After a little while you noticed that they were scared.
We’re so used to stories of Holocaust survivors talking about what they endured inside the concentration camps that we forget around seven thousand Jewish men and women stayed hidden during World War II. While only about fifteen hundred ultimately walked away to live their lives in the aftermath, it’s impossible not to hail them and those who assisted them as heroes. The tales of close calls and secrets alone are worth discovering and yet these four (Cioma Schönhaus, Ruth Gumpel, Eugen Herman-Friede, and Hanni Lévy) possess the sort of histories that will make your mouth drop in wonder. It’s therefore not enough to simply write them down or put their words on-camera. Director Claus Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López decide to transport us back through dramatic reenactments too.
The result is a documentary/drama hybrid wherein those four survivors narrate their years behind enemy lines while their fictional counterparts (Max Mauff‘s Cioma, Ruby O. Fee‘s Ruth, Aaron Altaras‘ Eugen, and Alice Dwyer‘s Hanni) do the same. Rather than imagine the tense moment of a loud knock at the door, Die Unsichtbaren [The Invisibles] places us in the room to experience the suspense first-hand. We watch what it was like for Cioma to daily head to a different home late at night for a room guaranteed to displaced Nazis by the government so he wouldn’t have to register a name. We witness as Hanni re-adopts the confidence to hide in plain sight as someone who “belongs” despite her being a Jew amongst Nazis imploring her to do the opposite.
All four have equally harrowing trajectories that saw them constantly changing hiding spots, intentionally working against Hitler, and being the beneficiaries of good luck. Ruth and her brother’s girlfriend Ellen (Victoria Schulz) actually end up employed as housekeepers for a Nazi official who knew their heritage and actively kept them safe despite upholding the Führer’s orders away from home. Cioma used his artistic background to forge counterfeit papers with the help of two Germans (Robert Hunger-Bühler‘s Dr. Kaufmann and Maren Eggert‘s Helene Jacobs) that allowed numerous would-be victims to escape. And Eugen leveraged his good fortune at starting the war with a family of means and food by assisting in the creation of anti-Nazi leaflets when hiding in the country with a much poorer family later on.
What’s even crazier is the fact that despite never interacting with each other during the war, these four did sometimes come across the same acquaintances. Even better is the reality that they came in many different forms. First was the rebellious Werner Scharff (Florian Lukas) who befriended Cioma before his escape from a concentration camp with the knowledge of what was truly happening (you forget until the real Ruth says it, but they had no idea they were surviving death rather than just torture because nobody knew except those in the camps and the Allied forces who freed them) and Eugen after. Second, however, was the infamous Stella Goldschlag (Laila Maria Witt) who was known for being an informant. I’ll let the film explain its run-ins with her.
Thankfully there’s as much levity as melodrama. Hindsight hasn’t forced this quartet into forgetting the lighter moments for anecdotes that might prove more outrageous than those of a Gestapo agent opening a door with four illegals just out of view thanks to the homeowner stopping him from advancing another step further. These instances are often funny precisely because they didn’t lead towards an arrest, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. Cioma has the most thanks to his youthful absentmindedness, but don’t discount Hanni and Ruth’s encounters with Nazis so certain about Joseph Goebbels’ declaration of a Jewish-free Germany that their flirtations were racist comments disparaging Jews while hitting on them. That hubris is only outweighed by the bravery of those refusing to toe the party line.
Had Räfle delivered a straight documentary, we may have heard from the latter (or at least their surviving family members). Without any footage of these “invisible” citizens, having more talking heads would have been necessary to fill out the runtime. Would doing so have been just as effective? Probably. There’s something about watching these actors portray their subjects’ fear that our imagination couldn’t quite do justice, though. Shifting readily between fiction and non-fiction gives us the best of both worlds because the proof of what we’ve seen arrives directly after seeing it. So we never question the validity of what’s onscreen while caught up in the terror of it all. Artistic license is held in-check so that we know this is as close to the truth as possible.
Keeping the likes of Kaufmann, Jacobs, and others like Hans Winkler (Andreas Schmidt) off-screen also ensures the film can’t be dismissed as a biased work told by Germans trying to maintain their names were never associated with the Nazi party. The first-hand accounts of Cioma, Ruth, Eugen, and Hanni are enough to place their unsung heroes in the spotlight as a part of their stories rather than relegate themselves into parts of theirs. That’s an important distinction because the optics of selling a Holocaust film from the point-of-view of the Germans—no matter how saintly they were—will never be met with anything but scrutiny. But if those dissenters are mentioned by Jewish survivors declaring their love and appreciation for them, the piece suddenly becomes much more palatable.
We shouldn’t have to applaud human beings for being moral anyway. They did it precisely because a desire for notoriety hadn’t corrupted them like the others. So let them be the bit players who knew the difference between right and wrong. Make sure that Cioma, Ruth, Eugen, and Hanni are the stars instead because they’re the ones whose lives were unjustly on the line. Theirs are the stories that need to be heard because they describe the true horrors so many can’t understand. Their not knowing if family was alive hangs over their actions because one false step means death. It’s one thing to be invisible because who you are won’t reveal your crimes. It’s another to be invisible knowing everyone else believes your existence is the crime.