A Genre Epic Reappraised: Dominik Graf's Director's Cut of "The Invincibles"

A flop with audiences and critics upon release, this police thriller has emerged as a genre epic of cutting politics and rare ambition.
Marco Abel

Dominik Graf's The Invincibles (Director's Cut) (1994/2019), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing in MUBI's Rediscovered series.

First scene. We see two men, colleagues, perhaps friends, crossing the Rhine river by Düsseldorf in a quintessentially petit-bourgeois family car, a station wagon, on the way to a hospital. Sepia-colored and accompanied by minimalist, haunting piano music, the scene’s ontological status is oddly difficult to ascertain: are we exposed to a memory, maybe a dream, or a conventional representation of the past? But while we may still be wondering about the scene’s subtly ghostly atmosphere, which the mise en scène rendered affectively sensible without yet having depicted an explanatory object-cause for this sensation, the film assaults us with a moment so shocking that it purportedly caused some of the invited guests at the film’s premiere in fall 1994 to leave the theatre, thus forcefully demonstrating that any representation of reality is first of all the effect of the reality of that representation. (Not having been at the film’s premiere, I like to imagine that those “beautiful souls” leaving the cinema, disgusted and morally outraged, were precisely the real-life representatives of Germany’s higher society the film witheringly depicts as corrupt to the bone.)

Cut to scene two. As we are still reeling from what we just witnessed—if we haven’t stopped watching Dominik Graf’s great and, until the film’s re-release as a director’s cut at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), nearly forgotten police action-thriller with giallo influences, Die Sieger (The Invincibles, 1994)—the film proceeds to immerse us in one of the more expertly elaborate and playfully imagined action set-pieces German cinema has ever produced. (Arguably, it is matched, surpassed, only by the film’s concluding action scene, at which one can still marvel after all these years, not least due to the economic precision with which it brings the film to its explosive climax: neither unnecessarily lingering on the landscape just for its picturesqueness nor prolonging the chase and combat for the sake of emotional thrills, the scene’s impact results from a combination of the action’s relative brevity yet intensity and indeed brutality, the astonishing location of the Karwendel mountain range separating Germany and Austria, which in German film history is more closely associated with Heimat films than with the thriller genre, and the delusional faith of the characters in their invincibility.) Without providing expository information, the film’s second scene, composed of an expertly edited sequence of Steadycam close-ups emphasizing the proceedings’ urgency, compels us to be with the members of the SEK (Sondereinsatzkommando or SWAT team) as they prepare for action. Occasional shots of the inside of a hotel room foregrounding an open briefcase filled with money, Italian male voices, and, seemingly incongruously, a television broadcasting an Italian club soccer match between Juventus Turin and AS Rome reveal just enough narrative information to communicate a sense of illegality and impending mayhem.

Improbably, the SEK apparently determined in advance that the best moment for storming the room would be the split second after a goal—not the first, nor the second, but, so it seems, the third—is being scored. As we are wondering what the SEK members, who pass the time following the game on small monitors and betting, might do if no goal were to be scored—while also likely marveling at the sheer audacity of the film’s narrative conceit—Thomas Häßler, then a German soccer star, suddenly scores for AS Rome. This real event (from February 28, 1993) instantaneously triggers the mise en scène’s playful albeit tense situation—which by virtue of its highly unrealistic genre plot conceit clearly yet subtly marks itself as fiction—to explode into hard-hitting action pandemonium as the SEK tries to exploit the advantage they momentarily (imagine to have) gained over their Italian opponents, whom they presume to be distracted by the soccer broadcast.

This scene effectively modulates our sense-perception of a film that has not yet allowed us to find our bearings, playfully moving us beyond the still-lingering violent sensations the first scene indelibly pressed into our nervous system and affording the viewer an experience of pure jouissance effected by the easily recognizable gestures of unadulterated genre filmmaking. The scene’s dexterously edited découpage prevents us from really ascertaining what exactly is happening, thus once more frustrating our ability to make sense—a task at which we fail to the same degree that the protagonists will eventually experience difficulties determining the real cause of their inability to secure both money and the criminals. The epistemological uncertainty to which our sense-perceptions are subjected finds its diegetic correlative embodied by station-wagon-driving SEK team-leader Karl Simon. (His terrific performance earned Herbert Knaup, best known to international viewers for his subsequent roles in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run [1998] and Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others [2006], the Bavarian Film Prize in 1995 for what had then been his first major role.) For Simon is convinced that the apparition of a man, whom he merely spotted out of the corner of his eye in a split second but who then proceeded to knock him out with a precisely administered kick to his head, was in fact his former friend and partner, Heinz Schäfer (Hannes Jaenicke)—an improbable claim, which ultimately proves accurate, given that Schäfer had (allegedly) committed suicide years ago after having murdered his still-incubated, mentally damaged newborn daughter.

It is worth noting, in this context, that the film’s crucial “disability” theme is brought out more clearly by the director’s cut. It now includes a scene in which Melba (Katja Flint), the most fully realized female character in this otherwise male-dominated genre world, informs Simon that the expensive, sexually explicit paintings he notices on the walls of her office suite are by an artist who lives in a psychiatric clinic. This newly inserted but originally intended scene neither furthers the plot nor tells us much about either protagonist. Its function, it seems to me, is exclusively textural and sub-textual and as such perfectly exemplifies Graf’s vision of genre filmmaking—a vision, alas, his producers ultimately did not fully support. This added texture to the mise en scène—the camera momentarily beholding the paintings solicits our perceptual investment—sub-textually resonates with an earlier scene in which a little boy with Down Syndrome hands a handcrafted paper star to Simon and Schäfer’s presumed widow, Sunny (Meret Becker), whose own behavior the film depicts as regressive, presumably the result of the trauma she suffered from the tragic loss of her daughter.

But I need to correct my word choice of the preceding paragraph, not for reasons of political correctness (which, in any case, Graf himself would not endorse) but because the difference between “disability” and what today we quite rightly call “differently abled” is crucial to understanding the sub-textual political critique Graf has woven into his masterpiece. For whereas the film affectively induces in many if not all viewers a sensation of horror in response to the infanticide of a differently abled girl; whereas the brief discussion of the paintings arguably is designed to reframe preconceptions viewers might harbor about the (creative) capacities and sexual desires of differently abled people; whereas the differently abled child surely solicits our sympathy—not least since both Simon (who is depicted as a kind and caring father when we see him interacting with his own children) and Sunny respond to him with kindness; and whereas Sunny’s apparent inability (admittedly, her in-ability isn’t exactly a dis-ability) to move beyond her trauma evokes empathy (even if one might also be inclined to skeptically view her differently abledness as part of the film’s genre-typical male-centric point of view); it is post-unified Germany itself that through the texture of differently abledness emerges, sub-textually, precisely as dis-abled: it is dis-abled, or cut-off from any potential or ability it might have had around 1990 to do things differently, the film suggests, not despite but because of its seemingly smoothly operating socio-political processes—processes that only the keenest observers at the time recognized as the logic of a neoliberal order whose ideological and economic imperatives would manifest themselves more noticeably only during the decade following the film’s release.

Having failed to secure the money and considering the hotel room raid a failure, Simon’s squad licks its wounds by getting drunk and reaffirming their bond with each other—a bond rooted in a particular form of state-trained and -sanctioned masculinity that plays a crucial role throughout the film and that is enhanced in the director’s cut as a result of a newly added scene. When we next see them in action, they have traded their SEK uniforms for black suits, which not only mark them as suave professionals but also enhance their masculine sex appeal, even though most of them are not blessed with the stereotypically good looks of movie stars usually cast in these roles: no Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig among them—a fact, however, that contributes to the film’s heightened realist aesthetic, as their fit but not action-hero-buff bodies ground the story in the everyday that the film occasionally transcends, not least in its action sequences and, frankly, in its protagonists’ male hubris. As they escort a high-ranking politician to a reception, they skillfully fend off an aggressive crowd, which has assembled to protest job cuts for which they angrily blame the politician, by casually tasering them into stunned submission. The scene foregrounds the SEK team as highly efficient and competent—and as taking pleasure in their abilities, in their sense of themselves as being invincible, as, if you will, “winners” (“Sieger” literally means “winner,” and the film’s German title uses it in the plural).

Once inside the venue, however, Simon and his men seamlessly blend into the high-society crowd and observe as the representatives of Germany’s political, economic, and social elite schmooze. As our heroes of internal security stage a fake bomb threat in order to hit on a group of attractive women, the nervous tension with which the scene started dissipates. Before long, they are taking off together, including Simon, who accompanies Melba, the wife of a politician whose attempt to capitalize on his discovery of political conspiracy involving Schäfer’s activities as a V-Man eventually propels the plot towards its catastrophic climax. Far from fulfilling the role of a stereotypical trophy wife, however, Melba, exuding supreme professional and sexual self-confidence, demonstrates to Simon that she’s in the driver’s seat when she proceeds to give the stunned Simon a quick hand job immediately after nonchalantly stating her view that (newly unified) Germany would outlaw elections if voting were actually to change anything—arguably giving voice to the director’s own view that “unification constituted a declaration of West Germany’s moral bankruptcy” (see my interview with him, “I Am No Moralist”). This highly condensed moment—the juxtaposition of what amounts to the most direct expression of the film’s pessimistic political outlook and one of the most ingeniously rendered sexual moments in German film I can recall—encapsulates the brilliance with which Die Sieger deploys the conventions of genre filmmaking: it links a series of action sequences with the help of a transitional interlude that serves, vertically, to illuminate the characters’ dreams, desires, and (class-based) worldviews and, horizontally, to suspend the plot’s ineluctable telos moving toward a generically predetermined showdown between Simon and Schäfer, former colleagues and friends turned mortal enemies; it also introduces Melba, whose relation with Simon ends up transcending the use of her hands, as perhaps the only “winner” among what erstwhile German über-producer Bernd Eichinger famously described as a group of “losers.” (Once Eichinger lost interest in distributing the film because it was “more about losers than winners,” as he put it, the original script, which envisioned the film even more epically than the director’s cut version, could no longer be realized in its entirety, not least due financial constraints.)

These three remarkable cinematic moments must suffice here as a brief discussion of a film that four years after the country’s unification entered the German media landscape as one of the more expensive German film productions of the time (budget: twelve million Deutsch Mark). Written by one of Graf’s regular collaborators, Günter Schütter (who has written eleven films for Graf to date, many of which are modern classics of German film and television by now), Die Sieger was conceived, according to Graf, as a foil to lay over the new Federal Republic in order to endure it better—a foil, it bears mentioning, that functioned as a summation of Graf’s efforts up until that moment to almost singlehandedly create, or re-create, genre cinema (specifically, action and police films) for the big screen in Germany.1 Upon its release, however, the film had to contend with a public whose mood oscillated between an increasing sense of disillusion with chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise that no German would be worse off because of unification and, concomitantly, a seemingly unquenchable thirst for escapist-driven Spaßkultur (fun culture), which at the time was perhaps best exemplified by a string of yuppie relationship comedies by directors such as Sönke Wortmann, Rainer Kaufmann, or Katja von Garnier, positing the successful actualization of the very fantasy of collective wealth that Kohl’s government could not manufacture in reality.

It was an odd cultural moment. Still feeding on the collective emotional high triggered by the fall of the wall, the country lived in a bubble, reluctant to encounter head-on the fact that unification had not only drained the coffers of the once wealthy West but also revealed that people from the two Germanys exhibited more significant differences than the barkers of unification had let on. It was a moment, one might surmise, ripe for a “reality check”; yet, with 20/20 hindsight, one suspects that the image Graf’s magnum opus painted of a culture exclusively preoccupied with securing its standard of living was only all-too-painfully accurate for it to attract more than 137,000 viewers at the box office. Graf’s film—seemingly so right for its times—might ultimately have been unable to overcome the very socio-cultural circumstances within which it was supposed to function as the realization of his ongoing dream to make a different German cinema beyond both Autorenkino (Germany’s version of auteur’s cinema) and mindless escapist fare. Or, to quote Christoph Huber’s memorable characterization of a film that remains an unsurpassed (genre) filmmaking accomplishment in the history of post-unified German cinema, Die Sieger was a massive “Kotzbrocken” (son of a bitch) in the Kohl era2—a film the dark vision of which dramatized that era’s political lies in ways that thoroughly upset the collective digestive system of a country in the throes of its fun culture and taken by the idea of the very “blühenden Landschaften” (thriving regions) that Kohl promised a gullible population keen to swallow the notion, peddled by many in his party if not by the chancellor himself, that Germany had the right to become a “normal” country again.

In his 2019 interview with me on the role unification has played in his oeuvre, Graf argues that whereas West Germany was “a state that I had still more or less been able to accept as my homeland, despite its Red Army Faction hysteria and the mega corruption that prevailed during the 1980s under Chancellor Kohl[, since] unification I have harbored very deep disdain for this homeland,” notwithstanding the fact that he likes “the people who were hurt and who became victims” of unification (“I Am No Moralist”). The victims of unifications are allegorically embodied, it seems to me, precisely by the differently abled characters in a police-thriller that is structured around the following provocative analogy: pre-unification, reasonably sound West-German policeman Heinz Schäfer is to his post-unification, morally corrupt self as is the pre-unification, reasonably sound (though by no means unproblematic!) West German nation-state to its deeply corrupt post-unified iteration—a newly formed nation-state, we might say, that blocked, dis-abled, its body politic from what it might have been able to do, rather than empowering it to actualize its potential to do things differently. With this bold, and, no doubt, deeply disturbing cinematic intervention in post-unification discourse, Graf, in my view, realized his and Schütter’s “utopia—the dream of making a glamorous genre cinema featuring stars, while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness,” as he put it in his 2009 interview with me3. This dream, Graf explained, “had a name” and, so he added even fifteen years after the experience that he has often described as traumatic, “still has this name: Die Sieger.”

The Invincibles

Yet in 1994 Germans were unwilling to dream—at least not the dream Graf was dreaming, which may very well have struck many Germans more like a nightmare compared to the dream Germany’s Leitmedien (dominant media outlets) were fabricating in unison with the cultural elite. The film’s commercial (and at the time also critical) disaster—undoubtedly due to the film’s relentlessly pessimistic outlook, its refusal to lessen the audience’s confusion about the plot by providing occasional explanatory moments, and the elimination of several scenes that were designed to deepen the characters’ texture—was consequential. Haunted by the film’s failure, Graf was forced to return to working for television, where he proceeded to make a series of policiers and melodramas that arguably surpass in cinematic quality the vast majority of German productions of the last quarter century, including modern classics such as Frau Bu lacht (1995), Hotte im Paradies (2003), Eine Stadt wird erpresst (2006), the eight-part TV series Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In the Face of Crime, 2010), and, controversially, The Red Shadow (2017), a revisionist film about the Red Army Faction that compelled the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to publicly criticize the film’s representation of the (alleged) facts4. However, in addition to blocking Graf from more fully realizing a cinematic career, the film’s flop also nipped in the bud any remaining inclinations producers harbored at the time to breathe new life into the German film industry by embracing non-comedic genre filmmaking—a long-lasting effect that may only now be in the process of gradually waning.

Still unavailable with English subtitles on DVD or Blu-ray, Die Sieger deserves such an international release, especially given that the gloriously restored director’s cut version received an enthusiastic response at its Berlinale premiere in 2019. Clocking in at a near-epic 146 minutes running time (which is up by about fifteen minutes from the originally released version), this “new” version of Die Sieger benefits from several added scenes—in addition to the two mentioned above, there is also an astonishing scene that shows Simon visiting SEK squad member and, as it turns out, Schäfer’s co-conspirator, Grigull (Hansa Czypionka), who, mortally wounded in the Karwendel-showdown, spends his dying moments with his now dis-abled body hanging suspended in a medical apparatus: a truly memorable image that once more evidences Graf’s love for the excesses of giallos. These newly added scenes can be easily spotted, since they had to be restored from a videotape of the rough cut because they had not survived on 35mm. The director’s cut also benefits from a somewhat clearer sound-mix: the original release’s mix was so muddled that it unintentionally contributed to viewers’ difficulties comprehending the complex plot. However, the German home video release comes without subtitles, allegedly, as Mr. Graf told me, because the production company seeks to sell the film in the U.S. based on its director’s cut. Here’s to hoping they find a buyer and do so soon. Making Die Sieger widely available to a non-German-speaking audience would mean a long overdue acknowledgment of the film’s singular status in German film history (and not just of the post-unification era). It would be a reminder of how untimely (in the Nietzschean sense) the film has remained to this day, as contemporary German cinema still awaits a more systemic rejuvenation of the lifeblood of any properly functioning film industry—to wit, genre cinema—while unified Germany still awaits the rectification of what Graf considers a fundamental betrayal and, indeed, theft Germans suffered at the hands of their own political elites: “West Germany was stolen from us. […] Perhaps, subliminally, this is also where my identification with the Easterners comes from, who were also stolen from” (“I Am No Moralist”).

This sense—that things could have been, and perhaps still could be, otherwise—is one of the key threads weaving through Graf’s prolific output (since his debut, Carla’s Briefe [Carla’s Letters, 1975], he has directed more than seventy films, mostly made for television), which includes his own superb critical essays on the history of cinema and the two essay films he co-directed with Johannes F. Sievert, Verfluchte Liebe Deutscher Film (Doomed Love: A Journey through German Genre Films, 2016) and its sequel, Offene Wunde Deutscher Film (Open Wounds: A Journey through German Genre Films, 2017), on what he considers the unrealized aesthetic and sociopolitical potential of Germany’s genre filmmaking tradition after World War II5. Importantly, however, in Die Sieger, this potential is ultimately not embodied by the motley crew of “invincible” men who, for one “glorious” moment, get to act as if they were in an action thriller with a status-quo-affirming happy ending but, rather, by Melba, whose defiance in the face of state-sanctioned crime does not so much absolve Simon of his hubris as throw into stark relief his own culpability, notwithstanding his efforts to right the wrong done by his erstwhile friend and partner and his willingness to give up his own career with the SEK. This is why the candy-colored, near-dream-like closing scene—with Simon safely restored to the arms of his wife and children, enjoying the garden of their bourgeois home—can hardly be taken as an affirmation of the very conservative, patriarchal status quo it seems to celebrate, for it is what this content represents that the film, over the course of its two and a half hours, has revealed to be nihilist and murderous. Instead, it is Melba who is the film’s true hero: ending up alone with her burned hands bandaged, hers is the film’s final image of differently abledness, for it is her decision to defy state power that demonstrates that things can be (done) otherwise—a utopian disposition Simon might have come to share without, however, having the courage to join her in this vision’s realization.

This essay is a significantly revised and expanded version of “Die Sieger,” published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.5 (2010): 410-413.

1. For more on this argument, see my essay, “Yearning for Genre: The Cinema of Dominik Graf,” in Generic Histories of German Cinema: Film Genre and Its Deviations, ed. Jaimey Fisher, Rochester: Camden House, 2013: 261-84, of which an abbreviated version can be read online.

2. Christoph Huber, “Ein anderes Deutschland ist möglich: Das Werk von Dominik Graf. Eine Reise,” in Christoph Huber and Olaf Möller, Dominik Graf [Vienna: Synema, 2014]: 40.

3. “‘I Build a Jigsaw of a Dream-Germany’: An Interview with German Filmmaker Dominik Graf,” Senses of Cinema 55 [July 2010].

4. Cf. my “Dissent and Its Discontents: Five Decades of RAF in German Film and Television at the moving history Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 85 [December 2017].

5. Cf. Eric Rentschler’s insightful essay, “An Elegy for German Cinema: Dominik Graf’s Doomed Loves and Open Wounds,” New German Critique 138 [November 2019]: 207-230.

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