Most of the time, however, he’s too restless, too engaged by his material and eager to get across his own point of view on what he’s seeing. I don’t see this as a failing. Bells From the Deep is a particularly good example of a movie with Herzog’s “fingerprints” all over the place. I couldn’t swear to it, but I’m not even convinced that his voiceover is actually translating the people onscreen at all times. There are a few scenes where I get the impression that Herzog is speaking over them in order to tell his own stories rather than translating even loosely. Maybe I’m wrong, but if not it certainly wouldn’t be the only invention in the film. On the surface this film might be mistaken for an objective account of Russian spirituality and mysticism, but actually Herzog exaggerates and twists things, and at one point hired a pair of drunks from a nearby village to pose as penitents looking for the city beneath the ice. He makes no secret of such devices, and even within the framework of the film his artifice breaks down completely when a little old lady who is apparently worshipping a tree stump turns to the camera and says, according to Herzog’s voiceover translation, “Now I’ll crawl around some more, OK?” It becomes obvious here that he’s putting us on, that he’s telling this woman what to do, and that this is probably not genuine religious worship. Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices is even more playful and liberal in its treatment of factual material, often verging into outright fictions.
I understand why these intrusions and inventions annoy some people, especially when they’re presented with this deadpan, mock-serious objectivity. The mingling of fiction and documentary creates an uncomfortable middle ground that can be difficult to navigate. But I don’t think Herzog does it because of his ego, and I don’t think he wants to fool anyone, either, mainly because it is always so obvious to me that the “facts” of his films should not be taken at face value. So I admit I’m puzzled by the IMDb reviews that take Bells From the Deep utterly seriously. One commenter calls it “completely neutral” and says that Herzog “shows the people as they are and lets them speak for themselves,” which is pretty much exactly the opposite of what he’s doing here. Herzog gives his audience credit—maybe too much credit—by assuming that they’ll be able to untangle his interweaving of fact and fiction for themselves.
JB: I guess I’m obliged to say that he gives his audience too much credit in that case, because I’m a skeptical observer who knows enough to be particularly skeptical of Herzog, and yet it never occurred to me that the guys sliding around on the ice were the town drunks. (Not that I’m surprised.) As for the woman who seeks permission to crawl around on the ground, I took that moment to be an indictment of her faith—less a sign that she was operating under orders from Herzog than that she realized that when she behaved the fool, Herzog and his camera were interested.
I haven’t seen as many Herzog films as you have, but I’ve seen enough to feel comfortable noting that his “handsy” nature has increased with age. Whether this reveals an increase in confidence, determination, impatience, laziness or something else, is up for debate. Herzog’s 1971 documentary about a deaf-blind woman (and all her deaf-blind friends), Land of Silence and Darkness, is a terrific example of a time Herzog resigned himself to the background to beneficial results. On a few occasions in that film, Herzog provides some factual (or so I presume) commentary as context, but he never editorializes. Instead, he just observes, and for me the result is far more powerful.
Late in that film there’s a moment when Herzog’s subject, Fini Straubinger, visits with a 22-year-old who was deaf-blind from birth and has never outgrown infancy: he can’t walk, chew his food, dress himself or communicate in any way. The contrast between these two deaf-blind people is mind-blowing. If at the beginning of the film you might have been distracted by Straubinger’s limitations—she receives communication by having someone tap code into her open hand—her visit with the 22-year-old is enough to make us forget that she’s handicapped; it’s as if she goes from being Helen Keller to being Anne Sullivan. This transformation of audience perception is extraordinary, and one of the reasons it’s so successful is because Herzog leaves us to the silence. Adding voice-over to that unforgettable encounter would be like having a magician explain his illusion as he’s performing his trick. Yet I have no doubt that if Herzog made the film today, he’d babble away. Thus, it’s only fair to wonder how many times Herzog has spoiled the silence by speaking when we should listen. In those moments, Herzog doesn’t trust his audience enough.
EH: You’re right that Herzog’s intervention in his documentaries has increased over time. But it’s funny that you use Land of Silence and Darkness as your example, since Herzog himself cites it as the moment, early in his career, when he realized that he didn’t necessarily have to remain entirely true to the facts in order to be truthful to his subject in a larger sense: he could convey the “ecstatic truth” rather than “the accountant’s truth,” as he likes to say. There are moments scattered throughout the film in which Herzog resorted to invention and fiction: notably, the quote about World War III that opens the film was written by him, not Fini, and the speech she gives about ski-flying was also clearly Herzog’s words (he’d later explore that particular obsession further in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner). More generally, so many of the incidents in the film (besides Fini’s visits to her friends) are obviously not part of her normal routine, but must have been special trips planned by Herzog in order to capture his subject experiencing different things. He takes her up for her first trip in an airplane, to a petting zoo, to a greenhouse, almost as though experimenting, exposing her to new tactile sensations. So although the film is deceptively straightforward in many ways, especially compared to Herzog’s later documentaries, it can hardly be said that Herzog simply sits back and passively observes what happens in front of him.
That said, your larger point still stands. Herzog realized around the time of Land of Silence and Darkness that he enjoyed (and could get away with) playing with the fact and fiction, and he has been doing it more and more ever since. At the same time, he’s never really abandoned the more restrained aesthetic that you rightly praise in that devastating scene between Fini and Vladimir Kokol, the 22-year-old deaf-blind man. Even as recently as a few years ago he’s made quiet, simple films like Wheel of Time that are largely observational. Fact and fiction have always coexisted in Herzog’s work, but the relative proportions fluctuate between projects. Films like Gesualdo and Bells From the Deep are at one extreme of a continuum in Herzog’s career between straight documentary and fiction, along with some of his strange sci-fi collages like Lessons of Darkness or The Wild Blue Yonder.
It’s also true that even in his more hands-on movies, Herzog hasn’t really abandoned the more observational style you seem to prefer. There’s a lengthy sequence in Bells From the Deep where Herzog observes Yuri Tarassov, a “sorcerer” and “exorcist” who first appears in a creepy closeup with candles casting an orange glow on his taut, skeletal face. As Tarassov stalks around a stage, approaching women who seem to be going into fits of demonic possession, screaming and crying, Herzog remains entirely silent, never intruding, never making his own feelings known. At the end of the scene, there’s an interesting, enigmatic moment where, as Tarassov concludes an exorcism, Herzog pulls in for a closeup and captures a strange expression on the sorcerer’s face, which might be religious ecstasy or might be a con man rolling his eyes. The whole scene is deliberately ambiguous and presented without commentary. It’s not as powerful as the scene from Land of Silence and Darkness—but then, what is?—but it proves that Herzog still knows when he can intrude and when to step back, when to shut up and just let his images speak for themselves. Bells From the Deep is a film where it’s easy, in retrospect, to overestimate just how much Herzog speaks, and to forget all the times when he steps back and just watches something (like the long and wonderful opening shots of those throat singers by the riverside).
JB: That’s all very well said, and I don’t disagree. And yet there’s a pattern to his selective silence that isn’t so flattering. If there’s one thing that can get Herzog to shut up, it’s a freak show: the exorcist in Bells From the Deep, the dramatically mad Klaus Kinski in Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, the spiritual Herzog twin Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or the lip-trumpeting Kokol in Land of Silence and Darkness. I could go on, but you get the point. In those cases, Herzog realizes that he can’t possibly embellish the image itself with his own words—unless he resorts to writing his subjects’ words for them, which he sometimes does—and so he lets his camera ogle.