For the better part of two decades, a debate has been waging in documentary film studies over exactly what constitutes a nonfiction film, which essentially comes down to a central question: How much power and control does the director yield over the proceedings? In his excellent new monograph, Ferocious Reality: Documentary according to Werner Herzog, Eric Ames uses Werner Herzog's documentaries, nearly 30 films, to make a case for an evolved understanding of nonfiction cinema. However, Ames doesn't wish to simply attempt a blurring of lines between fiction and nonfiction in Herzog's work; rather, he takes up Richard Schechner's concept of "restored behavior" (or "twice-behaved behavior"), what Ames will refer to as "performance," and demonstrates how Herzog's films "perform" under this operative logic. Drawing on film studies titans like Bill Nichols, Linda Williams, and P. Adams Sitney for his framework, Ames lucidly addresses these larger issues while "performing" meticulous close readings of his own, organized into seven chapters, by theme. What materializes is a fascinating, provocative examination of Herzog's complex oeuvre, written with a simultaneous eye for irreverence and certitude, not unlike Herzog's own work.
Performance attains two tracts—that of diegesis (the content of Herzog's films) and exegesis (how the filmmaker's work can be interpreted over time). According to Ames, these two lines culminate in Grizzly Man (2006), where Herzog is aligned with subject Timothy Treadwell physically (filmmaker), but divergent on philosophical grounds, since Herzog believes "the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder." Yet such explicit attempts at distance only further obfuscate the distinction, as subject and artist become further intertwined. These entanglements raise an important question: Is Herzog the subject of his own documentaries? These divergences-cum-convergences are primarily seen in Herzog's more autobiographical work—namely, My Best Fiend (1999), which Ames describes as "a cinematic self-portrait of Herzog as refracted through the prism of his love-hate relationship" with actor Klaus Kinski. Thus, autobiographical acts, as Ames calls them, are inseparable from the films proper, as Herzog is often inscribed within them, be it through voiceover narration, off-screen voice, or his actual presence on screen. Ferocious Reality seeks to situate the autobiographical within the overall concept of performance, as these more renowned Herzog docs exemplify.