslovakian — everything but English. He hired translators and researchers, placed ads in Jewish newspapers around the world, consulted curators and experts in circus history, vaudeville and the physical culture movement, even obtained nine original Breitbart circus posters from a dealer who had bought out the contents of a bankrupt East German museum.

A researcher he hired in Vienna uncovered the dramatic story of a conflict between Breitbart and a famous hypnotist named Hanussen (played in the film by Tim Roth), who eventually became Hitler’s clairvoyant. In a sensational trial, each accused the other of defamation.

"I think what fascinated Tim about the role," Bart says, "was that here was a man who fancied himself the minister of the occult in the emerging Third Reich, who had published a newspaper that supported Hitler and raised funds to support anti-Semitic organizations, and who we later discover in the film is Jewish himself."

Getting the film made proved my brother almost as invincible as his hero. After working for a year and a half with an English playwright on a script, a producer friend mentioned the idea to famed German director, Werner Herzog, who accepted the project on the condition that he write his own script. "Although he would be faithful to the character and major events, he wanted artistic license to tell the story."

"When Werner finally agreed to do the film, I flew up to his home in San Francisco," Bart says. "We had a fine dinner. He opened a bottle of wine, and I said I thought it was a great leap of faith on my part turning the project over to him, a German, not a Jew, that I thought we could heal some wounds and be an example to others."

Securing financing for the film was accomplished through Fine Line for American rights and Channel 4 England for world rights.

Nothing prepared Bart, however, for the actual experience of filming in Germany — a country that our dad would never set foot in because he had lost so many family members in the Holocaust — or for eating lunch with actors dressed as Nazis, armed with authentic Nazi rifles.

The shtetl scenes were filmed in the Latvian village of Kuldiga. "Here was a formerly Jewish town that looked totally untouched by the war. It’s exactly like all these photos you see. The only thing missing were the Jews."

Other scenes were shot in Vilnius, formerly Vilna, the seat of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe. "There’s virtually nothing Jewish left there at all," Bart notes. "I searched for a mezuzah, or even nail holes where a mezuzah might have been, and found nothing."

Knowing that he would spend Passover in Germany, Bart had packed haggadot and managed to locate a kosher caterer in Cologne who brought everything: seder plate, matzot, even kosher wine. "Although only myself, the assistant director and head wardrobe designer are Jewish, the main actors attended, as well as Werner, who, being the consummate director that he is, started directing and virtually took over the seder!"

In all, Bart spent five months in Europe. "I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility," he says. "Since Werner is not Jewish, I wanted to be sure all things Jewish were done properly and that Breitbart’s portrayal was true to his character."