As befits the works of a restless traveler and self-tester, the miscellaneous films available on Three Short Films by Werner Herzog are bewilderingly diverse but united by passion. In The Dark Glow of the Mountains, a 1985 chronicle of free-style mountain-climber Reinhold Messner and his partner Hans Kammerlander, Herzog uses the pair’s mission to escalate two peaks during one combined climb to address the alpine epics of early German cinema. While such films as The White Hell of Pitz Palu and The Blue Light depicted nature as waiting to be conquered by noble adventurers, in Dark Glow the same heroic impulses are depicted as something closer to madness. “All creative people are insane,” Messner tells the camera, voicing the perilous, deeply human need to seek new heights that obsesses the filmmaker’s protagonists in documentary and fiction alike. The Ballad of the Little Soldier, made in 1984 and co-directed by Denis Reichle, records a journey to volatile Nicaragua, where children are recruited in Miskito villages to fight the Sandinistas. While Messner in Dark Glow chooses to face danger amid snowy peaks, the prepubescent militia in Ballad has no choice but to deal with it in their everyday lives. Exchanging Popol Vuh’s music for chorales of children’s songs, it’s a disturbing snapshot of war made a bit queasier by Herzog’s insistence on the poetic over the political. Rounding out the trio is Precautions Against Fanatics, a 10-minute deadpan joke from 1969 set at the racing stables (“I’m here to protect the horses,” one fellow declares before trying to show bravery by chopping a block of wood with his hands). Tragic and compulsive in the other shorts, our relationship to nature is fodder for wry punchlines here: A great exalter of humanity’s attempts at leaving a mark on the world, Herzog can also be its great mocker.
The images are nicely preserved in an unexceptional transfer, though colors seem to have lost quite a bit of vigor. The mono sound is sturdy in all three shorts.
Of more interest to completists, but any journey with Werner Herzog is worth taking.