Aaron Altaras in “The Invisibles,” a drama about Jews hiding in wartime Berlin
Aaron Altaras in “The Invisibles,” a drama about Jews hiding in wartime Berlin

In WWII, they were ‘Invisibles,’ but the film is something to be seen

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What did it take to survive World War II as a Jew in supposedly Jew-free Berlin? Spur-of-the-moment decisions. A sixth sense for imminent danger. Practiced bravado. A blond dye job. Razor-sharp instincts. Fake papers. A lucky break.

Some 7,000 Jews dodged deportation and tried to hide in the German capital by any means necessary.

The remarkable sagas of four of those men and women are interwoven to outstanding effect in German director Claus Rafle’s excellent new film “The Invisibles.”

The 110-minute fictionalized documentary will screen two times in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival — at the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill at 7:30 p.m. March 7 and 10:15 a.m. March 9 — following its Bay Area premiere at last fall’s Mill Valley Film Festival, where it took silver in one of the audience favorite categories.

Rafle and his team pull off one of the toughest tricks in narrative moviemaking, which is to mesh recent documentary interviews with top-notch re-enactments. Their risky approach is so well-conceived and executed, in fact, that “The Invisibles,” in German with English subtitles, proves more effective than a straightforward dramatization.

Any time we’re in danger of succumbing to the spell of the drama and of “the story” overtaking history, one of the four protagonists returns in an on-camera interview to remind us, in so many words, that they could have been caught at any moment. These repeated “interruptions” re-establish the stakes every time, and they are always welcome.

Related: 2018 East Bay Jewish film fest focus is #StandUp to justice

Of course, seeing the four men and women in later life tips us off that they are going to survive the war. A bit of tension is necessarily sacrificed, but not as much you’d expect. For one thing, we know that everyone in the protagonists’ circles — relatives and friends, of course, and also the strangers who hide or otherwise help them — will be tortured and killed if they’re caught.

Secondly, the viewer is well aware of how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Death is not an abstraction in “The Invisibles,” nor a plot point. It is the inarguable, underlying horror upon which the film is erected.

That said, “The Invisibles” doesn’t immerse us in an atmosphere of unceasing uncertainty, dread and fear. The amount of time the characters — all of them teenagers compelled to grow up quickly — spend indoors in rooms doing nothing is quite small. The movie isn’t called “Hidden Figures” for a reason, and it’s not because the title was already taken. Rather, the characters are depicted as actively engaged in their fates.

Cioma Israel Schonhaus is a talented forger of passports who gets steady work doctoring documents for a Third Reich bureaucrat opposed to the regime. Ruth Arndt and another young Jewish woman land steady work as maids and kitchen staff in the house of a savvy Nazi colonel who, for reasons never stated, protects them.

Hanni Levy is compelled to forage for places to stay, her fake blond locks giving her cover in cafes and in public, but she often spends the night on the street. “I behave like everyone else,” she says. “But I watch carefully to see if anyone recognizes me.”

Levy discovers that the cinema is a dark, warm and safe place to pass the hours, and those regular visits ultimately pay an unexpected dividend. The fourth, Eugen Friede, shuttles from the house of one communist to another, forming a bond with the flirtatious daughter during his stay.

Stella Goldschlag, a Jew who tipped off the Gestapo to several Jews hiding in Berlin, makes a poignant cameo appearance in the film, as does the fearless Werner Scharff, one of very few people to escape from Theresienstadt and a fervid resister of the Nazis.

Of the approximately 7,000 Jews who apparently attempted to weather the post-deportation years in Berlin, fewer than 30 percent survived — around 1,500 or 1,700, depending on the report. Nonetheless, “The Invisibles” leaves us inspired by the cleverness, resourcefulness and defiance of young people — and by the courage of the many non-Jews who hid and assisted them. A portrait of human beings at their best, “The Invisibles” is a first-rate movie experience.

“The Invisibles,” 7:30 p.m. March 7 and 10:15 a.m. March 9 at Century 16, Pleasant Hill (Not rated, 110 minutes, in German with English subtitles) eastbayjewishfilm.org

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.