It’s interesting that despite the World War II setting, everything in this film is personal and introspective. Herzog is perhaps the most apolitical of directors, and this film more or less proves it: it’s hard to imagine another director, let alone a German director, who could make a film about German soldiers during WWII and not make it about Nazism or the Holocaust in the least. These are, technically speaking, Nazi soldiers, but they’re just ordinary guys on the fringes of the war, in a place that seems preternaturally calm and untouched by the war’s devastation. Stroszek’s insanity is not a political statement, it’s an expression of existential anguish.
JB: If I wanted to be a dick about it, I’d say, “Of course Herzog tells his WWII story apolitically; he’s German.” But that wouldn’t be fair, because, as you noted, it’s not as if Signs of Life marks the only occasion in which Herzog is drawn to the existential over the political. Indeed, this is yet another sign of how personal Herzog’s films can be. He’s interested in precisely what he’s interested in and nothing more. Herzog doesn’t strike me as an intentional maverick so much as an accidental nonconformist. It’s as if he’s blissfully unaware of The Norm. To use another example from Signs of Life, how many directors would allow Stroszek to fade into the background precisely at the point when he becomes most interesting? Not many. And yet I don’t get the feeling that Herzog had a grand plan to sequester the crazed Stroszek or to work against the grain. Instead, I think Herzog, who willingly admits that he largely makes up his films as he goes along, shot according to his whims, probably never realizing until the editing process that Stroszek is without a final ranting closeup. Heck, maybe Herzog was oblivious even then; there’s no arguing that he marches to his own drumbeat.
That said, Herzog’s drumbeat doesn’t always move me. Ebert says that Herzog’s films “vibrate,” but I’m rarely so overpowered. This is curious to me because Herzog has an eye for nature that reminds me of Terrence Malick, whose films I adore. So how is it that Malick makes me vibrate while Herzog often leaves me listless? I’m not entirely sure. Part of it has to do with Herzog’s penchant for talking over his cinematography, which we’ve discussed. Another factor might be that Herzog is so interested in the general human condition that he often ignores (overlooks?) the personal emotions of his central characters, which for me can be an obstacle. And then there’s Herzog’s aforementioned habit of holding a shot beyond its usefulness. I never tired of the fireworks displays of Signs of Life, but I could have done with less of watching the waves licking the shoreline, for example. In his documentaries, Herzog’s favorite gimmick is to hold the camera on his subject long after they’ve finished talking, regarding them like zoo animals on display. Sometimes this is effective. Other times, as I suggested earlier, I wonder if these images represent something deeper to Herzog that never comes through to his audience.
To this point, you’ve talked a lot about Herzog’s strengths. I’m curious to know what you think his weaknesses are, and to learn whether you think his films possess enough emotion to be considered attempts at “ecstatic” truth. In short, do Herzog’s films move you, or do they merely interest you? Or is that the same thing?
EH: As is probably more than obvious by now, I love Herzog’s films, so it should come as no surprise that I find them moving. Maybe I’m just attuned to Herzog’s personal vision, because as we’ve both noted, he does tend to follow his own inner drumbeat with little concern for things that don’t fall into his areas of interest. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m so willing to enter Herzog’s world again and again, but I’m frequently moved and rarely bored by his films (other than some of his recent fiction features, at least, as I’m sure we’ll get to later).
That said, I do have reservations about his work. For one thing, the lack of political engagement, which I consider a strength in films like Lessons of Darkness or Signs of Life, can bother me when a particular moment demands a more political perspective on his subject. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times in Encounters at the End of the World, when some of his interviewees are talking about environmental protection and things like that, where Herzog’s objectivity and refusal to go into it further irritates me a little. I mean, he’s making a film that’s partly about the splendor of nature, and yet he more or less ignores the environmental implications of melting ice caps and climate change even when the people he meets explicitly bring these subjects into the film. That’s an outgrowth of a certain pessimistic, apocalyptic strain in his thinking: if the world’s on the brink of ending anyway, why bother re-arranging the deck chairs? Of course, he has also made a handful of what might be called “message films,” movies like Ballad of the Little Soldier and Where the Green Ants Dream, that advocate for a specific political idea, so maybe like everything else it’s just a question of what interests him personally from film to film.
Herzog’s penchant for reshaping reality also brings up problematic questions, questions that are not always easy to answer. There are some uncomfortable moments in his documentaries, moments where I’m not sure whether what Herzog’s doing crosses the boundaries of good taste or not. One of these is the sequence in Little Dieter Needs to Fly where Herzog reenacts Dieter’s captivity by hiring a handful of Laotians to act as guards with machine guns, then tying Dieter’s hands behind his back and marching him through the jungle. As the march starts, Dieter looks up at the camera, his brow furrowed, and says quietly, “This is a little too close to home.” It’s an effective scene, but it certainly raises questions about the ethics of Herzog’s interactions with his subjects. There are similar scenes in Wings of Hope, a kind of sister film to Dieter’s story, about a young woman’s survival in the South American jungle after a plane crash that killed her whole family. Just as he had with Dieter, Herzog brings this woman back to the scene of the accident and has her confront her fears and memories; on the flight there, he even has her sit in the same seat she was in when she crashed. You mentioned reality TV earlier, but to me this kind of stuff brings to mind one of those “investigative journalist” shows where the interviewer is always trying to get the subject to confess some deep, dark secret.
But I’m conflicted about these devices, because, for one thing, by all appearances Dieter is going along with these recreations willingly, and indeed he remained close friends with Herzog until he died in 2001. Moreover, Herzog’s methods really do get at something deeper, something that perhaps wouldn’t be as affecting if not for his manipulations. That film’s climax is a meditative, melancholy shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge into Thailand that he and his fellow escapee Duane were trying to reach but never did. As he sits cross-legged beneath this bridge, the water and the gray sky looming above him, describing Duane’s death, there is a subtle and deeply moving sadness to the image that, one senses, Herzog was able to get at because he and Dieter were both so fully immersed in this place, in the jungle, in the very locations where Dieter and Duane spent the hard days of their escape. A scene like this is to me the essence of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” and at times like that my reservations about his politics and his ethics simply melt away.
JB: Well, here’s the problem with ecstatic truth: That shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust it because Dieter and Herzog sit there long enough for the sun to set, which would have seemed forced in any documentary and certainly seems calculated with Herzog behind the camera. I don’t trust it because earlier there’s a scene in which Dieter stands in front of a tank of jellyfish and compares their lethal beauty to his image of death—a poetic image that in fact was whispered into his ear by Herzog. I don’t trust it because Dieter’s “habit” of opening and closing doors numerous times, to ensure that they are unlocked and he is free, also strikes me as a Herzogian flourish.
I don’t need an “accountant’s truth” from any film. Nevertheless we can’t overlook that realism is part of the documentary genre’s allure, even for Herzog. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is essentially a long interview with the subject that enthralls not just because the story is interesting but because the story is presumed to be true (or at least mostly true). What is sacrificed in artistry (Dieter talking into the camera) is made up for with legitimacy (we believe the things he’s saying). I’ve always felt it hypocritical that Herzog wants us to overlook or otherwise accept his embellishments when the very reason for those embellishments is to deceive the audience. As a director, it’s one thing to take Fini Straubinger out of her daily routine to show her in interesting situations. It’s something else to artificially enhance your subject’s character because they aren’t quite as interesting, or poetic, or expressive as you want them to be. Entering into a Herzog documentary is like beginning a relationship with a serial cheater: the naïve get taken advantage of without even knowing it; the savvy go on such heightened alert that they never get comfortable.