Stroszek (1977): “Americans…believe that they are normal, that they make sense, and that the rest of the world is exotic. They do not seem to understand that they are the most exotic people in the world right now” –Werner Herzog
By John Duncan Talibird.
How do you write about Werner Herzog? How do you make sense of a sixty-year career that encompasses over seventy films in multiple genre and media, in addition to outside gigs in opera and as an occasional actor in other people’s films and TV episodes? A foundational figure in the New German Cinema of the 1970s, he has released one or more films most years since his first feature, Signs of Life, in 1968. But he has not been limited to his home country as location nor to themes or subjects aligned with post-war Germany or even Europe, filming on every continent on the planet including Antarctica. No one has to argue that Herzog is an auteur in the Bazinian sense. But what kind of auteur? Can we really say anything about his vision and practice that captures even a majority of his films? Isn’t it likely that any argument we make about his films will be subject to contradiction from some other aspect of his body of work? And how do we separate the persona – the plodding narrating Germanic voice which has become fodder for comedians, the spectacle maker, the ambiguous politics – from the films themselves and is that even desirable?
Author Joshua Lund takes on this Sisyphean task in his addition to the University of Illinois Press’s very good “Contemporary Film Directors” series. One thing I’ve noticed about this series is that, rather than simply surveying a director’s work, authors carve out a portion of a director’s films to make over-arching analyses and arguments about their practice and aesthetics. For instance, in George Toles’ book on Paul Thomas Anderson, he focuses on just three of his later films and in Donna Kornhaber’s analysis of Wes Anderson, she subdivides his oeuvre into three thematically linked “curio shelves.”  Here, Lund has taken the novel approach of arguing that Herzog is an American filmmaker, in fact, subtitling his book “American Nomadic.” This is not because of Herzog’s current residence in Los Angeles nor his tendency to sometimes work on the fringes of the Hollywood industry with big-name actors, but because of the place of America – as in both continents, North and South – as subject, theme, and symbol in his filmmaking. Although many of Herzog’s films (too many for my taste) are cursorily examined or mentioned here, the primary focus is on four of his most iconic “American” feature films from a brief fifteen-year window: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Stroszek (1977), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987). Lund argues that these films are suited for the book’s “analytical center…the political problem. And by this I mean political in the widest sense, as the objectification and contemplation of power relations (as opposed to the identification of ideological affiliations or implications)” (3, italics in original). Lund goes on to point out the difficulty of this approach:
On the one hand, in Herzog’s ample and unusually authoritative discourse on his own films is a commonly rehearsed refusal of the political: he summarily rejects any identification as a political filmmaker, vigorously resists the discovery of political allegories in his films, occasionally provokes the leftist sensibilities that so often claim a monopoly on political filmmaking as “engaged” cinema and so on (4).
This is the first hint that Lund will be reading against the grain of Herzog’s voluminous commentary from his own work – in interviews, in his own published writings, and in DVD commentary. Lund has clearly surveyed the primary documents and has no problem diverging from the director’s statements when he disagrees with them.
Placing the director’s commentary to one side, the films in and of themselves are true to this unexpected treatment of the political. It is not so much that the films actively deconstruct the ordering binaries of contemporary social life. It is rather that they simply refuse these binaries and seem to operate outside, or alongside, their discursive conventions (5).
As in rereadings of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) after Chinua Achebe (“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’” 1977), Lund is not denying any problems in Herzog’s work, to the contrary. However, he is arguing that in either dismissing the work for having the “wrong” politics or simply ignoring politics altogether flattens the work, limits it, and misses fundamental elements of Herzog’s oeuvre.
One of the strengths of the book is that, at least for these four films, Lund gives deep background, describing events on-set, giving historical context for the film scripts which are based on true stories (all except Stroszek), describing Herzog’s often complicated relationship with his lead actor (again, Klaus Kinski in all except Stroszek which starred the eccentric, if less volatile, German street musician Bruno S.), and outlines charges of exploitation of local talent (again, in all four except Stroszek). The parenthetical statements in the above sentence begin to raise, for me, a particular limitation in Stroszek’s placement. Although, like Lund, I agree that this is one of Herzog’s great films, it fits uneasily into this quartet especially since the author himself refers to the three Kinski-starring films as a “trilogy” (140). There are several tenuous connections between Stroszek and the other three films, for instance, the Indians at the end of both Aguirre and Stroszek – 16th-century Amazon natives in the first and the modern native police officers who show up at the end of the second. I understand why Lund wants to devote so much space to Stroszek. The film is rich with strange scenes which beg to be described: the premature baby gripping a doctor’s fingers, Clayton Szalpinski’s “hit the quarter, fuck the small change!” improvisation, Bruno being made to watch as his earthly belongings in America are auctioned off, and the final scene with the animals performing for pennies. Lund quotes Herzog speaking to Roger Ebert two years after the release of Stroszek: “Americans…believe that they are normal, that they make sense, and that the rest of the world is exotic. They do not seem to understand that they are the most exotic people in the world right now” (87). I think the “right now” is crucial in that sentence and raises a real problem with trying to make a cohesive statement about Herzog’s sixty-year filmography based on this earlyish fifteen-year output. If, as it sounds above, Herzog is using the word “exotic” as a synonym for strange, he has clearly always been interested in the “exotic” no matter where it is or when he was working. One of his earliest features is acted only by German little people filmed on a Spanish island (Even Dwarves Started Small, 1970), he once hypnotized his cast before filming (Heart of Glass, 1976), he made five features with the increasingly unstable and violent Klaus Kinski, he made a documentary about a man who befriended bears and then was eaten by them (Grizzly Man, 2005), starved himself in sympathy with his actors on set (Rescue Dawn, 2006) and, as said before, he has filmed all over the world – from Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) to inside a volcano (Into the Inferno, 2016) and everywhere in-between.
One of the strongest parts of the book is Lund’s analysis of Fitzcarraldo’s place in Herzog’s filmography in a chapter titled, “I’m planning something geographical…” This quote is from Fitzcarraldo and could just as easily be a quote from the director who has said that he doesn’t film landscapes, “he directs them” (97). This, famously, would never be so true as in Fitzcarraldo. Lund describes in vivid detail the principal shooting, particularly the spectacle of pulling a river boat across dry land, including the political problems such as charges of exploitation and spoilage of land. Lund gives a “truncated list” of the film’s many problems:
…war, bureaucrats, accidents, activists, dismemberment, skeptical engineers, two plane crashes, assault, drowning, mud, dynamite, dysentery, chainsaws, bugs, arson, Kinski, the jungle itself, machinery malfunction, conspiracy to commit murder, infidelity, ambush, piranhas, draught, lumbermen, priests, hygiene, domestic violence, debtors’ prison, food shortage, falling limbs, falling trees, gun running, rebellion, prostitution, Jason Robards, arrows, an oil pipeline, drunken soldiers, harrowing rapids, field surgery, venomous snakes, armed vigilantes, resignations in protest, Mick Jagger, and a cameraman accidentally abandoned overnight on a boulder in the middle of a rising river (119).
This extra-filmic analysis is crucial in helping to understand why this particular film stands out as such an achievement in the director’s work, especially when compared with leaner, more-crafted films like Aguirre and Stroszek. It also helps to explain why, despite his prodigious, some might say excessive, output, the release of a new Herzog film, even today, is still an event.
I would argue that spectacle, which gets maybe short shrift in Lund’s book, is a hugely important aspect of Herzog’s aesthetics. There is a great section in this chapter where Lund describes the importance of opera as spectacle (102) – in the film, as a genre, and as a European import to the New World. This might have been an opportunity to examine how spectacle figures more generally in Herzog’s work, definitely an element in all four of the principal films under discussion, but also arguably, an element in nearly all of his films. All of the “Contemporary Film Directors” include an interview with the director. This one includes a 2007 interview by Karen Redrobe at the University of Pennsylvania in front of a live audience after a screening of Encounters at the End of the World. Redrobe says that some critics describe Herzog as a Neo-Romantic which clearly sets the director off. He rejects the idea that his films about nature are Romantic, neo or otherwise, and it’s hard not to agree. Perhaps we might make a glancing reference to Romanticism if we discuss the sublime in his films, especially the feeling of terror or fear one can get from the natural world. Or maybe embracing the irrational as in Keats’ concept of negative capability. Perhaps even the ecstasy of Blakes’ mysticism, particularly in his painting – although Herzog rejects mystical interpretations of his work with the same vehemence he does the Romantic. In any case, this approach overemphasizes the natural world in Herzog and ignores the place of the built environment which is often also important in his films. If anything, Herzog’s view is an Existential one, the natural always presented as a setting for human crisis or conflict – whether fictional or documentary film or hybrid (i.e. Fata Morgana ). I’m thinking of Roquentin’s disgust at the roots of the chestnut tree in Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and such proto-Existential texts which plumb human terror at the natural like Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915). I would love to read this type of analysis of Herzog. But that is another book.
In addition to Lund’s chapter on Fitzcarraldo, his chapter analyzing Cobra Verde gets closer to this spectacle-sublime-existential nexus which is achieved on more than one occasion in that film, perhaps most memorably in its closing scene. In the last images of the film, Herzog’s titular anti-hero skulks alone on a beach followed by a lone African man disfigured by polio, walking along on his hands and one leg like some kind of crippled dog. It is a quiet, but strangely disturbing scene, Kinski trying to pull a huge, hand-carved boat off of the sand back into the surf and failing, the African in the distance watching. Lund makes connections here between Cobra Verde’s ineffectual struggles and that of Fitzcarraldo who loses his river boat to the natives who run it over the rapids.
Again, it has to be stated: If the goal is to make connections between four essential “American” Herzog films, where is Stroszek in this discussion, how does it fit within this “trilogy”? Also, as Lund himself points out, only the first half of Cobra Verde is set in Brazil. The rest is in West Africa, Benin to be precise (the film was shot in Ghana). Lund argues that the first half, set in South America, is the superior half of the film and then proceeds to spend a lot of time analyzing the African half which, in my experience, is the most arresting half, the half with all the spectacle (an army of women warriors for one), and the half that sticks in the viewer’s mind the longest. In addition, Lund makes the difficult claim that Cobra Verde is one of Herzog’s strongest films. In the service of this heavy lift, he even launches attacks on Herzog’s 21st-century features. Although I’ll agree with Lund about the awfulness of recent films like Queen of the Desert (2015) and Salt and Fire (2016), I part ways in his dismissal of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and especially Rescue Dawn which, though they may pale in comparison to Aguirre and Stroszek, are still stronger-than-average films. Obviously, I’m not alone in this viewpoint as a quick check of Rotten Tomatoes or any other review aggregator will reveal.
Actually, Lund’s overall dismissal of Herzog’s career after Cobra Verde is another missed opportunity. His last chapter is called “Late Work” and is just over ten pages long – ten pages for a career span of over thirty years. This is not only a shame due to the fact that nearly half of his films are cursorily glossed over or dismissed, but also because it doesn’t allow Lund to contextualize what has arguably been Herzog’s greatest strength in the current century: documentary film. Herzog has called the critical distinction between his fiction and nonfiction films “too mechanical and too brainless,” and though it’s not necessary to take the director’s word for his own work, it is a shame not to more closely examine the role documentary plays in his aesthetics, especially since it’s such a pivotal role, and how documentary speaks to the fiction films that Lund analyzes. Lund praises Grizzly Man (2005) as “[a]n almost perfect documentary” (176) and discusses the political aspects of Into the Abyss (2011) and the TV series On Death Row (2012-2013), but he has little-to-nothing to say about other 21st-century documentaries like Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), let alone early documentaries in the director’s career such as Fata Morgana and Land of Silence and Darkness (1971).
This is a particular shame for two reasons: 1) Some of Herzog’s strongest work in the last twenty years are in documentary and 2) His documentaries are concerned with the same themes and subject matter as his fictional films. Lund dismisses Rescue Dawn as “an entire feature based on retelling a story that Herzog had already told, and told better, before” (178) in Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). This is not only debatable, but limits both films to “story,” an aspect of film – if by “story” we mean “plot,” “narrative” – that, for Herzog, is only ever of auxiliary concern in relation to image, theme, and what Herzog calls “poetry.”
The major risk in ignoring Herzog’s documentaries is that you’re forced to ignore so much of his recent output. His most recent film is coincidentally titled Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019). I say “coincidentally” because the film, which has a similar title to Lund’s subtitle (“American Nomadic”), was not out when Lund’s book went to press. It’s also a coincidence because Chatwin wrote the novel which is the source material for Cobra Verde which Lund dismisses as a “rather weak experiment in magic realism” (152).
The film is broken up into chapters with titles like, “Chapter 1: The Skin of the Brontosaurus” and “Chapter 2: Landscapes of the Soul” and we open on the image of the so-called “skin of the brontosaurus” (actually a giant sloth) accompanied by, not Herzog’s voice, but the now-deceased Chatwin, reading from his influential In Patagonia (1977). Chatwin, an innovative writer of travel literature and novels, was Herzog’s friend and a fellow explorer. The film is an attempt for Herzog to travel to the various places that Chatwin visited and then wrote about in his fiction and nonfiction, but, more importantly and interestingly, it is an analysis of how Herzog and Chatwin’s aesthetics overlap and it is, in some ways, one of Herzog’s most honest recent films as he confronts his own mortality. Chatwin died of AIDS in 1989 and his death is a significant part of the final quarter of the film, even causing the stoic Herzog to come to tears in one recollection of Chatwin on his death bed. Near the end of the film, Glenn Morrison, who wrote a book about Aboriginal songlines and Bruce Chatwin says that he felt that Chatwin in his last years was “looking for a right way to die.” It is hard not to think that Herzog, approaching eighty, is also doing this as he looks back over his career and life.
Chatwin loved Herzog’s first film, Signs of Life, referred to the horizon of windmills in that film as a “deranged landscape,” understood how a landscape might drive someone insane as it does the soldier Stroszek (unrelated to the titular character in the eponymous film). We cut to this very scene and it’s at moments like this where the film particularly shines. Later, in the seventh chapter, “Cobra Verde,” we will have scenes and images from the African set of that film. Chatwin was able to visit that set for an extended time even though he was already dying of AIDS by then. Morrison says that the author was “the precursor of the internet,” meaning that he was a mostly self-educated polymath with an endless curiosity about the world and people. He was someone like Herzog.
The film also shows some of the weaknesses in Herzog’s recent work. For the first third of the film, I felt that I was watching Herzog’s best documentary since Grizzly Man. But the film loses steam too early, Herzog relies too much on talking head interviews and the narrative tends to wander. For an almost-octogenarian, Herzog’s output is impressive. But I wonder if he were to slow down a bit and conceptualize and craft his recent films more, if they would be stronger. In the closing scene of Nomad, an anthropologist reads from the final passage of Chatwin’s iconic book The Songlines (1987), a travel book about the songs of the Aboriginal Australians. As we hear her in voice-over, the camera traces a pathway under thick trees and the reader’s voice eventually is replaced by the Aboriginal singing that the book is talking about. On a certain level, it’s the kind of beautifully wrought scene that Herzog has been able to make his whole life. But when put it up against the “deranged landscapes” of his first feature, it seems like standard nature photography. Herzog saw Chatwin as a soul mate because, as he says in the film, they were both on a “quest for strangeness.” There are moments of that strangeness here in Nomad, too. But unfortunately, too much of it comes from his earlier filmography.
1) To read my reviews of Toles’ book (in Film International 16.4) and for Kornhaber’s (in issue 16.1), please visit here.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) and the novel The World Out There (Madville Publishing). His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. He is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and Associate Editor, Fiction, for the noir online journal Retreats from Oblivion. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in New York City.