Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Werner Herzog's first film for ten years tells the (roughly) true story of a Jewish strongman from Poland hired to work in a Berlin cabaret on the eve of Hitler's rise to power. Were it not shot in Herzog's usual rich colour, taking close account of the lighting styles fashionable in the period, it might almost pass for a Thirties movie, an early talkie, as it is so charmingly presented in naive style, never once slipping out of character.

Herzog's excursions into surrealism, in which the scurrying populace of Berlin, most especially the Nazi soldiers, are compared with crabs scurrying over rocks, dutifully evoke Bunuel. Much of the dialogue is so blunt as to be quite unrealistic, and the story itself is similarly told, yet this can only add to its character and, perversely, to its authenticity.

Herzog has always been interested in examining obsessive individuals pushed into conflict by extreme situations, and that theme is continued here, though this time the violence is never fully expressed, only hinting more horribly at the nature of the regime to come. Our hero, played by a real strongman rather than a trained actor, is good natured, calm, and somewhat blank, but this is all that is required of him in order for his story to be told; he is a still centrepoint around which insane events unfold.

After a string of vulgar performances in awful films, Tim Roth here makes a stunning return to form as the cabaret owner and hypnotist, courageously portraying an ambitious and frightened man whose life is dominated by the secrets he keeps. This is one of those characters who is at once repellant and sympathetic, the sort of creature which most directors would have no idea how to handle.

To further demonstrate his ability, Herzog conjures remarkable performances from the child actors in the film, with the strongman's nine year old brother most impressive of all. All this in a story whose gentle pace demonstrates the decadence into which all of its different communities had sunk, so that the growth of Nazi power seemed inevitable, a dynamic, fierce thing which all the patient strength in the world could not hold back.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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A Jewish blacksmith's son becomes a strongman in Berlin on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **

Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Werner Herzog

Starring: Tim Roth, Jouko Ahola, Anna Gourari, Max Raabe, Jacob Wein, Gustav Peter Wohler, Udo Kier

Year: 2001

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany/UK/US


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