The Ecstasy of Saint Herzogby Shane McAdams
I am some strange creature moving on through life and leaving tracks in the sand. The tracks are my films.
Werner Herzog has expended equal amounts of blood, sweat, and perhaps even a few stoic Bavarian tears, both fictionalizing and documenting the fantastic, the heroic, the misfit, and the magical. His reputation for being as indomitable and bizarre as any of his subjects, along with his relentless pursuit of the awesome and mystical, has prompted more than a few to suggest that he might be the messianic meta-subject of his own eclectic cinematic oeuvre.
His most recent effort, Cave of Forgotten Dreams centers around the 1994 discovery of a cave in southern France, featuring some of the earliest ever wall paintings by humans. Herzog’s camera team gained privileged access to the fragile cave, which had been shut off to all but a handful of specialists. In the hands of a traditional team of documentarians, the subject might have amounted to a National Geographic Explorer-type treatment, supplementing images of the cave’s extraordinary Paleolithic paintings and geologic formations with hard data and interviews with scientists. In Herzog’s, however, Chauvet is spun into something beyond mere science: a sacred landscape oozing with the quasi-spiritual essence of what it is to be human.
The Chauvet Cave, documented in brilliant 3-D by Herzog’s team, is eerie and magnificent—calcified cave bear bones spread like jewels along the floor, and the pristine prehistoric wall drawings leave one feeling that if they wait for the hunt to finish, their ancestors might just return in the flesh. The caves come as close to the supernatural as natural gets. Once but no longer a religious man, that’s just the way Herzog likes it. He now finds God in earth’s crawlspaces and forsaken creatures. His deadpan philosophy shadows the viewer through the film, building to a surreal, melodramatic, and madly oracular soliloquy in the final act, complete with tropical plants and albino alligators—not your standard science film, to be sure. Asked recently by NPR’s Terry Gross about what the difference is between his films and National Geographic’s, Herzog replied, simply, “mine are better.”
The point is, “better” for Herzog isn’t about vérité, it’s about experience and emotion, and at almost any cost. Herzog once penned what he termed the “Minnesota Declaration” which spells out the inherent limitations of documentary film as a purveyor of objective reality. In an interview about the declaration in Herzog on Herzog, he states, “So for me, the boundary between fiction and ‘documentary’ simply doesn’t exist; they are all just films. Both take ‘facts,’ characters’ stories, and play with them in the same kind of way. I consider Fitzcarraldo my best ‘documentary.’”
The cinematic brilliance of Fitzcarraldo, a scripted film about a quixotic opera aficionado and rubber baron who sets out to hoist a steamboat into a high altitude river in the Peruvian Andes, has been overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding the film’s making. These events are captured in an equally astounding documentary called Burden of Dreams, which chronicles the stranger-than-fiction events plaguing the film, including skirmishes with hostile natives, inclement weather, battles with the laws of physics, and the eventual abandonment of the film’s first version due to Jason Robards’s digestive tract being ravaged by amoebic dysentery (though many dispute these circumstances, holding that Mick Jagger and Jason Robards became exasperated by Herzog and walked off the film). An interview in Burden, in which Herzog discusses the savagery and misery of the jungle is, for someone who hasn’t seen many of his films, an amazingly reliable condensation of his bizarre and idiosyncratic brilliance. It’s also, depending on how seriously you take him, possibly the funniest five minutes of film you’ll ever see. The parallels between Herzog and his protagonist…and Icarus, Themistocles, Hannibal, and Don Quixote, for that matter, are almost too uncanny to be pure coincidence, though you’ll never hear that confirmed by the never-a-slave-to-irony Herzog.
Fiction or non, Herzog has a long history of making ambitious, some would say, needlessly (or purposefully) provocative, choices in his work. Beyond hoisting a riverboat up a 40-degree incline in Fitzcarraldo, endangering the lives of his crew, he’s also raised eyebrows by casting “challenged” actors in roles, including an oft-institutionalized 40-year-old, Bruno Schleinstein, to play the part of 16-year-old foundling in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. He claimed to hypnotize the entire cast in his film Heart of Glass to bring out the actors’ “inner states.” He mounted an active and volatile volcano to film La Soufrière, barely escaping clouds of toxic gas with his and his crew’s lives. He’s been accused of “coaching” documentary subjects like Dieter Dengler, whose neurotic tic of opening and shutting doors in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is said to have been contrived for effect. He’s aggravated animal rights groups for his treatment of animals on set. He’s aggravated advocates for the disabled for exploiting the deaf and blind children in Land of Silence and Darkness. He’s aggravated producers, journalists, and entire sovereign governments.
Much of the controversy raised by Herzog’s work stems from his fast and loose treatment of history and documentary. “Real life” is only a jumping off point for Herzog to embark on a journey for deeper, though subjective, truths. Such liberties often alarm filmmakers with more journalistic sensibilities. According to Herzog, “I start to invent and play with ‘facts’ as we know them. Through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, I become more truthful than the little bureaucrats.” If he chose to source his scripts from books on the New York Times best-seller list and film them in studios, which he refuses to do, the conversation around him would likely be much different, and so too would the results.
If one approaches Herzog’s work as fine art rather than hard fact, a work like Encounters at the End of the Earth immediately transforms from a desultory account of scientists and adventurers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, to a luscious and expansive aesthetic journey as rich as a J.M.W. Turner canvas, a Lord Byron poem, or a Beethoven sonata. Herzog has always been disdainful of the “artist” label, noting once that “[art] is a concept that belongs to earlier centuries, where there was such a thing as virtue and pistol duels at dawn with men in love, and damsels fainting on couches.” It does sometimes seem that Werner Herzog might be stuck in the wrong century. Paul Cronin, the editor and interviewer of “Herzog on Herzog” states in his introduction, “I confess to having deviously longed to trip him up, find holes in his arguments, uncover a mass of contradictory statements. But to no avail, and I now conclude that either he’s a master liar or, more probably, he’s been telling the truth.”
That’s the “truth” as Herzog sees it; one of fevered and surreal images and of extraordinarily unique individuals cut from a cloth not dissimilar from Herzog’s own. It seems possible that if Werner Herzog suddenly came down with some rare case of amnesia where he lost his identity but maintained all his technical and conceptual skills, the first movie he would make after coming out of the infirmary would be one about a force-of-nature filmmaker named Werner Herzog, to be played by a circus giant who sees in visions and dreams in the sixth dimension, or perhaps by Klaus Kinski. And for anyone who appreciates art as a search for subjective rather than objective truth, that bizarre possibility should be one to celebrate.
We just don’t want him producing our nightly news.