Outskirts of the Kingdom

Werner Herzog bears witness to the life beyond moviemaking
by Michael Atkinson  posted June 4, 2008
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Werner Herzog in Conversation With Jonathan Demme,
Museum of the Moving Image, June 5, 2008

As the aging New Wavers get their renascent moment in the new-century Klieg light, the restless beauty of their old cultural heyday comes at us anew but also often bearing the burden of obsolescence and nostalgia. Not so with Werner Herzog, enjoying his autumnal peak as a reborn Angeleno and as the millennium's most provocative documentarian. Little or nothing of his oeuvre dates, and his cataract of new films represents both the fruition of his career questions and an extension of them. But even as he's primed for the world-over retrospectives he's already receiving, and the honorary Oscar he'll probably get, Herzog still endures the old condescending labels: crazed nomad, life-risking psycho, the New German Cinema's most market-uncooperative coyote, victim of Spielberg-era popularization, voodoo-or-die man of outrageous principle, and recalcitrant visionary forced to make documentaries because he couldn't be trusted with fiction-feature budgets. Herzog's achievement remains misunderstood, especially insofar as it's seen as divided between two opposing camps: scripted movies and "found" non-fiction films. Herzog makes one kind of film; everything he does is Herzogian. In the cinematic circus of the illusory, where other filmmakers are lauded for their "style" and "effect," Herzog is the Ludditic deliverer, insisting on the vitality of the actual.

Let's call him the primeval postmodernist. It was, after all, the cry of Godard, coming late to cinema and wailed over the city of arch modernists (Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Welles), that demanded the eloquence of art be intrinsically entwined with the facts of living, not an artful, rarefied abstinence from life but part of its flow, as much as music, food, sex, sleep, politics, love. Anything else is prevarication. The hermetic significance of the art object gave way to a flux in meaning and a fluid intercourse with the world in which it was created.

The major directors in the charge Godard led (Rivette, Pasolini, Parajanov, Chytilová, Straub & Huillet, Watkins, the Japanese New Wavers, etc.) each staked a unique claim on the battlefield. But from his first feature (1968's Signs of Life, with its famous hypnotized chicken) to his newest (2007's Encounters at the End of the World), Herzog has been cinematic postmodernism's Sir Richard Burton, its Odysseus. Though he might well have been more temperamentally suited to carving out a niche alone on the cultural frontier, Herzog was actually fortunate to have emerged when he did, into the melee of New Wave licentiousness. He was a Rimbaud lucky enough to have found himself of age in the era of Art Film unorthodoxy, explosive film festival culture, and the awakened aesthetics of the long take. Conquering nothing but always venturing forth, Herzog has borne witness, sometimes imprecisely but always faithfully, to the life beyond moviemaking, the river-flows and jungle growths and desert deteriorations and human failures in the face of nature's inexorability, all to the purpose of making your interface with his life-and-death ordeals more than just watching, but living. Therein lies a seeming contradiction: Herzog has always been easily characterized, even by himself, as prioritizing filmmaking over life, but he's actually always insisted that film can find its authenticity only by submitting to the dangers and serendipities and wonders of the world outside the frame.

What could be more postmodern, or self-reflexive, than Herzog's extra-cinematic legacy of production adventures and magical thinking, as it all can be read on the scarred visages of the films themselves? Just as Herzog's filmmaking has always been a kind of bring-it-on personal performance art as much as a creative labor intended to result in a finished product, his fiction films have been documentaries, and his non-fiction films have been elaborate contrivances. These are market distinctions anyway, for which Herzog has historically had little use. The rest of the world saw in Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) a headlong attainment of on-location realism, but Herzog saw a reality he helped to create (the narrative), plunging through a reality he could only hope to experience in awe (the jungle). While we categorize Lessons of Darkness (1992) and Grizzly Man (2005) as documentaries, Herzog devised them as mythic episodes in an epic tale of humankind's larky, deadly, often disastrous efforts at confronting the Earth's most extreme kingdoms.

Too often, cant about "smudging" or "erasing" the boundaries between documentaries and narrative fiction films boils down to the simplified concept of the mock doc or Errol Morris's impressionistic window-dressing. But when it comes to Herzog—and Abbas Kiarostami, whose Koker films and Close-Up (1990) exhibit a powerful proto-Herzogian strategy that's never been acknowledged—the "gray area" between the forms spreads to enfold the entire experience. On the simplest level, Herzog shoots as if everything in his films is happening for the first time, and he just happened to catch it: there's no discernible fictionality in the artlessly full-frontal acquaintance with real tribes-people in Aguirre and Cobra Verde (1987), the boat careening through the rapids in Fitzcarraldo, the Mexican catacomb skulls that launch Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), the virtual entirety of Fata Morgana (1971), etc. (At other times, Herzog mocks his own "realness"—witness the final send-off of Timothy Treadwell's ashes in Grizzly Man, posed and photographed like a stilted home movie.)

His visual choices, even when obviously designed for the camera, represent a kind of extreme realism, so much more convincing than today's in-vogue handheld jitters (that is, if you measure your realism by the integrity of the information it imparts, not the degree to which it calls attention to its own unnecessary sloppiness). You never doubt watching a Herzog film that the locations, the risks, the discomfort, the sense of physical peril and lostness, the extraordinary feats of will, are all genuine. Authenticating the context for filmed action has been Herzog's most personal and unique tenet. Cinema cannot be faked, Herzog maintains. It is not a dream factory but the road to a tangible utopia; the act of watching something bizarre and unreasonable and poetic happen in real time was always his end-game, his prize ring. Every piece of his celluloid prioritizes the extraordinary realities Herzog has filmed and not the film project itself; the camera is merely part of and witness to the landscape, the landscape is not there for the camera. For everyone else, the behind-the-scenes debacles, circumstances, and miracles are simply audio-commentary fodder, but Herzog's reality continues in four dimensions whether a camera is rolling or not. (Pick your favorite story, but the see-for-yourself odysseys of 1977's La Soufrière and Les Blank's Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, from 1980, make the point with a thwack, both of them as much symbolic-political actions as movies.)

So why would he think to, need to, differentiate between fiction and non-fiction? His hunt for "ecstatic truth" has brought him, ironically, to many famous lies and fabrications (including manufacturing a fake Blaise Pascal quote for Lessons of Darkness), and of course Herzog's documentarianism isn't your granddad's cinema vérité—though it does echo the semi-sincere processes of genre pioneer Robert Flaherty. Paradoxically, Herzog has never expected reality to be adequately Herzogian, or "ecstatic," all the time, and in his recent work the notorious manipulations and poeticizations have reached critical mass, and must be taken as a trope unto themselves. Grizzly Man may be their most evocative test case: a Herzog film composed to a large extent of rather Herzogian footage shot by an obsessive dead man (killed by natural forces and hubris in a way similar to what we might've expected to befall Herzog years ago), edited for maximum crazy lyricism, and then narrated and hosted by Herzog, as the film's very questionable and subjective presiding god, who feels no compunction about telling us what he won't show us and talking over the footage to engage in a one-sided debate with the original filmmaker, about man and nature and the filmmaker's own obliviously self-destructive actions. The irony gets thick as cold potatoes when you consider the film's success—it's been popular among Americans who'd never heard the name Werner Herzog, primarily because the subject was "real" and reality-show mortal in a way Discovery Channel shows rarely are. Who woulda thunk: Werner Herzog's When Animals Attack? One can imagine Herzog remaking it across implicit fiction/non-fiction lines, as he remade Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) as Rescue Dawn (2006), with the post-suicide-attempt Owen Wilson as Treadwell, restaging the original video footage and finally giving Treadwell the showbiz glory moment he so badly wanted.

The White Diamond (2004) has its own ambiguous relationship with its own subjects (obsessive Brit scientist, wily Guyanans, Herzog's own presence in the jungle as a coopting white man), and allows native proscriptions to dictate what he'd reveal visually in the film and what he wouldn't (as he also did, fictionally, in 1984's Where the Green Ants Dream). But perhaps the greatest amount of slippage emerges from The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), a mock-doc science fiction elegy made possible by genuine non-fiction footage. Brad Dourif, aged and wild-eyed and pony-tailed, glares directly into Herzog's camera from a ghost-town streetcorner, and recounts in a fuming rant the story of his race—aliens from the edge of Andromeda who landed here years ago, after their world had been ruined, and failed miserably to either establish a cooperative kingdom on Earth or even assimilate. "We suck," he spits, as he also recounts the parallel story of a human space voyage sent to locate an inhabitable world as ours devolves into polluted chaos, discovering the aliens' abandoned planet instead. The primary purpose of the somewhat cockamamie story woven in the narration is to emphasize and poeticize the extraordinary footage we see: previously unreleased images of life aboard the NASA shuttle mission STS-34 sent into orbit in 1989 for purposes of launching the Galileo spacecraft at Jupiter. Here's Herzog at play in the fields of absurd physics, rapt as the astronauts float in no-gravity space, attend to personal hygiene with surreal difficulty, and sleep strapped to the wall, all of it given alternate explanations fueled by the emotional tribulation of space-lost loneliness. The crowning flourish is the humans' arrival at the alien planet: Herzog uses breathtaking footage shot—by someone else—in the waters of the Antarctic to depict a barren, blue world with a murky liquid atmosphere and a sky of ice.

Overflowing with fictional context, The Wild Blue Yonder is still at its core a documentary, an album of visions of reality framed by confabulation, designed to unleash the Blakean unreality within ordinary earthliness. The vibrance of the actual is what matters—by the time you get to Encounters at the End of the World, with its patient and affectionate portrait of Antarctic research-lab eccentrics and the humbling landscape they blithely inhabit (and the deranged penguin Herzog finds marching suicidally out into the void), you could be forgiven for wondering if we don't in fact dwell on Planet Werner, and live each ordinary day largely ignorant of the fact.

Which may suggest why Herzog has become an accepted and hallowed figure in the English-speaking filmscape—he's the closest thing we have to a Gurdjieff-with-a-camera. His images, seasoned with his peculiarly apocalyptic pronouncements, can be seen to possess totemic weight, intent on altering physical matter or rescuing a society poisoned by materialism. (A recent profile of him in The New Yorker—a sign that he has finally left a bullethole in the mainstream's windshield—painted him as a headlong mystic, while a Harper's portrait, by Tom Bissell describes every coincidence and irony, of which there are always truckloads, as if they were evidence of Herzog's extra-human relationship with the cosmos.) This dynamic may not be as silly as it seems at first: from any perspective, modern pop culture has become dominated by the distanced and vaguely unsatisfying "reality" of reality shows, YouTube, virtual communication, everything-cams, and so on (piled on top of the past decades' transformation of everyday life into a car-transported, televisual, risk-insulated middle-class hermitage). It could be that a new audience, acclimated to the sedentary normalcy of techno-consumerism, has begun to find in Herzog's ambivalent extremities a galvanizing forge of legitimate, concrete, exploratory experience. I cannot imagine growing up in a society in which electronic screens were the primary vehicles for personal exchange and cultural expression, but if I had, the typical Herzog experience (the inaugural mountain pan in Aguirre, say) might appear to me as a Godly message handed down to ameliorate my tech-choked emptiness. Perhaps all along, Herzog has been waiting for our neediness, for our starvation for authentic images, to reach its tipping point, and has now stepped out of the hinterlands ready to oblige. 

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Courtesy THINKFilm
Werner Herzog filming Encounters at the End of the World

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June 5, 2008 Werner Herzog in Conversation With Jonathan Demme

THE AUTHOR

Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct