“The Invisibles” (“die unsichtbaren”)
Hiding in Berlin
“Even under the oppressive National Socialist regime, at the height of the war, homelessness afforded a cloak of invisibility—fortunately. The air raid blackouts also helped. Even after Berlin had been declared “free of Jews” in 1943, an estimated seven thousand remained in hiding throughout the city. About 1,700 would survive the war and outlive their tormentors. Four of those survivors tell their stories in Claus Räfle’s dramatic-documentary hybrid, “The Invisibles” .
Cioma Schönhaus set a new standard for surviving. He was able to live night-to-night pretending to be a new draftee summoned to Berlin, living in spare rooms provided by patriotic Germans for recruits awaiting their formal mustering. This lasted for a while but eventually, he fell in with a counterfeiting ring and saved thousands of German Jews and dissidents with his fake papers, while also making enough money to eat in fancy restaurants.
After dying her hair blonde, Hanni Lévy spent her days going to movies and window-shopping on the Kurfürstendamm. She never knew where she would spend her nights or where her meals would come from. Ruth Arndt and her sister would eventually become maids for a high-ranking military officer, who knowingly shielded them from his colleagues. Eugen Friede lived a more typically “hidden” existence, but he also became involve with the resistance.
Claus Räfle’s subjects spent a little time locked away in attics but as time passed, they largely followed a hide-in-plain-sight strategy, which seemed to work, because the National Socialists never expected anyone would do something so bold. If these people were ever caught, their involvement in resistance networks would raise the stakes.
This is not the first documentary to combine talking head documentary segments with dramatic representations, but usually one has been conspicuously privileged over the other. Here Räfle gives them both equal weight.
“The Invisibles” combines intimate interviews with controlled reenactments of the events discussed in the film. The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s documentary is archival interviews with four Holocaust survivors— four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. They were sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers. The four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.
Through its subjects, the film tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The film shifts from docudrama to documentary with an emphasis on the machinery that was in place to help, not harm, Jews during that time.