At around the midpoint of this film, Anna (Marta Farra), the put-upon mistress of the sinister clairvoyant Hanussen (Tim Roth) observes a tank of jellyfish, and says, "Look at these beasts. For me, they have the purest of souls. I have never seen anything more beautiful, or more delicate. I want to play music to match these fish. It's deep inside me." Herzog is going for something similar with this film - something pure and earnest and direct. Roger Ebert, the most ardent defender of this little-loved film, wrote: "The movie has the power of a great silent film, unafraid of grand gestures and moral absolutes."

Herzog brings together two real historical figures from Weimar Berlin -- a Polish-Jewish strongman who becomes a symbolic leader of his people, and the charlatan Hanussen who was involved with the Nazi Party while hiding his Jewishness -- in heavy-handed contrast. The stilted English-language dialogue spells out all the themes too clumsily ("We are alike, you and I. Yes, we are showmen. We provide the bewildered a beacon of light."). As the strongman, nonactor Jouko Ahola is likeable and has a certain presence, but his amateurishness stands in too-stark contrast to Tim Roth's scenery-chewing. Some of the Herzog Touches™ (the crabs, the jellyfish) border on self-parody.

And yet, despite all this, I think this movie accumulates a certain power. I'm admittedly a Herzog partisan, and sympathetic to him even when he's off his game. I also think this subject matter lends itself to the unsubtle treatment Herzog gives it. And why am I still haunted by Ahola's performance even though it is, by any rational standard, "bad"?

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