‘If this film were fully fiction, people wouldn’t believe it,” said Claus Räfle, director of The Invisibles, a fascinating docu-drama about Jews hiding in Berlin during World War II. The movie has just opened in theaters throughout Israel.
Räfle, a German director primarily known for documentaries, sat down with The Jerusalem Post during a screening at the Jerusalem Theater.
The movie, which was co-written by his wife, Alejandra López, shows how four young Jews survived in the capital of the Nazi regime for years. Scenes of their life during the war, in which they are portrayed by actors, are interspersed with recent interviews with the now elderly survivors. And what he said is very true: the gripping stories of their daily lives in the center of Nazi Germany would be beyond belief – if they weren’t true.
Räfle, who was on his first visit to Israel to promote the film, said he became aware of the fact that Jews hid in plain sight in Berlin when he was researching his documentary about Salon Kitty, an upscale brothel in the city frequented by Nazis during the war. He was surprised to learn that a Jewish woman in hiding had worked there as a cleaner.
“I thought, ‘How could she get a job in such a place, in the center of evil?’” he said. Following up on this, he learned that although the Nazis declared in 1943 that there were no more Jews in Berlin, there were actually 7,000 who went into hiding there and of those, 1,500 survived.
As he and Lopez learned of more stories of Jews who spent the war in Berlin, he realized, “We have to tell more than one story. There were so many incredible stories.”
The Invisibles focuses on two men and two women in their late teens and early twenties, who had very different experiences but whose stories each represent a different route to survival.
Cioma Schönhaus, played by Max Mauff, who had a part in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, was an art student who used his wits to get out a deportation center and spent the rest of the war forging passports.
Hanni Levy (Alice Dwyer), an orphan, dyed her hair blond to better fit in and spent her days walking around, masking her exhaustion, hunger and fear as she went to as many movies as she could. Eventually, a woman who worked at a movie theater took her in.
Eugen (Aaron Altaras), whose stepfather was a gentile, was sheltered by a number of German Socialist and Communist families, staying one step ahead of the Nazis. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) had perhaps the most amazing story of all: she got a job as a housekeeper for a German official who often entertained Nazi commanders in his home.
For years, Räfle tried to raise money to make the film, either as a fictional drama or as a straight documentary, but it was tough going.
“People said, ‘There are already so many stories about the Nazi time and the Holocaust.’” When he argued for the originality of this story, because there was very little known about these Berlin survivors – partly because many of them had only begun telling their stories recently, when they were in their 80s – he was told by people whom he describes as “very important,” that “if the movie doesn’t show Auschwitz, you can’t tell this story. You have to show what would have happened to them if they were deported.”
Undaunted, Räfle pursued the project passionately, beginning to interview the survivors almost 10 years ago.
“Hanni Levy would ask me, ‘When are you going to have the money to finish this movie?’ And I would tell her, ‘Yes, it’s going to work.’ And when I really did get the money, from ARD network, and I told her, it was hard for her to believe me.”
His cast agreed to work for less than usual pay on the movie, because they were so taken with the story and characters.
He decided that the drama/interview hybrid would be the best way to present this material, because “when you see the dramatic scenes, you are struck by how young they were, and it was their youth that in so many ways helped them to stay alive, their optimism, their sense that they can make it.”
He cited the example of what Schönhaus did when he made a great deal of money: “He went out and bought a boat. Because it was his dream and in a way, it gave him strength.”
In another part of the film, Räfle dramatized how this dreamy young man misplaced and lost passports he was working on several times.
As he interviewed the survivors, he understood, “They felt proud of what they had done, they felt that they were very clever.”
Throughout the film, Räfle emphasized their gratitude toward those who helped them. After the war, these benefactors were honored at Yad Vashem, and for Räfle, the high point of his visit to Jerusalem was seeing the memorials to these righteous gentiles. He showed me pictures he took of several of these.
The film has been showing theatrically throughout Germany for months, where it has sold more than 100,000 tickets, a large number for a serious film, Räfle said. It will be released in the US in September, and in the meanwhile, it is making the rounds at Jewish film festivals. It has also been sold to China, Japan, Brazil and Italy.
For those survivors interviewed in the movie, seeing The Invisibles was very emotional.
“The first time I screened it for Hanni Levy, in Paris, at the end of the screening, there was silence and I thought, ‘She didn’t like it.’ But then I saw that she was crying and hugging her family.”