Werner Herzog’s first feature film Signs of Life establishes one of the German director’s most easily identifiable signature marks: his crypto-naturalist propensity toward turning environmental panoramas—what would, in nearly any other film, constitute establishing shots—into the essence of his films’ psychological tenor. The preamble to Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, Signs of Life is fleetingly about the mental unraveling of a failed alpha male to the point of retaliation and misguided social “cleansing.” But the flamboyance—make that the downright fabulousness—of the human lead characters’ respective breaking points register as mere symptoms, not disease (something that’s left elusive in The Shining and practically absent in Herzog’s film).
Signs of Life‘s loon is Stroszek (no relation to the titular character of Herzog’s later masterpiece), a wounded German soldier sent to recuperate in a desolate, roach-infested fortress on the Greek island of Kos along with a pair of soldiers and his bride-to-be. While one soldier fixates on the Sanskrit on the stone tablets strewn about the abandoned structure and the other vacillates between building elaborate roach traps and releasing flies imprisoned in gypsy novelty toys, Stroszek contemplates his clipped wings against a backdrop that seems to mock his foiled ambition. (The fortress the trio of soldiers are sent to protect is all-too-plainly not under any danger of playing even the slightest role in the war, and it’s not too difficult for them to see their assignment as an honorable almost-discharge.)
There is one crucial and telling difference between Kubrick and Herzog’s scenarios. Signs of Life‘s centerpiece scene finds Stroszek stumbling on a foothill and looking up to see an endless valley peppered with metallic windmills, all rumbling with the din of indecipherability. Stroszek’s violent reaction (Peter Brogle’s head-whipping, back-arching displays of madness echo the thespian vocabulary of silent cinema) indicates his mental point of no return, but Herzog’s direction seems to indicate an understanding, even a hypothetical bid of simpatico with the landscape, which has a tangible syntax and an intractability that the director notably respects. Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, on the other hand, has a finite quality, a limited set of parameters that reflect the boundaries of human architecture (in both terms of constructing habitats and histories). That it still manages, even sitting in the shadow of exponentially larger mountains, to dwarf Jack Torrance’s own aspirations is a testament to Kubrick’s reticent skepticism of humanity’s mastery of their own domain.
Kubrick portrays Torrance’s insanity as an inevitable punchline (what with those transient catchphrases of “Heeeere’s Johnny!” and “Not by the hair on your chinny-chin-chin!”). Herzog, however, lets the ostensibly “central” human character of the film recede into the more legitimate central character: the expanse of the environment. After the windmill episode, Stroszek spends the remainder of the film (nearly a half-hour) viewed from afar as he ignites a series of homemade fireworks, in a poignant and funny tableau. Stroszek’s motivations, which are to say what exactly he’s attempting to communicate, are as enigmatic as those of the windmills: the emphatic reversal of Kubrick’s nasty, gorgeous joke.
Call it the cushion of lowered expectations, but many of New Yorker's recent transfers had us prepared for nothing better than First Run Features-level quality for this one. Happily, the video transfer is fairly gleaming. The running time being a few minutes shorter than the generally accepted length and the presence of combing both point to a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, but it's a conversion from a near-flawless PAL source. Contrast on the black-and-white image is good and rangy, and the ghosting isn't too overpowering. The German two-channel mono sound is also pretty cleaned up. Treble dominates, but even that gives the hollow whir of the windmills an unnerving, otherworldly timbre.
Aside from New Yorker's obligatory theatrical trailer there's any DVD connoisseur's favorite bonus: a commentary track from the mellifluous Werner Herzog, who like Yuri Tsivian and Casper Tybjerg turns the English language into whimsical playground of surprise and delight, where every word spoken tickles the eardrums with the rush of novelty and discovery. Which isn't to say that the track has nothing to offer but linguistic exoticism. Aside from being insightful and intelligent, Herzog can also occasionally be a catty lil' bitch toward other filmmakers, as when moderator Norman Hill brings up the similarity between Signs of Life and Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (released concurrently), a suggestion that produces an almost audible shudder of revulsion from Herzog and a declaration that the latter is "a really stupid film."
Few world class auteurs direct debut films that so decisively define their impending themes. Signs of Life radiates ecological mysticism and the inscrutability of human individuality.