Truth and Fiction: Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire and Queen of the Desert
By John Duncan Talbird.
It’s hard to know why Werner Herzog still makes fiction films. He clearly loves to travel to strange and wonderful places as part of his work, to film these landscapes and interpret them. He has the loose, improv nature of the documentarian and his recent documentaries are varied and complex and beautiful to look at like exquisite cinematic essays. A documentary filmmaker can travel light – camera, sound person, someone to manage reservations and the credit card. On the other hand, to be a fiction filmmaker and to go on the road you need multiple cast and crew, various handlers to deal with local talent and gawkers, even if you’re doing a “little” film.
It’s not hard to see why contemporary actors would want to work with Herzog. He’s a living legend, one of the most important directors of the German New Wave. He’s the filmmaker who directed Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcaraldo (1982) – the film where he audaciously moved a 340-ton steamship over a mountain to fictionalize Fitzcaraldo and his Indians moving a 340-ton steamship over a mountain. It’s also not hard to see why investors would keep giving him money to make films. Like other film directors who have been canonized before their deaths – Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard – there is a decent-sized crowd who will show up for the latest Herzog film or at least watch it on VOD, no matter how good or not it is. This crowd is not wrong to watch all his movies; a Herzog film, even when it’s terrible, is still interesting.
I’m not sure writer-director Herzog’s most recent fiction film, the talky, pretentious, and boring Salt and Fire (2016) is terrible, but neither is it very good. It’s being marketed as an environmentally themed thriller, but there are few thrills and its ecological themes are muddy at best. The acting is wooden, the plot – the source material, a Tom Bissell short story published originally in the literary journal Agni – seems to have been cobbled together on-set, and the dialogue drifts between the unreal and the unintentionally hilarious. The saving grace of the film is the lovely and strange setting captured exquisitely by long-time collaborator Peter Zeitlinger’s camera.
Ignoring the superfluous flashback, here’s the plot in a nutshell: esteemed scientist Laura Sommerfield (Veronica Ferres) is the leader in a delegation of scientists composed of herself, Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael Garcia Bernal), and Dr. Arnold Meier (Volker Michalowski) who are traveling to an unnamed South American country (in reality Bolivia) where some vaguely defined natural catastrophe called the Diablo Blanco Disaster has occurred. They are kidnapped by a handful of black-hooded terrorists who take them back to a house briefly for bad dialogue and an interesting shot of a trompe-l’oeil painting. Offstage, Drs. Cavani and Meier have apparently eaten some spoiled food (this happens in the original story too, but for more logical narrative reasons) so that they can be shuffled out of the storyline and we can have just the give-and-take between Sommerfield and head bad guy Matt Riley (Michael Shannon). Riley drops Dr. Sommerfield on a lush “island” in the middle of a devastatingly beautiful salt flats with two blind children with a week’s supply of food and water. The story takes on a surreal quality and then leads to a conclusion which makes very little sense and a final series of shots which seem to reach for the whimsy-at-the-apocalypse of Herzog’s countryman Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire (1987), Until the End of the World (1991)) who, coincidentally, has also made much better documentaries in his old age than fictional output.
Despite its glaring flaws, Salt and Fire is not a bad film to look at or listen to when there is no dialogue. One can see the potential documentary in this fictional film in the beautiful panning shots of the salt flats, in the haunting music composed by another longtime Herzog collaborator, Ernst Reijseger, who melds such disparate sounds as South American accordion and Near East ululating and which, despite the poignant effect, renders the narrative that much more ungrounded and baffling. The dialogue sounds as if it could have been lifted from a Herzog documentary. You never laugh at Herzog’s deep Germanic narration speaking modulated and poetic English in his documentaries, but it’s hard not to laugh or at least groan at some of the lines delivered by Salt and Fire’s actors in strange monotones: “They were easily bribed. I take no pride in this.” “Your life as I’ve observed it seems to be a happy one for you.” “The noblest place to die is the place where a man dies the deadest.” A writer is clearly a legend when people won’t tell him how bad his writing is before it’s published.
Dr. Sommerfield’s desertion is a good metaphor for Veronica Ferres’ abandonment by her director. She seems disoriented as she attempts to act with these two blind children, gamely going through the motions as if she were a soccer mom at her guitar-playing son’s all-ages punk rock show. With a lot more to work with, Nicole Kidman does better as the historical figure Gertrude Bell in Herzog’s other most recent fictional film, the 2015 Queen of the Desert which is just getting its theatrical premiere in the US. Bell was a writer, translator, cartographer, and photographer who traveled extensively throughout the world in the early 2oth century, most famously in the Middle East. Herzog’s film is primarily about her experience in what was then Arabia, Persia, and Greater Syria. The film starts in 1898 which consequently makes the forty-seven-year-old Kidman too old to play the thirty-year-old Bell, and particularly too old to whine about being bored at her father’s British estate and then to flirt and fool around with the thirty-seven-year-old James Franco who plays a British bureaucrat in Iran and Bell’s first romantic interest, Henry Cadogan (who was the same age as Bell). Soon enough, this romance is ended and Kidman can age into her part, Bell shifting her romantic interests to the more age-appropriate Damian Lewis who plays Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married British officer who had a clandestine love affair with Bell that didn’t come out until after both of their deaths when their letters were discovered. Much of this correspondence is quoted in the film as Bell and Doughty-Wylie write back to each other in letters that can’t be sent as there is no central mail system in the Arab world at the time. Bell also meets T.E. Lawrence, played by Robert Pattinson, who seems to be doing a 21st-century teen heartthrob rendition of Peter O’Toole. There are many shots of Bell and her Arab escorts walking camels along dune ridges and Game of Thrones-style shots of maps with Persia and Syria written in old-timey font.
This is appropriate since Queen of the Desert is an old-timey movie of the Movie of the Week variety. It’s not unpleasant to watch, especially after Bell becomes comfortable in her role as an independent traveler, writer, and (a probably more reluctant than historically accurate) politician. There are moments where the Western 21st-century viewer wonders how condescending this film reads to Middle Eastern viewers as Kidman delivers lines like “I write of the beauty of the land and the people” and “It’s their freedom, their poetry, their freedom.” And yet the real Gertrude Bell was apparently respected if not loved by the people of the Middle East, attested to in the fact that she traveled widely through it multiple times unmolested despite constant warfare amongst competing tribes and the British crown’s attempts to colonize or exploit portions of it. There is a telling moment in the film where Bell, held captive by a teenaged sultan and threatened with conscription into his harem, says, speaking the boy’s language, “No man touches a married woman, so says the prophet,” walking out of the palace unharmed and free to go. This is probably an apocryphal tale, but it seems particularly powerful in a contemporary age where in the West the most ignorant beliefs about Islam and Arabs become common currency, where Western powers have stakes and start wars in the Middle East and send few representatives with any knowledge of the culture or religion, where even a Western-born speaker of Arabic is rare.
Ultimately, despite its clichéd biopic structure and outdated Orientalism, Queen of the Desert is a diverting watch, not the low-budget train wreck that Salt and Fire turned out to be. Still, these two films might raise the question for anyone who has seen Encounters at the End of the World (2007) or the brilliant Grizzly Man (2005): Should Herzog stick to documentaries? Or worse: Maybe he just can’t work with female actors? After all, his best fiction films, the ones he was justly celebrated for in the seventies and eighties, starred his muse, the unhinged Klaus Kinski. And his most successful late-career films star deranged avatars of Kinski (Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn (2006) and Nicholas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans (2009)). Herzog has recently stated that he doesn’t know why he hasn’t worked with more female stars, written more lead roles for women, has stated that he wishes to do more such films in the future. Despite these early missteps, it’s inspiring to see the seventy-four-year-old Herzog attempting new pathways and treading new ground. As always, I’ll be standing in line to see his next film.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.