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By Rich Cline | May 22, 2002

Taking a true story from Eastern Poland, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog creates a compelling pre-WWII drama with vivid characters and a warm, moving message.
Zishe (Juoko Ahola) is the eldest son in a Jewish blacksmith family. Beefy and strong, he’s the pride of his brainy little brother (Jacob Wein), and when he bests the circus strongman, he’s spotted by an agent (Gustav Peter Wohler) and whisked off to become a star in 1932 Berlin. Soon he’s working in a cabaret show Hanussen’s Palace, where the owner (Tim Roth) dabbles in the dark arts, predicts Hitler’s rise to power, and hopes to get a job as minister for the occult in the Nazi cabinet. But Zishe isn’t happy about hiding his Jewish roots; and he can see the future as well.
There’s only one error here: filming in silly-accented English. Sure, it will have a much larger audience globally, but this somehow makes it so much less real, removing us from the story. Even so, the characters are compelling and movingly created, with understated acting and stunningly authentic production design, as well as terrific direction, editing and music.
Roth is a magnetic presence — besides the posh British accent (he’s supposed to be a Danish aristocrat or something), he gleefully overacts the sinistercreep. But the film’s heart lies firmly with first-time actor and real-life World’s Strongest Man Ahola. As the story progresses, Herzog builds the suspense slowly, making the film feel very long and somewhat stilted. The Nazi threat is undermined by our knowledge of what was to come, all of which locks the film in the past like a fairy tale. But there are some realistic, scary themes at work here that make it worth a look.

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