I used to read this ogling as genuine fascination. I used to interpret Herzog’s silence as respect. But recent documentaries have me questioning the whole lot. In his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog allows several of his interviewees to speak just long enough to establish their wackiness before he cuts them off with voiceover, often ridiculing them in the process. (“Her story goes on forever,” he says with disdain as one of his interviewees recounts her around-the-world exploits. “Your stories do, too,” I thought.) In the same film, Herzog digs up dated footage of a man trying to enter the Guinness Book of World Records in a number of less than dignified ways and compares him to anyone who might be misguided enough to believe that adventuring in Antarctica still provides genuine adventure. Such instances make me wonder whether ecstatic truth is just an artsy name for reality TV. In the otherwise terrific Lessons of Darkness, Herzog laughably suggests that the workers seen reigniting an oil fire are “consumed by madness,” asking if “life without fire has become unbearable for them.” That narration somehow ignores that Herzog himself is fueled by that madness. When there are fires of perversity, Herzog observes. When there aren’t, he starts a fire.
EH: See, I think Herzog is respectful of and fascinated by his subjects. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog sees these people as kindred spirits, people like him who have traveled the world and done unusual things simply because they wanted to. When he says about that one woman, “her story goes on forever,” I don’t read it as contempt—she’d just been chronicling a long list of terrible things that had happened to her, and Herzog’s voiceover underlines the fact that she’d suffered a great deal. He feels sympathy for her, especially since he’d suffered similar trials and mishaps during his own travels in Africa. Herzog mocks the faux-adventurism of breaking world records for Guinness, but he does it not to say that his interviewees are equally “misguided,” but to contrast their genuine adventures, their genuine pursuit of their own internal drives, against the (from Herzog’s perspective) silly and meaningless breaking of records.
Herzog seeks out interesting and unique people, but he never treats them like exhibits in a freak show, mainly because he tends to recognize himself in people like this. So he admires the way they forge their own place within the harsh extremes of nature, and he admires their engagement with highly specialized and eccentric fields of study, like the researcher who gets giddily excited about ice, or the physicist who views neutrinos in spiritual terms, or the penguin observer who, in the company of birds, seems to have lost his taste for human social interaction. Herzog doesn’t trot out these people to make fun of them. He doesn’t share their obsessions, and maybe he thinks some of them are a bit silly, but he certainly respects the fact that they have these obsessions and that they’ve doggedly pursued them no matter what the cost. He even manages to find a penguin analog for his fictional heroes like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, a penguin who detours off from the accepted migration patterns of his species and waddles off towards the mountains on a doomed but iconoclastic quest. Herzog admires anyone who distinguishes themselves as an individual, even if they do so through folly or self-endangerment.
As for Lessons of Darkness, that’s one of Herzog’s least conventional documentaries, so much so that it almost ceases to be a documentary at all. It falls within a certain small class of films within his oeuvre, a class shared with Fata Morgana and The Wild Blue Yonder, where he crafts documentary footage into a loose science fiction narrative rather than treating it as realistic imagery. In this case, he acts as though he is part of an expedition that has just stumbled onto an alien planet for the first time and is attempting to interpret the sights he sees and the people he encounters. He pretends that the burning oil fields of Kuwait represent the entirety of a wasted planet.
This is clearly a case where approaching the film too literally will only be damaging to the experience. I mean, obviously there’s a good reason for what the workers do when they reignite those fires, and anyone watching it will know that the workers are not “mad.” But in the context of the sci-fi story Herzog is telling, it’s another example of just how strange and inexplicable the things we do as a species might be to an outside observer unaware of the reasons behind our actions. Herzog got a lot of flak for this film because he didn’t couch it in specific political terms about Saddam Hussein and the first Gulf War, but it’s actually much broader than any single conflict. The narration tries to step back from the specificity of these images, to view them from an outside perspective as evidence of a planet on the verge of destroying itself, of a species at war with nature.
JB: It’s funny: I think Lessons of Darkness is one of Herzog’s purest documentaries because the “sci-fi story” is so insignificant, and the narration so scarce, that I find it easy to ignore altogether. What we’re left with are these breathtaking images that are rarely what Herzog claims them to be, but that are awe-inspiring just the same. We see oil fires spitting majestically toward the heavens; oil lakes crisscrossed by white-sand roads; workers extinguishing an oil fire with a dynamite-powered explosion; men toiling away in an oil storm; oil lakes bubbling at the surface as if pelted by hail. Oh, sure, even at 50 minutes, Herzog overstays his welcome in a few places, as he is prone to do, but the raw power of his cinematography makes this one of his greatest pictures, in my opinion.
See, what you must understand is that one of the reasons that I grow so frustrated by Herzog’s uncontrollable tongue is because I admire his visual sensibilities. For example, his 1968 dramatic film Signs of Life, about a man who goes insane due to idleness (a Herzogian theme in every sense), has that fantastic scene in which the crazed Stroszek (Peter Brogle) ignites fireworks from the fortress. It begins with two German officers talking to one another, and when they move to the window at the sound of the first explosions, the camera tracks past them and looks through another window at the fireworks blasting toward the sky and out over the water, as Stavros Xarhakos’ score gently underlines the vision’s beauty. This all unfolds in black-and-white, remember, and yet I can’t think of a more striking use of fireworks in cinema.
Then there’s a film like Aguirre, which begins with the magnificent image of Pizarro’s soldiers marching single-file through the mountains of Peru, carrying a cannon and sedan-chairs and dragging llamas behind them, all while “dressed for a court pageant,” as Ebert puts it in his Great Movies essay. The film ends with the haunting image of Aguirre stomping about on his raft, alone except for dozens of chattering monkeys. In between we are treated to shots of Aguirre sneering beneath his helmet, drifting about with that lopsided stagger that Johnny Depp brought out of mothballs for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In these instances, what the camera tells us is infinitely more interesting and more memorable than anything the characters or Herzog says, which is a compliment in one sense and an insult in another.
EH: I can’t really separate Herzog’s visual sensibility from his narrative sense in the same way, but I agree with you about Signs of Life and Aguirre. These are stunning films, and Signs of Life is doubly stunning for being a debut feature. Herzog had previously made a few tentative shorts and then wandered the globe for a few years, and he had no formal knowledge of film whatsoever. And yet Signs of Life is so assured, so perfectly paced and conceived. The film moves with the slow, lazy rhythms of life in an empty fort on the Greek isle of Crete, as Stroszek, his wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and two other soldiers sit around with nothing to do. They finish their work within a few days and then simply lounge around in the dry heat, bored and disaffected. Herzog documents everything with a patient eye: the dinners put together with simple ingredients, the turtles they find and name, the ingenious homemade trap for cockroaches.
Despite the poetic realism of Herzog’s imagery, there is also a subtle surreal streak running through the film, a sensibility that uncovers the bizarre and hallucinatory qualities in the prosaic. There’s that great moment where Stroszek, in the midst of a routine patrol, suddenly stumbles across a field full of windmills strewn across the landscape, humming in the wind. Herzog finds these incredible images that look fake, and yet are undeniably real as well.
Once Stroszek loses his grip on his sanity, chasing his wife and compatriots out of the fort at gunpoint, the film pulls back: he is never seen up close again, only from a distance, and he only speaks once more, delivering a crazed speech from atop the fort’s wall. From that point on, Herzog films him from afar, so that Stroszek is a speck darting around the fort’s central courtyard, scurrying across the wasted terrain. Herzog gives his hero a respectful isolation, allowing him to enact his mad rebellion in privacy. Only the effects, abstracted from Stroszek’s actions, are present in the film. The two lovely fireworks displays, one during the day and the second at night, are the most visible remainders of Stroszek in the film’s last act, as he makes fireworks from the shells in the fort’s ammo depot, transforming weaponry into an aesthetic expression. It’s through this intermediary that he expresses his rage and frustration: at the town, at his superiors in the army, at his wife and friends.