The first picture in The Past From Above, a recent exhibition of aerial photographs at the British Museum depicting the world’s ancient monuments, shows the supposed birthplace of mankind, the ‘cradle of humanity’ in South Africa. The ground is parched, torn up with cracks and dotted only with small trees whipped with dust; there is nowhere to hide from the sun and any water must lie far beneath the earth. Nothing, it seems, was meant to live here. Yet, from this region humans emerged, and, as the exhibition illustrates, went on to carve ecstatic figures into this same ground, to dig holes in it big enough to hold entire churches, and to erect on it ziggurats, towers, and temples that still stand. That human life should find itself surrounded by a natural world that is so completely indifferent and even inhospitable to it, and that at the same time such a world should inspire humans to search relentlessly for meaning and to strive relentlessly for unthinkable achievement, is an irony that lies at the heart of the films of Werner Herzog.
Rescue Dawn, Herzog’s latest film and his largest project in years, illustrates Herzog’s lifelong fascination with, in the words of Conrad’s Marlowe, ‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’ The film is a fictional reconstruction of Herzog’s earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), which tells the story of a German American pilot’s escape from captivity through the jungle in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this story can be seen the central conceit of Herzog’s films: an encounter between an extraordinary human being and the wilderness. For Herzog, this seems to be the basic structure for all human life since the Fall of Man. The films are filled with characters who, beguiled by a vision or dream or captivated by an imagined possibility, set out to accomplish a feat that would charge their lives with significance.
In Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), one of Herzog’s most famous films, a sixteenth-century conquistador announces a rebellion against Philip II, King of Spain, and claims for himself the whole of South America, leading a doomed expedition down the Peruvian Amazon in search of El Dorado, a fictitious city of gold invented by the native inhabitants to trick explorers. When finally Aguirre asks ferociously, ‘Who else is with me?’, everyone else is either dead, shot with poison darts or swallowed by the jungle, and the makeshift raft is overrun with monkeys—the last and only subjects of an empire whose rise and fall took place in the confines of one man’s head. Other films depict, for example, a man orchestrating the hauling of a 340-tonne ship over a mountain to make possible a concert with the virtuoso tenor Caruso, an engineer setting out to build a ghostlike airship to fly just a few feet above the rainforest, and a group of astronauts travelling to colonise a blue planet in the Andromeda galaxy for fear of a catastrophe on earth. Their wild hope may be simply to survive, as in Rescue Dawn or Wings of Hope (2000), in which a woman describes walking through the Peruvian jungle for twelve days after a plane crash in which she was the only survivor.
As a filmmaker, Herzog is interested in addressing the extremes of experience, telling stories in which someone comes face to face with isolation, the threat of failure, or oblivion. Like Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, Herzog has ‘borrowed his authority from Death,’ that is, he has sought out instances in which an abyss opened up and he has gone to see what might be found there. In many cases, he has even wrested his authority from Death as one wrests a throne from a tyrannical king. Thus while cutting a film in Munich, Herzog heard on the radio that a volcano had a 100 percent chance of erupting in Guadaloupe and that one farmer who lived on the slope had refused to evacuate; that same afternoon, he and his cameraman flew to the site to shoot an interview with the farmer and the rest of the footage that became the film La Soufrière (1977). In the end, the volcano never erupted. ‘We treated it with great disrespect,’ Herzog said in an interview, ‘Jörg [the cameraman] and I walked all they way up to the crater and pissed in it. The matter of fear doesn’t come up. Nobody else could have made the film, and somebody had to. I suppose you will realise from this that in
some way I must have resolved the death question.’
Herzog is very prolific—in forty-five years he has made over forty-five films—and this is due, in part, to a kind of restless turning-over of the mind that has evidently recognized itself in some far corner of the earth and its history. He has, in other words, a manifest knack for seizing upon stories that seem destined from the start to become films by Werner Herzog. His process is extremely professional and rapid: often he will write a screenplay in three days and complete an entire film in thirty, moving on immediately to the next project. Accordingly, many of his films have the quality of an étude composed when a faint melody floated suddenly into the ears, or of a sketch made of something seen out of a train window during a long ride. When asked whether his films consistently address certain themes, Herzog has answered, ‘Though I cannot be sure of this, I do know one thing. Let’s say you turn on the television and see ten seconds of a film. You would immediately know that this must be one of my films.’
Herzog’s work can be divided loosely into three categories: first, fictional dramas set in various historical periods and often in remote locations (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo (1982), or 1984’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser); second, ‘documentaries’ that often relate an account of an extraordinary but unknown figure or story (Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), My Best Fiend (1999), or Grizzly Man in 2005); third, films that blur the previous categories by splicing together images both fictional and non-fictional, or by using voiceovers to present documentary footage in a fictional, narrative form (Fata Morgana (1971), Lessons of Darkness (1992), 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder). These distinctions may be muddied even further when one considers that in the so-called documentaries, Herzog has shaped the material considerably more than is normally expected of a nonfiction filmmaker. Frequently, for instance, he invents and films dreams that are then attributed to the central character, as in the sequence in Little Dieter in which Dieter Dengler walks through an airfield surrounded by thousands of planes. Herzog calls this approach an attempt at presenting an ‘ecstatic truth,’ a truth beyond a collection of facts, which could only be achieved intuitively and metaphorically.
Herzog thus represents the rare case of a filmmaker who deals predominantly in metaphor, rather than in simile. In Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), for example, there is an extended sequence in which the characters are shown hunting rabbits on a country estate. In the context of plot, by placing the hunting scenes between scenes of dialogue and romantic intrigue, we take the hunting as a sort of reflective comment on the action: ‘The amorous pursuits of the people of various classes on this country estate are in some way like the activity of hunting rabbits.’ Herzog’s films, however, seem to represent a body of metaphors, in which the subject has been lost, hidden, or severed. They give the viewer only the second part of the structure. Thus, rather than declare ‘My love is a flower,’ Herzog’s films seem to say, ‘[Blank] is a procession up a mountain at the top of which Death is waiting,’ as in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, or ‘[Blank] is a town where the secret to creating a beautiful type of red glass has been lost,’ as in Heart of Glass (1976). The viewer feels profoundly that he or she has just come across a metaphor but finds it impossible to pin down what it was a metaphor for. Much of the power of the films is accordingly derived from the viewer’s sense of having encountered the absence of a closed circuit of meaning. Thus the films often feel not only like études, but additionally like preludes to works that were never made, like offhand gestures in the direction of a complete significance. In this way, Herzog’s use of metaphor is close to that of Kafka, in whose works the accounts of the protagonists are felt by the reader to be haunted by the open-ended mystery of the metaphor’s other half.
Rather than resembling a prophet, as he has often been called, Herzog brings to mind a traveller who, returning from a venture into a forgotten or forbidden country, presents us with a suitcase full of snapshots. These images remain with us, in the words of the poet Sandor Weores, ‘half-remembered now / and later, like a dream. / And with a taste of eternity / this side of the tomb.’
Alex Nemser is an MPhil student in European literature at New College, Oxford. His poems have been published in The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times.