Werner Herzog: Ecstatic Fictions, a retrospective dedicated to Werner Herzog's fiction filmmaking, will be running on MUBI in the United States from May 28 - July 29, 2016.
"It’s a great metaphor,” Werner Herzog declares proudly towards the end of My Best Fiend, his autobiographical reflection on fifteen years of cinematic collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski. The metaphor in question is visual. Herzog and film set photographer Beat Presser are looking at a black and white photo hanging in Presser’s apartment. It’s a striking tableau and gripping enough that it would become the poster image for Herzog's 1982 collaboration with Kinski, Fitzcarraldo. The titular character stands in the foreground, yet with his back to the camera. His emotions are unavailable, but he is undoubtedly preoccupied with the 300 ton steamboat high above him at an impossible 90 degree angle, as it disappears up a jungle hillside into the summit’s mists above. “It’s a great metaphor,” Herzog declares, and then, before the pair casually moves on down the hall, “For what? I don’t know to this day. But I know it’s a great metaphor.”
An artist has to have some guts to leave a statement as vague as that hanging. But then again, Werner Herzog has never seemed lacking in the guts department. Over his long, committed filmmaking career, he has risked life and limb of self, cast, and crew to create striking images. It is worth the risk to him not just because it is critical for his own purposes of artistic expression, but also because he sees the universal availability of this imagery as an urgent necessity for human culture at large. Quoted in Les Blank’s droll character piece, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980): “Our civilization doesn't have adequate images. And I think our civilization is doomed, is going to die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images.”
Thus, Herzog has fervently pursued a mission to either stage or to collect unusual and endangered images from a wide variety of far-flung locations around the world—often accessible to a limited few—in order to reproduce them for a wider audience. A soundbite in the recent trailer for his Masterclass lecture video series outlines the standards to which he holds the medium. “We are not garbage collectors. We are filmmakers. We are thieves. We get away with loot from the most beautiful, or the most scary, or the most spectacular places that you can ever find.” Always, he vocally maintains artistic license to present and frame those images as fancifully as he sees fit. As I observed in the introductory essay for ECSTATIC TRUTHS in the Notebook last month, Herzog will stage events, re-enact histories, re-contextualize pre-existing footage till it offers up new implications, or fib cheekily with the viewer throughout his documentaries.
No one could overlook that such zeal requires guts (well, maybe Kinski called Herzog a coward on a few occasions), but Herzog’s bold inarticulateness in the face of his own work might be chalked up to another character trait instead. Perhaps he harbors an innate Germanic familiarity with the ambiguous quality of experience that Freud defined as the “unheimlich.” The no-longer-obscured. Also known as: the Uncanny. The Herzog features coming up in MUBI's next installments of ECSTATIC FICTIONS are filled with moments that disquietingly yet vitally straddle revelation and secrecy.
Like the iconic poster image for Fitzcarraldo, many of Herzog’s most memorable and career-defining images feel uncanny because they thrive on a surreal tension: underdogs pictured struggling improbably against the seemingly insurmountable status quo of their lives. Sometimes this yields pure transcendence, as when Fitzcarraldo, the unlikely Irishman misplaced in the jungle, “trains” a steamboat to overcome its great weight and fly, even if only briefly. Yet that same incongruity of imagery is echoed in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Cobra Verde (1987) to less exultant results. Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre envisions a portent of his own mutiny’s fate when he spots a wrecked ship lodged so impossibly high up in a tree that no flood could have ever placed it there. Whether it exists in reality or just his mind’s eye is irrelevant by that point in his journey. The promise of his own personal New World is doomed either way. Cutthroat Brazilian slave-trader Cobra Verde futilely wrestles to exhaustion with a beached boat too massive to be led back to water. The culminating, defining gesture of Woyzeck's (1979) titular lead is turned into an exploded drawing of epic status through Herzog’s almost orgasmic use of slow-motion. However, the grandeur of the moment is tragically and ironically deflated by the fact that the gesture in question is the misguided murderous rage of a schizophrenic mind. The protagonists of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) finally overcome their imprisoning oppressors, yet all they can think to do with their new-found freedom is to profane the limited trappings of their small world into nonsensical discord: potted flowers on fire, a monkey tied to a crucifix, a car endlessly driving in circles, going nowhere.
Herzog’s reputation as an auteur with a distinctive directorial style predominantly rests on the type of show-stopping set-pieces described above. Rightly so. They are exemplary exercises in the grand uncanny, unforgettable moments where the abnormal and otherworldly are wrought on a scale too vast to be overlooked by the audience. But that’s not where Herzog’s exploration of the uncanny in cinema ends. These instances of big surrealism in Herzog’s films can still be clearly transliterated into words. Rooted as they are in character actions, touchstone narrative events, and recognizable objects, they are devoted to a certain clarity even in their absurdity. But now I want to touch upon an entire other spectrum of Herzog's images that are not as easily summed up because, well, words may fail to do them justice. As Noël Carroll says in his essay Herzog, Presence, and Paraodox, these are segments in which Herzog "foreground[s] various nonreligious 'ineffables.'" Or, as Herzog would say, “film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
These are Herzog’s “vision” sequences. Though he has confessed to Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog that he himself rarely dreams (and if ever, “...it is always so damned prosaic, usually something like me eating a sandwich”), he does maintain that creating such visions in his films may fill a dream deficit within him. Like dream imagery, the sequences often favor mood over logic, stubbornly withholding explicit meaning while coyly intimating an aura of importance. Their footage usually appears more experimental relative to the overarching style of the rest of the movie. It becomes hypnotic, freed from its explicit links to the narrative (even in cases where it begins as a specific character's subjective vision) by dint of repetition, time manipulation, stylization of appearance, and often a soundtrack accompaniment of cosmic music.
Herzog does not use such passages of “pure” imagery sparingly. On the contrary, their offbeat duration is often a defining characteristic, frequently lasting for minutes on end when employed, even if interrupting the natural progress of the narrative.
A 10 second excerpt from the 50 second river rapids sequence early on in Aguirre's developing plot. English-language prints of the film impatiently usurp the monotony of this sequence for a convenient backdrop on which to overlay the film's technical credits.
Nor does Herzog tend to shyly hide such sequences away within the body of the film. He habitually opens, closes, or bookends a film with extended vision sequences. The opening shot of Nosferatu is a shocking, unflinching 10-second introduction to a two-plus minute sequence of mummified human corpses with no more proper bearing on the narrative than to warn, “this is the infinitely empty truth behind all our myths of death.”
Herzog has on several occasions declared himself “Conquistador of the Useless.” The useless, initially gives off the impression of significance, but ends up revealing its meaninglessness. This image was profoundly significant (or profoundly insignificant) enough that Herzog chose to close Stroszek (1977) with it.
Apocalyptic weather patterns bookend Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Above, one image from the film's introduction and another from its penultimate passage. In both, elements unexpectedly sublimate their regular roles in nature in an impossible act of the miraculous and the terrible.
A portion of the time-lapsed centerpiece in the essentially dialogue-free 8-minute opening of Heart of Glass (1976) in which village seer Hias undertakes a cosmic envisioning quest that could determine the fate of his community.
In Where the Green Ants Dream, a group of disenfranchised Aboriginal males believes that their fertility will be influenced by communally observing their collective mythology in the ancient sacred site where it arose. That location happens to have become the detergent aisle of a recently constructed supermarket, so when they insist on camping out there as long as necessary till a vision visits them, their dreaming becomes a personal right and a subversive act. Kaspar Hauser, the historically-based "wild child" protagonist of Every Man For Himself and God Against All (1974) reports frequently throughout the film about vivid images of distant locales that he receives in his dreams. This comes much to the wonderment and surprise of his teachers and caretakers who know that he can not have witnessed or experienced such sites or sights in his own limited lifetime. Yet his accounts become renowned for their uncommon beauty. From certain members of the community, there even arises a kind of jealousy. When Kaspar dies, the town physicians and record keepers dissect his brain on account of its medical oddity. As if cracking into a goose that lays golden eggs, they hope to discover the secret to Kaspar's enviably extraordinary imagination...perhaps even a direct circuit into the remaining stockpile of his dreamings! But of course, they are left with nothing but the cold shell of a man and the segments of his brain, now void of his visions and any potential meaning those entailed. Kaspar Hauser's body is dead. Yet the enigma of his human spirit, the dreamer's inalienable right to a private, unapologetically irrational inner world, remains honored and lives on. Herzog, no doubt, wouldn't have it any other way.