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 (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
When it comes to surviving, Cioma Schönhaus set a new standard. For a while, he lived 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. 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 in cinemas and window-shopping on the Kurfürstendamm, but 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 probably lived a more typically “hidden” existence, but he too would become involve with the resistance.
Frankly, it is pretty amazing how little time Räfle’s subjects spent locked away in attics, like Anne Frank’s family. Instead, they largely followed a hide-in-plain-sight strategy, which seemed to work, because the National Socialists never expected such the-heck-with-it gutsiness. Of course, their involvement in resistance networks would raise the stakes even further if they were caught.
There have been previous films that combined talking head documentary segments with dramatic representations, but usually one has been conspicuously privileged over the other. However, Räfle gives them both equal weight. Probably the strongest performance is that of Alice Dwyer as the desperate Lévy, but the late Schönhaus’s recollections are the most fascinating. Nevertheless, the entire ensemble is quite strong and the oral history of all four survivors is profoundly valuable.