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Land Of Silence And Darkness (#110 of 2)

Devoid of Verité Eric Ames’s Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog

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Devoid of Verité: Eric Ames’s Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog
Devoid of Verité: Eric Ames’s Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog

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.

The Conversations: Werner Herzog

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The Conversations: Werner Herzog
The Conversations: Werner Herzog

Ed Howard: In the introduction to Herzog On Herzog, a book of interviews conducted with German director Werner Herzog, the interviewer Paul Cronin writes about the curious weaving of mythology, exaggeration and legend surrounding his subject: the “astonishing” variety of “false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films.” It’s true; there are few directors who have gathered such an outlandish body of stories and wild myths around themselves. It’s not at all clear, however, why this is so, because there are few directors less in need of such legends than Herzog. In his case, the truth is strange enough, big enough, that there is no need to print the legend. So while Herzog may not have, as the story goes, directed the notoriously psychotic Klaus Kinski at gunpoint, he did threaten to shoot the actor if he tried to leave the set, and cheerfully admits that he once plotted to blow up Kinski’s house. He also made a potentially fatal trip to an island where a live volcano was on the verge of exploding, just to make a film (La Soufriére) about the nearly deserted and dangerous locale. This is a man who has had an entire steamship hauled up the side of a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rain forest (for Fitzcarraldo, of course). This is a man who was shot, on camera, in the middle of a BBC interview, and barely flinched. This is a man who made his first films with stolen cameras and stock, who has been jailed in several African countries, who cooked and ate his own shoe to satisfy a bet with the young documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

Obviously, there is no need for exaggeration here, no need for legends. The unvarnished reality of Werner Herzog is already the stuff of myth, and it’s this outsized persona, this raw physicality, that runs like raging rapids through his prolific, sprawling filmography. His films are not the work of a daredevil or a madman, as is sometimes said, but they indubitably reflect his unique sensibility, his skewed way of looking at the world. He is drawn, again and again, to similar kinds of stories, to similar kinds of heroes, whether he finds them in the real world or creates them entirely in his fertile imagination. Indeed, there are few directors who have transitioned so fluidly back and forth between fiction features and documentaries: the two forms as essentially the same for Herzog, who never creates fiction wholly devoid of fact or a documentary wholly devoid of fiction. The Herzogian hero might be based on a historical figure, or might be wholly imaginary, or might be a real person subtly guided and shaped by Herzog’s aesthetic, but it’s fairly certain that he (it is almost always a “he”) will be at odds with the world, driven by mysterious and powerful inner motivations, possessed by strange ideas, and living outside of ordinary human society.

Herzog’s world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity’s place is precarious at best. His films are thus characterized by instability, by extreme emotions and actions, by desperation and suffering. There are few filmmakers who have nourished such a consistent oeuvre while tackling such a broad range of subjects and styles. Whatever Herzog’s subject, whatever the story he’s telling, it’s his sensibility that’s always at the center. During the course of this conversation, we’ll be exploring that sensibility in some depth, but for now I’ll just ask you: what do you see as the salient characteristics of Herzog’s cinema?