By John Duncan Talbird.
Werner Herzog should win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If Bob Dylan can win it, I don’t see why a filmmaker can’t and it’s hard to think of another director who has done so much for both the narrative and documentary film, in fact, who has worked to blur and break down genre boundaries over his nearly sixty-year career. He’s got seventy-two directorial credits listed on the Internet Movie Database stretching from 1962 and into the future. He’s a director, writer, producer, and actor. He’s directed many shorts, documentaries, fiction films, and hybrids for television and the big screen. He’s been a darling of both the Cannes and Venice film festivals and has been nominated for or won awards at nearly every other essential festival in the world. He made some of the most legendary films of the German New Wave (Aguirre, the Wrath of God , Nosteratu the Vampyre , Fitzcarraldo , all starring another eccentric genius, Klaus Kinski), has managed to make interesting indie films in contemporary Hollywood (Rescue Dawn , Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ) and has been a singular innovator in the documentary for the length of his career, producing some classics of the genre in the last two decades alone (Grizzly Man , Encounters at the End of the World , Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World ).
To appreciate the very literariness of Herzog, one should read his screenplays which he calls “scenarios,” a kind of amalgamation of script, story, and prose poetry. In 2017, University of Minnesota Press published a first collection of four scenarios including two of Herzog’s greatest films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. (You can read my review of that book here: http://filmint.nu/?p=23414). They have followed that earlier book with four more scenarios in Scenarios II: Signs of Life (1968), Even Dwarves Started Small (1970), Fata Morgana (1971), and Heart of Glass (1976).
Signs of Life is Herzog’s first narrative feature. It is set on the Greek island of Kos (Crete in the scenario). The island has been occupied by German forces, but truthfully, none of that history matters much. Herzog, though he often sets his fictional films in real historical places and eras, is not that interested in details or accuracy. We see none of the brutality that the Germans visited on the Greeks when they occupied their country during World War II. In fact, this is an idyllic if sleepy island in which the soldiers lounge around, catch cockroaches in jars, and wait for one of their number to have a nervous breakdown. In his introduction, Herzog tells us that he numbered the scenes in this scenario for no other reason than that a friend told him that all screenplays were numbered and he wanted to appear professional. The numbering doesn’t seem to serve any purpose except to mark the progression of the plot: The injured Stroszek arriving at the village and meeting the Greek girl Nora (scene 12), Stroszek’s comrades making the fireworks in the fortress which Stroszek will later set off after he goes mad (scene 131), Stroszek’s unexplained and violent breakdown (scene 223), his comrades overcoming and subduing him in the final seconds of the film (scene 364). Herzog tells us in his intro that he wrote this screenplay in 1964, but then didn’t shoot it until ’67 which makes it astonishing to see how detailed he was in imagining what it would ultimately look like. He even envisions individual camera shots: “Tight close-up. The narrow, silvery leaves of an olive tree. They stir slightly in the breeze” (10) and “Stroszek, perhaps from Nora’s point of view” (49).
Some modern readers will be uncomfortable with the scenario for Even Dwarves Started Small. I had not seen this film until quite recently and was shocked at its cinematic power. The story is about a revolt of little people at some kind of institution. In the scenario, there is an introductory title card informing viewers that the location of the action is a work farm for youth criminals, that while the director of this place and many of the internees were off at a festival in another town, there was a rebellion. In the film, this information is dispensed with and viewers are left to piece together their own interpretation of events. In his introduction to Scenarios II, Herzog writes that “the text [of the scenario] does not have the full ashen despair of the film itself, as it became more radical during shooting” (Postscriptum). I agree with this statement, but the scenario simply hasn’t aged well into these more politically correct times. Herzog presents an us, his “normal” human audience, and a them, his “monstrous” dwarf actors: “Grotesque figures, Lilliputian bodies, overly large heads, stubby legs, prematurely aged faces. The fact that they must all be adults is something we also recognize in tandem with our horrified realization that these are dwarves” (70, italics mine). However, like with Signs of Life, there was a lag time between the writing of this scenario and the filming of the movie. According to the introduction, Herzog wrote this scenario in 1967 and didn’t film it (originally planned for Chiapas, Mexico, but ultimately filmed on one of the Canary Islands) until two years later. Although many of the episodes survived from the writing to the filming of Even Dwarves, I think its evolution is even more dramatic than the “ashen despair” which Herzog describes. In the prefatory remarks to the scenario, Herzog wrote in 1967:
The essential feature of the film has to do with physical objects and the environment they create…A door handle will be a perfectly normal handle, a motorcycle a motorcycle, and a chair a chair, nothing more. Yet by the end of the film the objects will appear monstrous, malevolent, and distorted, while by that time the human characters will be familiar to us, as if they represent normality. Here we have the provocation inherent in the film: that which is appalling may become familiar to us and the familiar appalling (70).
It’s true that most people who watch this film peopled completely with dwarf actors will be surprised at first. But I think that most of us, no matter our stature, become quickly accustomed to the actors in the film. Despite what Herzog writes in his scenario, it’s not the objects that are monstrous, it’s the actions of the characters. The senseless destruction of the estate and all of its objects, the cruelty directed at fellow humans and then animals, culminating in a cockfight and the torture and killing of a sow, are what this film is ultimately about. Over the hour-and-a-half duration of the film, it becomes incidental that all of the actors are dwarves.
Fata Morgana is a stunning film, labeled a documentary because we don’t know what else to call it. Herzog writes of it in his introduction:
Today, I still marvel at the film. I knew I was not making a documentary (some critics who have lost all hope in cinema are trying to label it as such). I remember that on the first day of editing, my editor, Beate Mainka-Jellinghous, to whom I owe a lot, said that with this kind of material we have to pretend to invent cinema. I continue to try to do this today. (Postscriptum)
The scenario for Fata Morgana is just over six pages. There are some quotes from “interviewees” in the film, but most of the script is a creation myth read in the film in voiceover by Herzog’s mentor, critic Lotte Eisner. Her voice takes on a haunting quality as affecting and important as the excerpted music by Leonard Cohen, Blind Faith, and the Third Ear Band. However, on the page, the myth is a little tedious to read and the power is gone – similar to the flatness one experiences reading song lyrics without music.
Likewise, reading Heart of Glass is a baffling experience. I’ve always found this to be one of Herzog’s most meandering and least successful films from this time period, mostly an excuse to film the villagers carrying packs of ruby glass on their backs like soldiers at the end and that final series of shots of actors on the island, the bird’s-eye camera coming close and away. If one didn’t know it already, it’s interesting to read in the postscriptum that Herzog hypnotized his actors to film them. “Further,” he writes with characteristic understatement,
since we do not know much about perception and vision, out of curiosity I conducted tests with audiences in a movie theater whom I put under hypnosis. They saw films and had very strange experiences. As there are certain psychological risks in this, I did not follow up with my experiments. (Postscriptum)
Herzog’s two-page postscriptum and the page-long note before it are actually the most valuable aspects to this collection. The previous Scenarios anthology is the superior collection. II will be a good addition for the Herzog critic or maybe a professor teaching a class on these particular films. But except for the completist, I think most readers can skip this second book.
Herzog’s recent documentary (1) Meeting Gorbachev is co-directed with André Singer who the director has frequently collaborated with since the late nineties (Little Dieter Needs to Fly , My Best Fiend  among others). Herzog wrote the script and acts as on-screen interviewer of Mikhail Gorbachev, the legendary Nobel Peace Prize-winning final Communist Party general secretary. The interviews – three in all – were conducted over a six-month period and it seems that we get to see the best segments from them. In the first moments of the film, Herzog says, “I am a German, and the first German you met probably wanted to kill you,” bluntly acknowledging the long and violent history between the two nations. Gorbachev says, “No!” and then proceeds to tell the story of being taken by his father to meet a German baker and eating gingerbread for the first time. He says, “I knew that if a people could make a delicious biscuit like that, they were a good people.” This is the historical Gorbachev, the timeless one, the politician who wants to put aside collective and bloody histories in order to create connections and peace.
Most of the first third of the film is pretty dry. There is some clumsy editing in the early segments of the film as we wait for the translator to interpret Herzog’s German and Gorbachev’s Russian to each other. There’s some very bad drone photography, the camera shifting in robotic ninety-degree angles. There is an interview with Miklos Nemeth, Prime Minister of Hungary from 1988-1990, which seems to be in front of a green screen depicting “nature” for some reason. But despite these flaws, after twenty minutes or so, I start to notice the rich foundation of archival footage and background history Herzog is giving us. And I start to notice what I recognize as the director’s dark and quirky sense of humor. After Leonid Brezhnev’s death and the footage from his funeral, and then the quick deaths of his two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the former dying after just over a year, the later less than a year after he takes power, the audience realizes pretty quickly that the same funeral music has been used for all three, the same robotic, Communist soldiers marching in slo-mo. Despite the gravity of the situation, the audience laughed at the press screening I attended.
Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party after Chernenko’s death. He would be the last Soviet leader. This is when the documentary picks up and this time period is clearly what Herzog is most interested in. The final hour of the film is rich with details from Gorbachev’s time as the USSR’s leader. We hear – and see via archival footage which editor Michael Ellis has nicely intertwined with the interviews – the story of how Gorbachev managed to forge alliances with the Western hawks, Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. And then about how he made the first overtures to stop the Cold War, reducing mid- and long-range missiles. And then about how Eastern Europe began to assert its independence and Germany reunified and Moscow stayed out of it and let it all happen. Then finally, the dissolution of the USSR is recounted, an event which quite predictably led to the end of Gorbachev’s career in politics. Herzog is clearly pleased to relive these successes with his interviewee. At one point, he says, “Do you realize that Germans love you? I love you.” Herzog is a character in his films and it’s fine that, as a character, he has opinions. He’s not making journalism here. But I would have liked a little less hagiographic of an approach at times. When Herzog brings up the Chernobyl nuclear crisis of 1986 and the criminally inept handling of that crisis by the Soviet government, Gorbachev will have none of it, and changes the subject to the completely unrelated topic of getting rid of nuclear missiles. We cut to archival footage of Soviets in quaintly unprotective white, cotton outfits studying the wreckage of the nuclear plant, sifting through mysterious white powder. There is no commentary about these nameless men from either Herzog or Gorbachev, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of radiation illness to know that they won’t have long to live. (To get a more complete portrayal of this historical disaster, read Sophie Pinkham’s “The Chernobyl Syndrome,” in the April 4, 2019 issue of New York Review of Books.)
The last moments of the film are full of drama and pathos. Clearly, the loss of Gorbachev’s wife to cancer in 1999 was a devastating blow to the former leader. We see him weeping in multiple archival scenes and it’s hard not to think that Herzog is trying to get him to cry again for his camera twenty years later. He asks him what it was like to lose his wife. And, dissatisfied with Gorbachev’s answer, asks him two more nearly identical questions until the former leader says, “On that day my life ended,” period. As far as the current two leaders of the world’s superpowers, both Gorbachev and Herzog seem to be tiptoeing around the topic. It doesn’t take too much imagination to wonder why Gorbachev might be hesitant. He lives in Russia and critics of Putin don’t have an easy time there. But it’s unclear why Herzog doesn’t at least push a little harder on this front. The closest the former leader will get to discussing a possibly renewed Cold War and the recent machinations of Putin and Trump on the nuclear front is to say that “certain forces” are engaged in a dangerous game of chess.
Meeting Gorbachev is probably not required viewing, and Scenarios II isn’t required reading. But they’re part of the granular substance of a long, prolific and frequently brilliant career which shows no signs of being over any time soon. It’s hard to think of another living filmmaker who has had such a sustained and wide effect on the art of film. And if Herzog were to win the Nobel Prize, I guarantee he would travel to Stockholm to receive it, unlike Dylan who didn’t even bother acknowledging his award for two weeks and then didn’t travel to receive it due to “pre-existing commitments.” It seems as if Herzog has already been nearly everywhere to make his films: the Sahara, Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ghana, Thailand, Southern France, Siberia, Bolivia, Iceland, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Ethiopia, Antarctica, North Korea, and several places in the US, including Texas state’s Death Row. It would be a little thing for Herzog to travel to Sweden. I imagine he might even find a way to make a movie out of it.
- Herzog’s latest documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, recently screened at Tribeca Film Festival 2019. To read Gary Kramer’s capsule review, visit here: http://filmint.nu/?p=27322.
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.