Werner Herzog is funny. It’s unfortunate that this needs to be restated, but such is the cultural conversation—between those who seem not to have taken Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) seriously enough (if at all) and those who prefer their auteurs give off the rarified air of a Tarkovsky, musing under a tree. Of course, the truth is both and neither; that Herzog has always been one for whom exercises in the absurd or even slapstick come in lock step with declarations of his artistic chops. The missing of this proverbial boat is epitomized in “The memeification of Werner Herzog: Why the respected director should be respected for his genius, not regarded as a joke,” published in the National Post last month. The article argues un-controversially that Werner Herzog is a very good filmmaker always worthy of more attention, but then argues that in spite of what comes off as “funny-serious philosophizing that has become the bread and butter of Herzog memes,” a film like Fitzcarraldo (1982) “transcends any memeified punchlines.” The key distinction here is in spite.
I sympathize with the desire to sit loved ones and acquaintances down in front of a TV and force them to watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); I have done it in the past. At many points in my life, the films of Werner Herzog have been mental correctives and have fulfilled a need to learn more than those of any other filmmaker. They get me out of my head and reorient me to the world through their embrace of the irrational and its many forms. But crucial to their ability to illustrate the infinite quirks of the world and provide context for man’s collective failures and madness is a reliance on the foundation stone that the world is inherently funny and should be regarded that way. To read Herzog’s films, particularly his fiction films, without centralizing the role of humor in them is cherry-picking to the point of total misrepresentation. That fails to accurately sell Herzog to the uninitiated (the closest thing the article has to a target audience) and sweeps whole chunks of his body of work under the rug.
The most venerated period of Herzog’s career ran from 1971-1982, during which time the director made a dozen films of varying shapes and sizes, including the fiction features that stand with his best documentary work. Three of those films are currently playing on MUBI: Heart of Glass (1976), Stroszek (1977), and Fitzcarraldo. All three illuminate Herzog’s humor with different visual styles, and as a trio summarize how in Herzog’s world, ridicule and ridiculousness form the backbone of a benign chaos against which you are pretty much forced to laugh. You could pick largely any title, documentary or fiction, from Herzog’s catalog and in it find vital moments of comedy, without which the world he shows us would feel less honest. These fiction films, though, feel especially attuned to comedy, because in these films Herzog’s directorial hand plays the part of the god setting people up for ridicule, the hand of fate gathering pieces of the real world together and crafting the exercises in failure that constantly reappear in his stories.
The most pronounced example of Herzog’s god hand is in Heart of Glass, which made use of an entire cast (save the lead and some performers in potentially dangerous situations) under hypnosis. Among the more obvious stunts that Herzog has employed in his career, the hypnosis throughout the cast slows their movements to a crawl, and every movement is telegraphed. The viewer becomes hyper aware, then, of their composition and movement within a frame, often in vast wide shots. The cast play villagers in an 18th century town whose stasis has been ruptured by the death of one man, keeper of the recipe for the Ruby Glass, which is the village’s livelihood and focus of their religion. For Herzog, the comedy comes in watching their civilization crumble when a crucial lynchpin is removed. The first villagers we encounter share a protracted staring contest, which elicits laughter in the awkward pauses. There is no payoff for this scene at first, but such moments are repeated throughout the film as the breakdown occurs, and we return to the same scene a few minutes later as one man smashed a beer bottle over the head of the other who, hypnotized, does not flinch. The actors fighting with one another despite their somnambulistic movement heightens the ridiculousness of their squabbles, especially when set in lush backdrops and achingly precise compositions. Herzog’s interest here is in how chaos breaks into a world just barely clinging on to the tenets that prop up decency.
The America of Stroszek is another world composed of lofty ideas, and one where the true reality of disorder brings the most harm to the rootless, the people on the fringes of society. Herzog the outsider talks about an alien America through a portrait of a doomed alcoholic fleeing West Germany for Wisconsin. He defines the country as an endless plain full of anonymous towns that nevertheless each boast their own strangenesses. As Bruno’s luck has him fall victim to both his own vices and a social structure that will not accommodate him, Herzog films the world around him with a loving eye turned to the very most absurd things. He seems most curious about the way people talk to Bruno, their pastimes, and the way they move without a second thought through locations that completely flummox the Bavarian filmmaker.
(For a more impressionistic riff on this very subject, the 1977 Herzog film How Much Would a Woodchuck Chuck serves as a great companion piece. This tribute to cattle auctioneers at their championship is, like Stroszek,an essential artifact of outsider Americana. It gains this status in a way that makes no bones about how ridiculous it is that the film even exists, laying out for the audience 40 straight minutes of the musicality of cattle auctioneers practicing their craft. The mutation of the auctioneer championship doc into a kind of concert film gives off the impression that Herzog is throwing his hands up in bewilderment. Any old noise can sound like opera!)
Typically, in a great testament to Herzog’s ability to capture the shifting modes of life, Stroszek contains the director’s most melancholy sequences in tandem with his funniest. Even the suicide of Bruno at the end of the film elicits knowing laughter, as Bruno leaves the world in his own impromptu blaze of glory. When the police finally arrive, they find a truck on fire in a parking lot, Bruno’s body on a moving ski-lift, and dancing chickens. The symbolic value of these objects, both to Bruno and to the viewer, are not revealed, and it seems more to come from Bruno lashing out in the only way the weird world he’s in will allow. The scene is a baffling cacophony, anchored by the sound and image of the dancing chickens. You could suggest that Bruno saw himself in the dancing chicken, but that would be rather cute. Perhaps Herzog saw fit to make sure the last thing Bruno saw in this world was something profoundly stupid (google “Herzog on chickens” if you haven’t seen it already to get his hatred straight from the source.) The last line is a dead giveaway, when the police officer requests for backup saying he “can’t stop the dancing chickens.” The film fades to black as the chickens continue to dance. For Herzog, the world is one giant dancing chicken. The argument put forth at the end of the National Post article seems to be that Herzog’s films (it mentions Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) “transcend” mere comedy. The ending of Stroszek presents a challenge to that notion, as it begs the question—what the hell is so transcendent about a dancing chicken?
Never mind that Herzog has taken to the eccentricities of the Internet with the same interest as he has approached the infinite ridiculousness of actual life. It bears repeating here that Herzog has collaborated in the meme culture around him totally of his own volition. Wherever you choose to place his appearances on Parks and Recreation, The Boondocks, or Rick and Morty in your conception of the man in his old age, Herzog has always been like this. Consider his appearance in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a terrific Les Blank film contemporary to Herzog’s heyday. In it, our favorite German does the activity described on the packaging, owning up to a bet he had made with Errol Morris over whether Morris could finish his debut film, Gates of Heaven (1978). They didn’t have a word for memes in 1980, but Herzog makes a spectacle out of the dinner that leans heavily on the public’s conception of him, exploiting it for comedy. Unfortunately, refusing to acknowledge this side of the filmmaker presents a false either/or relationship where Herzog is either profound or merely funny. Supposedly, you choose which level of Art Awareness you want to be a part of, and pick your Herzog idol appropriately. No thought is given to the idea that you could have both, and I’m sure Herzog giddily taking to his own media-image like a fly to honey indicates where he stands on the matter.
This kind of service to pomposity is a small example of the type of hubris skewered by Aguirre and particularly Fitzcarraldo, wherein the haughty notions their core characters foist onto the world are met with pushback by the world’s actual chaotic temperament. The broken river vessels in both films serve in part as warnings to those who would not, quite literally, go with the flow. This is just the Herzogian notion that we create our own mountains to climb, our own rivers to traverse, at its most literal. But as much insight into Herzog’s conception of how we do that, and how the world fights against us is found in his other fiction masterpieces. In Stroszek and Heart of Glass, Herzog the writer/director plays the god against all, composing a sequence of scenes bent on destruction and even ridicule.
In the face of this, as is the case when we all do battle with our dreams and demons, Herzog’s characters lash out, with a variety of outcomes. Most tragic, and necessarily absurd, is Bruno Stroszek’s suicide. Others are triumphs which make the best of a bad lot, such as Fitzcarraldo’s. The rest exist in the middle, none more so than the island monks of Heart of Glass who push off into choppy waters in the direction of the endless ocean. This sequence courts laughter, as the scale of the tiny boat is revealed in a sweeping aerial shot. But it also reveals Herzog’s skepticism about the very philosophical question of transcendence. By showing us a coda scene divorced from the rest of the narrative, one lacking in character motivation, Herzog elicits not catharsis but rather a bemused laugh at the arrhythmic nature of the world as we experience it. This final scene is a near-surreal lesson of how to accept the nonsensical, even as we so often operate in spite of it. The mountain laughs at you, and it is up to you to laugh back.