The screening of Dominik Graf’s epic policier The Invincibles at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019, in a director’s cut that added 15 minutes to the original release, initiated a remarkable celluloid resurrection. The film proved a critical and commercial calamity in 1994, and Graf didn’t make another theatrical feature for 18 years, instead delivering a prolific run of admired TV. That kept him under the cinephile critical radar, but the Berlinale showcase for The Invincibles certainly stimulated interest, including Graf seasons at the Rotterdam Film Festival and New York’s Anthology Film Archives, while Mubi’s online release of the film offers a valuable taster from his voluminous output, virtually none of which is available in English-friendly form.

The opening is abrasive, to say the least: a father arrives at the hospital where his new-born daughter awaits, and kills the child by dashing her brains out. The violence is implied rather than explicitly shown, yet it’s as if this appalling act injects a massive dose of poison into the film, as its bitter ramifications slowly become clear.

Swiftly, we move on to a familiar policier mode, with the focus on the killer’s friend and comrade Karl – Herbert Knaup, terrific in his first lead – and his SWAT team, whose exploits, we initially assume, will protect the newly unified Germany from criminal harm. A raid on a currency forging gang holed up in a Düsseldorf hotel is bungled; learning that the escaped suspect was working undercover for the Office of Criminal Investigations, the team exclaim together with mock irony that they could never imagine an official informant pocketing cash for themselves… “Not in this land of law and order!” These words haunt the rest of the labyrinthine plot, after Karl identifies the fugitive as the child killer from the opening scene, Heinz (Hannes Jaenicke), who had supposedly committed suicide two years earlier.

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The Invincibles (Die Sieger, 1994)

Karl’s accusations are treated with scepticism, as if he is trying to cover his own failings, but it emerges (early enough for this not to be too much of a spoiler) that Heinz is indeed alive and in cahoots with superiors who are covering up a conspiracy involving esteemed politicians in the pay of organised crime. Indeed, the ‘ghost’ proves smart enough to outwit our presumed heroes at nearly every turn, Graf showing a mastery of genre-savvy extended action sequences married with a truly bleak ideological outlook. The suggestion is that the invincibles of the title are not our brave SWAT team but the fat-cat politicos hiding in plain sight while a state-trained, highly skilled dupe does their dirty work.

Party political minutiae are left vague, but there is never any doubt of the scorn with which the camera views this portly white middle-aged cabal through the glass in their plush offices, and the notion that a child-killer was sharpened by special forces training at tax-payers’ expense leaves a chill. Meanwhile, occasional cutaways to aerial views of the Düsseldorf cityscape prompt rumination on the state of governance in this shiny consumer playground, asking questions a German audience did not want to deal with in the heady post-reunification days (not that the questions have dated in the years since).

The restored material – taken from Graf’s own video copies, since the 35mm footage had long been junked – plays up the camaraderie among Karl and his ethnically mixed confederates, who feel exploited and undervalued by their superiors, giving emotional weight to the losses they sustain in action.

You have to go back to the golden age of 70s Hollywood paranoia to find another movie that delivers the genre goods with such an underlying caustic attitude, and The Invincibles certainly deserves comparison to The Parallax View (1974) or Three Days of the Condor (1975). The film’s belated re-emergence on the international stage offers a moment to celebrate Graf’s achievement and, perhaps, to reflect on what might have been.

Originally published: 3 July 2020