The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth 9780231502139, 9781905674183, 9781905674176, 0231502133

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The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth
 9780231502139, 9781905674183, 9781905674176, 0231502133

Table of contents :
Series Page
Title Page
Introduction: Framing Werner Herzog
1. Madness on a Grand Scale
2. Madness on a Minor Scale
3. Mountains and Fog
4. Faith
5. War and Trauma
6. An Image of Africa
Conclusion: Cinematic Poesis
List of Filmography
Sources and Bibliography

Citation preview

the cinema of WERNER HERZOG



Other titles in the Directors’ Cuts series: the cinema of EMIR KUSTURICA: notes from the underground GORAN GOCIC

the cinema of KEN LOACH: art in the service of the people JACOB LEIGH

the cinema of WIM WENDERS: the celluloid highway ALEXANDER GRAF

the cinema of KATHRYN BIGELOW: hollywood transgressor edited by DEBORAH JERMYN & SEAN REDMOND

the cinema of ROBERT LEPAGE: the poetics of memory ALEKSANDAR DUNDJEROVIC

the cinema of GEORGE A. ROMERO: knight of the living dead TONY WILLIAMS

the cinema of TERRENCE MALICK: poetic visions of america edited by HANNAH PATTERSON

the cinema of ANDRZEJ WAJDA: the art of irony and defiance edited by JOHN ORR & ELZBIETA OSTROWSKA

the cinema of KRZYSZTOF variations on destiny and chance




the cinema of DAVID LYNCH: american dreams, nightmare visions edited by ERICA SHEEN & ANNETTE DAVISON

the cinema of NANNI MORETTI: dreams and diaries edited by EWA MAZIERSKA & LAURA RASCAROLI

the cinema of MIKE LEIGH: a sense of the real GARRY WATSON

the cinema of JOHN CARPENTER: the technique of terror edited by IAN CONRICH AND DAVID WOODS

the cinema of ROMAN POLANSKI: dark spaces of the world edited by JOHN ORR & ELZBIETA OSTROWSKA

the cinema of TODD HAYNES: all that heaven allows edited by JAMES MORRISON

the cinema of STEVEN SPIELBERG: empire of light NIGEL MORRIS

the cinema of ANG LEE: the other side of the screen WHITNEY CROTHERS DILLEY

the cinema of LARS VON TRIER: authenticity and artifice CAROLINE BAINBRIDGE

the cinema of NEIL JORDAN: dark carnival CAROLE ZUCKER


the cinema of

WERNER HERZOG aesthetic ecstasy and truth



A Wallflower Press Book Published by Columbia University Press Publishers Since 1893 New York Reprinted 2011 Copyright © Brad Prager 2007 All rights reserved. E-ISBN 978-0-231-50213-9 Wallflower Press® is a registered trademark of Columbia University Press. A complete CIP record is available from the Library of Congress ISBN 978-1-905674-18-3 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-905674-17-6 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-231-50213-9 (e-book) A Columbia University Press E-book. CUP would be pleased to hear about your reading experience with this e-book at [email protected].



Acknowledgments Introduction: Framing Werner Herzog 1

Madness on a Grand Scale


Madness on a Minor Scale


Mountains and Fog




War and Trauma


An Image of Africa Conclusion: Cinematic Poesis Filmography Sources and Bibliography Index




This book has been a pleasure to write, not only because it has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on Werner Herzog’s work, but also because so many people have been motivated to share their thoughts about his films with me. I am glad for the opportunity to acknowledge their contributions. I had the good fortune to have been contacted by Silke Panse as she was organising the conference ‘Werner Herzog’s Cinema: Between the Visionary and the Documentary’ at the Goethe Institut in London in 2005. I am grateful to have participated and for the opportunity to discuss the varied conference presentations, in particular those of Timothy Corrigan, Alan Singer, Erica Carter, Paul N. Reinsch and Helen Hughes. Guido Vitiello generously shared resources and materials with me, and Roger Hillman continued to discuss Herzog’s musical choices with me long after the conference was over. I am especially grateful to Graham Dorrington, who was candid in sharing his experiences, and to Silke Panse who provided many thoughtful comments on this book when it was in manuscript form. Some of the ideas in these pages originated during the time I spent at Cornell University. I am still grateful to Peter Uwe Hohendahl, David


Bathrick, Geoffrey Waite and Peter Gilgen, among other faculty in the Department of German Studies. Additionally, Jaimey Fisher and Barbara Mennel have remained generous colleagues since that time and have continued to provide me with feedback and new source material, especially about German cinema. My colleagues at the University of Missouri have been supportive of my film research. Roger F. Cook and Carsten Strathausen have been key participants in the Program in Film Studies and have provided me with ample opportunity to pursue this project. Other colleagues, including Valerie Kaussen, Stefani Engelstein, Sean Ireton, Kristin Kopp, Monika Fischer and Megan Mckinstry are always willing to share their work, thoughts and opinions, many of which appear in one form or another in these pages. I also benefited from Mark Gallagher’s insights as well as those of Sandy Camargo, both of whom are now affiliated with other institutions. In connection with my work at Missouri I am also glad to be in regular contact with members of the German Department at Washington University in St Louis, in particular with Jennifer Kapczynski and Lutz Koepnick. I consider myself very lucky to have been put in touch with Wallflower Press, who are charting a fine new path in film publishing. This seems in no small measure to be due to the work of their Editorial Director, Yoram Allon. I am especially grateful to him as well as to Jacqueline Downs, Editorial Manager, for their careful approach to 10

their work and for their thoughtful input during the production stage. Partial sections of some of the following chapters have appeared elsewhere. A portion of chapter three appeared in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 20, 1 (2003), 23–36 (as ‘Werner Herzog’s Hearts of Darkness: Fitzcarraldo, Scream of Stone and Beyond’), and part of chapter six appeared in Film Criticism, 28, 3 (2004) 2–20 (as ‘The Face of the Bandit: Racism and the Slave Trade in Herzog’s Cobra Verde’). These passages appear here by permission. I am grateful to the editors of those journals for their assistance. On a personal note, I would like to acknowledge a number of close friends. I first noticed Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, Wrath of God many years ago in the company of Michael Richardson. I have been fortunate for his long-standing and continued friendship. I am also indebted to Andrew P. Hoberek, Noah Hering-man, Elizabeth J. Hornbeck and Gregg Hyder. Specifically, I thank Elizabeth for her opinions on Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Andrew for his interest in Grizzly Man and Noah for his thoughts on Heart of Glass. I am also especially grateful to my sister Danielle for her take on My Best Fiend. My family continues to be a source of great support and I am always thankful for them. Most of all, I owe gratitude and far more to Estelle Tarica, my love, who is always there for me.


B.P. July 2007




Framing Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is not a director who calls upon others to speak on behalf of his films. There are few filmmakers who reflect so eloquently and at such length on their own work; Herzog’s extensive interviews with Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog (2002) were antedated by a long history of public self-representation over the course of which it became increasingly clear that he was a director who could intelligently elucidate his background, his films and his filmmaking practices, and that he was someone who took pleasure in doing so. Alternating between pensive and polemical, Herzog over time surpassed both Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. as his own most compelling protagonist. Given the specific contours of the character he created for himself – of his personal stylisation – it comes as no surprise that he declares himself a competent mesmerist. Anyone who has watched Burden of Dreams (1982), the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), or his later film Grizzly Man (2005) will likely find themselves hypnotised by the sound of his voice. To some it seems sage, to others paternalistic, and to some it is just quintessentially German. He is found


everywhere in his own films such as in My Best Fiend (1999), where he has the last word in his relationship with the notoriously rambunctious Kinski, or in Wheel of Time (2003) in which he shows that he is undaunted by a personal audience with the Dalai Lama. However, all of this articulate self-presentation can be problematic. Because of his omnipresent commentary – because he has been more than happy to supply philosophy to accompany his cinematic poetry – Herzog casts a long shadow over most attempts at interpretation and critique. Writing about Herzog offers a special challenge in that one is writing about a subject who has made clear his overall distaste for scholarly analysis. Occasional academic observations that suggest, for example, that Herzog’s technique does not measure up to his material have done little to mitigate the impression that his films offer something superior to the debates that attend them. His own reflections on his artistic choices, coupled with his comments on the pitfalls (and the banalities) of academic enquiry, have lent support to the sense that when one writes commentary about Herzog’s ‘ecstatic’ works, one has committed the error of – in the words of one critic – tap dancing in church (see Peucker 1984: 193; citing Jan Dawson). In other words, Herzog’s films seem to obtain a height from which scholarly, analytic prose can only detract. At the same time, however, accepting the position that Herzog’s works should be received with reverent silence, as though we ourselves were under hypnosis, or with 15

only those analytic tools that have been supplied by the director himself fails to do justice to his body of work. His films, like all works of art, benefit from scrutiny and analysis, even if such scrutiny and analysis originate from within scholarly discourse. For Herzog, filmmaking, unlike criticism, is a physical, athletic endeavour. He has indicated that one of the problems with academic writing is that it is not physical, or as he puts it, it lacks pain (see Herzog’s comments on this in Overbey 1974/5: 73; Bachmann 1977: 7–8; O’Toole 1979: 41; Cronin 2002: 101–2). This latter claim is of course something that any scholar who has sat for a long time knows not to be the case; there is, regrettably, no genuine abstraction of the body where writing is concerned. When asked at a later date about such comments, Herzog clarified that his intention was to assert that filmmaking was not cerebral but instead that it ‘comes from your thighs’. He then added: ‘it’s not literature, it’s not academia, it’s something else’ (SL ch. 19; 1:20:39). Throughout his works, one finds a fascination with bodily exertion, not only in his films about sports – specifically those that take activities such as climbing, ‘ski-flying’ and even bodybuilding as their subjects – but also in the way his films are photographed. Herzog and his experienced cameramen rely on athleticism in their placement of the camera; the body is integrated into the work, as it would be in the act of sculpting or painting.


One sees traces of such physicality particularly in films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen, 1970) and Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972), films in which the camera seems to reach into the scene and probe around, searching fearlessly or ‘mercilessly’ (as Herzog likes to say) for the truth within a given shot or sequence. Just as the artist who produces such sequences includes the body in the equation, so too should the critic who studies them. For this reason, one of the chief concerns here is to address the role of sense perception or of ‘aesthetics’ as bodily experience in Herzog’s works. The issue is not simply that the films are aesthetic in that the sounds and images in them are pleasing to the ear and the eye – this would misunderstand what is meant by the term. It is rather that the sense experience (the aesthetic experience) and the physical, athletic one are interrelated; Herzog’s films ultimately attempt to include the human body in that which transpires on the screen regardless of whether such inclusion happens through the movement of the camera or by way of the music on the soundtrack. Despite the many cerebral and philosophical statements Herzog has made about the politics of his films – regarding their positions on war, the effects of colonialism or the unpleasant vagaries of German history – Herzog ultimately makes his choices based on the sensual effects of cinema over and above any conscious regard for his films’ potential or perceived politics.


The director’s lack of enthusiasm for political and scholarly critique is rooted in an elevation of the sensual, physical and corporeal above the verbal, and this same distaste extends to his overall suspicion of rhetoric and of certain modes of reasoning. One need not look very far to find moments in Herzog’s films that express ideas along precisely these lines. His distrust for rationalisation leads him into outright ridicule, and one might take, as an example, the Professor of Logic depicted in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, 1974). The figure is a caricature of a nineteenth-century logician. The professor (Alfred Edel) explains to Kaspar (Bruno S.) a logician’s paradox (the one traditionally referred to as the Cretan paradox) in which someone is asked to adduce what single question he or she could put to a liar and a ‘truth-teller’ encountered at a crossroads that would yield an honest answer about the two directions of a forked path. Kaspar answers intuitively that a proper result could be obtained by asking if either one of the two, the liar or the truth-teller, were a tree-frog. One would thereby know which of the two was a liar. By presenting us with Kaspar’s naïve though indisputable response, the credibility of the logician is undermined, and the lack of creativity in his reasoning becomes evident. The same can be said of the diabolical doctor in Woyzeck (1979), Herzog’s adaptation of Georg Büchner’s nineteenth-century drama. The medical researcher there exploits his patient in the name of science and progress, objectifying him 18

and feeding him a diet of nothing but peas for no apparent reason other than to see how far the poor soldier can be pushed. Both Woyzeck’s doctor and the Professor of Logic come across as scathing parodies of ‘scholars’. However, Herzog’s own analytic reflections on his work are themselves neither wholly un-academic nor un-scholarly. His resistance to scholarly efforts to diminish his poetic films by way of prosaic analysis often comes across in a philosophical language of its own. While he is not consciously drawing on philosophical traditions and certainly comes by his conclusions honestly, there are undoubtedly strains of German philosophy throughout his remarks. To take one example, the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno also distrusted what he described as the pervasive philosophical ‘jargon’ that obscures the true object of enquiry. Adorno, like Herzog, insisted on a sphere of autonomy for aesthetics. His position valued what he described as the ‘truth-content’ (Wahrheitsgehalt) of art over any form of overt political engagement. As with the ‘ecstatic truth’ that Herzog often evokes, Adorno suggested that works of art be judged according to whether they direct our gaze beyond the realm of ideologically mediated experience, experience that has been co-opted by industrial capitalism. Adorno’s specific interest was in the problem of ‘reification’, which refers to a phenomenon whereby all things under conditions of capitalism become objects of exchange. This means that most things and ideas, even those that would 19

claim to be called art, have difficulty making Western culture hear anything it does want to hear about itself. According to Adorno, one of the virtues of real ‘Art’ – something that is not easy to come by – is that it might, if only for a time, resist becoming an object of commercial exchange like the design on a T-shirt or a postcard. Though Herzog takes this sort of position less often today than he did during the 1970s, he once frequently spoke of our culture in terms of its lack of ‘new images’. The issue for him can be understood as similar to that which appears in Adorno’s work: the same images are constantly produced and reproduced, and it is increasingly difficult for art to offer our commodity-producing culture something ‘new’. One should not mistake Herzog for a Marxist or for any other, similar revolutionary ideologue, yet in Les Blank’s short documentary film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), Herzog recommends waging ‘holy war’ against television shows such as Bonanza (1959–73). More recently he stated that ‘our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations’ (Cronin 2002: 66). While there are connections between Herzog’s interest in pursuing the truth of art, a truth that exceeds the mediated boundaries of our everyday world, and Adorno’s antipathy toward reification, it may also be accurate to speak of a link between Herzog’s ideas and those of Adorno’s rival, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was the philosopher Adorno had in mind when he criticised ‘jargon’, yet there are affinities between philosophical tendencies in 20

Heidegger’s work and some of the key principles or recurring motifs found in Herzog’s films. Heidegger was fascinated above all else by ‘authenticity’, and because of Herzog’s interest in authenticity, as well as his proclivity for making sweeping statements that seem to exceed the specific historical and political contexts in which they are made, Herzog and Heidegger have now and again been read alongside one another (see, for one example, Staskowski 1988). There is a basis for comparison of this sort – their interests intersect – yet Heidegger writes in a wholly different era and context, and Herzog’s cinematic creations have their own, distinct ideological valences (ones that are attended by their own, distinct problems). Heideg-gerian readings of Herzog, though they may properly isolate some degree of overlap in their discourses, remain only individual, possible readings. One evident affinity between the two concerns the philosophies of language they share, or their valorisation of the prolonged silences when a sense of something larger than our everyday world appears on the horizon of consciousness. Evidence of this can be seen, for example, in Grizzly Man when Herzog champions Timothy Tread-well’s filmmaking by noting the improvised, glorious scenes when only bare nature appears on the screen. Moments in which silences communicate most powerfully are presented as prone to interruption by everyday uses of language, or the talk that is part and parcel of human communication and which Heidegger 21

described as ‘chatter’ (Gerede). Herzog’s disenchantment with language is discussed by both Noël Carroll (1985) and by Brigitte Peucker (see 1986b), who note that Herzog’s films suggest an unseen realm beneath the veil of experience, and that for him, daily, prosaic language is understood as that which interferes with our openness to a comparably untarnished world. One could certainly do far worse than to use Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser to illustrate the philosophy of language one finds in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927). Ironically enough, Heidegger was one of the most technical writers in the Western tradition, and when he wanted to present a glimpse of a world beyond language, he turned to poetry such as that of Friedrich Hölderlin, who could express ideas less analytically. For his part Herzog attempts both roles, that of the poet and the philosopher. Though it has been rightly asserted that connections between Herzog and the history of German thought such as those mentioned above are tenuous, Herzog irrefutably concerns himself with the search for something less mediated and more authentic than the everyday life-world we inhabit. Perhaps for this reason he has argued repeatedly against cinéma vérité, or filmmakers’ attempts to depict the world ‘as it actually is’, claiming that such attempts are entirely without vérité and that cinema of this sort ‘plows only stones’ (Cronin 2002: 301). Some say that the search in Herzog’s work is not for capturing everyday life in its rawest form, but rather for the 22

opposite: the sublime. This is to say that it is a search for that which exceeds language’s capacity to express it. Brigitte Peucker has described Herzog’s work – predominately the early, feature films – as engaged in a ‘quest of the sublime’ (1984). Language, to speak at least of prose rather than of poetry, is unlikely to evoke the sublime insofar as language is always already part of our everyday world; it is always profane, and only an earthly tool by which we name earthly things. Although Herzog often uses poetic language, starting or ending most of his films with poetic epigraphs (usually ones that he has written himself), and he has compared himself on occasion with certain poets, he seems to believe that language in general should take a backseat to the images and music in his films. Herzog takes this position not because visual and aural experience as such is more important to him, but because aesthetic heights, or the contact with something ‘new’ is less likely to come about through the medium of prose. The moment that an aesthetic event takes place, or that we see something upon the screen that exceeds our ability to assimilate it into the archive of what we have already seen and heard, are arguably the glimpses of ‘ecstatic truth’ in his films. As did Adorno, for whom the term ‘truth-content’ described the extent to which works of art – usually Modernist works of art such as those by Kafka or Beckett – would compel viewers or listeners to confront their fleeting revolutionary potential, Herzog too speaks of his works as 23

containing ‘truth’. This truth, as Herzog describes it, seems best explained through its contrast with banal truths, or that which he has referred to as ‘the accountant’s truth’. Herzog makes this difference plain in his ‘Minnesota Declaration’, a manifesto written in Minneapolis in 1999 in which he asserts that cinéma vérité reaches a merely superficial truth, ‘the truth of accountants’, but that ‘there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and that there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth … [this] is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation’ (Cronin 2002: 301). Not only is Herzog uninterested in depicting the world as it generally appears to us, but he is striving for an aesthetic height akin to that attainable by poetry. As a director, he is not reporting, but rather poeticising or rendering the world ecstatic. This capacity to transfigure reality is, in Herzog’s view, what separates the poets from the accountants. In one of the clearest illustrations of the distinction, Herzog says that to convey ‘facts’ in his films – as do, for example, ethnographic documentaries – would be the same as looking at a poem by Hölderlin about a storm in the alps and proclaiming, ‘Ah, here we have a weather report back in 1802’ (Cronin 2002: 252). Checking art against the facts, or imagining that art is the facts, is an insult to art’s ecstatic potential. The term ‘ecstasy’ is traditionally associated with something like a stupor or a state of wordlessness (one may be thrown into ecstasy by passion, astonishment or fear). Hamlet, for one, is 24

accused of being in ecstasy when he sees his father’s ghost, and John Locke suggests that ecstasy may be something akin to ‘dreaming with the eyes open’ (1894: 299). To think in terms of this latter definition, one might treat all visits to the cinema as ‘ecstatic’. Perhaps Herzog, owing to his overall distrust for language, takes pains to provoke or induce a state of wordlessness in his viewers, and his cinema – in its ecstatic mode – is meant to combat the deformations and distortions that accompany apparently ‘reasonable’ discourses. Other definitions of ecstasy, however, emphasise how the mind, under the power of a dominant idea, becomes insensible to the objects that surround it. Ecstasy names, in other words, a state of rapture during which the body is incapable of sensation because the soul is otherwise occupied with the contemplation of divine things. Despite the fact that Herzog is a filmmaker who is always engaged with the body and the senses, ecstasy is a term that denotes the denial of one’s sensing body. Is ecstasy, then, the moment when thought is denied (when one cannot reason owing to one’s state of rapture), or is it the moment when the body is denied (when one cannot sense owing to one’s state of rapture)? Because of this dual implication, the term ‘aesthetic’ has been called upon to highlight how Herzog’s films are intended to take viewers beyond the constraints of reasoned articulation – hypnotised, for example, by the plunging waterfalls at the beginning of Heart of Glass (Herz aus Glas, 1976), we mirror its 25

enraptured actors – while at the same time his films always already involve the body in such experiences. It is through the senses, or aesthetically, that we are meant to become insensible. Insofar as Herzog’s cinema is tactile or haptic, perhaps even more than that of others because of his persistent focus on athleticism, because of the physicality of their camerawork, and because of performances such as those of Kinski, the ecstasies that attend his films – the deliberate abandonments of the body – are induced by way of our bodies. Not to be confused with ‘attractiveness’ or ‘good taste’, the category of the ‘aesthetic’ here corresponds to an alternative to the everyday world in which we live, the one that is ostensibly deformed by prosaic language. It is a reminder that things could be otherwise. In this way, the ‘truth’ with which aesthetics provides us is truth only insofar as it negates the dissimulations associated with other rational truths. Herzog’s art, therefore, aims to reveal that the world around us is mere false appearance, and for better or worse – whether it is in the service of mystification or critique – his films contain the utopian suggestion of an ‘outside’. Such a position accurately describes the director’s cinematic approach, yet in conceptualising this study, I did not want to place myself in the position of iterating Herzog’s beliefs about the role of art and about his vocation as an artist. In many cases, when writing about his films, I have indeed attempted to explore their ecstasies, or the aesthetic and quasi-revelatory heights they 26

achieve. Whether one connects such heights to an intuition of the beautiful (that, as Immanuel Kant would say, one has the sense that a project or plan of nature is being recalled in the very contours of the world depicted in the work) or, if one connects them with the sensation of sublimity (the idea that the images and sounds depicted exceed our ability to properly comprehend them, owing either to their grandeur or their dynamism), there is indeed something that can be described as an ‘ecstasy’ in many of Herzog’s films. One should acknowledge this and properly laud it, yet reality, history and other terms associated with accountability should also be made to haunt these ecstasies. The experiences of beauty and sublimity that one may experience upon viewing his films should be held up against other kinds of truths (rather than being seen as truth’s only mode) in the interest of asking whether the terms, aesthetic ecstasy and truth, do not periodically challenge and undermine one another. My intention, now and again, has been to permit myself to work against the grain of Herzog’s ideas, disentangling the ecstasies from the truths where called upon to do so. Within Herzog’s oeuvre there is ample commentary that tells us what exactly the director means for his films to mean. There are his numerous written works, the extensive book of interviews with Paul Cronin, as well as several commentaries accompanying the DVDs of his films. The question remains, however, whether readers and critics are obliged to let the surfeit of 27

material entirely proscribe discourse about the films. This is a study of a single director’s work, and as such his personal vision could never be reasonably excluded from enquiry. Yet there are other roads to travel through his films, some of which are addressed fleetingly in his own comments, and some are dispensed with wholesale. While my interest in particular is in that which constitutes ecstatic truth – what specifically within the frame and in its margins makes Herzog’s films ‘ecstatic’ – I also have other concerns: how do the director’s aesthetics simultaneously draw from and abandon certain traditions within visual history?; what is the relationship between his work and other tendencies in cinema?; and, how do we understand his films in relation to questions about Germany, history and national identity? Fact and fiction At one of Herzog’s public appearances, I was surprised to hear the director reveal that where possible he prefers to fabricate and stage material in his documentaries. This inclination violates most of the written and unwritten rules of documentary filmmaking, and even the most unconventional documentary filmmakers such as Nick Broomfield, Ross McElwee and Kirby Dick would likely avoid deliberate fabrication in this sense. By contrast, Herzog is proud to say that one cannot even call his documentaries ‘documentaries’ because he


stages, invents and scripts dialogue for them. In one interview Herzog explains that in the case of his film Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), much of the film is stylised, or rehearsed; Dieter was telling stories and, according to Herzog, he went into details that were totally uninteresting, so the director had no compunction about stopping everything and rehearsing the story with him in order to get details he believed would be more fascinating for the audience. Herzog says: ‘I rehearse and I shoot six times over, like in a feature film … And sometimes I create an inner truth. I invent, but I invent in order to gain a deeper insight’ (Davies 2006). In his rejection of accountants’ truths, Herzog has made clear that he holds adherence to accuracy or factuality in contempt. Whether or not this is a useful distinction for us as viewers, Herzog has often said that he prefers not to differentiate between his features and his documentary films. In the interview Exploring with Werner, on the DVD of The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), Herzog tells Norman Hill that he does not make documentaries, even though some of his films come quite close; ‘It’s all just movies’ he says. There are of course some apparent differences between the features and the ‘documentaries’: the feature films frequently ‘look like’ feature films; Cobra Verde (1987), Scream of Stone (Cerro Torre: Schrei aus Stein, 1991) and Invincible (2000), to take some examples, are all shot in 35mm, while many of the ‘documentaries’ are shot in 16mm, Super 16 or High Definition Video. I 29

have not opted to make much of a distinction between features and documentaries in the chapters that follow, integrating readings of the two types of films with one another. Regardless of whether one distinguishes them, Herzog’s comments reveal that he is somewhat Nietzschean in his relationship to the truth, by which I mean that he seems to feel truth is something found less in the world than in the work of art. Gilles Deleuze’s observation about Orson Welles seems to apply to Herzog as well: referring mainly to the film It’s All True (1942), Deleuze writes that for Welles, ‘the “true world” does not exist, and, if it did, [it] would be impossible to describe, and, if it would be described, would be useless, superfluous’. He adds that ‘the “true world” implies a truthful man, a man who wants the truth, but such a man has strange motives’ (1989: 137). So it is with Herzog as well. Those who would bother with truths other than the aesthetic ones that inhere in the works themselves are mere stocktakers or accountants; they are managing inventory. As Ed Lachman, one of his cinematographers, once pointed out, Herzog will lie to get to the truth (Peary 1984: 252). Moreover, an aesthetic lie is at the basis of the work: that which makes it art and not ‘the world’ is its truth. It is here that something interesting comes into the picture, so to speak, with respect to Herzog’s documentary work. He has recently received attention for being a revolutionary documentarian who breaks open the cinematic frame. To borrow an idiom from Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in 30

Painting (1978), one can assert that the frame that sets the work apart from the world out of which it emerges is an illusion; there is no real division between the world and the work, the frame just provides a useful pretence. From Herzog’s perspective, if film is going to break new ground it has to function in a way that forces a reflection on the utter falsity of the divide. Herzog welcomes this total infiltration because there is a freedom in surrendering documentary film’s claims on ‘truth’. Documentary is, in that sense, no truer than fiction. Not only in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but in a film such as The White Diamond (2004) Herzog abandons the pretence of capturing the real world on film and instead captures poetic truths he feels are inspired by the world. Among other examples from that film, Mark Anthony Yhap gives a rehearsed speech about seeing the whole world in a drop of water – a drop of water that is in actuality a drop of glycerin – and Herzog has a staged conflict with Graham Dorrington, the ‘protagonist’ of the film, one that they shot and re-shot five or six times. Not only is Herzog’s position Nietzschean in that it regards art as a lie that is truer than the truth, but his position also willfully contradicts the premise that the cinematic frame can be set apart from the world of fabrications out of which it emerges. While the staging of scenes is significant, there are other ways that the frame is ruptured in Herzog’s work. On more than one occasion Herzog has noted that the Minnesota Declaration was partly inspired by seeing hardcore 31

pornography in a Minnesota hotel room (Cronin 2002: 239). There was, Herzog says, more truth in that type of film than in traditional documentaries (by which he presumably means cinéma vérité). The link between the beliefs espoused in Herzog’s Declaration and by this observation has to do with the question of what transpires beyond the frame or what is and what is not a ‘performance’. While there are, of course, numerous elements of explicit pornography that can be described in terms of performance, there is frequently an element of physicality in such films that is not quite captured by that term. There is, one could suggest, the ‘fact’ of the contact between bodies and of bodily functions, which appears to exceed the boundary defined by the term ‘performance’. Even this facticity, of course, may be an illusion, and filmmakers such as Catherine Breillat will, in a film such as Sex is Comedy (2002), display how this apparently real corporeality can itself be a fabrication. Yet this fact, for the most part, strikes the spectator as having a certain brutal honesty; such films reveal the bodies in them to be flesh rather than artifice, simulation or artistic conceits. In other comments about pornography, Herzog has said that the only film he could see making without any dialogue or music would be a pornographic film, ‘where you would only need the gasps and the shrieks and panting’ (Cronin 2002: 257). His comments reflect a faith in a physicality that cannot dissimulate in the same way that written text or language does. Part of our relation to hardcore images stems not from the proximity 32

of our gaze to the subjects’ bodies, but from the apparently actual and intimate physicality taking place on the screen – an effect on which Herzog’s own films rely. They give us the sense that we may be witnessing something ‘real’ rather than mere artifice. We engage in the fantasy that the film’s frame is bending beneath the weight of the real, material conditions under which it was produced. In a general sense, this observation concerning pornography is also about the pleasure in blurring the distinction between performance and documentation. Part of our fascination with the film Fitzcarraldo, for example, is enhanced by the knowledge of Herzog’s ‘dangerous’ relationship with Kinski, as well as the knowledge of the steamship-hauling excesses associated with the film’s production, excesses of which almost every viewer is now conscious. Likewise, some of the pleasure in watching Aguirre, Wrath of God, comes from the knowledge that there were real dangers, such as Kinski being forced to act at gunpoint, taking place outside of the film’s frame (a story now acknowledged to have been an exaggeration). On this score, Herzog has supplied an abundance of extra-textual material, including journals from the making of Fitzcarraldo (entitled The Conquest of the Useless), the book of that film and numerous interviews in Burden of Dreams. In addition to all that, the DVD of Burden of Dreams now comes with a commentary track in which we are presented with the unique circumstance of a director providing insight into a 33

film about the making of his film. Herzog’s own documentaries are likewise enhanced by similar knowledge. For example, there is a pleasure in knowing that the men crawling across the ice searching for the lost city of Kitezh in Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (Glocken aus der Tiefe – Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland, 1993) were actually drunks from a tavern whom Herzog had paid to look as though they were listening intently to the frozen surface of the water. The rupture of the frame in Herzog’s work has traditionally been cast in terms of the search for something new, for ‘new images’. In Wim Wenders’ film Tokyo-Ga (1985), Wenders interviews Herzog at the Tokyo Tower. The film and Herzog’s inclusion in it would be a starting point for a study in contrasts between the two filmmakers. Wenders looks at Japanese popular culture, from plastic sushi models to appropriations of Mickey Mouse, in order to explore this empire of signs as would Roland Barthes or Jean Baudrillard. Herzog has something different on his mind. On camera, he explains to Wenders that there are few images left, and that one would have to work like an archeologist with a shovel to find something new in this ‘insulted landscape’. Rather than linger on everyday culture, as Wenders does, Herzog says that he would do anything to address the problem of adequate images. He says he would climb 8,000 meters, go with NASA on Skylab, or go wherever else would be necessary. The 34

comments are similar to those he makes in Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe, in which he asserted that we will become extinct as a civilisation if we fail to produce ‘adequate images’. In that film, Herzog issues a warning: Our civilisation doesn’t have adequate images, and I think a civilisation is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images. I see it as a very, very dramatic situation. For example, we have found out that there are serious problems facing our civilisation, like energy problems, or environmental problems, or nuclear power and all this, or over-population of the world. But generally it is not understood yet that a problem of the same magnitude is that we do not have adequate images, and that’s what I’m working on – a new grammar of images. While such claims speak to anxieties about reification, about the profusion of television, postcards and everything else, they do not speak to the fundamental concern in his films with the difference, or lack of one, between fiction and truth. To uncover this one has to scrutinise more closely Herzog’s interest in capturing something authentic in his films. Herzog finds it important that the ‘real’ makes its way into the frame of his fiction films, whether in the form of the native


Amazonians who bring the ship over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo, the shyness and curiosity of the African actors in Cobra Verde, or the ostensibly authentic behaviour of the Jewish performers in Invincible. Herzog breaks the frame by suggesting at one and the same time that what we are seeing is both staged and not staged, or by showing us both the consequence of his mastery as a manipulator alongside something that is undeniably ‘real’. Along these lines, however, one should be careful not to confuse that which is ‘real’ – the authentic elements that creep into his films, those aspects that he believes cannot be ‘faked’ – with a need to be explicitly political. His goal is not to use the real world, its ethnographically or historically determined facts, to underscore his positions. Politics is something Herzog sets aside as a simulacra, something that can only distract from or diminish aesthetic ecstasies. Whatever baggage his discourse of authenticity carries with it, Herzog would rather his ideas were treated as though they exceeded politics. Although he has spoken about things such as the division of Germany, wars and Central American history, Herzog seems to feel less his political obligations than his obligation as an artist to reveal poetic truths. While some artists strive for greater relevance, Herzog strives to make his work autonomous, a goal he achieves with only varying degrees of success. As he found in the case of Ballad of the Little Soldier (Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten, 1984), which inspired a strong antipathy from the left and assertions that 36

he had allowed himself to act as a tool of the Reagan-era right, or in the case of Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis, 1992) after a screening of which Herzog was booed by 1,500 angry Berliners who also were criticising him from the left, his works often take a political position even if he had intended to create something apart from politics. It is, of course, precisely due to his distaste that he becomes embroiled in conflicts of this sort; Herzog means to pique those who think in narrow political terms and thus creates the conditions in which he plays the role of the provocateur. Inner visions There are limits to what Herzog would depict in the name of achieving aesthetic ecstasy. For example, his second film, Game in the Sand (Spiel im Sand, 1964), depicts an act of violence involving a rooster, and Herzog has kept this film from public view, claiming that he may well destroy it before he dies. Herzog seems to feel, however, that his chief obligations are not ethical as much as they are obligations to articulate our collective dreams. Part of his self-understanding as an artist who transcends the sphere of the political – his separation of aesthetics from politics – comes from the idea that he has special access to a social unconscious. In this regard, his famous fascination with landscapes becomes a central concern. This element of his work is discussed


particularly in chapter three, but I wanted to remark on it here as it may aid in constructing a more detailed portrait of what it is precisely that Herzog believes himself to be articulating on our behalf. From his first feature film, Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen, 1968), which begins with a shot of a car driving through a winding mountain landscape, through to Wheel of Time, in which the sand mandala constructed by the monks in that film is meant to provide an image of an inner landscape, Herzog has insisted that landscapes are always already within us. He explains: ‘For me a true landscape is not just a representation of a desert or a forest. It shows an inner state of mind, literally inner landscapes, and it is the human soul that is visible through the landscapes presented in my films’. Evoking the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, with whose work Herzog’s has often been compared, he adds that this is the basis of his connection to ‘a man who never wanted to paint landscapes per se, but wanted to explore and show inner landscapes’ (Cronin 2002: 136). Herzog means to reach into us at the same time that he reaches for the truth in the outer world – a paradox that is certainly entertained by philosophically-inflected German Romanticism. Within Herzog’s films, whether they were shot in Bavaria, Peru or Pakistan, the prevalence of fog and waterfalls, of diminutive human figures, and of compositions that deny the spectator a convenient point of access where their eye might easily enter and search the frame, one finds echoes of Friedrich’s style. Here, it is important to 38

underscore that Herzog draws not merely upon specific, recurring motifs that suggest Romantic sublimity, but also upon the characteristically Romantic inclination to use the landscape as an external representation of the complexities of internal psychology. The aim of such compositions is to make the fog that prevails in our inner lives manifest upon the canvas, or in Herzog’s case, upon the screen. With respect to the overgrown jungles of Aguirre, Wrath of God, for example, Herzog explains: ‘[It] is really all about our dreams, our deepest emotions, our nightmares. It is not just a location, it is a state of our mind. It has almost human qualities. It is a vital part of the characters’ inner landscapes.’ He adds, ‘The question I asked myself when first confronted by the jungle was “How can I use this terrain to portray landscapes of the mind?”’ (Cronin 2002: 81). None of the above should be taken as an assertion that Herzog is a Romantic in the traditional sense. At the beginning of Herzog on Herzog, Paul Cronin makes this point emphatically, writing, ‘his work is not in the tradition of German romanticists’ (2002: vii), and Herzog himself will point us to comments he made in Burden of Dreams in which he reflects on nature having been created by a God in anger as evidence of his opposition to Romanticism (or, one might say, as evidence of his un-Romanticism). My aim here as well as in chapter three is not to refute this refutation, or to say that he is in fact a Romantic despite his intentions, but to elaborate on his connection to that particular visual and 39

philosophical history in a way that attempts to do justice to both sides of the equation. There are undoubtedly close explicit connections to Romanticism in his work (by way of Friedrich, Achim von Arnim, Heinrich von Kleist and others) but, as has been frequently pointed out in the critical literature, the connection between Friedrich and an uncritical or ‘naïve’ Romanticism is one that is made all too quickly for reasons that slight both the Romantics and Herzog; neither body of work in question benefits from simplification. No reading of Herzog that embeds him in a history alongside Romanticism should be taken as an assertion that his cinematic compositions are so lovely that one should always wish to step into them and take part in a picnic on the cliffs. Such a claim would be evidence of ignorance both about Herzog and Romanticism. The best Romantic works are meant to call into question our ideas concerning the limits or the boundaries on perception, and they are often as complex as Kantian Idealism. In Friedrich’s famous work The Wanderer before the Sea of Fog (1818), for example, the wanderer keeps his back turned to us, blocking our access to the fog, which functions as a veil between us and the visible world. The same is true of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808) in which the monk is small and indistinct. The work has no clearly discernable boundaries, and telling the sky apart from the sea is a difficult if not impossible task. These figures have their analogues in Herzog’s films, particularly in Heart of Glass, Bells from the Deep and Scream of 40

Stone. I develop this point further in chapter three, but its basis is that if Herzog’s work benefits from a comparison with German ideas from around 1800 – be they Kantian or Kleistian – then we have to bear in mind that the ideas from that period may be far more complex than the fields of cinema studies, film history or even ‘Herzog studies’ generally take them to be. Herzog would never presume to present a false reconciliation between man and nature, nor does he hold the desolate and lonely landscapes depicted in his films in contempt. These themes are foregrounded in a prose text Herzog once wrote, inspired by photos by Jean Renoir, entitled ‘Why is there “Being” at all, rather than Nothing?’ The title seems to be a variation on a question Heidegger asked in his 1929 lecture ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in which he concluded that the principle question of metaphysics is: ‘Why are there beings at all, and not rather nothing?’ (Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts?). For Heidegger the question opens a new path; it is an opportunity to begin an enquiry into our condition. One gets a different sense from Herzog’s work and writing. For Herzog, the evident alternation between being and nothing – that these are the two sides of the world into which we are ‘thrown’ (to borrow once again from Heidegger) – serves as a reminder of the universe’s indifference. It is not that we opt for being, by virtue of the fact that we exist, but rather that the coldness and cruelty of nature help us recall that we are marooned in an obdurate universe. In his 41

photographically-inspired reflection, Herzog places words in the mouth of Renoir’s ageing father, and has the old man, Auguste, say: ‘If the sky were compassionate, it too would grow old’ (1976a: 25). To look at Herzog’s films, the sky does not suffer with us, but it instead abandons us to our mortal fate. We would like the landscapes to impart something to us or to show compassion, yet they do not. These sentiments may contribute to explaining those vexing words with which The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser begins. That film’s epigraph – ‘Don’t you hear the horrible screaming all around us, the screaming that men usually call silence?’ – either bespeaks the knowledge that there is a language of nature, one that we are prevented from interpreting, or an awareness of the frightening fact that nature simply has nothing to say to us. The film historian Jan-Christopher Horak notes that in Signs of Life and Aguirre, Wrath of God, the landscape is depicted as ‘a dangerous force, threatening by the very nature of its cosmic indifference to man’ (1979: 226). Horak’s comment applies equally well to Lessons of Darkness, Fata Morgana (1970) and to numerous other Herzog films. At the same time, however, Herzog seems to encourage us to see beauty in his indifferent landscapes. Until he arrives at decomposing animal corpses in Fata Morgana, for example, his portraits of the African desert, despite (and sometimes even owing to) the intrusion of the machinery of the oil industry, partake of an uncontestable beauty. He is simultaneously drawn 42

to the beauty of the landscape and drawn to undermine it. Most illuminating with regard to this aspect of his ‘Romanticism’, are the comments one finds in his Minnesota Declaration. In it, Herzog writes: ‘Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life’ (Cronin 2002: 301). In explaining the origin of this statement, he says that he was watching a film about the American actress Katharine Hepburn, and when she was asked what advice she had to pass along to young people, her reply was that they should ‘listen to the Song of Life’. Herzog recalls: ‘I was cringing it hurt so much. I still smart just thinking about it’ (Cronin 2002: 300). As a response, the director asserts that it is a mistake to think that one can comprehend the language of nature, or that one has any access to it at all. He reminds us that the belief that one can understand Mother Nature’s call is a ruse, and his words should give pause to anyone who would mistake him for a naïve Romantic engaged in a love affair with the beauty of the landscape. In his interviews with Cronin, Herzog makes a remark about the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman that reveals much about his understanding of the relationship between his landscapes and his worldview. Herzog says: ‘Though I don’t like most of his films, it seems that for Ingmar Bergman his starting point is a human face. The starting point for my films is a landscape, whether it be a real place or an imaginary or hallucinatory one from a dream, and when I write a script I often describe 43

landscapes that I have never seen’ (Cronin 2002: 83). Herzog wants his landscapes to talk back to us and to the figures that populate them, yet from his point of view they have nothing to express but their wholesale indifference. One may recall that in Bergman’s most famous work, The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet, 1957) Max von Sydow’s character, Antonius Block, is disheartened to discover that Death ‘knows nothing’, that there may be only emptiness beyond human existence, and this is a hard pill for even a brave knight to swallow. In that film, Bergman gives death a face, and one can certainly see the relationship between this messenger of death, one who has neither knowledge nor comfort to offer, and the landscapes in Herzog’s films. They speak both to the figures on the screen and to the viewers, but they serve only to recall our own impotence and their absent compassion. In addition to the question of how Herzog depicts landscapes, another key link with the history of German ideas comes by way of Herzog’s irony. For the Romantics – and German Romantics in particular – irony was generally taken to refer to gestures that reflect on the medium itself. This ‘formal irony’ is not the same as the irony of a joke that presents itself as seriousness, but rather a question of how a particular medium is employed; it is a means of acknowledging the author’s presence set against the illusion that the work exists independently of its author. German thinkers such as Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck and others studied the question of aesthetic irony, 44

something the Romantics described as an infinite echo that comes from the work, again and again asserting its status as a fiction against the will of its author. The endless resonance reminds all involved that a work of art is not reality nor could it ever be. It presents thereby a contradiction: fiction or poetry (and in this case film), in its attempt to achieve verisimilitude, has to construct a false world; to seem true, a work of art has to construct something wholly false. The idea that fiction is like life is itself a contradiction, and yet it struggles endlessly to attain that goal. Fiction that aspires to resemble the truth is always already deceitful. It maintains both things at once, its truth and falsehood, and is in this way ‘ironic’. In this sense, ironies insistently come into play. Herzog employs what he and others describe as ‘stylisation’ or manufactured moments that recall that one is watching an artist’s creation, rather than peering through a window into reality. And insofar as Herzog manufactures documentaries predicated largely on the stylisation of facts, or, inversely, fiction films predicated on documenting realities (such as hauling a steamship over a hill), he may well be, as Brigitte Peucker has phrased it, an authentic heir of the Romantic tradition (1984: 193). Beyond Herzog’s trademarked fascination with landscapes and his constant employment of irony, another concern key to understanding his works is that which I have already referred to as his sublimity. Alan Singer (1986) has explored the topic at some length in an essay under the rubric 45

of Herzog’s ‘ironic sublime’. Referring to the sublimes of both Kant and Edmund Burke, Singer argues that one should not view the experience of the sublime as trans-historical, something that goes beyond the strictures of the history in which it is embedded, but as something that inevitably emerges out of a historical context. As such, Singer sees Herzog’s films as a reflection on how that category of experience is historically determined. His sublime, according to Singer, does not encourage us to imagine that we are stepping outside of history, but instead provides us with an occasion to consider and reconsider the very illusion that we have transcended it. It functions, as it were, ironically. The central claim here is that ideas that frequently fall under the heading of ‘Romanticism’ – especially beauty, sublimity and irony – tend to be more complex than those who would entirely divorce Herzog from the Romantic tradition give them credit for being. In Singer’s argument, sublimity is more an opportunity to reflect on historical processes than a claim that one is experiencing something authentic, trans-historical or even ‘essential’. Many of these questions are taken up at greater length elsewhere in this study, but they have been raised here in order to provide terms for some of the specifically formal assertions about Herzog’s work that follow. The connection to Romanticism comes about with such frequency because Herzog can be considered a visionary artist, and his relationship to the painted frame should be pursued as it has been pursued relative 46

to filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer (in, for example, Paul Schrader’s study Transcendental Style in Film (1972)). Herzog’s visual style contains signatures similar to those of other landscape filmmakers such as Terrence Malick and Michelangelo Antonioni. His fascination with music as well, not to speak of his ‘taste’, but of his ability to put images together with soundtracks and to work as a co-composer, is also worthy of analysis, as are a variety of motifs that will recur, both in terms of form (why, for example, are there 360-degree pans in all of Herzog’s films?) and in terms of content (what do we make of the animals that are found everywhere in his work?). These too are questions to which this study returns throughout. Herzog’s history All of these film-specific reflections, and all of these comparisons to filmmakers from other, non-German traditions, should not be taken to imply that one should exclude from study Herzog’s own background. While one does not want to let the question of who a director is – of biography, national identity or even psychology – entirely determine the analysis of their work, Herzog has provided so much extra-textual information that it is difficult or even impossible not to draw it into consideration. As indicated, there is such an abundance of material along these lines that


bringing personal narrative into association with the work becomes inevitable. A study of this type certainly must contend with the director’s German biography, and the fact that Herzog is, or was at one time, a ‘German’ director. Although identifying him as German may no longer be accurate because he has now lived for some time in California, it is worth noting that Herzog was born in Munich in 1942. He was born with the name Werner Stipetić and lived with his mother who took the family to the town of Sachrang, a town he refers to as a small mountain village on the German-Austrian border, when he was a small child and Germany was being bombed by the Allies. His German identity therefore specifically encompasses his Bavarian upbringing (something to which he has made frequent allusions), his childhood in the aftermath of the war, and finally his relationship to the politicised German culture of the 1960s and 1970s. With respect to his work as a German filmmaker, one should note that he has had at best a vexed relationship to other German filmmakers of his generation. He emerged as a filmmaker in an environment and timeframe alongside Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet he remains reluctant to be put in a category with them, describing their generational overlap as a coincidence. He considers most attempts to categorise him as a director of New German Cinema to be mistaken. Of course, this both is and is not the case. Herzog was not one of the signatories of the famous Oberhausen Manifesto 48

in which the New German filmmakers declared their intentions, but his independent approach, his encounters with the German tradition, his respect for Lotte Eisner’s writings on Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, his efforts to get away from the ‘Daddy’s cinema’ that predated New German Cinema and his reactions to the so-called Heimat films of the 1950s, with their nostalgia for an idyllic prewar Germany, all point to the fact that Herzog belongs in some historical association with that group. He clarifies: ‘what was very clear to my generation was that by the early 1960s we German filmmakers desperately needed to grow up and take our destiny into our own hands, and this is exactly what we did. It is this which united German filmmakers in the late 1960s, not the films themselves, and certainly not the themes of our work’ (Cronin 2002: 33). Whether Herzog has fallen decisively away from this history, or whether there is any legacy of the tradition still to be detected in his work (or in Wenders’ work, for that matter) is yet another question. Herzog has become more trans-national as a filmmaker, a direction in which he was already moving in the 1970s and 1980s, and, more importantly, he has become a US filmmaker. But for film-historical reasons it is significant to note that Herzog was the director who chose to re-make Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922) as Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, 1978) in order to reconnect German film of the 1970s with


a past that had been interrupted by National Socialism. Growing up in the aftermath of World War Two had a great impact on Herzog. He says that when he was a few days old, a bomb striking the house next door caused a skylight in his nursery to shatter over him. Although he was not injured, the shadow of such experiences can frequently be found in Herzog’s work. One aspect that often emerges concerns the austerity associated with this period in Germany’s history. Herzog recalls his childhood and has more than once expressed the idea that having grown up in the rubble and ruins is underrated, if for nothing else than that one had, at that time, easy access to firearms (‘it was anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch’ (Cronin 2002: 5)). Herzog often speaks about how he did not go to see motion pictures until quite late, first viewing films when he was eleven. He speaks of a revelatory experience he had while watching a Fu Manchu film in which he noticed that the same shot was likely edited in more than once, and thereby came to terms with the idea that what one sees on screen is not always a ‘documentary’ (Cronin 2002: 9). A glimpse into Herzog’s life in Sachrang is provided in Heart of Glass in which we see the home of the glassmaker Mühlbeck. Herzog describes the terrain as similar to the environment in which he grew up (Cronin 2002: 132). It is rural, uncorrupted by technology, and the landscape is 50

distinctively southern German. Because cars were also rarely seen, the overall austerity may have contributed to his fascination with walking – his veneration of travel on foot as a mode of pilgrimage, one required of anyone engaged in a serious undertaking. Herzog’s own most famous walk was from Munich to Paris in 1974 and was documented in his published diary Of Walking in Ice (1979). He feels his long walk helped save the life of Lotte Eisner, when the ageing critic seemed to be at death’s door. Herzog made this pilgrimage to her in winter with the hope and expectation that she would wait for him to arrive. She lived long enough, and almost a decade longer. As detailed, Herzog was born in Munich, but moved to Sachrang, just north of Austria. This region, Bavaria, where Munich also lies, has its own distinctive history and dialect, and its culture is as influential to Herzog’s work as his ‘Germanness’. Herzog has spoken, for example, of the flamboyant King Ludwig II as having been quintes-sentially Bavarian, like himself. What the two have in common, as Bavarians, has to do with an interest in the operas of Richard Wagner as well as in the ornate castles that Ludwig II had constructed, castles on which Walt Disney based his frenzied theme-park constructions. Because of his fascination with massive undertakings, Herzog has referred to Ludwig II as the only other person who could have made Fitzcarraldo. He has also spoken of Fassbinder, who was Bavarian, in similar terms, highlighting the director’s distinctive corporeality. Such excesses, obsessions with 51

ornamentation and passions for licentiousness are indications of something un-Prussian, set against an orderly northern Germanness and moderation with which Herzog would rather not be associated. The fact that he is engaged with some German issues should not be construed as a statement that he is an exclusively German filmmaker, a claim that cannot be asserted with any certainty. This is not to say that he is no longer a German, but that his films have less to do with Germany now than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, and that he has transplanted himself to the United States. He originally took up residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually moved to Los Angeles. He is as much if not more appreciated as a cult auteur in the US, where there are still occasional midnight screenings of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Even Dwarfs Started Small, and his films have served as the inspiration for rock bands such as Cobra Verde and Kinski (the second of which has also performed under the name Herzog). Herzog was the first on the scene when Joaquin Phoenix had a car accident near the director’s home, and Herzog helped him from the vehicle. Phoenix recalled: ‘There was this German voice saying, “just relax”. There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe’ (Anon. 2006: 21). Finally, if one needs more evidence of the extent to which Herzog has been taken on by American culture, there was a pronounced disappointment that Grizzly Man was not nominated for an Academy Award in the 52

documentary category. By some accounts it was the best reviewed film of 2005, yet it may have been because it was a challenge to the traditional form of the documentary, insofar as much of the film’s footage was shot by the late Timothy Treadwell, that the Academy voters were unsure how to deal with it. With respect to the critical literature on Herzog, there is no shortage of scholarly articles, though there have as yet been few book-length studies devoted exclusively to the analysis of his work. Left-leaning periodicals such as The Nation and right-wing ones such as Commentary have both written about his films with equal interest. When one looks at such a plurality of interpretations, or at any of the academic studies of his individual films, what is most evident is that there is no single path for the interpretation of his works to follow. Most of his films are not over-determined in their meanings. Although he provides a great deal of interpretative guidance, not every moment in his films (indeed very few moments in them) provide instruction for pulling at a single, specific interpretive thread. Neither the work nor the filmmaker will tell you that one sequence is meant to recall a passage from Kafka, another from Heidegger and still another from Nietzsche. Herzog’s choices are based more on his instincts than anything else, and that has generated a creative discourse about his works. There have been both good and bad essays written on him, yet only on rare occasions are they tiresome treadings of well-worn paths. Where applicable, I 53

have tried to draw together some of the extant strains, because I feel that it is time to come to terms with the whole body of the director’s work thus far. However, remarkable oeuvres are often described as being remarkable because any attempt to comprehend the whole escapes. I would not claim to have entirely captured his works in these pages. Yet there is a way in which the more Herzog does, the more his work appears to be all of a piece. Some themes recur so frequently – the solitary figure amid the foggy landscape, the encounter with the limits of language, the recreation of traumatic experiences, the endlessly spiralling camera, the comparisons between the human and the animal worlds, to name only a few – that it may finally be worthwhile to scrutinise more closely the inter-filmic relationships, as this study attempts to do throughout. If there were only the films – the works themselves – to study, and not the bounty of extra-textual and biographical material, there would be more than an adequate basis for a study. The director’s forty or more films provide material enough for sustained reading. Yet the tendencies here discussed – the distinctions between major and minor madness (explored in chapters one and two), his relationship to the landscape and nature (as explored in chapter three), his proximity and distance to various theologies (as explored in chapter four), the depiction of war and trauma discussed in chapter five and finally the image of Africa that is outlined in chapter six – are, ideally, 54

enhanced by the information Herzog provides, while not being overwhelmed by it. Ultimately, even though the director’s statements are bombastic and his politics are occasionally problematic, Herzog’s work is frequently as fascinating as he immodestly believes it to be. When he speaks in characteristically inflated terms about the significance of the opening shots of Aguirre, Wrath of God – as in My Best Fiend in which he describes them as ‘something extraordinary’ – he may be right. At such moments, I find myself essentially willing to accept that his filmmaking is ‘ecstatic’ and, in the interest of exploring the limits of my own aesthetic absorption, I am compelled to investigate whether or not such aesthetic ecstasies share common ground with the truth.




Madness on a Grand Scale

Herzog is best known for his larger-than-life protagonists, and viewers associate him with Klaus Kinski’s maniacal posturing in Aguirre, Wrath of God more than any other single image. The idea that a hero should rage against the world in a grand and explosive manner – whether it involves founding a great nation or hauling a steamship over a mountain in order to realise the dream of building an opera house – forces Herzog’s protagonists, those whose visions exceed their grasp, into confrontation with reality’s boundaries. Their vision of how the world should be shaped in accord with their wills is frustrated by the limiting factor of the real world. That visionaries run up against the limits set by reality is nothing new, yet the difference is that Herzog’s protagonists remain by and large unconvinced of reality’s impenetrability; when confronted with a great will, reality itself is meant to bend and break. For this reason, this chapter takes a cue from Gilles Deleuze, who observed this tendency in Herzog’s works from the 1970s and early 1980s. Deleuze already noted in 1983 that in some of Herzog’s films actions are dreamed of that rival


the very spectacular milieus in which those films take place (see Deleuze 1986: 184). Sublime settings are the bed upon which sublime manias are created: the jungle becomes the theatre of history in Aguirre, Wrath of God, and the forest must become the temple of Verdi’s opera and Caruso’s voice in Fitzcarraldo. This tendency was not confined to Herzog’s films from that period, or even to his association with Kinski; it persisted into the 1990s. While this chapter looks predominantly at Herzog’s collaborations with Kinski (in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) as well as My Best Fiend, the same tendency can be found in numerous other films, such as Cobra Verde, Scream of Stone and Grizzly Man. In the last of these, Timothy Treadwell eventually comes to resemble Aguirre, as Herzog himself points out. Before discussing Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, this chapter outlines the visions of obsession in two of Herzog’s early films, Herakles (1962) and The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner, 1973), because they also deal with the world-annihilating will common to Herzog’s most visionary protagonists. Herakles Herzog’s first film was the 12-minute short Herakles, which he made when he was 19 years old. He is not the most enthusiastic promoter of this film, and describes it as his ‘first blunder’


(Cronin 2002: 10), yet it is important insofar as it introduces some key themes, ones that remained essential to his work. The film is set to swinging jazz music. We see a bodybuilder, who is actually Mr Germany of 1962, and the words on the screen pose the question of whether he – this ‘Hercules’ – will be able to clean King Augeas’s stables, which was one of Hercules’ labours. Herzog then cuts to an enormous pile of trash, a landfill, while Mr Germany continues to pose and admire himself. These are apparently the stables of today. Herzog then asks another question: ‘Will he kill the Lernean Hydra?’ whereupon he cuts to images of traffic jams. The real question lurking beneath these images concerns what exactly this bodybuilder is training for. We see him perform no deeds of greatness, but see instead the image of a Narcissus enjoying the spectacle of his own physique. The implication is that bodybuilding is more about vanity than anything else. After the final question (‘Will he drive away the Stymphalian birds?’), Herzog cuts to images of planes dropping bombs. The Hercules of this film may be training to save the world – for why else would he be, in this way, encased in muscle? – yet he is too busy or self-absorbed to take an interest in anything or anyone but himself. The film then ends with a close-up of the bodybuilder’s face, followed by one of his muscular rear end. Herzog demonstrates here no particular love or admiration for his athletic subject. Despite the director’s overall fascination with athletic endeavours (as is evident from The Great Ecstasy 59

of the Woodcarver Steiner, The Dark Glow of the Mountains (Gasherbrum – Der leuchtende Berg (1984) and other films), Herakles underscores an element of futility in connection with its bodybuilder’s athleticism. Pumping iron will not save the world. Herzog later described his opinion of this type of strongman, speaking in flattering terms of Jouko Ahola, the Finnish strongman and actor who played Zische Breitbart in Invincible. He considered Ahola to be a real strong man, not a Hollywood one in the style of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and explains that he is ‘very careful to make a distinction between strongmen and bodybuilders’; he adds, ‘I detest the cult of bodybuilding, something I feel is a gross deviation’ (Cronin 2002: 16). Additionally, one notes with respect to Invincible that when that film’s muscular protagonist realises the dangers of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, he aspires to be strong enough to hold them off on his own. Along with his strength comes a feeling of obligation and a desire to act as a hero. The Hercules of this early film, by contrast, is too busy admiring himself to save the world. Viewers of the short film may be prompted to enquire into the interrelationship between the images of working out and those of annihilation and destruction that accompany its conclusion. Herzog develops a link between the building up of the self, or the idea that this bodybuilder feels the need to acquire endless amounts of muscle, and apocalyptic images of the end of the world. As indicated by the title, the bodybuilder’s interest is 60

in becoming Hercules, thus fighting off mortality and reproducing the image of the Greeks. The film suggests that unlike Invincible’s well-intentioned Breitbart, this type of Hercules has no intention of defending the world. He does what he does out of self-interest, as with those physically chauvinistic Germans who believed themselves to have been the true inheritors of Greek culture. This athletic protagonist means to become a world unto himself, a trait he shares with athlete Steiner in The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. The solipsism of athletic endeavour is one that makes the outside world, with all its needs and intrusive other people, vanish – it annihilates it, as is underscored by the film’s images of destruction – and the athlete, in turn, remains behind, a world unto himself. The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner The next time Herzog turned his camera on an athlete was in The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, a film that documents the achievements of Walter Steiner, who is an expert ‘ski-flyer’ in addition to being an accomplished woodcarver. For this film, Herzog becomes a sportscaster of sorts, following Steiner through training and into competitions in Schattenberg and in Planica, Yugoslavia. He documents not only Steiner’s successes in the competitions but also engages in a few personal interviews with him. Throughout, Herzog supplies the narrative voice,


but he rapidly undermines the expectations of his chosen genre in that his sportscaster’s demeanour borders on an excess of earnestness. If anything, Herzog seems to be taking ski-flying too seriously. He consciously uses the phrase ‘ski-flying’ because it seems to signify something more than mere ski-jumping. The sport covers longer distances than would be attained by ski-jumping, and the name also reminds us that the sport involves the genuine effort to take wing. Here flying is important in that again, as with Herakles, it resonates with a classical motif, this time that of Icarus (see Watson 1986: 74–5). Also, in this way, the theme recalls other works in the director’s oeuvre such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly and The White Diamond, films in which the human desire to take flight is thrust into the foreground. Despite any excesses in the film’s tone, Herzog communicates an overall sense of reverence for his subject. He finds Steiner compelling; he is an athlete whose ecstasies are real and earned, and the fact that the term ‘ecstasy’ is the one Herzog later adopted to describe his own objective in filmmaking suggests that he feels a respect for and a connection to Steiner. Herzog elsewhere elaborated without any irony on the sentiments of ski-flyers such as Steiner, noting that ecstasy is to be seen in their faces ‘as they sweep past the camera, mouths agape’. He adds that ‘most of them cannot fly without their mouths open, something which gives such a beautiful ecstatic feeling to the whole movement’. There is no question that Herzog believes their ecstasy is real, 62

noting ‘they dream they can fly and want to step into this ecstasy which pushes against the laws of nature’. For this reason, Herzog describes Steiner as ‘a close brother of Fitzcarraldo’ (Cronin 2002: 96). At the same time, as already indicated, the film undermines the expectations of the genre, and is in this way quite ‘stylised’. The term ‘stylisation’ is mentioned in the introduction to this study, and is a word that is always linked with Herzog. It makes sense to reintroduce the term at this point because The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner has been described as a ‘stylised sports documentary’. While the concept has been employed elsewhere to describe the effort to make things or, typically, a biography, conform to a particular style – as one might stylise one’s life or appearance after certain role models – both Herzog and the scholarship about his films have used the term to refer to a mode of formal irony specific to Herzog. It suggests an effort to draw attention to the medium itself, such that the viewer does not forget he or she is watching a film, rather than seeing ‘life’ or ‘reality’ transpire. (It may thus be juxtaposed with cinéma vérité.) It also connotes a process of self-conscious exaggeration and excess, or even a mode of performativity that is conscious of itself as performance, as typified, for example, by the highly ‘stylised’ acting one finds in Fassbinder’s films. Scenes that are deliberately staged in one of Herzog’s documentaries might be referred to by this term insofar as they involve self-conscious fabrication and manipulation. 63

From this perspective the film is indeed a stylised sports documentary. It is self-reflexive to a point where it approaches satire. David Davidson has noted that at points Herzog’s melodramatic tone seems ‘absurd’ and he adds that Herzog’s apparent reverence for Steiner makes him strain hyperbolically, ‘to convince the spectator of his subject’s greatness’ (1980: 18). Davidson notes that Herzog ‘admits, for instance, that the absence of East German, Soviet and Japanese skiers leaves Steiner without his chief competitors, including those who jump farther than he does; yet the filmmaker repeatedly suggests that the ski-flyer’s “astounding flights” are utterly unique’ (1980: 18–19). Davidson also points out that ‘though Steiner’s final jump falls considerably short of any record, Herzog calls it “probably the most perfect ever recorded in the history of ski-flying”’ (1980: 19). Here the narrative irony and the many statements that can be understood as exaggerations cast constant doubt on the assertion that Steiner should be revered as a heroic athlete who strives for a glimpse of an otherwise unattainable utopia. But this film is not a satire and cannot be understood in those terms; some of its stylisations are meant to underscore its earnestness and its reverence for Steiner. Herzog would likely not agree that his intention was to exaggerate to a point where he was undermining the legitimacy of Steiner’s athletic accomplishments. It does at first appear as though Herzog is engaging in a parody of sportscasting, and especially of its generic 64

hallmarks, the most noticeable of which is the employment of exaggerated slow motion. Herzog says that he had five cameramen shooting ‘at something like four or five hundred frames a second’ (Cronin 2002: 96). Yet the director does not use slow motion with the intention of studying Steiner’s moves, as would contemporary television sports networks, but rather to reproduce and capture the athlete’s own sense of ecstasy. To anyone who has ever watched professional ski-jumping, it would be clear that Herzog is attempting to compensate for those particular aspects of flight that the camera cannot convey. On the screen, ski-jumping of this sort typically foregoes a sense of relative space. In the moment the camera gets close enough to depict a skijumper intelligibly, the television frame is forced to abandon the sense of the great heights involved. Herzog compensates for the bracketing out of the proper apperception of space by altering the temporal way in which we perceive Steiner’s flight. Because these flights often appear to take place against a purely white background, one that fails to convey the relation to the landscape below – as the camera does not shoot from a point higher than the jumper himself – Herzog finds another means to communicate ecstasy: he slows the sequences down beyond the slowness of traditional slow motion, and he also adds music of a style not traditionally associated with sports, music composed by Florian Fricke. Drawing an analogy between athletic and religious ecstasies, 65

Herzog employs a synthetic score that recalls cathedral choirs. Coupled with the knowledge that many in the crowd below have made a ‘pilgrimage’ to see Steiner (a word that is over-determined in Herzog’s work and thought), the music emphasises the quasi-religious status of Steiner’s accomplishment. Such stylisations also provide a counter-intuitive depiction of sports, one that aestheticises ski-flying as an answered prayer for flight or as the achievement of great heights of faith. The ecstasy depicted in the film has, however, a dark side. The ski-flyer’s fascinations have a second aspect: in them is contained the drive to efface the world around him. His ecstasies are consistent with that which Freud describes as a ‘death drive’ (Todestrieb), described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) as an urge that inheres in all organic life to restore an earlier state of things, by which he means a state of nothingness – an urge to negate the world. The drive, one face of the Nirvana principle, or the impulse to channel our restlessness into the ostensibly stable world of the inorganic, manifests itself through a proclivity for escapist activities (such as, say, ski-flying). For this reason, in terms of the portrait of Steiner that Herzog paints for us, his jumps – his flights – are leaps into the abyss. Herzog says that ski-jumping ‘is a sport that is at least partially suicidal, and full of utter solitude’; he adds: ‘It is rarely muscular athletic men up there on the ramps; always it is young kids with deathly pale pimply complexions and an unsteady look in their eyes’ (Cronin 2002: 66

96). The other side of Steiner’s vitiating, life-affirming endeavour is an existential drive towards death. Herzog is drawn to this artist-athlete because the longing for great heights carries the burden of a world-negating vision. The isolation that goes along with his protagonist’s ecstatic quest is made clear through a story that Steiner shares with Herzog, an emotional one that took numerous attempts to get him to tell. Steiner narrates for the camera: ‘I once had a young raven, that was really something. It was still practically unfledged. I reared it on bread and milk and when it could fly, it used to meet me, or saw me coming on my bike from far off … Unfortunately he kept losing more and more feathers. Maybe it was the food it ate. The other ravens plagued it. The row started early in the morning. They cawed, he tried to flee, of course couldn’t get away and fell down. So I’m afraid I had to shoot him. It was a torture to see him being harried by his own kind because he couldn’t fly anymore.’ The story resonates with the film’s themes: Steiner, who goes to great lengths in his quest for flight, identifies with the raven, not only because it is a bird but because he too feels ‘harried by his own kind’. He believes that the crowds long to see him fall, yet his own response to such a situation, as evinced by this homily, involves putting the raven out of its misery. Steiner’s existential anxiety, viewed in light of the personal story, stems from confronting what he believes to be the crowd’s wish to see him come crashing to the ground. 67

The story evidently left an impact on Herzog, not only because he included it in the film, but because he released a film a few years later that seemed in some measure loosely based on it. The short film, No One Will Play with Me (Mit mir will keiner spielen, 1976), tells the story of Martin, a young schoolchild, who is cruelly scape-goated and kept out of the other children’s games. It turns out that Martin’s mother has cancer, and he has been living on a diet of little else but popcorn because he is not being properly cared for. Martin, however, owns a pet raven, one that can speak and cry out the word ‘goal’ even without the prompting of a soccer game. He gives it to Nicole, the one girl in the class who is nice to him, and she in turn helps him integrate with the other schoolchildren. One could view the film as a critique of the relationship of exchange – of credit and debit – that manifests itself even at this early age, but in its essence this 14-minute film is more about the virtue of sharing. It was made for children, and if one suspected that Steiner’s story is not supposed to be taken as an allegory for the way we relate to one another, one need only look at the way the story is used here in the context of the schoolhouse. At the very end of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, a testimony to the ski-flyer’s courage appears on the screen. Herzog frequently closes his films with poetic epigraphs as reminders that the works are more poetry than they are reportage. Herzog says this epigraph is ‘based on’ text by Robert Walser (see Cronin 2002: 97). The 68

formulation implies that he modified it to suit his needs, although he later came to brazenly abandon such pretences altogether, inventing epigraphs attributable to Blaise Pascal for Lessons of Darkness and to Thomas à Kempis for Pilgrimage (2001). The epigraph at the end of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner reads: ‘I ought to be all alone in the world. Just me, Steiner, and no other living thing. No sun, no culture, just me, naked on a high rock. No storm, no snow, no streets, no banks, no money, no time, and no breath. Then, at least, I wouldn’t be afraid.’ These lines recall the idea of making the world vanish from view. In their ascetic desire for isolation, they underscore the excesses in Steiner’s world-negating narcissism. While the term narcissism, generally taken to mean ‘love directed toward the image of oneself’, was introduced in relation to Herzog’s Hercules, it has another valency in this context. Steiner can hardly be said to be a traditionally understood narcissist insofar as he is not obsessed with his appearance. His narcissism is rather characterised by a drive to be alone with himself, alone in the universe. It does not suggest vanity, but an obsession with the self and its needs to the point at which that self negates the world around it. Steiner’s impulses can, in this light, be seen in connection with the Freudian death drive. Sometimes, however, the drive towards inner stasis turns outward; it presents itself first as a suicidal wish, which is then directed away from the self in the form of aggression, cruelty and desire 69

for murder. In the case of Steiner, this alternation between inwardlyand outwardly-directed sentiment is plain to see. Though it is the subject of Herzog’s reverence, his ski-flyer’s ecstasy also carries with it the apocalyptic wish that the world and the crowds who long for his demise would fall away. Aguirre, Wrath of God One might certainly apply terms such as excessive and narcissistic to the famous protagonist of Aguirre, Wrath of God, the feature film that Herzog made just prior to The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. Herzog’s perspective on his protagonist in that film as well as in the related film, Fitzcarraldo, which he made almost ten years later, is in some respects similar to his perspective on the ski-flyer Steiner. The similarity serves as a reminder of the interrelationship between his feature films and his stylised documentaries. While it would not be entirely accurate to speak of Herzog as both deifying and satirising the protagonist at the centre of Aguirre, Wrath of God, it may be accurate to speak of him taking a position that both reviles and reveres his main character’s unabashed gall, his narcissism, his death drive and his insatiable hunger for power. Herzog clarifies: ‘It is difficult for me to explain my feelings about Aguirre as I do not like to analyse characters, but merely present them to the audience. Aguirre fascinated me because he was


the first person who dared defy the Spanish crown and declare the independence of a South American nation. At the same time he was completely mad, rebelling not only against political power, but nature itself’ (Cronin 2002: 77). While the protagonist of Herzog’s film is at times subject to ridicule, this incarnation of Kinski’s is also the one to which Herzog seems to feel most strongly attached. In one sentimental moment in My Best Fiend, the film that documents Herzog’s relationship to Kinski, the director presents viewers with the moment from Aguirre, Wrath of God’s climactic monologue when the main character asks: ‘Who is with me?’ Herzog’s voice then answers in all earnestness: ‘I was with him.’ He here evinces his affection not only for Kinski but also for this particular character. Arguably the performance would not have been so compelling had Herzog not had such an attachment, at once strong and conflicted, to his protagonist. Filmed in the Urubamba Valley, in Cuzco, and in other Peruvian locations, the film is the story of the Spaniard Lope de Aguirre, who was, according to the film’s introductory titles, a member of an expedition led by Pizarro that left from Peru in 1560 in search of El Dorado, the mythic city of gold. In the film, Aguirre takes charge of the expedition by staging a rebellion against the explorer Don Pedro de Ursúa and naming Guzman, a nobleman, the expedition’s new leader. As his men continue along the river, they are set upon by native Amazonians. Those who do not die at the end of their enemies’ spears die of 71

starvation and madness. One can express all this as a matter of ‘fact’ and Herzog’s film does little to guard against giving audiences that impression. Aguirre, Wrath of God, however, is only somewhat related to actual events (for historical background, see Fritze 1985 and Stiles 1989). Herzog read about the historical Aguirre at the home of a friend, having noticed a children’s book with a short passage about him, and he claims that after stumbling upon that text he wrote his screenplay in only two and a half days. Herzog says, ‘I just took the most basic facts that were known about the man and spun my own tale’ (Cronin 2002: 77). The key differences between the true story and that which Herzog presents have been described at length in the existing scholarship: Herzog merges the details of two different expeditions. One left in 1540 from Quito, led by Gonzalo Pizarro (rather than his more famous brother Francisco). The monk Gaspar de Carvajal, on whose diary the film is said to be based, was a member of that expedition, not a 1560 one. Aguirre was indeed on the one that set out from Peru in 1560. Herzog may have included Pizarro and Carvajal in his film because the former name was familiar from colonial history and the latter’s presence helps underscore the interconnections between colonialism and the Church. One should also note that an explorer named Francisco de Orellana was on the first expedition, and the published screenplay of Aguirre, Wrath of God twice mentions the possibility of finding traces of Orellana’s party, though it also states that his 72

expedition was from three years earlier rather than twenty. The remnants of Orellana’s expedition might be understood to appear in the form of a boat that Aguirre’s men see high up in a tree towards the end of the film, but because no one directly mentions the prior explorers the ruin seems to be little more than the hallucination of men who have gone mad. According to Herzog, one of the primary inspirations for his portrait of Aguirre was an African revolutionary named John Okello. Some background on Okello may illuminate what Herzog had in mind: in 1963 the United Kingdom had granted independence to Zanzibar under the assumption that it would be ruled by the Sultan and the country’s Arab authority. There was, however, a revolution there in January 1964 and among its leaders was the Ugandan-born John Okello. The revolution was short and violent, and thousands of Arabs were killed. Okello declared himself ‘Field Marshall’ and delivered radio speeches in what the historian Don Petterson (2002) refers to as flamboyant, Old Testament-like language, language that recalls some of Aguirre’s hyperbolic proclamations. For example, enraged by what he took to be evidence that a group of Arabs in one area had been storing ammunition and arms to use against Africans, Okello ordered his men to ‘fire in all directions and to kill whatever came before them – men, women, children, disabled persons, even chickens and goats’ (Petterson 2002: 76). According to Petterson, Okello later met with a bad fate: he was last seen 73

in 1971 with Idi Amin, and he then disappeared from sight. Petterson conjectures that Amin saw Okello as a possible threat and had him eliminated (2002: 177). Herzog was in contact with Okello a few years earlier, and while he was filming The Flying Doctors of East Africa (Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika, 1969) he had planned to capture Okello on film as well. Herzog explains: ‘I was actually in contact with Okello for a time. He wanted me to translate and publish his book, something thankfully I never did … Okello would deliver incredible speeches full of his hysterical and atrocious fantasies over the loudspeaker system from his aeroplane, the climate and taste of which were strong influences on the language that Aguirre uses’ (Cronin 2002: 50–1). Herzog was impressed by this controversial figure, and of Aguirre’s most famous speech in which he says, ‘I am the wrath of God. The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes’, Herzog says, ‘this is John Okello who is speaking’ (A ch. 20; 1:18:39). Herzog also named a character in his film after him, as a conspicuous reminder of Okello’s influence. The interest in Okello raises a question about Aguirre, Wrath of God in relation to Herzog’s films about African despotism, in particular Cobra Verde and Echoes from a Sombre Empire (Echos aus einem düsteren Reich, 1990). In those later films, Herzog extracts and refers to conflicts from African history without directly addressing the contexts from which such conflicts emerge. Herzog tends to be fascinated by totalitarian impulses more than 74

by the specific facts of history – colonial or otherwise – that produce the conditions leading to totalitarian rule. Likewise, Herzog here undertakes to study the fantasies that accompany Aguirre’s need for power more than the specifics of Spanish colonialism. Perhaps because of this extraction from a specific historical context, Aguirre, Wrath of God has also been interpreted as a film about Hitler and Nazi Germany. While there is some evidence that speaks in favour of drawing this conclusion, including Aguirre’s climactic speech in which he proclaims his desire for racial purity, this type of reading is not particularly consistent with the film’s attempt to serve as a universal comment on the pathology of tyranny. Herzog means to focus on Kinski’s character more than on the historical conditions that produced crises in European colonialism, in Germany in the 1930s, in Zanzibar in 1963, or elsewhere. He has said on numerous occasions that he never had any intention to create a metaphor for Hitler through Aguirre, and given the variety of other impulses in evidence, it is fair enough to take his assertion about his conscious intentions at face value. The suggestion that the film is about Aguirre’s manias is not meant to imply that Herzog’s film cannot be taken as a critique of Spanish colonial ideology. Herzog makes his position far more clear here than in later films when his politics on such matters becomes more vexed. This is, for example, the case where Cobra Verde is concerned, a film in which Herzog refuses to navigate a moralising path between his historical 75

protagonists and his antagonists. One would, however, expect that this earlier film would take a more critical position towards Spanish colonialism, and on this level Herzog does not disappoint. The colonisers on the hunt for gold are without exception mercenary, greedy and foolish. In this regard, one can connect Aguirre, Wrath of God’s imagery to that of Apocalypse Now (1979) and note that many scenes have a similar tone, especially insofar as they depict a long journey on the river as a voyage into madness. Some of Francis Ford Coppola’s own images appear to have been consciously or unconsciously lifted from Herzog’s film. In particular, the way arrows and spears come at the colonial crew who are stranded on their raft makes it seem – in both films – as though the invisible enemy attacking the men is the jungle itself. Some thematic elements are consistent with Herzog’s other films: a similar exasperation with Western civilisation can be found in Ten Thousand Years Older (2001), which he made nearly three decades later. That film was Herzog’s contribution to a compilation film called Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet to which directors including Wim Wenders and Spike Lee also contributed films. As with Aguirre, Wrath of God, Heart of Glass and many other Herzog films, Ten Thousand Years Older begins with an image of fog above mountains. It deals with a Brazilian nomadic tribe, the Uru Eu Wau Waus, whom Herzog describes as coming from ‘the remotest parts’ of the rain forest. During the course of the film, Herzog points 76

out that this ‘last of the hidden tribes’ was left largely alone until 1981, and that this point of contact, although it was not their first, may be among the last events of its kind in human history. Herzog laments: ‘There are no more unknown places and unknown people left on this earth.’ In their contact with the film crew in that year, Herzog says, they were propelled forward thousands of years. Knowing the numbers that would soon after die of respiratory and other illnesses, Herzog explains that the movement forward was ‘a progress into the void’. He says: ‘A grim fate awaits them. Within a year or so the majority of the tribe is wiped out by chicken pox and the common cold – lethal diseases for them. They had missed out on the thousands of years during which they could have developed resistance.’ By the end of the short film it is clear that their culture has all but died out, owing to these last twenty years. Speaking with one of the older generation, one of the surviving Uru Eus, Herzog reports: ‘He knows that time has run out on him and his tribe.’ While Aguirre, Wrath of God is similar to Ten Thousand Years Older in its documentation of cultural conflict and its function as a critique of a colonial world that respects no boundaries, it is no sad lament. Much of the film’s tone is overtly comic, and it is likely for this reason as much as for its cinematography that it has retained a following. For example, most of the scenes involving Guzman (Peter Berling), the man whom Aguirre installs as the nominal new Emperor and leader of the expedition, caricature him. When 77

Guzman is crowned, he cries like a child, and acts even more childishly when he later insists that he be fed like a king, a particularly absurd directive given that the expedition has by then run almost entirely out of food. Herzog makes the most of moments such as those when Guzman is chosen for his position while sitting astride a cannon and gnawing on fruit, perhaps recalling the monkeys who appear in the film’s final sequence. Additionally, at a later point, Herzog lingers on Guzman when he emerges from the raft’s makeshift bathroom without a trace of imperial dignity. In his New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby pointed to the scene in which Guzman eats his dinner in front of the starving men and proclaims that his new Empire is six times larger than Spain. Canby summarises: ‘It’s as if Mr Herzog were saying that civilisation – our assumption that we have conquered nature or even come to some accommodation with it – is as ridiculous as the Emperor’s pleasure’ (1977: 43). Beyond Guzman, the other object of critique in the film is organised religion. The Church comes off rather badly; it seems to support and enable imperial greed more than act as a check on it. Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) does nothing to support Don Ursúa’s (Ruy Guerra) attempts to maintain the party’s stability, and upon being approached for help by Inez de Atienza (Helena Rojo), Carvajal has little to offer but platitudes. As though he were helpless, he finally admits to her, ‘you know my child, the Church has always been on the side of the strong’. Initially it seems that 78

Carvajal is only acknowledging the overall weakness or impotence of the Church, yet he later becomes directly implicated in the expedition’s unbridled greed. Carvajal is as desirous of gold as Aguirre himself, and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he asks two ‘savages’ who have been brought on board the raft whether they have ever heard the word of Jesus Christ. He then offers the Bible to one of the two natives, who, when he puts it next to his ear in order to ‘hear’ the word of the Lord, hears nothing. This blasphemer is immediately murdered for his failure to acknowledge the word of God.

Guzman eats like a king in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

All of these observations about the film’s content – whether it deals with Spanish, Peruvian or German history, and the extent to which it 79

functions as a critique of Church and state – speak little about the film’s form. Aguirre, Wrath of God is an exceptional ‘landscape’ film, even within Herzog’s oeuvre, and at the beginning of My Best Fiend, Herzog makes it clear that he considers the film’s opening sequence to be among his greatest accomplishments. His intention was to turn the landscape into a character in the film, giving it a face or a physiognomy. Herzog says: ‘In Aguirre the jungle is never some lush, beautiful environment it might be in a television commercial … It is not just a location, it is a state of our mind. It has almost human qualities. It is a vital part of the characters’ inner landscapes’ (Cronin 2002: 81). I study the concept of inner landscapes at some length later (in chapter three), yet on its own this opening sequence is noteworthy. The expedition can be seen making their way down the side of a mountain, and it takes time to discern that the gentle alterations upon the mountain’s face are not a changing expression, but rather the movement of people. Here, as in many of Herzog’s films, up to and including Grizzly Man with its framing of the quiet Alaskan landscape, Herzog presents nature in an unconventional way, lingering on it such that it forces a recognition of both its beauty and its indifference. As is the case with many of Herzog’s films, the opening sequence is striking. One way of understanding the characteristics of his compositions, or of trying to articulate why shots such as these could be described as beautiful, would be by turning to Kant’s Critique of Judgment 80

(1790), also known as his Third Critique. For Kant, something can be described as beautiful when it recalls the larger project with which nature is engaged. Nature (and by extension God) can be said to be working towards a larger aim or purpose. Kant argues that one does not suppose so much as intuit the existence of a larger, divine plan. Although we are, of course, unable to comprehend the whole of nature – we cannot perceive its aims – we likely have an intuition that such a plan exists, a perception that things in nature develop in accord with purposes. Things that are beautiful recall that nature has an intention without putting the entirety of that intention on display. While Kant by no means had Herzog’s work in mind, nor could he have, one could extrapolate and suggest that these first frames of Aguirre, Wrath of God appear as fragments of just such a whole; in their boundlessness they seem to extend well beyond the cinematic frame and encourage our imaginations to complete the image. The film opens with a shot of a mountainside near Machu Picchu, one that suggests an expanse well beyond the screen’s limits. The composition is unlike a picture-postcard or a traditional Hollywood image, one that would strive to encompass the whole of the view within its borders. Additionally, nature does not appear as a backdrop to human endeavour but its magnitude virtually swallows up the figures in it, particularly at those moments when it gradually dawns upon us that we are


observing an expedition descending the face of an enormous mountain. There are, of course, other philosophical means of articulating what is challenging about such images, and to this end one could even employ other parts of Kant’s Critique of Judgment differently. In the same moment that such landscapes can be said to be beautiful because of their expansiveness, one may argue that they are sublimely frightening and imposing. Perhaps less Kantian than Nietzschean in inflection, such a position suggests that the images do not reveal a larger divine scheme, but rather reveal that nature has neither plan nor animus. As emerges as an overall theme of the film itself, less may be determined relative to a benevolent will than in accord with the question of who has power in an otherwise abandoned universe. Herzog’s films underscore the power of their protagonists and thematise the brutality that is coextensive with such power. Some of the beauty in these scenes comes from depicting nature in the context of theological abandonment; the silent, staring mountainsides are more an intimation of an absence than evidence of God’s mercy. As Herzog says in Burden of Dreams, the Amazon jungle, at least the one in which he filmed Fitzcarraldo, was a land that God, if he exists at all, created in anger. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, framed images of nature may strike us as beautiful because they recall that nature is not the oasis in an abyssal desert, but that it is the abyss itself.


The natural landscapes that extend beyond the edges of the screen are not the only means the film has of exceeding the borders of its frames. As with most of Herzog’s films, this one also attempts to break down the boundary that divides the work from the lived conditions in which it was created. One element of this intermingling concerns the native Americans who were involved in the film’s production. While none of the stories that trailed Aguirre, Wrath of God were as notorious or widely circulated as those that trailed Fitzcarraldo, Herzog wants us to perceive that the film was all quite real; he hopes that its physicality, the brutality of the facts behind its production, so to speak, force their way through the screen and create a sensation that cannot be otherwise fabricated. With respect to the initial excursion through the Peruvian mud, Herzog comments that we should be able to tell that it is quite real. He speaks similarly of the armour used in the production (the boxes of harquebuses or long-barrelled firearms that were shipped in from Spain) and of the difficulty of the journey along the Rio Urubamba and Rio Huallaga. If the ‘reality’ of the production crew’s labour was not enough on its own to assure that the film in this way breaks out of its frame, the real evidence comes in the form of the director’s own hand, which at one point can be seen entering in from the right side of the frame to steady a tipping carriage. Along such lines, Herzog has frequently spoken of the dangers involved in the production of the film, and in particular of the raft, featured in an early 83

sequence, getting caught up in the rapids. Herzog narrates: ‘The scene when the soldiers get caught in the whirlpool and are found dead the next morning was very difficult to shoot because the flow of the river was so fast and incredibly violent. After a day’s shooting we threw cords to the actors, who attached them around their waists in order to get them safely to the riverbank. The next morning the raft would still be there, wrestling with the fierce current. The actors were so proud every evening once they reached the shore, vomiting because of the incessant turning of the raft, ready to go back out there the next day so we could continue shooting’ (Cronin 2002: 85). In his mind, none of these authentic elements – the actual vomit-inducing struggles with the rapids, or the physical commitments of his native actors, to cite some examples – could be manufactured. Regardless of the status of the film as a narrative feature film, these are things that must be ‘documented’. Even the flute player who is seen in a shot that Herzog holds for a conspicuously long time is no actor: he is, Herzog explains, a genuinely retarded flute player from the streets of Cuzco (A ch. 9; 32:54). The discovery that any of these images had not been documented but manufactured would, in Herzog’s view, undercut their strength. One presumes that he would say such sequences could never be satisfactorily fabricated on a set. It is necessary that their realness or authenticity pour through, and it is that which presses against the limits of the frame.


Perhaps more than anything else, one thing that is documented in its brutal facticity is Kinski’s ‘authentic’ raving. Herzog explains that he would have to work Kinski up into a rage in order to get a certain kind of performance out of him, and he boasts: ‘During filming Kinski would insult me every single day for at least two hours’ (Cronin 2002: 89). Our spectatorial pleasure may come either from our knowledge of this fact or from our intuitive impression that the actor’s rancour is real. Whether or not any of the many stories about fighting on set are true is another matter, but our interest is supposed to be piqued by the knowledge that we are watching actual raving, or real lunacy. At one point in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Kinski swings at another actor with a sword – a man who years later in My Best Fiend is introduced to viewers as someone Kinski almost killed – and Herzog tells us that had the man not been wearing his helmet, Kinski would have split his skull right open. (The man apparently had to be hospitalised for three months.) The most well-known story associated with Kinski’s work on this particular film was that Herzog compelled Kinski to finish his work on it at gunpoint, a rumour about which Herzog has a sense of humour as evinced by the satirical references to it – its parodic re-staging – during the climactic scene of Incident at Loch Ness (2004). (On the rumour, see Cronin 2002: 89–91; see also Kinski’s version of events in Kinski 1996: 221–2.) As discussed in the introduction to this volume, our fascination with these images stems from the physicality, and in 85

this case the actual violence, that we know is concealed behind the filmed image. While Herzog is generally unenthusiastic about the wild rumours that accompany his productions, one may argue that bringing this type of knowledge to the theatre consciously or unconsciously adds to our spectatorial pleasure. By no means, however, should one diminish the power of Kinski’s performance by suggesting that Herzog simply capitalised on his explosive anger; Kinski is more than merely a fascinating rage machine. In My Best Fiend and elsewhere Herzog highlights Kinski’s contributions to the film and takes note, for example, of the unique ‘Kinski spiral’, a move in which Kinski approaches the camera from behind and then turns into view as though he were born from out of the lens. For his performance in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog instructed Kinski to embody a crab – an animal that one later finds associated with despotism in films such as Echoes from a Sombre Empire and Invincible. Herzog connects crabs metonymically with tyrants, and here as elsewhere he defines humans in relation to our animal counterparts: the despot is at once a crab and a man, barely recognisable as human. This same theme is underscored by the fact that one of the very first images we encounter in the film is a pig wallowing in the mud. Here and throughout Herzog’s oeuvre, mercenary humanity is forced to face itself in the animals it keeps by its side. Kinski’s spiral recalls one of Aguirre, Wrath of God’s chief motifs: the circle. This is a recurring 86

Herzog trope, and one finds it at key moments in Even Dwarfs Started Small, Stroszek (1976) and in almost every other Herzog film. Once Aguirre’s expedition has reached its ‘end’, which is to say, once reality in the form of famine and of the arrows that are assaulting the men from the shores regains control from these explorers who have thought of little but El Dorado, the expedition takes on a hallucinatory quality. Carvajal writes in his diary: ‘I cannot write anymore. We are going in circles.’ At this point, the camera takes us in a circle, around the raft, and this formal gesture is meant to remind us of the endlessly circular motion that the expedition has now taken, as well as of the inability on the part of the party to make coherent sense of their story. Herzog’s circle, the 360-degree pan, suggests a lack of forward motion, but we should also note that such circles can be said to contain an abyss at their centre. All points on the camera’s path are equidistant from a mid-point that it will never reach. The idealism, the grand vision of Aguirre, like that of many of Herzog’s other protagonists, has as its basis an unbridgeable gulf. The difference between the protagonist’s vision and reality is embodied in the abyss that lies between the circle’s perimeter and its centre. The very process by which the film abandons any semblance of a linear trajectory and finds itself moving in circles is typified by Guzman’s decision to throw the expedition’s sole horse overboard. Once the horse gets loose on the raft Guzman insists that it be disposed of. The horse makes it to 87

the shore, and the men stand by, either experiencing regret, or perhaps recognising themselves in the abandoned animal, transplanted from its home. The horse could well be any of them, the stranded men of the expedition. They are, at this point, working entirely against themselves, acting as their own worst enemies. Carvajal notes grimly that the horse, had they kept it, might have provided food for them. Of the shot in which the raft moves away from the abandoned animal, Herzog comments: ‘This is one of my favourite shots … that is something, some poetry, that you can put into films, that doesn’t exist anywhere else … You can do it on film and nowhere else, and that’s why I love to do films’ (A ch. 17; 1:09:30). Following the sequence with the horse – in a film that has also contained sloths and pigs – Aguirre, Wrath of God concludes with one of Herzog’s most notorious animal images: the audience of monkeys on the raft. As the last man standing, Aguirre makes a speech in which he outlines his plans for world domination, including a dream of a dynasty that he will found together with his daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera). Though she lays dying, Aguirre aims to marry her and begin what will be the most pure dynasty the earth has ever seen. He seems not to notice that his men are gone, or have by now apparently transformed into primates. As someone who has himself veered away from being human, Aguirre finds it impossible to differentiate the human from the inhuman, or, for that matter, the living from the 88

dead. Aguirre pitches them one after another over his shoulder as he speaks. This is not the only film in which Herzog has turned to monkeys to provide perspective. The fact that evolution has led nowhere but back to our origins – in a circle – is a motif one finds at the end of Echoes from a Sombre Empire, as well as in God’s Angry Man (1980), a film about a raging demagogue that concludes with the televangelist Gene Scott taking out his anger on a toy monkey. In the final moments of Aguirre, Wrath of God, we have abandoned Carvajal’s pages and instead inhabit Aguirre’s head. The music swells, we move past the raft, and Herzog suggests that the conquistadors’ plan will never progress. The camera circles around numerous times before Herzog finally fades to black.


Aguirre holds forth for the last time in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Because of its circularity, the music in this film merits further discussion. The score is by Popol Vuh, a group headed by Florian Fricke, Herzog’s long-time friend who had small acting roles in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Signs of Life, and who worked with Herzog on films repeatedly throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Looking specifically at Aguirre, Wrath of God, the musicologist Holly Rogers has explained that the aptly titled ‘L’acrime di Rei’, the work most closely associated with the film, was produced by a recording system that utilised Fricke’s ‘choir-organ’. Rogers writes: ‘Inside this strange instrument are 36 tapes running in loops parallel to each other. These tapes, when “played” by an attached keyboard, resemble the sound of a human choir. With its basis in tape loops, the “L’acrime” is highly repetitive. Held firmly in place throughout by a cello-like instrument that oscillates between quaver octave Gs on the first two of every three beats, the electronic choir initially moves between only a few closely related chords. These patterns are then repeated, with occasional surface changes that do nothing to disrupt the fundamental structure’ (2004: 78). The choirorgan produces a rhythm that the film associates with the wind and the water, while at the same time producing voices that are not entirely recognisable as voices. The alterations underscore the mystery


of the jungle – the strange voices from unidentifiable sources – as they gradually overwhelm the protagonists’ haunted psyches. While the musical circularity may not be consciously perceptible, we intuit the major motif: Aguirre’s expedition, guided by the grandeur of his unobtainable and apocalyptic vision, led nowhere from its outset. Fitzcarraldo While Aguirre, Wrath of God contains fascinating music, it cannot be said to be a film about music. However, Fitzcarraldo, a film that shares much in common – and not only the performance of Kinski – with the earlier work, does directly engage with music, specifically with opera. The circularity suggested by the score of Aguirre, Wrath of God has as its basis the notion that the explorers in the film may not find themselves advancing despite the unavoidable intuition that they are moving forward. This much can also be said of Fitzcarraldo, a film that places the protagonist’s aesthetic impulse (his idealistic visions, driven by a love for music) in relation to his entrepreneurial abilities. While the capitalist at the centre of the film seems driven by both impulses, aesthetics are in the end triumphant, and Fitzcarraldo is ultimately a story about the seductive power of music. But to read it from only this perspective sells short a complex narrative. As is the case with other films by Herzog, his protagonist’s romantic


dreams are also nihilistic. Fitzcarraldo is a work about both aesthetic pleasure and destruction. Prior to the film’s opening credits, we see an image pervasive in Herzog’s work: a veil of fog over the jungle. It is a shot similar to that with which Aguirre, Wrath of God, Ten Thousand Years Older and other films begin. The fog looks primordial, as though something were about to be born from it. All at once, it conceals and reveals the jungle beneath. There is something we are meant to see yet our view is obscured. The epigraph then informs us: ‘The forest Indians call this land Cayahuari Yacu, the land in which God was not finished with creation.’ It continues: ‘Only after the disappearance of man, they believe, will God return to finish his work.’ A theological perspective is here invoked, one that sees man as an interruption in a cosmological unfolding. Such a perspective is contrary to beliefs associated with Western Enlightenment, particularly theologies bound to the German tradition, which put the unfolding of human reason at the centre of the universe. The perspectives of Kant, Christian Wolff and G. E. Lessing saw the Enlightenment as an essential part of the realisation of the plan of a rational god. Though that god’s ends are not always apparent to us, what we do on this earth is seen as part of the revelation of something larger. The theology implied by Herzog’s epigraph can, in this sense, be described as a negative one: the project of nature and the development of the earth, if such a development can be said to transpire, progress against the grain of our intentions. The 92

project is hardly recognisable to us because our appearance on this earth is nothing more than an interruption. Central to this notion are, of course, our intentions, which is where Herzog’s protagonist comes in. Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) is well meaning and certainly more sympathetic than Aguirre, but his plan is doomed to fail. The plot centres on a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who aims to become a wealthy South American rubber producer in order to raise enough capital for an opera house in Iquitos, and to bring the power of aesthetics (much more than the trappings of ‘civilisation’) into the jungle. He longs to share his love of Enrico Caruso, Verdi and Wagner. The opera house that Fitzcarraldo aims to build was meant to be similar to one in Menaus – an actual one opened in 1896 – at which the film’s initial sequence takes place. Fitzcarraldo comes up with a plan that involves the now famous stunt of pulling a steamship over a mountain with the help of native Amazonians in order to get to rubber trees that lie beyond the dangerous rapids located in the Pongo das Mortes. Fitzcarraldo – and Herzog – achieve this goal, yet once it is achieved the boat is cut loose, with Fitzcarraldo still on it, and it ends up damaged and, most important, back where it began. The stunt, which briefly turns the protagonist’s own life into an opera, leaves him no better off than before. To use a word that becomes important in this context, the effort ends up being utterly ‘useless’.


Again, the story has only a loose basis in fact. The map of the territory reproduced in the book of the film Fitzcarraldo is an inaccurate, mostly fictional map. The book’s foreword explains that while the two tributaries of the Amazon mentioned in the story, the Pachitea and the Ucayali, do exist, ‘in reality their course is completely different from their description in the story. Their names have been selected only for their sound’ (Herzog 1982b: n.p.). Herzog explains that one of the two key inspirations came from a friend who told him the story of a man named Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald (see Caltvedt 1988). Herzog describes him as a fabulously wealthy rubber baron who ‘apparently had a private army of 5,000 men and a territory the size of Belgium’. Herzog adds, ‘It was all very thin stuff for a film save one detail that he happened to mention: Fitzcarrald had once dismantled a boat, carried it overland from one river to the next and reassembled it once he had reached this parallel tributary … The real Fitzcarrald is not a very interesting character per se, just another ugly businessman at the end of the turn of the century’ (Cronin 2002: 171). Fitzcarrald was a horticulturist, not a music lover, and the opera motif was something Herzog introduced. Additionally, a second inspiration for the film came while Herzog was scouting locations for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser at ‘a place named Carnac’ along the Brittany coast. Herzog says that there is a site upon which sit many large stone blocks weighing hundreds of tons, and he spent much time considering how these were 94

moved to the site with only primitive instruments, mostly ropes and pulleys (Cronin 2002: 170–1). On the one hand, Fitzcarraldo’s determination and even that which can be described as his ‘uselessness’ may be an indication of a Faustian strength of character. It is not wholly inconceivable that a protagonist would be redeemed for merely attempting something, as in the second part of Goethe’s famous drama. In Faust Part Two (1832), the title character is redeemed by God because of his lifelong struggle against complacency, typified by his belief in the final scenes that the noise he hears from outside is the construction of the utopia towards which he has been working (the sounds are, however, lemurs digging his grave). In Fitzcarraldo we are witness to something similar; the protagonist’s project yields nothing. He has succeeded only in levelling a swathe of trees in the jungle, yet he too comes away apparently redeemed owing to his appreciation for aesthetics and his desire to share opera with others. On the other hand, any valorisation of his uselessness may be undercut by our knowledge of the destruction his efforts have caused. If only on the level of the film, to say nothing of the extra-textual level on which any discussion about Fitzcarraldo has to operate, the whole project did more harm than good. Fitzcarraldo has (in the film, at least) dynamited patches of jungle, harmed the native Amazonians, and failed to build his opera house. At great cost, he has created an event or a spectacle no more


lasting than the performance of Bellini’s I Puritani in the film’s final sequence. As indicated, discussions of the uselessness of the protagonist’s grand visions and the destruction wrought by his aesthetic imagination are at pains to keep the film itself separate from the surfeit of information surrounding its production. There are so many written and filmic traces of this grand project that it would be impossible to bracket them out. A good deal has been made available in the form of Herzog’s journals, Eroberung des Nutzlosen (Conquest of the Useless, 2004), Les Blank’s journals, the film Burden of Dreams and elsewhere. When speaking about the film one must therefore provide constant signposts as to whether one is speaking about the production of the film, or about the production that takes place in the film. The story of the conditions prior to the filming of Fitzcarraldo is well known: Herzog arrived in Peru in 1979 and set up camp close to the Ecuadorian border. This was at a time when a border war was brewing between the two countries, and, as Herzog tells it, the jungle was full of soldiers who were a source of irritation both for the production and for the Aguaruna Indians, who had long inhabited the area. Additionally, as the story is told in Burden of Dreams, the Peruvian government had been encouraging settlers to move into the jungle, and lumber and oil interests were also encroaching on that part of the forest, all of which ‘made the Aguaruna Indians see every stranger as a threat’. Although Herzog reached an agreement 96

with the local Aguarunas, who were willing to work with him, a newly-established tribal council decided to set itself at odds with the film’s production. According to Herzog, the council was ‘merely trying to make a name for itself’ by blaming them for having built an oil pipeline and ‘generally being responsible for the military presence’. Herzog adds: ‘They also said we wanted to do real harm to the local population, things like rape their women and use their bodies for grease’ (Cronin 2002: 182). Herzog attributes some of the problems to activists from other countries who agitated the Indians with photos of bodies from Auschwitz and assertions that this is what Herzog meant to do to them (on these claims see von Conta 1979: 110). The director takes a cynical view here, describing such interventions as the product of ‘doctrinaire zealots of the failed 1968 revolution who wanted to fulfill their illusions somewhere new’ (Cronin 2002: 183). Ultimately the production stopped at the original location and shortly thereafter (on 1 December 1979), armed Aguarunas surrounded the film’s camp, ordered the remaining crew to leave and burned it to the ground. In his diaries he writes about his despair over his year of catastrophes and his criminalisation in the media (Herzog 2004: 82). Filming did not begin again until January 1981, when the crew set up in Iquitos. Shortly after restarting, Herzog lost his leading actors – Jason Robards and Mick Jagger – and had to begin from scratch, with Kinski in the lead role and no substitute for Jagger. 97

Herzog has argued that there was significant damage to his reputation as a consequence of the malicious rumours spread about him at the time. Indeed, many people are familiar with his name only in connection with the scent of scandal around Fitzcarraldo, a scandal that came to be publicly known as ‘Der Fall Herzog’ (‘The Herzog Case’). The stories – that he had exploited the native population and that he had endangered people for the sake of his film – were widely circulated. The most damaging rumour was that a large number of Amazonians died to help Herzog move his boat. The scene in the film, for example, in which the boat’s keel rolls over an Indian is often taken for having been an actual document of that man’s death. However, quite clearly in Burden of Dreams, we see the filming of this very scene and the way in which it was staged. The German magazine Stern had published an account, which, although it was sympathetic to him, led with the unfortunate title ‘The Herzog Horror Picture Show’. Herzog concludes: ‘Ultimately it was not difficult to rubbish the claims the press made, not least because a human rights group sent a commission down to the area and concluded that there had been not one single violation’ (Cronin 2002: 170). It is by and large clear, as Herzog has often stated, that no one died as a direct result of the steamship project. He insists that everything was quite safe, that all his dynamite blasts were well controlled and that the actors were well paid for their work. On the other hand, the onslaught of criticism he received came as a consequence of 98

his own courtship of danger. While Herzog has elsewhere said that he is not a daredevil or a thrill-seeker in any sense, and that he finds the concept of ‘adventure’ to be anachronistic, the list of potential dangers that his crew and actors faced – including the native population who participated in the film – seems endless. More than two decades later Herzog still seems to be recalling ever new dangers that he and his crew faced on the set. Herzog tells about his actresses who were shot with spears, a plane crash related to the making of the film, a man shot through the throat with an arrow (as is documented in Burden of Dreams), Thomas Mauch’s serious hand injury (which had to be repaired without anaesthesia), how assistant cameraman Rainer Klausmann was not only left out all night on a rock by the rapids, but how he also lost part of a toe to a piranha, and also how one of the actors, Hurequeque, ended up with malaria. On the commentary to Burden of Dreams, Les Blank remarks that although as many as seven people died during the making of the film, none of these deaths were direct consequences of the production. For Herzog’s critics, such distinctions are probably a question of splitting hairs. In that all of this represents only a portion of the extra-filmic drama, Herzog should not have been surprised nor should he be surprised today that rumours fly about in connection with the film’s production. Though he resists the claim that he put anyone at risk, the evidence makes it seem as though the making of the film was a thoroughly dangerous undertaking, 99

and that he was in turn willing to brave equally dangerous public relations. The point remains that all of this may best be considered in isolation from legitimate criticism of the film’s colonial politics. The fact that Fitzcarraldo redeems its aesthete of a protagonist – that it ends with a victory of sorts for the rubber baron – puts it in a league distinct from Aguirre, Wrath of God, in which the protagonist is clearly an extreme and maniacal symptom of violent colonial ideology. Kinski’s character in the later film is in some respects more troubling because although opera lovers generally approve of his mountain-moving mission, identifying with a protagonist who sets hundreds of natives to hard labour should rightly present problems. In one of the harshest comments on the film, the critic Hans Koning judges that Fitzcarraldo is the type of film we would likely have seen in large numbers had Germany won its wars (1983: 43). Critics were apt to conjoin Herzog with the character Fitzcarraldo, reading the fictional figure’s travails as an allegory for those of the director. The process by which Fitzcarraldo hauls the steamship over the mountain is indeed very similar to what actually transpired during the production of the film. The work benefited from this interconnection of documentary and feature work in that, as Herzog points out, the strain you see in the faces of the Amazonians is real. Herzog feels that something like this cannot be faked. Precisely because he actually was having the boat pulled over the mountain, the production of the film and 100

the production in the film overlap. The two are inextricably entwined: both the director and the visionary entrepreneur evince the desire to stage a massive production in the name of aesthetics. Herzog’s vision of cinema constantly crosses paths with Fitzcarraldo’s dream of opera. For Herzog, as for Fitzcarraldo, the desire to achieve his goal is articulated as the desire to realise a dream. In his most often quoted comment from Burden of Dreams, Herzog explains: ‘If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams. And I don’t want to live like that. I live my life and I end my life with this project.’ Readings of the film, however, must pause in precisely the moment they take pleasure in this commingling. One should indeed make efforts to separate what goes on in this film from its production, especially when speaking about the film’s politics. One can argue, as does the critic Stuart Klawans (1999: 150–60), that Fitzcarraldo not only allegorises filmmaking in terms of its struggle to realise a spectacle, but specifically in terms of how a filmmaker can work outside the machinery of studio production. The film is, in this way, the story of a filmmaker who did not want to use special effects and shoot footage of a boat sitting in a tub on a studio lot. One could therefore compare Fitzcarraldo with the Hollywood-emulating film Das Boot (1981), which was shot at a studio in Bavaria around the same time. Klawans ties Fitzcarraldo to Apocalypse Now, which was attended by similar anecdotes concerning the obstacles encountered by its production. Klawans notes the numerous 101

difficulties including trouble with native populations, the illnesses of top actors (Herzog lost Robards to dysentery, and Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack on Coppola’s set), and the problems involved with getting permission to film on location. The similarities are evident, and Klawans also describes how both directors, Coppola and Herzog, enacted a scene of colonialism in order to expiate the sins of their own society. Klawans, in other words, sees the gesture with which a director – put in the harshest of terms – jeopardises the lives of hundreds of Indians and destroys a swathe of rain forest all in the name of a metaphor as a self-conscious appropriation of the worst aspects of colonial history and as a performance of them before us, as would be carried out by a shaman. It is, in other words, an enactment of cultural sins such that they may be cast out or expiated. If one indeed believes that no one was harmed in the making of the film, then Klawans’ point about Herzog’s shamanism forces the recognition of an important truth: Herzog is only performing the sins, not actually enacting them. As a colonial enterprise, the production of Fitzcarraldo thus might not be considered sinful. The similarities with Apocalypse Now are not only extra-textual, but can also be found within the frames of the film itself. The flotilla of Indians that approaches Fitzcarraldo’s boat, the Molly Aida, recalls the sequence in Coppola’s film when the boat carrying Willard (Martin Sheen) along the river finally approaches Colonel Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando) settlement. There is also a close 102

connection between the representations of the natives in the two films, who are for the most part silent, almost undifferentiated from the jungle itself. When the Molly Aida turns up the Rio Pachetea, the crew is threatened less by the knowledge that they are being watched than by the fact that they cannot see the Amazonians. The book of the film tells us that we search for the natives but that we do not see them. Herzog writes: ‘our eyes burn with the strain, yet we can see absolutely nothing’ (1982b: 96). Cholo (Miguel Ángel Fuentes), the macho crewman, breaks the silence by throwing dynamite into the water and attempting to show the natives who is boss. He says that he hopes in this way to start a ‘dialogue’ with them. Their mode of communication is, however, more abstract: at one point they send a message to the Molly Aida in the form of an upside-down umbrella that belonged to a missionary, one who has likely lost his head. This image of the umbrella floating downriver is one of the most potent in the film; it is beautiful and foreboding, but it also bespeaks an element central to Herzog’s work – the recurring fascination with the power of silence over and above language. Strangely enough, silence pervades in this film about opera. More often than not, we hear only the squawk of birds. The exchange between Fitzcarraldo and the natives is non-verbal and remains so as the film moves from this sign system (the threatening umbrella) into a musical one. Fitzcarraldo responds to the war drums with his phonograph. He stands on top of 103

his steamship, letting an Aria play, and says, ‘now it is Caruso’s turn’. Herzog suggests that this gesture – unlike the missionaries’ language or Cholo’s violence – is more likely to open up a line of communication.

A foreboding umbrella makes its way down the river in Fitzcarraldo (1982)

It is unsurprising on some level that Fitzcarraldo was capable of communicating with the natives insofar as we are meant to understand that there is a similarity between his worldview and theirs. When Fitzcarraldo goes to visit the missionary station at Samariza, for example, the missionaries explain to him that they have had luck educating the native children, but that older people are harder to reach because, as they say, ‘we cannot seem to cure them of their basic notion that our 104

normal life is an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams’. Fitzcarraldo interrupts and says: ‘this interests me very much … you see, I am a man of the opera!’ The exclamation echoes a line from earlier in the film, a scene in which Fitzcarraldo is being thrown out of a party hosted by Don Araujo (Ruy Polanah), the rubber baron, and says: ‘The reality of your world is nothing more than a rotten caricature of great opera.’ Here, Fitzcarraldo the aesthete reveals that he lives in an aesthetic utopia, and we are to understand that his reality-negating impulse is what allows him to flatten a mountain. His love of opera is taken to be the driving force that emboldens him to move the earth out of the path of his steamship. His aesthetic idealism negates the world, pushing its materiality aside in the name of art. The problem, of course, is that it is not a wish that moves the mountain, his desire is only part of the equation. The forgotten part is the labour of the Indians. The mountain is only an illusion if one has the power to move it, not in the form of faith, but in the form of muscle. That Fitzcarraldo is a dreamer, or that he sees himself allied with the belief system of ageing Indians who see our world as little more than an antechamber, can be taken as evidence of the film’s aestheticisation of uselessness. I highlight the term ‘useless’, because the word appears in the script at a key moment: when a toast is offered to Fitzcarraldo, he is mocked as ‘the conquistador of the useless’. Additionally, Herzog’s own diaries from the production are likewise entitled Conquest 105

of the Useless. That Fitzcarraldo is referred to in this way, and that Herzog gives his diaries that title, further underscores the connection between the two figures. The concept of uselessness can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, it is aestheticised in the film, which is to say that Fitzcarraldo celebrates this recurring Herzogian theme of going nowhere. As with the circles in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Started Small and elsewhere, the journey undertaken by the film concludes very much where it began. The idea that it led nowhere, or that it came full circle, is a comment on the nature of progress. To return to the point made by the film’s epigraph, if man is an interruption in the course of history, then what would be the difference whether or not one is able to move forward? Progress is, after all, an illusion. The triumphant ending, in which Fitzcarraldo realises his dream of hearing opera in Iquitos, allows him to revel in his return, both geographically and financially, to the place at which he started. Part of this return to origins is that Fitzcarraldo is once again penniless at the film’s end. At the same time, uselessness can be seen to bespeak the separation of aesthetic pleasure from financial success. It is paradoxical that although Fitzcarraldo is an entrepreneur, he has no head for business. Early in the film, we realise he has tried a similar venture before, apparently having attempted to construct a trans-Andean railway. He has left in his wake nothing but ruins, as well as a long-unpaid employee who stands idly by, waiting 106

for Fitzcarraldo’s return. In one excruciating scene, Fitzcarraldo has to break the news to this employee that he is taking the remaining railroad tracks for use in his new project. Mercifully, Fitzcarraldo agrees to leave a small trace of the operation behind, so that the former employee has something on which to hang his hat. Herzog writes: ‘From the bottom of his broken heart, the station manager looks gratefully at Fitzcarraldo’ (1982b: 80). Others flaunt money in front of him, and this, despite the fact that he is an entrepreneur, is something that we know he finds boorish and repulsive. Don Aqualino (José Lewgoy) plays cards and describes losing money while gambling as ‘an ecstasy’. Given the central place of ecstasy in Herzog’s own discourse, we should register this as the worldview of someone without genuine aesthetic sensibilities, a feeling underscored by the montage of unappealing faces of card players, each with a repugnant smile. We also see Don Aqualino feeding his money to the fish to flaunt his wealth. Ultimately, the small amount of money that Fitzcarraldo gets from the sale of the boat at the film’s end, money that in some measure properly belongs to his friend and lover Molly (Claudia Cardinale) insofar as she was responsible for the initial investment, is spent frivolously on the floating performance of I Puritani. Overall, Fitzcarraldo’s bad business practices reflect the distance between aesthetics and entrepreneurship, between the world of dreams and the world of business.


For Fitzcarraldo the guiding principle is the aesthetic, and in this way he can be described – to use Herzog’s language – as a pilgrim for opera. The concept of pilgrimage, as mentioned earlier, carries weight in Herzog’s works, and this type of journey, in which one goes forth to bear witness and then returns home, recurs throughout his oeuvre. Fitzcarraldo begins with a pilgrimage – one that takes the protagonist on a journey more than 1,200 miles down the Amazon from Iquitos to Manaus where he attends the opera. He has come with Molly all the way to Manaus to see Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt in a production of Verdi’s 1844 Ernani, a love story set in sixteenth-century Spain, based on Hernani, the French play by Victor Hugo. These scenes were staged by Werner Schroeter, who manages to depict an authentic-looking opera in a very real opera house. Accurately, a woman in the orchestra pit sings Sarah Bernhardt’s part for her, a gesture that in this film calls attention to the level of artifice or mystification associated with the opera. Inaccurately, however, as if to undermine the very authenticity of the staging, Bernhardt is portrayed on stage by a man in a wig. With a sense of urgency, Fitzcarraldo and Molly climb the steps and, if the pilgrimage alone were not enough to render clear the relationship between Fitzcarraldo’s aestheticism and religious worship, the opera house is made to resemble a cathedral. Once there, Fitzcarraldo is enraptured by the production he sees. The book of the film describes him at this moment as a ‘witness of the 108

sublime’ (Herzog 1982b: 17). Caruso, from the stage, is said to point ‘vaguely in the direction where Fitzcarraldo stands’, and in the film Molly exclaims that Fitzcarraldo was surely being addressed by Caruso (she says: ‘he pointed directly at you’). Molly here encourages Fitzcarraldo’s fantasy, and not for the last time in that she is his biggest supporter throughout, backing him morally and financially. She confirms for him that he has been singled out at the opera, and their joint belief that he has been transported onto the stage is in earnest. We see already in this initial sequence the reality-denying effects of Fitzcarraldo’s aesthetics. He relies on music to transform the world, and it becomes his only recourse in the same way that Aguirre’s only recourse is violence. When Fitzcarraldo is on his houseboat with children – children who have an affection for him and who later help liberate him from jail – he impresses them not only with the technology of the phonograph, but with the spirit of music. More important, when Fitzcarraldo hears the drums from the jungle, instead of firing back with guns, he fires back with Caruso. He can in this way – in that he responds with music instead of violence – be understood as an anti-Aguirre. Of his arrival in the jungle, Fitzcarraldo announces: ‘This God doesn’t come with cannons, but with the voice of Caruso.’ The opera, which is the source of Fitzcarraldo’s energy and which is the basis of his passion, is not the only music heard in the film. The non-diegetic music is again provided by Popol Vuh and in the 109

film it marks Fitzcarraldo’s dreams. Unlike the haunting way in which the same style of music is used in Aguirre, Wrath of God, it is here utilised to underscore moments at which Fitzcarraldo recovers his optimism. Once the Indians agree to help him level the mountain, he constructs a lookout in the treetops and happily considers the project on which he is about to embark. The Popol Vuh music thus accompanies the moments in which Fitzcarraldo believes he is empowered over the landscape by virtue of having a sense of cartographic control over it. To use a phrase that appears in the critical literature, Fitzcarraldo indulges in the fantasy that he is ‘the monarch of all he surveys’ (a term employed by Koepnick 1993: 143; see also Pratt 1992: 201–27), and this fantasy is highlighted by Fricke’s score.

Kinski fires back with the sounds of Caruso in Fitzcarraldo (1982)


Despite his moments of great optimism, the whole project turns out in the end to have been ‘useless’. It was a dream that Fitzcarraldo could not realise. The Amazonians finally cut the boat loose from its moorings and send it down the Pongo das Mortes. (The camerawork is something that could not be replicated by Hollywood and it was all so ‘real’ that, according to Herzog, at the moment the captain braced himself on the rail, when the ship struck the cliffs, the lens went flying and the cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, split his hand open.) Later, back in Iquitos, at the offices of Don Aquilino, Fitzcarraldo meditates on all that has happened. He narrates a story about an explorer who was the first to see Niagara Falls and who explained upon his return that the proof that a falls of such magnitude exists is that he has seen it. Not only is Fitzcarraldo a story about a journey lacking in practical consequence – a journey whereby there is no tangible material result beyond the destruction left in its wake – but the story within the story is one that Fitzcarraldo himself can make no ‘use’ of. We might see parallels between Fitzcarraldo’s ephemeral aestheticism and this allegory about a lack of material evidence, but Fitzcarraldo cannot make the connection and thereby redoubles his own apparent uselessness. He concludes (or fails to conclude) his own story with the words, ‘I don’t know what this has to do with me.’ The final sequence is the one in which the opera I Puritani is performed in the waters of Iquitos. Written in 1834–35, Bellini’s work was set in 111

Plymouth in the 1650s. It involves many themes similar to Ernani, the opera with which Fitzcarraldo began, including mistaken identities and a woman named Elvira, who is the object of affection for multiple protagonists. Although Herzog originally called for the final scene to include Wagner, the similarities between Ernani and I Puritani serve to highlight the circularity of the plot; the film ends not all that far from where it began. Perhaps, in its resonance with the idea of the ‘total artwork’ (Gesamtkunstwerk) and the connections between life and art, the reference to Wagner as it had been planned would have seemed too heavy-handed. Fitzcarraldo here fulfils his wish, but only partially; opera is heard but no permanent opera house is erected. He stands on the deck of his ship, and, as the script indicates, he rejoices. It is a fleeting triumph and a useless one. Herzog films him standing next to an empty red velvet chair taken from the opera house, and, underscoring the connection between the director and his idealistic protagonist – the one with a vision too grand to be realised from within the confines of reality – Herzog confesses that he imagines it is him in the suit, next to the empty red chair, inviting the audience to come have a seat (F ch. 23; 2:34:35). My Best Fiend Both Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre found themselves on boats in the final sequences of their respective


films. One difference, however, is that in the final shot of Fitzcarraldo, Kinski is enjoying a big cigar, and this particular indulgence may serve for some as a reminder that Herzog had once hoped to cast Jack Nicholson in the role. Here, Kinski, as the opera-loving aesthete, was playing against type. He had done much of his work playing the villain in so-called ‘spaghetti westerns’, yet it is retrospectively clear that Herzog found him right for the part. Sentiments such as these come to the fore in My Best Fiend, Herzog’s homage to Kinski. The film is an examination of the director’s tumultuous relationship with the difficult actor, and an effort to come to terms with his death eight years earlier. Herzog uses some new interview material – with Eva Mattes, Beat Presser and others – as well as old footage of Kinski in order to reflect upon and scrutinize their long-time friendship. The film begins with footage of a young Kinski engaging in a larger-than-life concert as part of his ‘Jesus Tour’. In an over-the-top performance, Kinski explains to a crowded hall that he is not the Jesus of their parents, but is instead the new, angry Jesus. Although this footage is not taken from one of Herzog’s own films, it certainly could have been. Kinski behaves outrageously and excessively, confronting members of the audience and raging at them. We know, however, that Herzog has affection for this type of lunacy. Not only has he repeatedly said as much, but he also takes an interest in other, similarly larger-than-life characters including, for example, Timothy 113

Treadwell and Gene Scott. There is a certain madness in such figures that appeals to Herzog insofar as it is a rejection of bourgeois behavioural norms. That Kinski puts a finger squarely in the eye of the bourgeois is an impression we get most strongly in the film’s early sequences, ones in which we are taken into a house where Herzog resided with Kinski when the director was 13 years old. We see that the boarding house has now been turned into the home of a genteel couple, the Baron and Baroness von der Recke. Directly into the camera, Herzog tells stories about Kinski’s ravings. He narrates how Kinski would lock himself in the bathroom for hours and even days on end, smashing the fixtures to bits. Herzog says in My Best Fiend: ‘In his fits of maniacal fury he smashed everything to smithereens, the bathtub, the toilet bowl, everything. You could sift it through a tennis racket. But it was really incredible. I never thought that someone could rave for 48 hours.’ While presenting us with an image of refined hosts, Herzog also offers an example of some of Kinski’s most inappropriate behaviour. We hear the actor’s voice reading lines about a stew of dog shit and foul bath water mixed with monkey’s piss. This is Kinski’s interpretation of Paul Zech’s adaptation of one of François Villon’s fifteenth-century ballads, one that excoriates all disparagers or ‘envious tounges’ (Lästerzungen). (According to Peter Geyer, Kinski was working from Karl Anton Klammer’s translation of Villon as well (see Geyer 2006: 71–2).) Herzog allows 114

Kinski’s voice to hover above the images, as though he were forcing an intrusion into this bourgeois home. While Kinski goes on about animal fluids, the camera pans across the von der Reckes’ well-stocked kitchen and polished cookware. Kinski’s ravings continue as Herzog heads out to the Urubamba Valley where the two had once filmed Aguirre, Wrath of God. Herzog, it seems, has charged himself with the task of mining his memories in order to find out what Kinski means to him. He is pursuing an answer to the question of whether Kinski was more than just ravings and desperate attempts to prove that he could outsize the screen. In the interest of exploring his past, Herzog returns to what might be described as the scene of the crime. Aguirre, Wrath of God was the first collaboration between the two, and Herzog revisits the Urubamba Valley with the intention of retracing their steps. This is not the only time he has gone back to South America to revisit a site of emotional intensity. It may be that this return to Peru was contemporaneous with his work on Wings of Hope (Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel, 1999), a film released in that same year in which he took Juliane Köpcke, a woman who had survived a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle, back to the scene of the accident, and encouraged her to walk with him along the same river she walked following the tragic loss of her mother. Between these two films there is most certainly a parallel. The idea of bringing someone back to a difficult scene and reliving it in the interest of 115

cinema informs Herzog’s own actions insofar as both films are about retracing the past and retelling a story. Here, however, Herzog and his own memory are the objects of his camera’s scrutiny. Returning to the scene is important in that this film is really about how one comes to terms with loss. My Best Fiend deals with Herzog’s loss of Kinski, or his attempt to properly mourn for him. Arguably, the film attends to what happens when one begins to process the loss of a loved one. As psychoanalysis would express it, such losses are difficult because we cannot accept that the part of the loved one that existed outside and independent of us is gone. Herzog has said that when Kinski died, ‘the fact did not enter [his] heart until months later’. He says, ‘I needed to let time pass and I knew time would have the mysterious power to change perspective, and because of that the film has humour and warmth’ (Cronin 2002: 285). In psychoanalytic terms, terms to which Herzog is generally indifferent, an unassimilated loss is turned into melancholy, and for that reason it is important to find ways to work such losses through. According to Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) something within us comes to stand for or represent a lost loved one, and when the loss is not dealt with, we reject that part of us in the form of anger and finally turn our inwardly-directed anger into depression or melancholy. Herzog’s friendship with Kinski was clearly a meaningful bond. The two were frequently described as doppelgänger of one 116

another, and he has portrayed the relationship as being similar to that which exists between identical twins. Whether as twin, double, friend or fiend, Kinski was obviously a part of Herzog, which puts a more sentimental spin on one of the most moving moments of My Best Fiend, mentioned earlier, when Herzog integrates Kinski’s question from the end of Aguirre, Wrath of God, ‘who is with me?’, with the sound of his own voice responding: ‘I was with him.’ Although Herzog includes a lot of footage depicting how difficult Kinski could be, especially footage from the production of Fitzcarraldo, similar to that which is on view in Burden of Dreams (footage in which Kinski rages at the producer Walter Saxer, asking how any man can be so stupid as to expect him to live on the kind of pig food given to him by the production staff), My Best Fiend is much more about taking possession of the memory of Kinski in a generous way. It is about how a filmmaker can, through film, go about redrawing the memory of someone ‘dear’ to them, as the film’s German title (Mein liebster Feind) expresses it. Herzog seems particularly happy, for example, that he had the footage from the Telluride Film Festival to include, because it reveals a certain closeness between the two (see Cronin 2002: 286). In some ways My Best Fiend is not only about re-narrating the past, or telling the story in a way that allows Herzog to come to terms with the loss, but it is also about how such a goal is achieved cinematically. Because so much of their 117

relationship took place on film, coming to terms with its end may be done best on film as well. In this regard, one of the work’s most telling sequences comes when Herzog looks back at one of Kinski’s earliest film roles, his part in Children, Mother, and the General (1955), and has us watch with him Kinski’s performance of a scene in which he wakes up, lifts his head and opens his eyes. Herzog edits the sequence into his film three times in a row. He first saw the scene at age 15, and though he offers no interpretation of his specific fascination with it, he says: ‘the way [Kinski] wakes up will forever stay in my memory. This one moment impressed me so profoundly that later it was a decisive moment in my professional life.’ He adds: ‘strange how memory can magnify something like that. The following scene in which he orders Maximillian Schell to be shot seems much more impressive to me today.’ The repetition of the single moment is of course reminiscent of other repetitions in Herzog’s work, such as the lines restated by the two policemen in Last Words (Letzte Worte, 1967), or of the reiterated image of a plane landing at the very start of Fata Morgana. Such repetition goes nowhere and can be said to serve perhaps as a temporal analogue to Herzog’s ever-appearing circles. This particular scene, however, is all the more significant when the film is viewed from the perspective of how one comes to terms with loss. Herzog repeats the memory again and again: it may be evidence of a failed attempt to move on, to get past certain memories, or it may instead be seen as an inability to recapture a 118

vanished connection, one that keeps slipping away. As he has done elsewhere, Herzog tells the story of the final frames of Aguirre, Wrath of God, a sequence he is said to have directed from behind a loaded gun. He gets to tell it his way, and although we may already know the ‘truth’ – that Herzog was unarmed, that he only threatened to shoot Kinski and that the tale was mostly invented by the press – the story in this context serves the function of drawing him closer to Kinski or of publicly closing a wound. Herzog then restates what he sees as having been monumental about the production, saying, ‘I thank [Kinski’s] cowardice and his instincts for the magnificent ending of Aguirre.’ Telling the story his own way is part of re-narrating the relationship, though one should also point out that it gives him the last word. Along these lines, he provides the film with a poetic ending of the type found in The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and in other films, one that is meant to remind us that the work is not a ‘document’, but that it is ultimately subjective and poetic. We see footage of Kinski playing with a butterfly, apparently quite gently, and Herzog says: ‘This is the way I’d like to keep him in my memory.’ Not only does the director have the last word, but he also presents us with the portrait of a tamed beast. Kinski was typically wild, and like the characters Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, his passions could hardly conform to the constraints of reality. Herzog’s ending,


however, implies that those passions could be contained, both in memory and on the screen.




Madness on a Minor Scale

Figures such as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo make plans of sublime dimensions, biting off more than they or anyone could conceivably chew. In the cases of such protagonists, their dreams are utopian; they consist of founding cities or opera houses. Aguirre has expansive dreams that are incommensurate with the world he is forced to inhabit. Likewise in Fitzcarraldo, the action of pulling a boat over a mountain was an undertaking intended to be grander than even our ability to fathom it. As a pattern, Herzog’s films encourage us to consider the irreconcilability of grand visions and the constraining world. Yet as one might expect, Herzog’s films also present a tendency that is dialectically opposed to that which is found in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Gilles Deleuze notes that the dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small cannot be described as ‘conquerors of the useless’, the label that had been applied to Fitzcarraldo. They are instead, like Herzog’s Woyzeck, his two Stroszeks and others, figures that are ‘incapable of being used’ (1986: 184); they do not conquer anything, not even uselessness, and have to feel fortunate if they find


the smallest place in the sun. The earth does not quake beneath them. In the case of these ‘smaller’ figures – by which I also mean those that are literally smaller, such as Bruno S. or the dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small – their plans resemble last gasps, or the attempt to catch a breath in the final moments before drowning. Because their struggle is often a struggle for life, more than merely for recognition, it is all the more vexing why it so often appears as madness. In Herzog’s films of this type he suggests that there is a greater sanity at the basis of these minor madnesses, and that it is only a culture that pushes such members to the breaking point that is itself ‘mad’. The difference between these two modes – the visionary who sets out to conquer more than we can comprehend and the small figure who merely hopes to take possession of the world that is directly in front of him – can be expressed as a distinction between figures such as Hercules, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, ones who want to conquer the world, and figures such as Stroszek, Woyzeck and Herzog’s dwarfs, who hope only to conquer some corner of their world. Inevitably, the latter are prevented from doing so, and, as demonstrated in the following analyses of Signs of Life, Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek (1976) and Woyzeck, the conditions by which they are forced to surrender even their tiny fragments of territory are meant to force a reckoning with all manner of social cruelty.


Signs of Life Herzog’s first feature film Signs of Life was about just such a ‘minor’ character. Herzog had won the Carl Meyer prize for the film’s screenplay, which was loosely based on the German Romantic literary tale ‘The Madman of Fort Ratonneau’ (1818) by Achim von Arnim. Herzog adapted the Romantic story quite freely, setting its events in the twentieth century, depicting the German occupation of Greece in World War Two, instead of setting it during the Seven Years’ War, as had von Arnim. In Herzog’s film, a German soldier named Stroszek (Peter Brogle) is quietly recovering from an injury at an abandoned fort on the Greek island of Kos, where he has been given too little to do and is now growing mad with boredom. The name Herzog chose for his protagonist seems like an unusual one (it is not taken from von Arnim), and the filmmaker provides an appropriately unusual story to account for it. He explains that he had been a student at the university but that he hardly ever attended. He continues: ‘One day I had to submit a paper in history … and I asked another student, “Can you write that for me? … I don’t have any money but I will make your name immortal.” His name was Hauke Stroszek’ (SL ch. 4; 9:45). Herzog’s protagonist eventually takes over the fortress, partly out of boredom and partly out of a jealous rage about his wife, and threatens to harm the town with his stockpile of munitions. He is


ultimately arrested and taken away. In von Arnim’s tale, the protagonist is a French soldier, Sergeant Francoeur. He marries a woman from Leipzig, and the woman’s mother, who is against the marriage, places a curse upon the two of them. Francoeur goes mad. The cause of his madness is ambiguous: it is either from the curse or from the head wound he received while in Prussian captivity. As in the film, he takes over the fort along with its munitions. In the tale, Francoeur’s wife’s love is ultimately strong enough to cast the madness from him and the story ends happily: his sanity is restored and he is shown mercy for his crimes. Herzog keeps some elements – the seizure of the fortress and the use of munitions to intimidate a city – but he leaves out any direct mention of the curse, and the wife’s true love is, in Herzog’s version, much subdued. The issue of Herzog’s Romanticism is discussed somewhat more directly in chapter three, but one should here point out the connection between his Romanticism and that which I have described as the struggle in Herzog’s work between ideal visions and reality. Much of Romanticism is predicated on the idea of ‘inner visions’ – the concepts of the imagination and of the mind’s eye – and the irreconcilability of those visions with the outside world. What takes place in von Arnim’s story is more than a simple fall into madness; it is a tale in which there is no strong basis for distinguishing between what is fantasised (Francoeur’s paranoia) and what is not. This is, importantly, reproduced in von Arnim’s text itself: 125

we cannot know for certain if the head wound or the curse and the devil are responsible for Francoeur’s behaviour. Additionally, a major difference between the story and the film concerns the substantially altered role of the wife, Nora, based on the character Rosalie. Herzog does not allow the female protagonist of his film (played by Athina Zacharopoulou) to save Stroszek from madness. In many Romantic works, as Kent Casper and Susan Linville point out, feminine love, taken in connection with religious faith, frequently serves to counterbalance the descent into madness and helps to restore order (1991: 19). In von Arnim’s mad world, according to Casper and Linville, it is Rosalie who exorcises her husband’s apparent possession by the devil. However, in Herzog’s Signs of Life, Nora plays a part only in precipitating and accelerating Stroszek’s downfall. When Stroszek discovers that his friend Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) and his wife Nora have gone to see the captain behind his back to discuss his problems, he flies into a rage and chases them away at gunpoint. The other major change from von Arnim’s tale has to do with the film’s setting. By bringing the story into the twentieth century, Herzog raises a number of questions with respect to the film’s more contemporary relevance. We are given little information about the specific conditions surrounding World War Two and the occupation of Greece beyond the fact that Stroszek was transferred to the island of Kos, and on that island ‘there has never been fighting’. On one level, the 126

change can be seen in terms of an effort to depict the German soldier as a victim of the war, rather than as its perpetrator. Herzog explains that in American films we think that ‘to see a German soldier means that he is a Nazi’, but notes that many of them were forcefully drafted. He comments that for him, to be a Nazi was ‘to be an ideologue … but most of the soldiers were just poor kids who had to attack the countries around Germany’ (SL ch. 2; 4:01). This issue in Herzog’s work is taken up somewhat more explicitly in Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and other films, but here one already finds a tendency that Herzog later pursues. He has an interest in making sure that a distinction is upheld between ordinary Germans and the perpetrators of Nazi violence. To speak specifically about the content of Signs of Life, some aspects of the film directly recall the way language – the distrust of language both as a means to represent the world and as a vessel to communicate meaning – is a central issue in Herzog’s work. At the same time that Herzog made Signs of Life, he also made Last Words, and that film sheds light on Signs of Life’s key thematic elements. Last Words (a highly stylised 13-minute film) deals with a man who is forced to leave an island on which there is leprosy. The man is resentful and refuses to utter a word, saying that he will refuse even to say ‘No’ if he is asked to speak. His refusal resonates with the one that takes place in Signs of Life. In that film there is a curiously un-integrated bit of dialogue when a 127

young boy says, apparently out of nowhere, ‘now that I can talk, what should I say?’ That scene is then followed by one in which a pianist (Florian Fricke) plays Chopin and then says, ‘You may think that [Chopin’s] music isn’t fitting for this place. It’s different, malicious … Chopin was malicious. The only thing one could count on was him coughing blood. Don’t you hear it in the music?’ Whether the pianist’s question was meant rhetorically or not, Stroszek does not give him an answer. The two sit silently for a moment, and the implication may be that words could not properly answer a question about music, or that they could not be as expressive. The film’s ‘language problem’ has less to do with whether language can represent the world than with its usefulness as a tool for interpersonal communication. With the exception of those moments early in the film when Nora and Stroszek seem to be in love, very little communication takes place between the two. At times, Nora appears to be a voice of reason, but even her reasonable tendencies fail to function as a check on Stroszek’s madness. Nora tells the men they should not squabble with one another, but these and other attempts to hold Stroszek’s madness at bay come to nothing. The project of making Herzog’s minor madmen behave reasonably is also in evidence in Even Dwarfs Started Small, a film in which ‘be reasonable!’ (‘sei doch vernünftig!’) becomes an oft-uttered mantra. In Signs of Life, Nora pleads in the name of reason but is ultimately unable to communicate with her 128

husband. This incapacity is allegorised in an exchange in which he tries to get her to say the German word for ‘peaches’ (Pfirsiche) but eventually gives up on her finding the correct pronunciation. The sounds she produces can be heard to include the word sicher, meaning ‘secure’, which is precisely what their fortress is not. These communicative failures serve to underscore the theme announced in the film’s title: language is a ‘sign of life’, yet it is one that often remains unreceived by others. The film’s final fireworks are meant to draw attention to the fact that there may be life, even in places where no linguistic signs are properly understood. Still another of the key motifs that define the work has to do with the film’s setting in the ruins of Kos. Herzog explains that his grandfather worked on this island, and that it was for this reason meaningful for him to film there (Cronin 2002: 38–9). The island’s ruins come into play at various points in the film. Apart from the fact that Stroszek, Nora and the others are living among the fragments of an old fortress, a situation that accentuates their isolation – that the men themselves are fragments, now separated from a whole – Stroszek’s comrade Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) at one point undertakes to decipher writing on the classical tablets strewn around them. Becker says that the task is especially difficult because the words on the tablets run together and some are missing. He sees fragments of words, and those that he mentions include ‘people’ and ‘dog’ (a man and 129

animal pairing, not unheard of in Herzog’s work). Later Becker tells us that the tablets narrate the defeat of an invading army and explains that the Greeks were more brutal than we imagine: during the Olympic games they would put stones on their knuckles, tie their hands with leather straps and smash each other’s noses. On one level, such fragments are, for them, a sign of things to come. They recall for us that one can read the signs of the world in which one lives in order to better view the brutality – the doglike character – of one’s own civilisation. It is not incidental that the civilisation Herzog tangentially depicts, that of Germany under the Nazis, freely and flatteringly compared itself to the civilisation of the Greeks. On still another level, we are meant to ask who Stroszek is in light of these fragments by which he is surrounded; is he a fragment that dreams of being made whole, or is he best understood as a ruin of a man, one that has been decimated by war? Seen from the perspective of Stroszek’s misanthropy, the real theme of the film is the solipsism into which he falls. At one point, Meinhard and Becker (and Nora as well, for a short time) play a game that reflects this theme: they sit with their backs against the wall as though they were sitting on chairs, yet there are no chairs. It is an endurance test, one from which Meinhard, who has a notably short attention span, walks away. After the camera lingers on Becker for a long time, he observes, ‘Now I’m only against myself.’ The theme of a game played only against oneself in which one imagines opponents and 130

resistance recalls the game being played in this and in other Herzog films, but it especially recalls Precautions Against Fanatics (Maßnahmen gegen Fanatiker, 1969), a film that premiered the year following Signs of Life. That film, made in Munich, is another highly stylised short film that looks like a documentary. It takes place at a racetrack and deals with people who apparently have the fantasy that they are somehow protecting the track’s horses (a fantasy that presages fixations later evident in Grizzly Man). The kernels of a number of Herzog’s films are already visible in this one, films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small, as well as Signs of Life and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Precautions Against Fanatics begins with shots of the racetrack and very upbeat music, as though it were a documentary about the delights of spending a day in the outdoors. The first character we meet, however, already makes us sceptical. He explains that he must stay where he is to protect the horses against ‘fanatics’. He does not make clear, however, exactly what sort of fanatics he has in mind. The next character tells us about the importance of the fences, which he looks after. During his explanation, an older, one-armed Bavarian enters the scene, and tries to kick him and the film crew out. He does not even engage in dialogue with them, he only repeats his demand that they leave. Next we watch another man lead horses around a tree, for exercise. Again the one-armed Bavarian enters the frame and addresses the camera directly, shouting ‘Go away 131

with that’ and ‘Out with you!’ As the film moves along it descends into still stranger territory. Another man breaks a piece of wood with his hand to show his strength, and we see a discussion with a man who feeds his horses garlic and defends the practice by indicating that he takes it too, which is why he is so powerful. The next-to-last figure does not even work at the track, explaining that he once did, but that he was driven away and it is now his job to protect the flamingos from fanatics.

The soldiers play mind games in Signs of Life (1968)

Similar to Signs of Life, Precautions Against Fanatics addresses what it means to be sealed off from the world through fantasy. Both films engage with how communication does not necessarily take place between the self and others, and how its 132

failure serves to highlight that we are isolated from one another. Another way Herzog underscores this theme throughout Signs of Life is through his counter-intuitive use of sound. The wedding scene with Nora, to take one example, is accompanied by only the sound of buzzing. This is no ordinary wedding scene, and is perhaps meant to cite indirectly the curse that plays a role in von Arnim’s story. In the scene, Stroszek appears with the bride’s family as though in a staged wedding photo, yet he is panting like an animal. Herzog explains that he ran two miles with the actor Peter Brogle in his uniform immediately before filming the scene so that Brogle would look exhausted. The image of Stroszek panting and looking somewhat crazed is intercut with an image of panting cats. At this point we have seemingly transitioned into the space of Stroszek’s madness. Even more significantly, and similar in its use of sound, is the scene in which Stroszek ignites the stored fireworks – his most pronounced display of rebellion. Here there is no ambient noise; we cannot hear the sound of explosions but hear instead only the score, a technique Herzog returned to elsewhere in his work. There is a strange sadness in Stroszek’s effort to communicate with the world. He pleads to be recognised, and the non-diegetic music redoubles the pathos in his pleas insofar as the events seem closed off; they appear to take place within their own imaginative space. We are doubly cut off from Stroszek and given little insight into him after he takes over the fortress. On the commentary to 133

Signs of Life, interviewer Norman Hill asks Herzog how he feels about the fact that Stroszek did not die at the end of the film, and Herzog says that his death would not have felt right or added to the tragedy. Referring to the title of the film, Herzog says that the real tragedy comes from the fact that Stroszek ‘is silenced and cannot give any signs and signals anymore. That’s much worse than killing him off’ (SL ch. 20; 1:22:45). To return to the intercutting of images of animals in the ‘wedding scene’, it should be noted that animals are pervasive in Signs of Life. Once Stroszek takes over the fortress, following his first fireworks display, we see a sequence in which a man dances in the street, arguably resembling an animal. Herzog then cuts to an image of chickens, then to hanging meat, to cats and finally to a dead donkey, one that Stroszek shot in his initial attack on the village. The donkey is then dragged away rather brutally. With this montage Herzog has managed to comment not only on the brutality that differentiates the human world from the animal one, but also to foreshadow the end that may be awaiting Stroszek himself. It should be added that the film also contains one of the earliest among Herzog’s many chickens (to be later seen in Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek and elsewhere). The sequence in which Meinhard hypnotises a chicken tells us more about the boredom of the film’s figures – the life of drudgery that leads to a certain kind of sadism, a consequence of having too much time on one’s hands – than it does about the animal 134

kingdom; it tells us more about the soldiers’ languor than about what Herzog perceives as the stupidity of the chicken. At the same time, however, Herzog finds something particular about chickens. On numerous occasions he has made remarks such as: ‘look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in this world’ (Cronin 2002: 99). In Herzog’s view, Stroszek’s revolutionary takeover of the fortress is doomed to failure. Herzog wrote poetic passages for the end of the film reflecting on Stroszek’s lack of success. Turns of phrase such as ‘He even rebelled against the orbit of the sun at dawn’ paint Stroszek as a Don Quixote figure, a theme underscored by the shots of numerous windmills – always metonymically associated with Quixote – a sight that Herzog says inspired the film (Cronin 2002: 39). The image recalls the work of the painter Hercules Segers, who is one of Herzog’s influences (Cronin 2002: 136–7), and they are also a motif we find elsewhere in his films, as in The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). Here, the windmills are the last image that we see before the sequence in which Stroszek finally goes mad and chases his wife and comrades from the fort. The final words of the film tell us that Stroszek’s own people overpowered him and that he did not make it from the fireworks to the munitions depot. It is then explained: ‘In his rebellion he had undertaken something titanic, for the enemy was far superior. Thus he had failed 135

miserably as all others like him.’ The film’s closing image – a truck on a road, recalling the image with which the film began – is perhaps meant to be the view seen through Stroszek’s eyes from the back of a vehicle, as he is being carted off. As Stroszek is taken away, the dust covers the landscape and the screen threatens to fill with clouds. This imminent occlusion presages the fog that eventually becomes a pervasive motif in all of Herzog’s oeuvre. The opening shot too had recalled other images from his other works and can be taken as a paradigmatic point of departure. From a great height, the camera surveys a curvaceous country road as a truck wends its way around and eventually disappears. Looking back at the image, Herzog explains: ‘What is strange is how long I’m holding this first shot as if you are winding yourself into sinuous cerebellums…’ (SL ch. 1; 00:29). It is an image that he refers to as not a ‘literal landscape’, but rather a ‘landscape of the mind’ (Cronin 2002: 39). It is an external representation of internal psychology, one that is not always brightly lit, but may instead be winding, dusty and veiled by fog. This Greek landscape with which Signs of Life begins points well beyond the borders of the frame, extending perhaps endlessly, and Herzog forces us to consider it, holding our gaze there, refusing to zoom one bit closer even after the credits have ended. Even Dwarfs Started Small


There are numerous textual and extra-textual interconnections between Signs of Life and Even Dwarfs Started Small. The latter was filmed on the very volcanic island of Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. Herzog’s African films are addressed in greater detail in chapter six, although it should be noted that Fata Morgana and The Flying Doctors of East Africa were filmed around the same time as Even Dwarfs Started Small, and Herzog explains that much of the gloom throughout the latter film was triggered by difficulties connected with the filming of Fata Morgana. He says it is hard to separate the three works from one another, adding, ‘for me it’s almost like one film’ (ED ch. 2; 5:58). To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre. It is not surprising that the film has become a cult classic. Insofar as it allows itself to be summarised, the film deals with a takeover at an educational institution in which all of the ‘students’ are dwarfs, some of whom appear to be mentally ill. We are provided with very little background regarding the motives for the takeover, but one surmises that they have until now felt oppressed, because their revolution consists primarily of seizing the opportunity to misbehave. The film begins after the uprising has been quashed, yet its retrospective structure does little to shed light upon the rebellion’s causes. Even Dwarfs Started Small is challenging and shares some stylistic ground with Tod Browning’s


Freaks (1932), a film Herzog says he admires (Cronin 2002: 60). Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-off institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what this film ‘means’. It seems as though something is being allegorised, but little in the film helps decode it. Herzog has said somewhat emphatically that it was not about the student revolutions taking place at German universities in the late 1960s, but some have of course voiced suspicions along these lines. Herzog says, ‘at that time in 1968 [and] 1969 there was this kind of rebellious climate everywhere … You even had it in the United States, the free speech movement. And this entire movement was somehow in the air even though the film had nothing to do with it whatsoever, and some of the fiercest opposition I had against this film was from the dogmatic left which believed that this film was ridiculing the world revolution which was failing and was ending in destruction and catastrophes’ (ED ch. 3; 12:06). On the other hand, Herzog’s remarks betray his willingness to antagonise the left with a reflection of what he viewed as pointless behaviour, adding: ‘I told these agitators that the film had absolutely nothing to do with the 1968 movements, that they were blinded by zealousness and that if they looked at the film twenty years down the line they might just see a more truthful representation of what happened in 1968 than in most other films’ (Cronin 2002: 56).


Even Dwarfs Started Small is indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognise our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation. One of the film’s initial shots, intercut with the opening credits sequence, depicts a chicken pecking at what is likely another chicken’s corpse. One wonders whether this is meant to evoke cannibalism as a theme or to recall for us the same anti-Romantic worldview that Herzog highlights in his other films: his position that nature in its true form can best be understood as the site of barbarism, hostility and fornication. On the director’s commentary, Herzog explains that this film came from a ‘profound nightmare’ and that ‘if you want to see the gloomiest of gloom this is the film for you’ (ED ch. 1; 3:20). Though the label ‘Expressionist’ should not be used too freely, the film re-represents the world in accord with Expressionist aesthetics and shares elements found not only in the work of Kafka, but also Georg Grosz and Otto Dix. The Nazis banned work of this sort because it shows a humanity that is not in accord with physical ideals but rather one that is fundamentally flawed and distorted. It is an unflattering mirror into which it is difficult to look, and it may have been for this reason that Herzog received threats from white supremacists when the film was first shown in Germany (Cronin 2002: 59).


Following the credits sequence Herzog presents us with an overview of the institution. In a film about seeing the world through the eyes of dwarfs, it is counter-intuitive to begin with a shot from such a high angle, one that deliberately and explicitly provides a great deal of expository information. It presents a perspective of the type that we are not going to get again: the location of the commissary, the men’s building and the women’s building, as though having any of this information were ultimately going to be ‘useful’. It is not. No sober overview will help make sense of the ensuing rebellion. Also, the question of the disproportionate nature of the world when seen from their perspective is undertaken right away insofar as the film begins, immediately following this shot of a map, with one of the dwarfs, Hombre (Helmut Döring), holding up a placard indicating that he has been arrested for his role in the revolt. The placard, like everything else in Hombre’s world, is too big for him. Most everything in this film is seen from low to the ground, and it makes it hard to imagine that reason could ever penetrate a world that has so greatly outgrown its own inhabitants. Almost all the dwarfs seem to participate in wreaking havoc. We are given very little insight into what inspired so much mayhem. The character known as ‘The Educator’ (Paul Glauer) has Pepe (Gerd Gickel), one of the student dwarfs, tied to a chair. The Educator repeatedly appeals to the loosely-formed collective that they should be reasonable (vernünftig), but their 140

unreasonable behaviour continues from start to finish until they have set fire to potted plants, burned dead chickens and engaged in other conduct that seems thoroughly given over to their libidinal whims. They indulge in satires of bourgeois rituals, which include parodies of marriage and religious festivals, and a meal in which they say grace, discuss table manners and then proceed to have a food fight. The meal is served with bare hands, and the food hardly makes it into their mouths. Nothing interrupts this descent, yet there is a moment in which, as viewers, we might believe relief has arrived: a car pulls up not far from the institution, and in that instant our expectation is that the driver may be someone from outside, someone who may offer a different, saner perspective. However, the woman who steps from the car is herself a dwarf, and it is quickly evident that she will not play a role in reining in the others. She is only looking for directions. The Educator yells for her to call the police, but she cannot hear him as she drives away. He looks doubly diminutive and pathetic when seen in a long shot from the roof. Much as Herzog emphasised Stroszek’s helplessness in Signs of Life, the Educator too is helpless from within his fortress. In the case of the former, the protagonist, Stroszek, waged a useless revolution; in the case of the latter, the Educator’s power proves useless against this explosion of the libido. It becomes clear early on that there are no explicitly stated principles guiding the revolution 141

and there is no real solidarity to speak of among the group’s members. These revolutionaries are quickly exposed as being one another’s tormentors, and, insofar as they never seriously attempt to advance beyond the institutional grounds, no practical discourse of emancipation is ever articulated. In one sequence the dwarfs try to force two of the smallest members of their group to have sex. While the scene serves as a parody of bourgeois sexual norms, in the same way the dwarfs parody other bourgeois rituals, it also presents them as willfully cruel. The smallest among them, Hombre, does not stand a chance of fighting his way out of the bedroom, nor is he likely to do what is expected of him insofar as he can hardly make it up onto the ‘normal’-sized bed. There is further cruelty in the way the dwarfs treat the two quasi-scientists in their group, Azúcar (Erna Gschwendtner) and Chicklets (Hertel Minkner) (a pair who are, given their names, supposed to be the sweet ones). These two cannot see the world past their goggles (goggles that make another appearance in Fata Morgana) and given that they have no interest in the revolution itself, their blinkers may be taken as an indication that science has blinkers on and therefore chooses to look away from social problems. Late in the film the Educator makes good on his threats and does harm to his hostage, Pepe. We do not witness the violent act, but we hear the screams and have the impression that the Educator has finally been pushed beyond his 142

limits. After harming Pepe, he comes running out and the dwarfs scatter. Like the parent who has returned home, he evidently retains power over them, regardless of whether that power is symbolic or real. He, however, then evinces his own blindness – he is not superior in insight to those over whom he has authority – as he straightaway begins reprimanding a tree with an outstretched branch. He enjoins the tree: ‘get your arm down … Stop pointing your finger at me. If you don’t put your finger down … Alright, if you don’t stop I’ll point my finger at you. We’ll see who can hold their arm out longest … I’ll keep my arm up until you lower yours … I can hold out longer! My arm is quite light!’ For some, his behaviour may recall famous stories about Hitler, who claimed that he could hold his arm up longer in the Hitler salute than anyone else, and those that would see the Educator as a stand-in for the legacy of Fascism against which the students revolted in 1968 may in this moment identify a parallel. The film’s most striking image may be that of the monkey that the dwarfs bind to a crucifix. Thomas Mauch’s cinematography is particularly powerful in this sequence. It is hand-held, and the camera’s movement throws us into the middle of the action. However, also significant are the rituals that the dwarfs develop in the wake of their revolution, and the way these rituals appear as parodies of the culture out of which they emerged. These parodies of rituals reflect Herzog’s continued interest in the way minor cultures – by which I here mean the 143

cultures of the colonised – can take on the norms of their oppressors and rewrite them, a theme that is the basis of Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), which is discussed in chapter six, and which informed other work by Herzog such as Echoes from a Sombre Empire. This apparent parody of religious ritual, whether it is in the form of a Mardi Gras parade or a celebration of the Day of the Dead, is meant to mirror Western religion, yet insofar as the presence of the monkey should not be taken as a direct suggestion that these dwarfs are like animals, we should bear in mind that they are meant to stand in for us. It is one among many unflattering comparisons between humanity and its animal counterparts in the film, similar to the dwarfs’ fascination with a sort of Joseph Cornell box – one in which bugs are dressed as humans in wedding clothes, a scene that underscores precisely this perspective.


A tree receives a stern reprimand in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Along similar lines, in the film’s final sequence, Hombre watches a dromedary kneel, and it looks as though it is in prayer. Hombre laughs and laughs. The music begins and the dromedary defecates, perhaps echoing the wholesale loss of restraint that has throughout been the core of this rebellion. The dromedary is by no means the only defecating animal in Herzog’s films – they appear in Woyzeck, Nosferatu the Vampyre and elsewhere, and there too represent a lack of social control. Hombre almost hurts himself laughing long and hard, especially over the dromedary’s bodily functions. He begins to cough. Herzog says: ‘he seems to be laughing, but it’s really getting out of hand … and those are moments where you don’t know should you stop the camera or should


you not. Sometimes there is no mercy in filmmaking … the moment comes very soon where I could not take it any longer … that is that … and the pain hopefully is over and the nightmare hopefully is over’ (ED ch. 17; 1:35:18). After a break to catch his breath, Hombre continues laughing. This scene, and Herzog’s acknowledgement that the actor might have hurt himself, call to mind the question of whether he is exploiting his cinematic subjects, yet neither Herzog nor the dwarfs have ever averred that this was so. Once again, nothing is gained through this revolt of useless protagonists. A stolen truck that spins in a circle becomes the central image in a narrative of pointlessness. It may not be an accident that the dwarf who starts the truck is named Territory (played by Gerhard Maerz). The truck circumscribes an uninhabitable territory, an empty space, a void. The vehicle is ultimately sent careening into a deep hole. The victory of getting the engine started is pyrrhic, and the pointlessness of its circular path recalls the endings of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Scream of Stone, Stroszek and other Herzog films. Here too it stands as a sign, a totem against the belief in progress. This rebellion, from the start, can do little else but fail. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser


With The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (aka Every Man for Himself and God against All, which corresponds to the film’s German title), Herzog continued to draw portraits of protagonists who are somewhat ‘useless’ and thereby at odds with the world around them. It is striking that Herzog made this film not long after Aguirre, Wrath of God, because the two figures are in some senses dialectically opposed: Aguirre has visions of controlling the entire world, while Kaspar Hauser hopes merely to exert some limited control over the world around him, one that he has only recently discovered. He is, however, denied even this much. Moreover, Aguirre feels that the earth quakes beneath him – that he is the wrath of God – while Kaspar feels that his coming to the earth has been nothing but a terrible fall. The two figures, the wrathful Aguirre and the meek Kaspar, appear as inverted images of one another. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is based on a true story, though in some senses the story can be best described as a legend insofar as there are many versions of it and it has undergone numerous transformations. The real Kaspar Hauser appeared in Nuremberg in 1828. He appeared to be physically challenged and spoke strangely. Ultimately, according to what he could express, he had memories of having been imprisoned in a cellar, kept there and cared for by a mysterious stranger. There was much speculation about his identity, including rumours that he was actually the child of Karl Ludwig Friedrich, the Grand Duke of Baden. According to 147

this theory, he had been abducted in his infancy and switched with a dying baby so that the throne would pass to the grand-ducal Zähringen family. DNA tests, however, ultimately cast a good deal of doubt on this speculation. In 1996 Der Spiegel reported an attempt to genetically match a blood sample from trousers assumed to have been Kaspar Hauser’s, but it later became clear that the examined garment did not come from him at all but rather from an exhibition of trousers once claimed to have been Kaspar Hauser’s and held in a Berlin police headquarters in 1905. As far as Herzog is interested in the matter, his remark about a subsequent Kaspar Hauser film, presumably the 1993 film directed by Peter Sehr, tells the story: he concludes that attempts to prove that Kaspar was a member of the house of Baden, the thread pursued by Sehr’s film, are ‘all pretty much bullshit’ (KH ch. 2; 04:21; on the Sehr film see R. and A. Perlmutter 1997). The story aroused not only the interest of anthroposophists, who regarded the historical Kaspar Hauser in a quasi-messianic light because of their interest in the process of language acquisition, but it also inspired a good number of literary reflections. The most notable include Jakob Wassermann’s book and Peter Handke’s play Kaspar (1967). Herzog claims not to have read Wassermann’s Caspar Hauser (1908), though he drew on historical sources where he saw fit, engaging in the usual act of juggling between fictionalisation and authenticity. Much of the proceedings surrounding Kaspar Hauser were 148

documented by Anselm von Feuerbach, an early nineteenth-century German legal scholar (translated as Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, 1996). Feuerbach’s documentation includes a letter that Herzog incorporates in modified form into his screenplay – the letter with which Kaspar is found, explaining that he was never allowed to set foot outside of the cellar, that he does not know where he was held and that no questioning will bring further facts to light. It should be said that Herzog’s screenplay, like his other screenplays, itself reads like a literary work. It contains introductory narration by Kaspar, detailing his life in the cellar, none of which makes it into the film, presumably because the film’s beginning was ultimately more concerned with communicating a sense of the silence of Kaspar’s inner life, especially the silence of a life lived without language. There are many things particular to Herzog’s own ‘wild child’ story that differentiate it from the prior treatments of this theme. Comparisons have been made with François Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970). Herzog once stated bombastically that it makes no difference that Truffaut’s film came first, because Truffaut ‘has learned from me’. He adds that his own film is ‘95 times better than Truffaut’s’ (Benson & Karman 1976: 42; see also the discussion in Overbey 1974/5: 74). L’Enfant sauvage deals with a different historical case, that of Victor of Aveyron who was found wandering the woods near Toulouse in 1797 and was studied by Jean-Marc 149

Gaspard Itard, the protagonist of Truffaut’s film. One might agree that the comparison is superficial, since it is based only on the films having somewhat similar subjects – more or less ‘feral’ children raised outside of social contacts and language – and one might just as readily compare Herzog’s film to the Jet Li vehicle Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed, 2005). Herzog, however, resists all such comparisons. Of the relationship to Truffaut’s film, Herzog says that it is misleading even to talk about it. It may, however, be instructive to take note of some key distinctions. Herzog finds that his work presents a different overall aesthetic impression, an interest in feeling over mood, as elevated above a simplistic concern with the subject matter. For this reason, he sees more connection between The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Similar to Joan, Kaspar is a martyr. The mood of Herzog’s film is consistent with Dreyer’s depiction of a Christlike protagonist, and Herzog mentions in particular the scene in which villagers taunt Kaspar in his cell as resonant with scenes in Dreyer’s film (Cronin 2002: 125). He sees something transcendent in the imagery of his own work, something that is lacking in Truffaut’s more straightforward narrative. While Truffaut studies the problems of language acquisition, Herzog’s film, both in form and content, means to present Kaspar’s dilemma from an existential perspective, or as a ‘fall’, a theme further addressed below.


Still another worthwhile comparison on the level of content could be made with Arthur Penn’s film The Miracle Worker (1962), a point made by David Overbey. He notes that even though Herzog’s film ‘begins with an aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute asking “Is love the answer?”’ and that it later ends in the same aria with ‘Yes, love is the answer’, this musical parenthesis ‘cannot be denied a certain irony’. He explains that love is, after all, ‘the non-ironic solution given in several films which at first glance seem to parallel [The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser] … In both Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage and Penn’s The Miracle Worker, it is assumed that “love and patience” will bring salvation to the deprived children. Perhaps it is because they are children, however, that their salvation through education is never questioned. Both films end with the sentimental device of an educational “breakthrough” – as if learning to say “lait” and “wawa” were enough. In neither film is the society, or the reality of that society as embodied in its language, ever really questioned.’ Overbey continues, explaining that the issue of assimilation to bourgeois society may indeed be an act that deforms the soul (1974/75: 74). While no one would suggest that Helen Keller would have been better off had she not been taught to read and write, the issue addressed by Herzog’s film has less to do with the redemptive character of language acquisition and pedagogy than with the violence that accompanies the process of socialisation. It asserts that one might not want to develop into such a world, and that both Kaspar’s 151

isolation and his pre-lingual state have utopian moments, especially when compared with the fallen world into which they and we are thrown. Regarding Kaspar’s background as it appears in Herzog’s film, there are some differences between the German text with which the film opens and the way it is generally translated into English. Probably in order that the subtitles are readable in the time provided, some details are omitted. As it is given in the German titles, the introduction translates as follows: ‘On Pentecost in the year 1828 a ragged foundling was picked up in the city of N. He was later called Kaspar Hauser. He could hardly walk and spoke only one single sentence. When he later learned to speak, he reported that he had been locked in a dark cellar for the length of his life, that he had no concept of the world, and that he had not known that there were people other than himself, because food was passed to him while he slept. He did not know what a house was, or a tree, or language. Only at the very end did a man come to him. The mystery of his origins is unsolved still today.’ Among the two or three details missing from the present translation are that the event took place on Pentecost, otherwise known as Whitsunday or Pfingstsonntag, which (should one wish to ask the accountants) corresponds to the date given for Kaspar Hauser’s appearance, 26 May 1828, a Monday that would indeed have been fifty days following Easter in that year. This particular detail is relevant for those interested in the film when seen from the 152

perspective of its religious allegory. We know that Herzog compares the film with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc story and so it is no small matter that Kaspar is said to have appeared on the day of Pentecost, which is the date of the descent of the Holy Spirit as described in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles. The biblical description of Pentecost, the date fifty days after Easter marking the arrival of the Holy Spirit, reads as follows: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, [the Apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (Acts 2). Language plays a key role in the descent of the Holy Sprit and throughout The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser as well. This biblical passage, in which the Spirit gives utterance to numerous tongues, recalls the opening moments of the film, particularly by dint of the phrase ‘like the rush of a mighty wind’. Herzog’s image of a field being caressed by the wind, underscored by Pachelbel’s Canon, may lead us to conclude that there is a relationship between the wind and language, primarily because the scene is accompanied by the epigraph, ‘Don’t you hear the horrible screaming all around us, the screaming that men usually call silence?’ (‘Hören Sie denn nicht das entsetzliche Schreien ringsum, das man gewöhnlich die Stille 153

heißt?’). Herzog borrows his epigraph from Lenz, the 1835 novella by the German writer Georg Büchner based on the life of the eighteenth-century writer J. M. R. Lenz. The author Lenz suffered from a mental illness that some later diagnosed as schizophrenia, and was, for a while, in the care of a clergyman, Johann Friedrich Oberlin. In Büchner’s work, Lenz asks Oberlin the question with which Herzog opens his film, albeit with some variation (in Büchner’s work it is ‘a horrible voice’ that screams on the horizon – ‘Hören Sie denn nichts? Hören Sie denn nicht die entsetzliche Stimme, die um den ganzen Horizont schreit und die man gewöhnlich die Stille heißt?’), yet Lenz receives no answer. This set of references directly addresses one of the chief motifs of the film, that of language and language acquisition taken in contrast to the ‘silence’ in which Kaspar existed prior to his fall into the world. Of course Kaspar’s world, the cellar he inhabited, was not silent, strictly speaking – he was not deaf like the protagonists of Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit, 1971) – but it was a space without language. Herzog therefore has Kaspar’s very first interaction with his ‘father’ (the father-figure, played by Hans Musäus) be one in which a writing tool is placed into Kaspar’s hand, and in which he is instructed as to how to write; his hand is put physically through the motion of writing. He is also at the same moment instructed in how to speak the word for ‘writing’. This father-figure or guardian says to him ‘wri-ting’ 154

(‘Schrei-ben’) as he moves Kaspar’s hand across the page. Here the transition between the silent screaming, the Schreien, and writing, or Schreiben, is emphasised. With the addition of a single letter Herzog moves us from the space of Kaspar’s silence into written and spoken language, from Schreien to Schreiben. Once one has seen the whole film it may seem clear that this screaming is ultimately a call to return to an existence prior to the acquisition of language, or before the damage incurred by Kaspar’s ‘terrible fall’. One should add that writing (Schreiben) is connected to exchange as well insofar as Kaspar’s ‘father’ tells him that if he writes nicely he will get another toy horse. Brigitte Peucker notes: ‘The word Schreiben, or writing, is the first word that Kaspar Hauser hears in the film, and with this word difference or otherness is introduced into his previously hermetic existence’; she also notes that this is not the first word that Kaspar says, but that the first word is horse (Ross), or ‘a sound he learns to connect with the wooden horse with which he has hitherto existed, not in a subject/ object relation, but in a state of animistic identification’ (1986b: 108). I will return to this point about animistic identification shortly, but it should also be noted that Peucker points to Herzog’s choice to use the term ‘Rider’ (Reiter) and the sentence ‘I wish to be a rider, as my father was’ (‘Ich möcht ein solchener Reiter werden, wie mein Vater einer gewesen ist’), emphasising the English-language connection, of which Herzog 155

was certainly aware, between the words Reiter or ‘rider’ and ‘writer’ (1986b: 112). Peucker’s creatively-observed connection provides some insight into the film’s initial sequence, the one that precedes the epigraph, in which Herzog shows us images of water, and of a woman seen in the reeds. Her image is filtered for us as though she were being imagined through a watery lens. This may suggest Kaspar’s world before the fall into language, which is to say that the connection to the mother – in contrast with that of the father or the rider/writer – takes place prior to language. It is a directly corporeal, even womb-like, connection and, to use a Freudian idiom, one could suggest that the connection to the mother is one of immediacy, one in which there is no distinction between the self and the other (or in this case, between the self and the mother). With the intervention of the father-figure in the subsequent sequence, Kaspar is provided with language, and his father’s hand – the one that forces writing upon him – is thus instrumental in the intervening violence, a violence that always leaves him screaming for a return to something anterior, something beautiful and maternal. Kaspar later finds himself longing for experiences unmediated by ‘culture’, which is to say, by language. Herzog underscores the break between Kaspar’s proximity to his imagined mother and the father-figure by abruptly interrupting the music, an aria from Act I, scene IV of The Magic Flute, which champions love. The libretto reads: ‘No finer 156

picture, I am sure/Was ever seen by man before!/It moves me, and her pure young face,/Enchants my heart and makes it race.’ The text continues as follows, and is picked up again at the end of the film: ‘This strange and unfamiliar yearning,/This fierce and ardent pleasure burning –/What is this sweet and piercing flame? I know it must be love alone.’ (‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön/Wie noch kein Auge je gesehn!/Ich fühl es, ich fühl es/ Wie dies Götterbild/mein Herz mit neuer Regung füllt./Dies etwas kann ich zwar nicht nennen/doch fühl’ich’s hier wie Feuer brennen; Soll die Empfindung Liebe sein?/Ja, ja, die Liebe ist’s allein/die Liebe, die Liebe ist’s allein.’) Maternal love is in this case true, unadulterated love, because it is a love in which there is no distinction between lover and loved, or between mother and child. It is at this point that the lines of text on the screen violently intrude with their information, or with the ‘real story’ about Kaspar. Immediately following the credits, Herzog’s camera turns its gaze upon Kaspar’s feet. The image is significant insofar as Kaspar was compelled to learn not only to write, but also to walk. We see him sitting in the basement, grunting and playing with his horse. By showing his feet – which are somewhat atrophied because Kaspar moves very little from his place – as well as the leash with which he has been tied up, Herzog draws our attention to how Kaspar has been treated like an animal. He has been kept as though he were a horse in a barn, among the straw. Though it is a cellar, the floor is covered 157

with hay. There is no recognition that the toy horse is a horse, it is a plaything that moves back and forth, but because he has never seen a horse he cannot identify the thing before him as a horse any more than a pre-lingual child can meaningfully ‘name’ the mother’s breast. As Kaja Silverman writes, the fact that he uses the word horse seems merely to connect the object ‘in some obscure way with the pleasure which Kaspar derives from his toy, i.e. to be part of his own, unpartitioned existence … the sound remains outside of signification’ (1981/82: 80). Likewise, shortly after Kaspar’s arrival in the town, he is placed in a barn. The visual analogy between him and horses continues, and is made particularly evident by the cut to the horse standing above him. Later Herzog makes a point of the irony in all these juxtapositions, as Kaspar is ultimately proven more noble and less animalistic than those from whom he learns about language and civilisation. At the end of this initial sequence, the father-figure comes in and brings Kaspar into the outdoors, for what is likely the first time. The ‘father’ carries him to a field above the city and demonstrates walking to him. Here, a five voice requiem by Orlando di Lasso is used to emphasise that these two tasks, the walking and the writing, represent a death of sorts for Kaspar. In an often reproduced image from the film, this ‘father’ sits in his dark cloak next to Kaspar who lies by him on the ground. In the image, the man can be said to resemble a tombstone above Kaspar, who is about to be thrust, violently, into the outside world. 158

Alternatively, as it is described by Timothy Corrigan, this scene could be understood in the context of the film’s Christological iconography: ‘perpendicular to the camera axis in the foreground Kaspar lies senseless on the ground; just behind Kaspar and vertically perpendicular to his body sits the mysterious black-cloaked stranger, his back to the camera. As usual, the camera does not budge, and the cross-like figure that Kaspar and the dark guardian form contrasts sharply with the brilliant landscape of the background and so creates a stunning icon of tragedy and death’ (1994: 133). The remainder of the film takes place in Dinkelsbühl, a town that Herzog let stand in for nineteenth-century Nuremberg. Herzog intends with these initial sequences to show the world as a visitor from another planet would see it, which is a perspective he also tried to achieve with Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness and other films. All Herzog can really accomplish, however, is to hint at the innocence of this vision; one can never present the world from a perspective beyond that of human experience. This dimension is also quickly set aside once Kaspar becomes a member of the community. At that point we realise how much the film has in common with Heart of Glass, which concerns itself with the same era and a somewhat similar milieu. Kaspar’s contact with language begins when he learns the word ‘empty’ (leer) in the home of Hiltel, the Jailer (Volker Prechtel). As indicated, this is a very different first word from ‘lait’ or ‘wawa’, in part 159

because it is a word that signifies an absence, or a lack of something. As pointed out above, Kaspar’s other first word, ‘horse’, is not really part of an effort to communicate, yet his use of ‘empty’ may constitute what Silverman refers to as his first ‘signifying adventure’ (1981/82: 80). Whether or not one asserts that Herzog’s choice of ‘empty’ is significant because of its status as a word only defined in binary relation to another word (‘full’), and is therefore a word that is in itself meaningless, the word is in this context meaningful because it refers to Kaspar’s needs. He is here realising the double dimension of his recent loss: not only has he been forced to acquire language, and has fallen from the sphere defined by his infantile, pre-lingual psychic state, but because he will hereafter be forced to understand that fall in terms of his unmet needs, he may also be forced to confront the fact that everyone, as the German title proclaims, acts only for themselves. Through Kaspar’s contact with Hiltel’s family, some key metaphors are introduced, ones that help define the terms of the protagonist’s metamorphosis. At one point, as Frau Hiltel (Gloria Doer) bathes Kaspar, he says, ‘Mother, my skin is coming off’ (‘Mutter, die Haut geht ab’), a comment that is plainly meant to recall the fact of his metamorphosis – that he is moulting – but in the evident display of nostalgia and anxiety, it is also meant to depict Kaspar in the process of learning to express affect. That Frau Hiltel seems to bathe him in a loving way draws attention to one type of response, while his interactions with townspeople 160

cause other ones to emerge. In one scene some townspeople attack Kaspar with a sword and he does not flinch. They make a note that he has ‘absolutely no concept of danger’. They then put fire near him concluding that ‘he is not at all afraid of the fire’. Kaspar then goes and touches the fire, burning his finger on it. He cries, and once again his ability to express affect is curiously incongruous; he can cry, but cannot articulate his pain. In still another sequence, Frau Hiltel trusts him to hold a baby. Kaspar cries here as well. It somehow seems that he is crying about a loss. Here he says, ‘Mother, I am so removed from everything’ (‘Mutter, ich bin von allem abgetan’). It is no accident that both this comment and the one about his skin are directed at this mother. It is from the security of a mother’s presence that he has fallen, and away from which his riding/writing ‘father’ has forced him. As though emphasising the return to the mother as a central motif, Herzog includes his own mother as an extra in a subsequent scene. She is an older woman wearing black, standing among onlookers at a carnival. There have been carnivals elsewhere in Herzog’s films, for example in Invincible and in Woyzeck. They are, for Herzog, an important symbol: he has stated that ‘cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art or academicism’ (Cronin 2002: 139), and for this reason one may wish to view the carnival director as a stand-in for the filmmaker; both types of director collect an array of characters and put them on display. In this scene, the circus director 161

explains that his presentation is quite serious: he has gathered together some of the world’s greatest wonders. He introduces The Little King, ‘monarch of the golden land’, whom we recognise as Hombre, the smallest of the dwarfs from Even Dwarfs Started Small. The second is ‘the young Mozart’ who was a precocious musician but who now only looks for dark holes in the earth, because, as we are told, ‘his mind is completely engrossed in zones of twilight’. Then there is Hombrecito, an Indian from ‘New Spain’. It is explained that he plays his wooden flute because he believes that if he stops ‘the people of the city would die’. Some of these figures are intertextual citations from other films; this last figure, for example, evokes the flute player of Aguirre, Wrath of God. Finally, the very last wonder is Kaspar, the Foundling, who has now been leased to this carnival. The story that the director tells is actually not that far from the ‘truth’, that Kaspar’s origins remain in darkness. The juxtaposition occasioned by the carnival, whereby these supposed outsiders are placed at the centre of things, represents a self-reflective re-ordering: we know that Herzog means for us not to see Kaspar as marginal, but that it is our own behaviour – that of a society that would marginalise a well-meaning man-child such as Kaspar – which should be put on display and scrutinised. The gaze is thereby inverted. And as though it were not clear enough that this is a story of a world exploiting its subjects, ones with whom we are more than sympathetic, this sequence 162

ends with the gallery of world-weary wonders attempting to make their getaway. In that Herzog has his main character paraded in the public sphere, the film recalls David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). The two works share a similar sense in which their protagonists’ socialisations are characterised as falls. Though society holds some appeal, these men cannot integrate because that society is too cruel: both John Merrick and Kaspar Hauser are similarly mistreated. The films make for an interesting juxtaposition insofar as Lynch and Herzog each redeem their main characters (who die tragically), and, despite the overwhelming differences between the directors’ styles, the works share a degree of formal overlap, down to their employment of haunting adagios. Once Kaspar’s own understanding of language develops, the discussions that take place in the film become more explicitly philosophical. Kaspar and Daumer (Walter Ladengast), the man who takes on the responsibilities of looking after Kaspar (based on the historical figure, Friedrich Daumer), have conversations including one dealing with matters of perspective. Kaspar sees the prison tower in which he was once held and says that given its size a giant must have built it. He reveals that he has trouble differentiating between a room that entirely surrounds its occupant and this tower, which can be taken in at a glance from the outside; the tower, he concludes, must be smaller than the room. He is expressing a question that would have been of 163

interest to philosophical Romantics or even to Wittgenstein. Importantly this ‘misunderstanding’ is evidence of a problem in dealing with abstract notions of space insofar as in their abstraction they become socially, which is to say, linguistically, determined. Meanings are given in and through language, and such determinations are hardly intuitive. The discussion also reveals a key thematic concern having to do with the way Kaspar is beginning to feel ‘boxed in’ by the logic of the world into which he has been thrown. Of similar interest is the later discussion with the Professor of Logic. The Professor presents Kaspar with a variation on the Epimenides Paradox or the Cretan Paradox about an encounter with a villager who may always be a liar or may always tell the truth. As indicated in the introduction to this volume, Kaspar answers with a solution involving a tree-frog, a solution that the Professor treats as non-responsive. Herzog summarises Kaspar’s involvement in this language game: ‘in terms of pure logic, the only solution to the professor’s problem is the one that he himself explains to Kaspar. But of course, the answer that Kaspar gives is also correct. It is clear that Kaspar is strictly forbidden to imagine and that his creativity is being suffocated and suppressed. We sense that everything spontaneous in Kaspar is being systematically deadened by philistine society’ (Cronin 2002: 112). The next stage of the film includes a series of dream sequences, one of which is introduced by a 164

phrase that could be translated as ‘It dreamed (to) me’ (‘Mich hat geträumt’). The construction indicates that Kaspar sees himself as the recipient or even the object of his dreams, and it also refers to his failure to integrate successfully this conscious review of his unconscious activity in terms of his self-understanding; he did not have a dream, which he then was inclined to relate, but rather something entered the mind of the person convention forces him to understand as himself. His mentor, Daumer, here points out that it is strange that he did not once dream about his years in prison. As Brigitte Peucker notes, it makes sense that these dreams come into the picture somewhat later, because his pre-lingual situation had been something similar to an ‘oceanic state’: ‘In this state even dreaming itself is impossible, because there is nothing to dream of. The act of dreaming itself is founded on the loss of unity, and furthermore it requires a grammar of images which is at first unavailable to Kaspar’ (1986b: 110). Here, the film would appear to have taken an optimistic, or positive turn: Kaspar is acquiring language, a sense of his unconscious, and he is seized by the desire to become a self-narrating self or an auto-biographer. However, it is at this point that things start to fall apart. Kaspar hears singing in a church – something that is generally taken to be among the most ecstatic uses of language – and is unnerved by it, as though it were the sound of howling or screaming. This is not screaming of the sort that beckons to him, like 165

the screaming silence of his pre-lingual existence, but rather evidence of suffering. It is consistent with a particular moment in Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic tale ‘Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music’ (1810) in which a number of Iconoclasts had attempted to destroy a cathedral and were so overtaken by religious music that they sank into a deep trance and began to repeatedly sing an oratorio themselves such that it reminded all who heard it of howling leopards and wolves. Kaspar here evinces insight into the deforming character of culture – in this case nineteenth-century German, religious culture. It somehow itself conceals a form of violence, and he – who has been curbed by the gatekeepers, the professors of logic and others – now wonders if something dear to him has not been lost, or if his coming into this world were not a ‘terrible fall’. Kaspar at one point retreats from polite company in order to eat. Somewhat perversely, he turns up in the bathroom – perhaps having taken too much of a laxative that the doctor prescribed for him. He sits in the stall with an egg, and Kaja Silverman points out that this is a transgression on multiple levels: he is eating alone, rather than with others; he is eating in a bathroom, which represents a confusion between food consumption and excrement; and the egg may be raw, thus violating the dietary rules that divide the raw from the cooked (1981/82: 77). It is no wonder that the father-figure, as though he were the super-ego itself, returns at this moment, peering at Kaspar through a hole in the slats of the stall. He beats 166

Kaspar with a stick (perhaps for the multiple transgressions, perhaps for no reason at all), and Herzog provides us with a point-of-view shot, so that we are at that moment entirely sutured to Kaspar’s ‘vision’. This shot is then followed by an image of the open sky, suggesting the possibility of Kaspar’s ascent to heaven. He is not dead, however. The doctor and the maid pursue his bloody trail into the cellar. Kaspar essentially finds himself at the point at which his journey began. When questioned about the incident, Kaspar seems tired and says only that he has one more thing to mention, but that it has nothing to do with the attack. He describes a scene which, he says, appears completely clearly before his eyes. In the screenplay, Kaspar has a vision of death as a woman with floating sleeves, but here, accompanied by the same Canon as at the film’s beginning – more evidence of its circularity – we now see a hazy landscape with a line of people, a scene resembling a pilgrimage. Kaspar says: ‘I saw the ocean and I saw a mountain and there were many people climbing the mountain as if in a procession. There was a lot of fog. I couldn’t see it very clearly, at the very top was death.’ Herzog discusses the history of this shot: ‘for Kaspar’s vision of the people scaling the mountainous rock face, we went to the west coast of Ireland. Every year there is a great procession on this foggy mountain, the Croagh Patrick, with over 50,000 people’ (Cronin 2002: 108). This story recalls another distinctive sequence in the film, one filmed by Herzog’s brother Lucki Stipetić. Of this scene, 167

depicting an imaginary Caucasus, Herzog says it is one of his all time favourite images. He explains: ‘[Lucki] was in Burma when he was 19 and with an 8mm camera he shot this vast plain with hundreds of temples in it … I shot it through a semi-transparent screen from the other side [and] filmed it with 35 mm, all of which gives the image a ‘mysterious shutter effect’ (KH ch. 17; 1:11:47). The flickering on and off – the interplay of light and dark – conveys the impression that this world is less the same everyday reality to which Kaspar has been repeatedly subjected than it is an alternate or outside reality, conditioned by Kaspar’s longing to return to his point of origin. The unconscious out of which this emerges is located somewhere beyond the story’s boundaries – it is a point from which Kaspar can view what has happened to him. Timothy Corrigan points out that the Caucasus is the region where Prometheus was supposedly chained to a mountain for stealing fire from the gods (1994: 141). Kaspar, however, chained to the rock, can see this alternative life only as a flicker, as a dream of a faraway place. Likewise, when Kaspar is on his deathbed, a pastor’s assistant asks him for his final confession. Here Herzog incorporates footage he shot with the filmmaker Klaus Wyborny while in the Sahara. Kaspar begins to narrate a story of a caravan in the desert, but it is a story of which he says he knows only the beginning. Kaspar narrates: ‘I see a large caravan coming through the desert, through the sand. And this caravan is led by an old Berber. And this old man is blind.’ On the word 168

‘blind’, Herzog cuts to the flickering footage, consisting of images of a caravan with its dromedaries accompanied by the sounds of a flute. Kaspar continues: ‘The caravan now stops, because some believe that they have gotten lost. Because they see mountains in front of them, they use the compass. But it is no use. Then, the blind caravan leader takes a handful of sand, and tastes it as though it were food. “Sons” says the blind man, “you are mistaken. Before us there are no mountains. It is only your imagination. We will head further, towards the north.” Yes, and then they continue on without contradicting him, and they reach the city in the north and there the story takes place. But I do not know the actual story in this city.’ One part of this last tale recalls an element of Fitzcarraldo where the captain tastes the water in order to know which way to go in the river, a gesture that highlights other ways of ‘knowing’ the world, which is an especially important metaphor in a film where traditional, Western science is presented as narrow and limited. Yet one should also note some stylistic peculiarities in Herzog’s presentation of Kaspar’s visions. Certainly, they represent the effort to depict dream life. The flickering sensation of the film being itself filmed or being presented at a different speed offers the sense that we are seeing not the ‘reality’ of the character but an effort on both the part of the character Kaspar and the film itself to reach beyond its narrative limits. Still more significant is that these are Kaspar’s last words. Following his story, he declares that he 169

is tired, and the next shot is of his feet, as he is being autopsied. This is exactly where Herzog began: the first and the last time we see Kaspar our attention is drawn to his misshapen feet. The question is one of whether learning to walk, which is to say leaving the cellar and becoming less of an ‘animal’, ultimately did Kaspar any good. The image also reflects an inability to make any progress within the terms of Herzog’s own narrative. The director has, once again, brought us full circle. The idea that Kaspar only knows the beginning of this last story takes on a number of meanings: proper storytelling, as it is depicted in the film, is associated with his inhuman treatment. The true value of the ability to become a subject that can narrate one’s own experience from start to finish – a subject that could write its own biography, for example – is called into question. Along exactly these lines, the scene of Kaspar’s autopsy serves as a reminder of the film’s engagement with the questions of language and narration. Clemens Scheitz, who played the Scribe (and who continued to work with Herzog after this film on Stroszek, Heart of Glass and Nosferatu the Vampyre), was instructed by Herzog that he should ‘be the echo and be the weasel’ (KH ch. 7; 25:55). Already, after the scene at the carnival, when the wonders of the world (Kaspar, Hombrecito and the Young Mozart) run away, the Scribe says enthusiastically: ‘I want to write a beautiful report, an exact report. I shall write a report the likes of which has never been seen!’ Here, the bureaucratic scribe as an ‘echo’ is a 170

pure reflection of the culture that surrounds him. He takes notes at the autopsy, recording for our eyes how unsympathetic this world can be. After the autopsy, he walks off into the distance praising the quality of the report he means to write. He is not even willing to ride home in the coach, because his joy at this moment is uncontainable. The abnormal size of Kaspar’s cerebrum is ‘finally an explanation for this strange man’. In stark contrast with Kaspar’s story about the caravan, which is only the beginning of a story, and Herzog’s film, which in many ways ends where it began, the Scribe maintains the pretence – the illusion – that a satisfactory explanation, and thereby closure, can be found. Herzog’s film concludes as it opened, with The Magic Flute. If the scene of the autopsy and its fallout were not a merciless enough depiction of the indifferent world that received Kaspar – one in which his kind heart was reduced to nothing more than an object of scrutiny – we are presented with the irony associated with the use of Mozart’s aria, one that sings love’s praises. The unnamable burning flame that Mozart informs us must be love is only a trace of the space we inhabit before we fall into the world. The fact that it is unnamable only serves to underscore that for Herzog this is a utopian sphere that exists somewhere prior to language, a world from which Kaspar has been banished. Once he has fallen into society – into language – there is no return.


Stroszek The next collaboration between Herzog and Bruno S. was Stroszek. The film shares much in common with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. As with that film, it is the story of an outsider who, when taken on Herzog’s terms, casts light on the difference between society’s centre and its periphery; this figure – the film’s protagonist – by virtue of his failures, illuminates what it is about a society that is criminal in its heart-lessness, and how its hyper-rationality manifests itself as irrationality. The film asks what it is that would force figures who are as compassionate and decent as Stroszek (and Kaspar) to their breaking points. Unlike the occasionally cruel dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small, the protagonists embodied by Bruno S. are both gentle souls. What kind of society, the film asks, has no ‘use’ for its most noble? The character Stroszek is more solidly grounded in Bruno S.’s actual experiences than was Kaspar. While Bruno drew on his past for his earlier performance – he was, for example, beaten very badly as a child such that he lost speech – details of Stroszek absolutely imitate Bruno’s own biography: he spent time going in and out of state-run institutions; the scenes in the apartment in Germany were filmed in Bruno S.’s real apartment; and the scene in which Bruno S. sings and plays accordion in the courtyard was drawn from his own routine. Herzog says: ‘the scenes in


Berlin of him singing and playing the accordion in the city show exactly what he would do every weekend. Bruno knows every courtyard and alleyway of Berlin, and some of the songs he sings in the film he wrote himself’ (Cronin 2002: 143–4). Of one scene, in which Stroszek walks down the street with his fly undone, Herzog explains that although it was a stylisation, it was in this instance one that was typical of Bruno S. According to Herzog, Bruno ‘didn’t know how to adapt to bourgeois life or to a well-settled life of prosperity’ (S ch. 6; 26:16). Even the name Bruno S. refers to his history in institutions insofar as juvenile offenders are generally referred to by their first name in order to protect their anonymity. The name that gives the film its title is of course shared with that of the protagonist of Signs of Life. This links the films somewhat – both deal with lone individuals trying to exert some measure of control over their apparently unimportant lives. Herzog had decided to do Woyzeck together with Klaus Kinski rather than with Bruno S., but in order to have a project to do with Bruno S. – in order to make it up to him – Herzog wrote Stroszek with him in mind. The eastern European name – indeed, one should say the decidedly un-Germanic name – resonates with Woyzeck, perhaps by dint of its consonants, and the figures are linked, as discussed below. Once again, Herzog presents us with a protagonist who is the opposite image of Aguirre. He does not have dreams of conquering the world, but rather aims to carve out a piece of it. 173

The film deals with the fate of Stroszek following his release from a penal institution. After he fails to rescue Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute for whom he has romantic feelings, from her pimp, he decides that the two of them should accompany his ageing friend Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), on his upcoming move to America. With a small amount of capital in hand the three head west. By way of New York, the film transitions from Germany to Wisconsin, where their collective fortunes hardly improve. Stroszek and Eva try to establish a home together, but financial problems associated with the illusory American dream, as well as, to some extent, Eva’s habits, stand in the way of their happiness. The film ends tragically – with Stroszek’s suicide – as a comment both on his failure to bring his life into order, and on the social and financial isolation endemic to the American Midwest. Before turning to the content of the film, it is worthwhile to consider the particularities of this film’s style. While it is not so remarkable that the apartment in the film is actually Bruno’s real apartment, the decision casts light on certain elements that make this unusual among Herzog’s works. The director has hardly, if ever, made any film as intimate as this one, and at times it recalls the style of filmmakers such as John Cassavetes. Cassavetes traditionally did little blocking of scenes and would generally adjust the camera to suit the actors. He mostly used hand-held cameras, and his films, although often well scripted, often ended up resembling 174

documentaries (they are taken as an example of ‘direct cinema’, a close relative of cinéma vérité). His goal was for his actors to act as though the scenes were part of their lived experience. Herzog would likely contest the comparison, in that he resists most comparisons, and especially because he distances himself from filmmaking of this type, but here, especially during the scenes in Bruno’s apartment, there are clear affinities with that style. Cassavetes’ performers play roles proximate to their own lives, and this proximity has a direct effect on our spectatorial pleasure. Indeed, one of the engaging aspects of Stroszek is the film’s clear sense that we are looking at something that is only partly a performance. It is at the same time the document of a life, and Herzog does little to mitigate this impression. The distance between the film and lived experience is short-circuited by the formal cues that emphasise the authenticity of the representation. The film begins as Stroszek is being released from a correctional institution. Before he is let go, he has a conversation with a warden, played by Alfred Edel, who also played the Professor of Logic in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The character links the two films somewhat, and the scene recapitulates aspects of that earlier work, while also reasserting the overall sense of scepticism one finds throughout Herzog’s films when it comes to certain types of authority figures. This warden encourages Stroszek to stay away from alcohol, and he provides the well-intentioned advice that Stroszek should order a coffee and 175

cake when he goes into a bar, instead of alcohol. He says: ‘I want one thing, that you will never come back here … Promise that you will never again touch a drop of alcohol.’ Bruno responds by giving his ‘great Hungarian word of honour’, but he is clearly as annoyed and frustrated by the didacticism of this conversation as he was by the conversation with the Professor of Logic in the earlier film. Predictably, the first thing we see Bruno do following his release is go into a bar and order a beer. Some of the scenes involving the criminals or the pimps have an intensity that stems from their ‘authenticity’. In part this had to do with the threat of violence towards Stroszek, who is defenceless, and whose only interest is in Eva’s well-being. In part, however, this also has to do with the fact that Herzog cast real toughs to play these roles. Because the film depicts German criminals picking on a character who is like Bruno S. in his own home, it is no surprise that one may begin to intuit that one is watching a document of brutality more than a performance. This is, of course, only a movie. Wilhelm von Homburg, who plays the tall pimp and who often went by the name Prince Wilhelm, is a man Herzog describes as ‘particularly dangerous’ (S ch. 3; 09:54). A German boxer, he was the subject of the film Der Boxprinz (The Boxing Prince, 2002) which documents his career as a pugilist through to his life in Los Angeles (where he made a living with roles in films such as Die Hard (1988)). He died in 2004. The other pimp, played by Burkhard Driest, 176

started out as a law student, but two weeks before his exams he committed a bank robbery. The plot of the film Die Verrohung des Franz Blum (The Brutalisation of Franz Blum, 1974), starring Jürgen Prochnow, was based on his time in prison, and Driest wrote the film’s script while in jail. These two characters are the ones who drag Eva up the stairs to Stroszek’s apartment, and torment Stroszek atop his own piano. There is a fair amount of raw, urban grittiness in the first parts of this film, all of which is somewhat unusual for Herzog. It is a relatively rare instance of Herzog having filmed in Berlin, and its atypicality in his body of work draws attention to the fact that he prefers period pieces, mountains and fog as his subjects. One cannot say, however, that the film means to moralise about the hazards of city life insofar as Eva returns to prostitution even after they arrive in rural Wisconsin. The film is on some level a ‘road movie’. It takes on a different tone once they arrive in the United States, and during the scenes in which Stroszek, Eva and Scheitz wander through New York, go to the top of the Empire State Building, and then head off to Wisconsin one might think of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984), which similarly aims to present a voyage through America as a journey on a strange planet. One has to view Herzog’s treatment of Eva and Stroszek’s life in Wisconsin as consistent with an overall ambivalence about America found elsewhere in Herzog’s work. Unlike Wim Wenders, 177

Herzog does not spill a lot of ink expressing his vexed feelings about American rock ’n’ roll, or Hollywood, or blaming the US for what he describes as the over-proliferation of images. Wenders shares this tendency with thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard. By contrast, the holy war Herzog once wished to declare against Bonanza – despite the fact that he chose to rail against a quintessentially American genre such as the western – was not a holy war against America, but against commercial television. Herzog at times praises the American Midwest, asserting that the ‘greatest talents’ come from there, such as Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Bob Dylan and Orson Welles (see Cronin 2002: 141), yet Stroszek takes a decisively critical stand vis-à-vis this region, the intelligence of the average Midwesterner and the possibility of achieving the American dream. As an economic critique, this 1970s film is prescient about a culture of bankruptcy in which people accumulate debts they will never be able to repay. Stroszek’s issues seem most contemporary in the moment he asks Eva how they are going to pay for the life they are in the process of purchasing. Eva’s solution – to meet a truck driver and prostitute herself – seems to be among the only options left to her. Ultimately financial constraints drive Eva and Stroszek apart. Eva falls into a depression and back into prostitution when it dawns on her that coming to America was not the escape she had hoped it would be. Stroszek complains that he is being pushed aside by her as though he did not 178

exist, and he makes a speech that also functions as a critique of condescending American bank bureaucrats, such as the ones to whom they now owe money. He resents the lack of straightforwardness in America, and one has the impression that the experience has left him longing to return to the penal institution where we found him at the film’s beginning. He says: ‘In the reformatory it was just like this: If you wet your bed, you had to hold up your sheet and would be struck if you let it down. But today they don’t do it by kicking you or by striking you, but in a very polite style, ever so politely. That’s much worse.’ There is a parallel here with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser insofar as the protagonists of both films experience a longing to return to the place they once were – the state of confinement in which the film began. Given the fact that this film followed Herzog’s How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? (1976) by only a few months, the auction scene in which their trailer and its contents are sold can be said to reflect the same issues raised in that film. We hear the language of the auctioneers from Stroszek’s perspective and are forced to reassess the strangeness of their speech pattern, unique to American capitalism. (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?, we should recall, also has the secondary title Observations on a New Language (Beobachtungen zu einer neuen Sprache).) For this scene in Stroszek, Herzog cast the authentic livestock auctioneer Colonel Ralph Wade, a world champion. The director praises 179

Wade’s use of language, saying: ‘This is really the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism … I’d like to do Shakespeare’s Hamlet at that speed … it touches me very, very deeply. I don’t know why there is something totally fascinating for me’ (S ch. 21; 1:26:35). Herzog’s comment addresses whether poetry is possible in the alienated world of the film. Just as the Scribe, played by Clemens Scheitz in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, used language to serve a somewhat violent end – his character was a bureaucrat who echoed a world entirely without sympathy – here, the auctioneer’s language is incomprehensible to Stroszek. As in that film, Herzog draws a distinction between different kinds of languages. Language evacuated of its poetic content (language associated with exchange) can appear merciless. Stroszek finally steps away from the auction, as if frightened, and watches his possessions be stripped away from him. Scheitz becomes very upset and threatens the auctioneer, who replies dispassionately: ‘I’m sorry sir. I cannot understand you.’ This comment is ironic, given how difficult the auctioneer himself is to understand. The shot of Stroszek’s trailer being driven away is made to resemble that of a curtain being pulled back to reveal a final, brutal truth. Stroszek is left staring at a grim, vacant inner landscape: a barren field where his home once stood.


Stroszek stares at an empty inner landscape in Stroszek (1976)

Just as Wisconsin drives Eva to prostitution, it drives Stroszek to robbery. The scene of the crime is all at once tragic and slapstick. Stroszek wears his Stetson hat, which does not demonstrate that he is integrated in this cowboy world, but that he has another means of hiding from it. The ill-fitting hat and oversized rifle he and Scheitz take with them recall Even Dwarfs Started Small insofar as the world seems built to suit everyone but them, and they are left too inadequate to ever exert any real control. They have decided to rob a bank, yet they quickly decide they are going to have to rob the barber shop, because the bank is closed for lunch. They then rob the barbershop, getting away with $32, whereupon they head directly across the street into the grocery store. Abandoning Scheitz,


Stroszek makes off with a frozen turkey and drives away. That Stroszek finally leaves his truck – a getaway vehicle in which no getaway will be made – spinning in a circle is self-consciously reminiscent of Even Dwarfs Started Small. The vehicle now going around and around stands in for a world that has spun out of control: the journey to the Midwest has placed Stroszek in a vehicle without a driver. There is no changing course, no means by which one can approach the circle’s empty centre, and we all know that the truck will eventually run out of gas. Finally, we hear a shot fired, and any humour one might find in the final sequences quickly evaporates, owing to the knowledge that Stroszek has likely shot himself. On the CB radio, the sheriffs address with some concern the idea that they cannot stop a chicken that is now dancing in a circle in the arcade. This chicken, like the truck, and like the ski-lift upon which Stroszek may have shot himself, is turning endlessly, covering again and again the same ground. Herzog cuts between the victimised animals in the arcade in what is one of his most animal-oriented sequences. On the commentary track of the DVD he stops himself from speaking over the images, which he hopes speak for themselves: ‘I shouldn’t talk over the chicken, it’s just too good. No more comment here. Full stop’ (S ch. 25; 1:45:39). Stroszek lingers on the chicken shortly before the film fades to black. This is of course not the only Herzog film that has ended with animals. As pointed out earlier, the gesture recalls the 182

monkeys in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Echoes from a Sombre Empire as well as the dromedary at the end of Even Dwarfs Started Small. We may be meant to see ourselves in the dancing chicken. It is an animal Herzog has always regarded as particularly stupid (Cronin 2002: 99), and one can here understand its presence in two senses: it may be a reminder of how we treat our animals – that we are cruel enough or merciless enough to make them march on a hot plate for our amusement – or, and what is more likely, it suggests that we are ourselves the animals, marching in a circle, and that if we look long enough at our own image, we will see the same cruelty, pointlessness and vapidity that Herzog sees in his chickens. Woyzeck Woyzeck was filmed immediately after Nosferatu the Vampyre, a film discussed at some length in chapter three, and Herzog describes it as being ‘like a little hiccup’ after that film. He adds that it took seventeen days to shoot and only five to edit (Cronin 2002: 159). As indicated above, Woyzeck was originally thought of as a project Herzog could work on together with Bruno S., but he came to feel that it was not right for Bruno and cast Kinski instead. In this context, one notices that the film is indeed similar to Stroszek and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – the Bruno S. films – insofar as it involves the brutal treatment of an ostensibly


insignificant protagonist at the hands of a merciless society. As with those other films, it is a far cry from Aguirre, Wrath of God, with its fantasies of world domination. It may be that Herzog cast Kinski in the starring role for this very reason; as the featured villain in innumerable spaghetti westerns, he plays here distinctively against type. The film was shot in Czechoslovakia, and Herzog remained close to the work as it was written by Georg Büchner. Büchner’s direct influence had appeared earlier in Herzog’s works, for example in the epigraph to The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which is borrowed from Lenz as mentioned above, but one can also speak of a less direct influence – perhaps even of affinities. Büchner, who died at 33 from typhus, was a revolutionary dramatist whose plays challenged the limitations of the stage. He served as an influence for twentieth-century playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller. One could certainly suggest that the formal revolutions or the attempts to respond to questions as to how an author or artist can write in a way that challenges their chosen medium suggest a type of continuity between the two ‘dramatists’, Herzog and Büchner. The plot of Büchner’s play and Herzog’s film follow the same lines: Woyzeck is an infantry soldier with a girlfriend named Marie and a child he is trying to support. Because Woyzeck does not earn much, he allows himself to be experimented upon by a doctor who feeds him a diet of nothing but peas. It 184

is clear that the doctor is behaving sadistically in that there is little to be achieved by his research beyond the spectacle of having pushed a man of little resources to his limits. Marie, in the meantime, begins an affair with a drum major. The already exhausted Woyzeck, still in love, jealously stabs her to death. The play, most probably written in 1836, the year before Büchner’s death, takes its historical cues from a much reported story of a wig-maker from Leipzig named Johann Christian Woyzeck, who in 1821 stabbed his lover Christiane Woost to death. Victoria Stiles and others have pointed out how there were additional inspirations for Büchner’s story, including news of murders committed by Daniel Schmolling in 1817 and Johann Dieß in 1830 (1996: 227). The appearance of the child in Büchner’s play and in Herzog’s film may find its source in the Dieß tale, as Woyzeck and Woost had no children. Herzog for the most part remains faithful to Büchner’s text and its variants, in as much as one can say there is any single text of Woyzeck from which to work. Büchner did not leave behind a ‘finished’ manuscript, and the credits to Herzog’s film refer to the work as a Bühnenfragment, or a ‘dramatic fragment’. Some lines have been deleted, and the scenes in the doctor’s office and courtyard are put in a different (earlier) place in the film than where they appear in the play, presumably in order to give the character of the doctor more prominence. The film begins with shots of a town and its wide, still pond. It seems to be the least likely place for a violent murder, which is perhaps the 185

point of such imagery. For those who know the story, these shots foreshadow where Marie’s body will end up at the film’s conclusion (bringing events, once again, full circle). The first images we have of Kinski, however, are different, and they tell another kind of story: he is under a boot, being forced to do military exercises. This is an unlikely place for the conquistador of Aguirre, Wrath of God and the visionary aesthete of Fitzcarraldo. He is being made to run, forcing his own knees high up in the air, and in his actions he resembles a puppet or someone who is being manipulated, an image that will later recur. Woyzeck looks exhausted, which is a central motif insofar as this is a film about a man who has been pushed to his limits, and who is kept down and beaten by his superiors. Kinski stares right into the camera doing pushups until he can no longer do them, and he looks as though he is on the verge of tears. Herzog explains that the man who is kicking Kinski – who actually presses down on him with his foot when he rises – is Walter Saxer, ironically the man at whom Kinski so vehemently yells in Burden of Dreams. Herzog used his actor’s real exhaustion and real anger, just as he had in Signs of Life, when he ran around with Peter Brogle to prepare him for a scene. Herzog says: ‘Kinski was kicked so hard into the cobblestones on the ground that his face started to swell up. I saw this and said to him, “Klaus, stop: do not move. Just look at me.” He was still exhausted from doing his push-ups, but he looks with such power into the camera that


it really sets up the feel of the rest of the film’ (Cronin 2002: 160). Following in some respects from Stroszek, the film’s key theme has to do with class limitations and expectations, themes that are explicit in Büchner’s work. (For example, in Büchner’s 1834 pamphlet Der hessische Landbote (The Hessian Messenger), he calls for a revolution of the working classes against the landowning monarchs.) The theme of class conflict is made explicit right from the onset, as Woyzeck performs his duties as a Captain’s barber and footman. In a long, unbroken sequence, perhaps to recall the work’s original theatricality, the Captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) lectures Woyzeck, calling him dumb for not knowing that there is no such thing as a south-north wind, or at least for not noticing that he has used this term. The Captain then continues, self-righteously explaining to Woyzeck that he is not a moral enough man in that he has had a child ‘without the blessing of the Church’. Woyzeck, however, knows better, and his reply takes recourse to the Bible (‘the Lord said suffer the children unto me’). He continues in a very class-conscious vein (and in class-marked, Hessian German): ‘Us poor people (wir arme Leut) … A penniless man has no use for morals in this world … Our kind is not blessed in this world or in the next. And I think even if we got to heaven, we would have to work the thunder.’ Though the hypocritical Captain reminds Woyzeck that he is a good and virtuous person, and that he therefore should act like one, Woyzeck understands well 187

enough that virtues are determined by class and capital. He answers: ‘If I were a master and had a hat and a watch … I would be more virtuous.’ Between this film and what transpires in Stroszek, one would be tempted to describe this as a period in which class politics took centre stage in Herzog’s work. This period was, however, fleeting, insofar as Herzog soon after came to distance himself from most shared ground with traditional leftist ideas. In this film, however, the theme of class consciousness is particularly in evidence, especially in the doctor’s exploitative relationship to Woyzeck. In one sequence, the doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) sternly reproaches Woyzeck for urinating on the street ‘like a dog’. When Woyzeck replies that he had no choice because nature called, the doctor takes recourse to rhetoric that sounds perversely as though it were meant to stand in for Enlightenment science. He says that one of course has the freedom to control oneself in this regard. The dialogue draws attention to the fact that Woyzeck, under observation, seems to have no privacy and that he is always subject to the scrutinising and invasive gaze of the doctor. Like Kaspar Hauser he is under constant surveillance and is often corrected. The scene also shows that the doctor regards Woyzeck as a natural being in the worst sense, which is to say that he sees him as one who behaves ‘like an animal’. He gives in to the impulse to urinate and he has a child out of wedlock, both of which make


him seem too bodily or too corporeal, behaviours that will all have to be corrected. In a later, related sequence, the doctor throws a cat out of a high window, ostensibly in order to see the effects of fear on the cat. The experiment self-evidently mirrors the cruelty he is enacting on Woyzeck, and the sadistic doctor has Woyzeck catch the cat, thereby turning him into a participant in the experiment. The cat defecates on Woyzeck, who reports this fact (‘sie scheisst’). Büchner’s version indicates that the cat ‘bites’ (‘sie beisst’), and in changing a couple of letters, Herzog adds an extra resonance to the doctor’s question as to whether Woyzeck will then ‘fail them’ as has the cat. The doctor’s real hypothesis is, evidently, that Woyzeck, under these conditions, will also lose bodily control. Woyzeck, who has now become the object of scrutiny for the doctor’s students says: ‘Doctor, I’ve got the shakes’, whereupon the doctor proudly explains that for a quarter of a year Woyzeck has eaten nothing but peas. The animal comparisons continue, and Woyzeck is here referred to both as a beast and as an ass. An early scene in the film – one that takes place at a carnival, a typical Herzog setting – is a turning point insofar as we begin to see how the love between Marie (Eva Mattes) and Woyzeck is falling apart at its seams. Victoria Stiles notes the importance of one particular visual cue in this scene, the rotating carousel, which she links to Marie’s whirling dress, seen later, when she dances with the drum major (Josef Bierbichler). Stiles notes that Marie’s dress ‘has the exact 189

colour of the carousel’s canopy: light blue and apricot’, colours that are only worn by Marie. She adds: ‘A lingering low-angle shot from inside the carousel reveals these colours purposefully. Marie’s billowing, fancy party dress reminds the viewer of the canopy’s loosely gathered blue and apricot horizontally striped folds. By establishing a visual link between the carousel and Marie, Herzog comments on the irreversible course of events Marie starts with her flaunting behaviour at the fair. As the carousel, set in motion, won’t stop by itself, so Marie, caught in the momentum of her love game, won’t stop’ (1996: 228). The idea that something is set in motion and will not stop – whether it is the car in Even Dwarfs Started Small or the truck and the chicken at the end of Stroszek – is a motif that appears regularly in Herzog’s films. In Woyzeck, which is of a piece with those two films in their protagonist’s helplessness, Woyzeck laments that the world has gone spinning beyond his control; it will not stop. Moreover, the carnival sequence is significant insofar as we know that Woyzeck is regarded as an animal, a theme that is forcefully reintroduced throughout the film. Woyzeck is treated as someone given to base instincts, and the horse on the carnival stage functions as a particularly potent metaphor. We watch Woyzeck, who is being turned into a spectacle, himself observe the spectacle of an animal. The carnival sequence in Invincible has a similarly metaphoric function in that we there see one animal (a dog) reveal itself to be cloaked in the costume of another (a 190

dragon). In this scene in Woyzeck, the horse is supposed to display ‘his beastly reason’ (sein viehische Vernünftigkeit). ‘Reason’ (Vernünft) again takes on an importance, not only because the doctor’s scientific method ostensibly relies on an idea of reason, however perverse it may be, but because we have seen the headmaster in Even Dwarfs Started Small also call for reasonable behaviour, and we know that all such demands, if in Herzog’s works they are ever met, are met in the most unreasonable ways. The horse, one notes, is also made to tell what time it is, and we recall that Woyzeck would not be of the type who could produce a watch for this activity; as he observed earlier, had he a watch, he would be a virtuous man. As noted, the part of Marie is played by Eva Mattes, who also stars in Stroszek. In some respects her character is a femme fatale, and she is responsible for Woyzeck’s troubles, yet she is hardly unsympathetic. Marie seems disappointed in her fortunes, saying: ‘Our kind has only a tiny corner of the world and a small part of a mirror.’ That she uses the term ‘our kind’ (unsereins) recalls the word used by Woyzeck earlier in his exchange with the Captain when he remarked: ‘Our kind’ – using the variation unseins – ‘is neither blessed in this world or the next.’ Though she contemplates infidelity and eventually is unfaithful, the two share a common lot and are, from Büchner’s perspective, sympathetic victims of a social structure over which they have little or no control. In this sequence, Marie continues staring 191

in the mirror and says that despite having so little, she has ‘a mouth as red as any fine dame with a mirror from top to toe, and who have gentlemen to kiss their hand’. That her name is Marie and that she is alone with her child reinforces the story’s biblical allegory and those motifs that suggest Woyzeck’s martyrdom. This is not to say that Herzog was interested in making a film about Christ by way of Woyzeck (or by way of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which echoed Dreyer’s Joan of Arc), but that he found a pathos worth echoing in the portrait of the Christian martyr as outcast. In this same sequence, one should add, Marie reads to her son from John 8:3 and 8:11, in which Jesus forgives an adulterous woman. Woyzeck begins to go mad both from jealousy and from the absurd diet on which the doctor has placed him. The text and the images communicate an impression of helplessness before events, like the dominant motif in Even Dwarfs Started Small: there is something larger that has taken control of these figures who hoped for nothing more than to seize their tiny piece of turf. The word immerzu is used frequently in the film, and although it is translated as ‘don’t stop’ it carries the connotation of ceaselessness or relentlessness, a relentlessness that reflects the constant assault on the victimised Woyzeck. When Marie dances with the drum major at the inn, Woyzeck comes upon them. As he looks in the window, Marie is telling the drum major ‘don’t stop’. Woyzeck repeats this to himself, despairing: ‘Immerzu. Immerzu.’ Like Peter Lorre in M (M – Eine Stadt sucht einen 192

Mörder, 1931), Kinski appears here as a literally and figuratively small man, who only hopes to bring his torment to an end. He asks: ‘Why doesn’t God blow out the sun so that everyone can roll around in fornication?’ And again, still echoing Lorre’s portrayal of madness, Woyzeck puts his ear to the ground: ‘Louder, louder. Stab dead? Shall I? Must I? Is the wind saying it too? Stab dead? Immerzu. Immerzu.’ Herzog remains faithful to the original text in having the merchant who sells Woyzeck the murder weapon be simply ‘The Jew’. Woyzeck cannot afford a gun, and we are thereby made to remember that everything in the film is determined by his limited means. The merchant seems to know what the purchase is for – that Woyzeck has death on his mind – and dispassionately comments that if Woyzeck plans to cut his throat with the knife, it will certainly do the trick; he should expect to have an affordable death, but not a free one. When the interaction seems distasteful to both of them, and Woyzeck leaves with his purchase, the merchant calls him a dog. Disquieting as it is that this comes from the film’s only Jewish character, we know that this comment, as with all such accusations, is apotropaic and can be turned on the accuser. It is actually the merchant who is doglike in his lack of compassion. The scene then turns comic in the moment we see Woyzeck running away with the knife. His gait starts off slow and he then takes off like a child either from a sense of infantile helplessness or from fear. Kinski’s figure becomes 193

smaller and smaller in the frame, and we can hear his footsteps fade into the distance. The film’s final sequences – the depiction of the murder – begin with children playing ball against a wall. They request that Marie sing them a song, and presumably they want to hear something pretty, meant for children’s ears. She provides them, however, with a tale without music, one about lost illusions and a confrontation with harsh reality. Herzog does not simply revere the innocence of youth: these same children, we may later note, enthusiastically seek out Marie’s corpse following the murder. The story Marie tells them is about a woman who went to the moon and learned that it was only rotting wood, that the sun was a wilted flower, and that the stars were merely bugs. Marie tells them that the woman sat and cried, and to this day she cries alone. Following this grim story, one that would seem to indicate that Marie has a sense of what is to come, Woyzeck takes her out to the countryside. The image is highly stylised: the two stare out at the water, and the portrait suggests that they are both victims in this story, ones who themselves have no control over their fates. They note that they will have been together two years once Pentecost (Pfingsten) comes. This motif ties this film to The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, who appeared in Nuremburg on this occasion, and the intertextual confluence suggests that the return of the holy spirit does not bode particularly well for anyone. Marie’s murder is shown in slow motion, and her death, like those images that preceeded it, is 194

also stylised. She reaches up with a bloody hand, and the scene seems to go on and on. The stabbing takes place just beyond the edge of the frame, and although Herzog shows us Woyzeck’s arm going up and down, he never shows the knife entering her. Perhaps he is sparing us the sight of something graphic (as we know from his interviews about Grizzly Man, he deliberately refrains from such depictions), yet these and other decisions also inhibit us from identifying too strongly with Marie in the moment of the murder. In the spirit of Büchner, Herzog may be tacitly informing us that Woyzeck is a victim as well. We see Marie take her last breath, and the music changes. What had been a march accompanying the killing and reinforcing the brutality of Woyzeck’s military training now becomes the sentimental sound of an oboe. As Stiles explains, we hear the second movement from a concerto by Alessandro Marcello and the camera lingers long on Woyzeck, who is likely experiencing regret. It would be hard not to find him somewhat sympathetic. Stiles states: ‘Through Marcello’s music Herzog successfully creates an atmosphere of the murderer’s tenderness, repentance and atonement, and also of his own ultimate victimisation’ (1996: 230). The sense that he is a lost child is reinforced in his subsequent frantic and pathetic night-time search for the knife. The film ends with a long shot of investigators looking at the body, taking their measurements and engaging in generally ‘reasonable’ pursuits. 195

This very reasonableness, however, is what should trouble us. The final epigraph: ‘A good murder, a real murder, a beautiful murder, as beautiful as any man can hope to see. We haven’t had one like this in ages’ (‘Ein guter Mord, ein ächter Mord, ein schöner Mord; so schön, als man ihn nur verlangen tun kann. Wir haben schon lange so keinen gehabt’) could rightly be linked to the final moments of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. As in that film, in which Scheitz enthusiastically composed the report on Kaspar’s autopsy, we are again provided with evidence of a culture that is in the worst of ways, both fascinated by and indifferent to its own cruelties.




Mountains and Fog

Herzog is certainly not a Romantic in any conventional sense of the word, yet some of the most interesting moments in the history of German literature and art are from the period around 1800, a period with which Romanticism is closely linked, and to suggest that there is no connection between Herzog and this period in the history of German ideas does a disservice both to Herzog and to the art and ideas of that era. Herzog himself has cited the works of Caspar David Friedrich, Achim von Arnim and Friedrich Hölderlin (who was a poet from the period although not himself a Romantic). When Paul Cronin puts this matter directly before Herzog, Herzog refers us to comments he made in Burden of Dreams, including the observation that the jungle around him is full of obscenity. In the film, Herzog says: ‘nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away … Of course there is a lot of misery but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing,


they just screech in pain.’ Herzog explains: ‘anyone who understands Romanticism will know that those were not the words of a romanticist’ (Cronin 2002: 135–6). While his assertions in Burden of Dreams seem to be at odds with Romanticism as it is traditionally understood, and it seems that he is taking a position contrary to that expressed in John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), I would contend that German Romanticism is more complex than the binary distinction suggests. Though it was artistic and literary, German Romanticism was even more a philosophical tendency, one that inherited a good deal from Enlightenment philosophy. It built upon the foundations laid by German Idealism, in particular those of Immanuel Kant and J. G. Fichte, and it was concerned with the way the subject imposes reality upon the world. In its complex intermingling of subjective and objective Idealisms (in the writings of Novalis and F. W. J. Schelling) and in its formal interest in texts that both establish and undermine their own truths (a stake in formal irony on the part of Ludwig Tieck and the Schlegels) the pursuit of the relationship with Romanticism – more than its haphazard disregard – offers a foundation through which one may elucidate particular tendencies in Herzog’s thought, such as his curious relation to the natural world, his ‘quest’ for sublimity and his employment of formal irony. While the configuration of ideas in Herzog’s work may be new, in part because the Romantics did not have film to work with, these ideas do not emerge from the ether. Herzog’s 199

works stand only to gain from their articulation as related to a long literary and philosophical tradition. To study the connection to Romantic ideas, as I began to do in the introduction, diminishes neither Herzog nor Romanticism. Coming to terms with the legacy of German letters in his work serves them both. By most accounts Romanticism was over in Germany by 1830; one then must of course agree that Herzog cannot be considered a Romantic in that strict sense. It can, however, be said with certainty that Herzog recuperates its questions and plays with its possibilities. Brigitte Peucker points to some of the implicit and explicit citations of Romanticism in Herzog’s work, noting that Signs of Life is based on a von Arnim novella, that his Kaspar Hauser quotes from the poet Eichendorff, and that Herzog’s films contain frames that cite Caspar David Friedrich (1984: 170). All of these revisitations and appropriations, of course, form only one part of a larger tapestry in Herzog’s films; though Nosferatu the Vampyre makes use of Romanticism, the film also deploys stylistic markers of Weimar cinema to reflect on the claims made by that cinematic tradition. The following section looks at the connection between his overall approach – his use of landscapes and his vexed fascination with nature – and some of the tendencies that have been referred to as ‘Romantic’. When studying this connection, one’s attention is generally drawn to Herzog’s landscapes and in particular his fascination with mountains and fog. 200

Herzog’s camera studies and surveys the land in order to act on two related agendas: on the one hand, he wants to make the world appear before us in ways it has not before, or to provide us with fresh images. As explored in the introduction, Herzog rejects the kind of processed images that have become symptomatic of the advertising industry or of cable news, and he searches for an alternative. Perhaps more significantly in this context, however, Herzog wants us to resist viewing the world – and his films – through the lens of our rational tendencies, and apprehend them purely aesthetically, which is to say that we are meant to work from our senses rather than from our ratio. To cite one example, Herzog’s Fata Morgana includes a high-angle shot taken from a helicopter, one in which thousands of flamingos move swiftly across the Kenyan landscape. From that distance and at that speed, the birds are hardly recognisable as flamingos, and on the director’s commentary Herzog explains that he prefers it that way. He says that these images should not resemble images that one would find on the Discovery Channel (FM ch. 3; 17:24); the sequence is only supposed to wash over the viewer, making the same strange and sensual impression that it would on a visitor from outer space who is seeing Earth for the first time, one who has no categories with which to comprehend the colours and shapes of the planet. Despite his intention to provide us with new images, and with geographies so strikingly unfamiliar that we cannot help but look at them 201

with alien eyes, there is no guarantee that his cinematic landscapes fall beyond the scope of material that has been previously processed. His ravishingly-filmed images import their own art historical baggage, and often run the risk of losing their impact, or becoming what Noël Carroll refers to as ‘icons of the sublime’ (1998: 295). In that the fog-covered mountaintops in the film Heart of Glass, or the high waterfalls in Nosferatu the Vampyre may call to mind weighty philosophical discourses on sublimity, resonances with established art history can be a virtue. At the same time, however, such images also risk being read as clichés. Throughout Heart of Glass, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Scream of Stone, Herzog’s compositions undeniably recall the paintings of Friedrich and in this sense the images cannot be said to be entirely ‘new’ or ‘fresh’. Many of Herzog’s shots are composed in a style that resonates with Friedrich’s paintings such as The Wanderer before the Sea of Fog (1818) or Clouds over the Riesengebirge (1821–22). Herzog openly acknowledges that Friedrich is one among many of his art historical influences, and he also mentions painters associated with the Northern Renaissance such as Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Bruegel (Cronin 2002: 136). In this way, Herzog’s landscapes are embedded in art history, yet his inclusion of such images is also guided by other decisions. For example, Signs of Life, previously discussed at some length, has an unusual opening shot: from a great height, the camera looks down on a 202

curvaceous country road while a truck wends its way around and eventually disappears. The Greek landscape seems to extend well beyond the borders of the frame, and Herzog holds our gaze there, refusing to zoom closer. The shot maintains its position long after the credits have ended, and the director himself explains: ‘In Signs of Life there are long shots of the incredible landscapes of Crete. The opening credits, for example, hold for an unusually long time with a single shot of a mountain valley. It gives you time to really climb deep inside the landscapes, and for them to climb inside you. It shows that these are not just literal landscapes you are looking at, but landscapes of the mind too’ (Cronin 2002: 39). The image Herzog employs here, that of climbing into the landscape while the landscape climbs into you, is indeed evocative. This uniquely-long establishing shot encourages us, as viewers, to fall into a reverie, relying on the fact that we are prisoners of the cinema. In that the camera holds its position, it refuses to explore the landscape for the viewer, and Herzog in this way engages with issues similar to those addressed by Friedrich with respect to earlier styles and conventions of landscape painting. Traditionally, in the work of eighteenth-century French painters such as Claude-Joseph Vernet it was expected that painted landscapes would provide an opening or a window through which the viewer’s gaze could enter and wander from place to place. Paintings were meant to be appreciated over time, like a walk in the countryside. In Friedrich’s 203

compositions, however, the viewer’s desire to enter the frame was frequently frustrated by the lack of a clear point of entry. Friedrich was alternately lauded and lambasted for the absence of markers that had once defined the borders of paintings. His works were said to produce the vertiginous sensation that there was suddenly no stage upon which the observer could tread. The same can be said of many of Herzog’s shots, which hold the viewer’s gaze at a disconcerting height or at a distance from landscapes that apparently extend well beyond the borders of the screen. Oftentimes it is the fog itself that closes the way. Such compositions refuse to provide the illusion that we are being presented with a stage onto which we might wander. To look at Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea alongside images from Bells from the Deep, or to look at the opening sequences of Heart of Glass, it is inconceivable that such tableaux do not represent a direct engagement with Romanticism’s questions. His films partake of the attempt to respond to how we understand the screaming that men call silence, what it is of ourselves we see in the fog, and if we can comprehend life when in the presence of death. This whole spectrum, and in particular the comments he makes in Burden of Dreams, provides us with an image of a thinker who is tied to Romantic ideas while at the same time hoping to set himself apart from them. It presupposes a worldview in which the subject is understood to be at an irreconcilable distance from the natural world and one for whom the divine 204

plan, if there is one, remains so deeply buried beneath shadows and fog as to be inaccessible and ultimately – as far as our experience is concerned – irrelevant. Grizzly Man When considering Herzog’s approach to the relationship between man and nature, it is worthwhile to begin with Grizzly Man, his most recent engagement with the subject. The most memorable lines from Grizzly Man read like a revisitation or an echo of the director’s earlier comments, those made in Burden of Dreams in which he described nature as ‘vile and base’ and described the jungle as the site of ‘choking and fighting for survival’. Towards the end of Grizzly Man, Herzog scrutinises a close-up of the eyes of a bear filmed by the naturalist Timothy Treadwell. The bear may be ‘Bear 141’, the one that killed his nature-loving protagonist. As we see the eyes of the bear, eyes that could be taken for the lifeless eyes of a doll, Herzog explores his own sentiments: ‘what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears, and this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.’ Lest we forget that this bear did become a killer, Herzog then cuts to the medical examiner who offers a somewhat graphic


description of how the murder must have transpired, based on his autopsy and his exposure to a ‘grizzly’ audio recording that we never hear. Grizzly Man deals with Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers working with the brown bears of Katmai National Park in southern Alaska. Treadwell devoted those summers to studying, filming and – according to him – helping to protect the bears from poachers. In 2003, he and his companion Amie Huguenard were killed by a brown bear. The two were in the wilderness later in the season than was generally advisable: people are warned away from lingering past the end of summer because the bears are, at that time of the season, looking for all the food they can eat before they hibernate for the winter, a point that Herzog makes clear in his film. After the incident, the large male bear who may have attacked them was killed by park rangers while they were attempting to retrieve the bodies. A second bear was also killed at the scene. A video camera with the lens cap on was recovered, and on it were recorded six minutes of audio of the attack, before the camera ran out of tape. Treadwell was in the habit of getting close to the bears. Many people in the Alaskan wildlife community and beyond felt that he had been playing a dangerous game, and – said starkly – that he finally found the trouble he had been courting. Herzog includes a few of these voices in his film, including that of Sam Egli, a helicopter pilot who assisted in the clean-up after Treadwell’s and Huguenard’s deaths. Egli was unnerved by 206

having had to clean up the human remains, not to mention having seen the offending bear cut open. He clearly feels the tragedy was avoidable. Egli says: ‘Treadwell was, I think, meaning well, trying to do things to help the resource of the bears, but to me he was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there instead of wild animals. Those bears are big and ferocious, and they come equipped to kill you and eat you and that’s just what Treadwell was asking for. He got what he was asking for – he got what he deserved, in my opinion.’ This last remark seems cruel, yet Egli is hardly alone in thinking this way. Many objected to Treadwell, and much of the debate has to do with the fact that Treadwell established an organisation – one that collected money to support his summers among the bears – with the idea that he was somehow helping to prevent bear poaching in Katmai. He saw himself as the protector of the bears, yet most park experts seem to say that poaching was not a major problem. According to Nick Jans, for 80 years prior to 2004, when three bears were shot at Funnel Creek, there was ‘not a single documented case of a bear being illegally killed inside park boundaries’ (2005: 34). It has been noted that Treadwell never produced evidence of poaching and the one time that his organisation, Grizzly People, produced a photo of a poacher, it was later learned that this was a photo of a viewing guide from the lodge who happened to be carrying his rifle. The guide in the photo threatened to sue, and the pamphlet with the offending image was 207

pulled. The harshest criticism of Treadwell suggested that he used the myth about protecting the bears to promote himself and to accumulate money, appearing on talk shows with Tom Snyder and David Letterman, and telling the world that he was the bears’ last line of defence. Still another critical perspective on him suggested that the main problem with his work was that he was allowing the bears to grow accustomed to his presence, and that there were good reasons for the park’s rules against getting too close to them. For the most part this debate seems to be of little interest to Herzog, who pursues the poetry and truth in Treadwell’s already existing footage. It is perhaps surprising that Herzog made a film with so much footage ‘directed’ by someone else – that he assembled the film from a selection of over one hundred hours of Treadwell’s unedited videotapes – yet it gradually becomes evident that Herzog respects Treadwell as a filmmaker, and that he sees something redeemable in the way Treadwell lived his life. Herzog admires his poetic fantasy and his fascinations. As for the debate around Treadwell, Herzog summarises, taking recourse to the metaphor of ‘fog’: ‘Treadwell is gone. The argument how wrong or how right he was disappears into a distance, into a fog. What remains is his footage. And while we watch the animals in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear: that it is not so much a look at wild nature as it is an insight into ourselves, into our nature. And


that to me gives meaning to his life and to his death.’ Herzog refuses to make a film that studies the moral or legal implications of Treadwell’s choices, although he does explore with some sensitivity the question of whether Treadwell was irresponsible when it came to bringing along his companion, Amie Huguenard, who died with him in 2003. They had met in Boulder in 1996, though they were not romantically linked until much later. She had come up to visit him during his summers in Katmai in 2001 and 2002, and was at that point listed as coordinator and consultant on the webpage of Treadwell’s Grizzly People organisation. Herzog addresses her curious, yet not complete, absence in the footage, theorising that part of the ‘mythical character’ that Treadwell was inventing for himself involved leading the viewer to believe that he was alone in the woods, which he often was. Herzog says that Huguenard remains ‘a great unknown’ in this film, pointing out that in the few times we see her, her face is either obscured by her hands or by a mosquito net. Her absence from Treadwell’s footage leads one to conclude that perhaps he was not as concerned with her as he should have been and that he was therefore behaving irresponsibly with the life of someone near to him who herself had the good sense to be afraid of the bears. Subsequent to the observation about Huguenard being a great unknown, Herzog cuts to a scene in which the medical examiner, Franc Fallico, talks about his first encounter with 209

Treadwell and Huguenard’s remains. While Herzog is largely unreserved in his admiration for Treadwell as a filmmaker, and he is reserved about making any moral judgement about Treadwell’s choices as a naturalist, on this point there seems to be the implication that Huguenard may have made a mistake in trusting him. It would have been one matter had his playful irresponsibility and irreverence about park safety lead only to his death, but that it led to hers as well appears in the film as somewhat troubling. To return, however to the question of the depiction of nature, there is a connection between how Treadwell sees the world of the bears, and how Herzog sees that same world, which concerns anthropomorphism. This is not the first time that Herzog has engaged with the question of what it means to see nature as one wishes to see it, or to imagine that it ‘speaks’ to us. On the one hand it is a tendency that he rejects wholesale, as in his Minnesota Declaration, in which he warns us not to listen to the Song of Life; Mother Nature’s call is a simply an illusion. At the same time, however, there are sequences in which Herzog does want to show us nature’s face, or to give us a sense of the cold physiognomy of the landscape and its refusal to provide us with kindness. In Fata Morgana, for example, Herzog has the camera hover low over mountains of sand in the desert. At first glance, the mountainous landscape might be mistaken for a close-up of a body, and for the most part we are expected to project the physical characteristics of human forms and faces elsewhere upon the 210

surface of the Earth. In My Best Fiend as well, Herzog explains that he wanted the opening shot of Aguirre, Wrath of God, in which a colonial expedition moves along the mountainside, to appear as though tiny flecks were crossing a giant physiognomy; he wanted it to be a scene in which the mountain expresses its own drama and pathos to the viewer. He continues that his intention was ‘to film a landscape with almost human qualities’. Herzog here engages in what could be described as a prosopopeia, from the Greek word for face, prosopon, which could also be expressed as the conferral of a face and a voice upon an inanimate object. However, as Herzog knows, it is only our own selves that we project onto nature. It does not ‘speak’. Seen from this perspective, Grizzly Man can be contrasted with, for example, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’empereur), which was released in that same year (and indeed won the Academy Award for Best Documentary). That film pleased audiences by attributing human instincts and desires – with the help of Morgan Freeman’s compassionate voice, rather than Herzog’s coolly analytical one – to the animal world. Yet the behaviours depicted in March of the Penguins are primarily protective, loving and familial. We would, of course, like to forget that the animal world has another, crueller logic. We would prefer to tell children fairy tales about the kindness of animals, but in truth the natural world operates in accord with harsh principles.


This difference is expressed by the bear biologist Larry van Daele in Grizzly Man. He describes the problem soberly and factually, saying that he had heard that Timothy Treadwell seemed to want to become a bear, sometimes acting like a bear when people approached. He says that he could understand the desire to be a part of their world, but that ‘in fact [the world of the bears is] a harsh world. It’s a different world that bears live in than we do, so there’s that desire to get into their world, but the reality is that we never can because we’re very different than they are.’ Herzog then cuts to a shot of two bears growling as they fight over a salmon. The desire to see only the sweetness and kindness in the world of the bears is also underscored by sequences in which Herzog explains that Treadwell once in a while ‘came face to face with harsh nature’, and he reminds us that his own view differs from Treadwell’s in that he does not see harmony as a common denominator in the universe, but rather ‘chaos, hostility and murder’. Typical of Grizzly Man are scenes in which Treadwell mourns the death, for example, of a fox, and is either in tears or on the verge of tears. One might observe that Treadwell gave his friend ‘Timmy the fox’ his own name (Timothy), and the film contains a scene in which he sits with Timmy, overflowing with emotion and says, ‘thank you for being my friend’, in addition to scenes in which he becomes emotional about how exciting it is to touch bear ‘poop’. All of these scenes depart sharply from the tone Herzog takes when he describes nature, 212

soberly pointing out that ‘male bears sometimes kill cubs to stop female bears from lactating, and then have them ready again for fornication’. One may recognise a resonance with his monologue about nature from Burden of Dreams. ‘Fornication’ is a cold word, made no less so by Herzog’s clinical tone. Beyond the borders of the National Park, Treadwell remained an interesting figure. He was an aspiring actor, who claimed that he had been the number two choice for the role of Woody the Bartender on the television show Cheers (1982–93). He had suffered with drug and alcohol addictions, and there was no question in Treadwell’s mind that his association with the bears had saved his life. Herzog probes into his background yet, as is typical for his documentaries, he does not attempt to provide a thorough psychological account; he fixates instead on the details that are interesting to him. Herzog begins to investigate Treadwell’s background, asking ‘What drove Timothy into the wild?’ He then cuts to an image of Treadwell’s parents, Val and Carol Dexter, who live in Florida. It first appears as ridicule that he cuts to them following that particular question, as if to suggest that something about them made Treadwell decide to get far away from home, yet Herzog is ultimately far kinder with these two than he is with Gene Scott’s parents in God’s Angry Man. In that film, the televange-list’s parents reveal themselves to have played a role in the development of their child’s somewhat pathological behaviour, yet all that can really be 213

suggested about the home depicted in this film is that Treadwell must have been driven by ‘an urge to escape the safety of his protected environment’. Herzog points out that as a child Treadwell got along with animals, and we see footage of him playing with a squirrel named Willy. This sequence presages his later fascination with the bears, but it also enables us to read those scenes in which love pours out for the bears as moments of regression to the security of childhood. His relationship not only to the bears but to Timmy the fox as well are reproductions of his childhood relationship with the squirrel and with his teddy bears, which we are told meant a lot to him. While his parents speak of his teenage years and his move to California, Herzog lingers on a shot of Treadwell’s mother clutching the paw of a teddy bear. Herzog holds the shot for a while, and it comes across with unusual tenderness. This is not the only place where Herzog’s camera lingers. Some of the film’s scenes have an obvious staginess. In what has become a trademark for Herzog, he lets the camera roll long after most filmmakers would have cut. The scene, for example, in which Dr Fallico presents Treadwell’s watch to Jewel Palovak is one in which Herzog records quiet and discomfort. The camera’s gaze scrutinises, and it is as if he is staring at them for far too long. The premise of the scene is a contrivance; it would likely not be taking place were it not for Herzog and his camera. It is similar to the scene in which Jewel Palovak, Kathleen Parker and Willy Fulton release 214

Treadwell’s ashes at Hallo Bay. Though these scenes are probably unscripted, there is nothing in them that is happening independent of the film. In a scene that has a similar strained discomfort, Dr Fallico describes the death. He is wide-eyed, and Herzog brings the camera far closer than would be traditional for this type of interview. One has the impression that he is simultaneously fascinated by and poking fun at his eccentric subject. There are similarities between Herzog and Treadwell (and not only in the fact that both men changed their last names). The real overlap between the two has to do with their affinities as filmmakers. In Herzog’s film, Treadwell comes across as uniquely independent – he shot most of his footage alone, without a crew – and he also partakes of that same unusual combination of improvisation and staging that characterises Herzog’s documentaries. Treadwell does not mind allowing fantasy and invention to play a part in documenting nature. Herzog shows us Treadwell doing numerous takes and lauds him: ‘as a filmmaker he was methodical, often repeating takes 15 times’. Apart from his inventiveness Herzog is also impressed by how Treadwell captured moments between takes, sometimes inadvertently. Herzog is most impressed by the shots of silent landscapes and of reeds blowing in the wind. He says: ‘in his action movie mode, Treadwell probably did not realise that seemingly empty moments had a strange beauty. Sometimes images developed their own life, their own mysterious stardom.’ We also see unexpected 215

shots: in one sequence a fox wanders into the frame, and Herzog says, ‘As a filmmaker sometimes things fall into your lap which you couldn’t expect, never even dream of, there is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema.’ Herzog clearly finds an echo of his own technique in Treadwell’s work. And yet this is really only one of two Treadwells in the film. There is the one that Herzog admires, the one that is a filmmaker and in whom, we gather, Herzog sees part of himself. The other Treadwell, however, is the one that had issues with anger, which he expressed in part at the poachers, but even more at the park service, who set up rules to make it difficult for Treadwell to go about his work. Over time park regulations were changed to include a prohibition on camping in one area for more than seven days, a regulation that earned the name ‘The Treadwell Rule’ (Jans 2005: 43). Treadwell gets around the rule, but is enraged at the amount of extra work involved. When his rant against the park service begins, the rant in which we see his angry side, he steps into the frame from behind the camera, and here one might even see a hint of the ‘Kinski spiral’. Treadwell is incensed: ‘How dare they challenge me? How dare they smear me with their campaigns? … Fuck you, you motherfucking park service.’ Herzog’s voice then returns and he says that Treadwell here ‘crosses a line we will not cross’. Herzog continues: ‘The actor in his film has taken over from the filmmaker.’ There is little doubt whom Herzog has in mind. This is the side of 216

Treadwell that recalls Kinski and his uncontrolled rage. Herzog does not go this far, preferring to leave such displays to his alter ego. He adds: ‘I have seen this madness before on a film set. But Treadwell is not an actor in opposition to a director or a producer. He’s fighting civilisation itself.’ Herzog’s identification with Treadwell is bifurcated: Treadwell the filmmaker is like him, and Treadwell the performer, who comes to the foreground in moments of rage, is like Kinski, he is the one who crosses lines that we prefer not to cross. Perhaps the most central question about Grizzly Man, and the one that is most frequently discussed, has to do with Herzog’s decision not to incorporate the audio recording of the bear attack into the film. Our only connection to it is through watching Herzog listen to the attack. He describes very vaguely what he is hearing and then tells Jewel Palovak, who owns the tape, ‘you must never listen to this, and you must never look at the photos I have seen at the Coroner’s office. I think you should not keep [the tape], you should destroy it … Because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life.’ Herzog later discussed his decision, saying, ‘it was instantly clear for me under no circumstances whatever that was going to be published [sic]. Number one, it was clear to me we are not doing a snuff movie. Number two, it occurred to me instantly, you have to respect the privacy and the dignity of an individual death. You don’t drag it into the open.’ He then explains that he regrets his decision to tell her to destroy the tape, and is glad that she chose not to. Of the 217

scene he says: ‘it’s a very very strange and deep moment. And I love this moment and I love how it ends … I think she starts crying and I reach over to her. It’s very silent, very laconic, and one of the finest moments I ever shot in my life’ (Davies 2006).

Herzog listens to the tape of the attack in Grizzly Man (2005)

For viewers, however, there are ways in which the moment is frustrating. We know the details of the tape because Dr Fallico has told us (with a degree of strange enthusiasm) what he heard, but here, in front of us, either like a parent that judges what is appropriate and inappropriate for us to hear, or like a shaman who carries the burdens of the tribe so others need not, Herzog decides that he alone will hear the tape. It is a decision that plays with our prurient desires just as much as having allowed us to listen in. It recalls his 218

decision in The White Diamond not to show us the footage from the cave of the swifts, because that too would have violated a manner of taboo, yet we know well that Herzog himself has seen it. While the decision may be the source of some annoyance, it also resonates with one of the key themes of the film: it suggests, or reminds us of the fact, that there are boundary lines one does not cross. Herzog worked on the score of Grizzly Man with Richard Thompson and a group of other musicians over a two-day period in 2004 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thompson is a British-born musician who used to be a member of Fairport Convention. The fact that it was recorded in the Bay Area and that Herzog engaged a guitarist who, although he draws on many traditions, is a somewhat canonised rock ’n’ roller is significant insofar as Herzog does not generally use ‘rock’ music in his films. As confirmed in the documentary In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session (2005), a film about the making of the score for Grizzly Man, Herzog worked in part by asking himself what music Treadwell would have chosen. In the Edges is actually more a film about Herzog than it is about Richard Thompson: watching the production it is plain how involved Herzog is in the scoring of the film, constantly letting his musicians know what he wanted. As with most of his other works, the music is part of the substance of the film, never subordinate to the images. He tells one of the musicians: ‘There is


never anything like “background music” in my films.’ The soundtrack is filled with an untraditional mixture of guitar and cello, enhanced by vibrato and the bending of strings. Herzog had just come away from collaborative work with the cellist Ernst Reijseger, which formed the basis for The Wild Blue Yonder. In the case of Grizzly Man, one has the impression that the guitar, in its improvisational way, comes to stand in for Treadwell, while the cello, which is used effectively as part of the bear fight sequence, for example, represents the dangerous world of the bears. Though the guitar and cello work in tandem, there is no happy reconciliation of man and nature, and any attempt to violate the bears’ space is rewarded with a reminder as to how irreconcilable those two worlds are. The music becomes central in moments when Treadwell crosses the ‘invisible boundary’ that separates humans and bears, as in the scene in which he tries to touch a bear near to whom he is swimming. As the cellist Danielle DeGruttola improvises a track entitled ‘Bear Swim’, Herzog explains to her that it may look like there is a harmony between man and nature, but that there is not. Instructing her to work from those elements in the scene that are dark and menacing, he suggests once again that we not be deceived by Mother Nature. Heart of Glass


Grizzly Man presents an interesting opportunity to consider Herzog’s relationship to the natural world, though it was hardly the first time the director had confronted this set of questions. Indeed, it may represent more of a culmination of years of reflection on ‘Romantic’ issues, reflections that date back to earlier films such as Heart of Glass, and even to his somewhat Romantic version of Nosferatu the Vampyre. In that latter film, for example, as Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) heads toward the vampire’s castle, the scenic cliffs and waterfalls of the Borgo pass – actually the Tatra Mountains of the former Czechoslovakia – reflect the mystery of a journey into unknown and foreboding territory. Heart of Glass, other films in Herzog’s oeuvre, has more than obvious ties to a long tradition of German visual arts, and many have compared shots from its initial and final sequences to the compositions of Caspar David Friedrich. There is, as I have argued elsewhere, much merit to considering matters along these lines. The varied compositions reinforce themes seen elsewhere in his films. In Heart of Glass and Nosferatu the Vampyre, the journey into a foggy inner landscape and the very darkness of the world sheltered behind a veil of clouds comes into the foreground about as clearly as such obscurity allows. While some critics dwell on the Romantic tendencies in Heart of Glass, others concern themselves with whether and how the film participates in a more politicised history of German cinema. The question often arises as to where this 221

film stands in relation to a tradition of the German ‘Heimat film’ or whether it can be seen as a critique of those films. The genre blossomed in the 1950s, though its roots can be found earlier (in prewar cinema), and its legacy can be felt even today. Heimat films were generally set in the mountains in southern Germany, Austria or Switzerland, and in their postwar incarnations, they depicted landscapes that were undestroyed by the bombing of World War Two. In this way, the films served as a contrast to the postwar ‘rubble films’, which explicitly depicted Germany’s ruins. Arguably, Heimat films were popular for precisely this reason: they avoided directly addressing the traumas of the previous decade. This way of interpreting them can be disputed, and indeed some argue that the films represent an attempt on a conscious or an unconscious level to re-appropriate the language and values that had been instrumentalised and misused by the Nazis, such as the very concept of Heimat (a term one might translate as ‘homeland’). For the most part, such films have more generally been viewed as a means to avoid confronting important questions about politics and history after the war, or as a means to find other authorities and social structures beyond those that were overtly associated with political institutions. In these films, politics is often relegated to the margins, and examples of this type of ostensibly apolitical filmmaking include films by, for example, the director Hans Deppe. The filmmakers of the New German Cinema were directly reacting to and 222

rejecting the proliferation of such films, because they felt this type of filmmaking avoided questions of German guilt and re-inscribed the conservative politics of the past onto the present. While he does not associate himself with the filmmakers of the New German Cinema, as already indicated, Herzog’s revisitation of Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1978 was an attempt, consistent with that movement’s aims, to overcome apparently trivial postwar films, a category that likely included Heimat films. Heart of Glass undeniably cites the tradition of the Heimat film, and for its imagery Herzog draws on his own Bavarian roots. The sequences in the film that linger most strongly in the memory depict stunning Bavarian landscapes or landscapes that are filmed elsewhere but are meant, in the context of the film, to stand in for Bavaria. This gesture in itself – using other landscapes to stand for German ones – can be seen as an ironic undermining of the ideological assertion that the German landscape is in possession of a unique beauty, and can therefore be taken as a critique of the type of landscape-nationalism evoked by the Heimat film. Writing about Heart of Glass, film scholar Eric Rentschler notes that the work bears a resemblance to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932): ‘Both films are dramas set in a pre-modern world of pastoral landscapes and sweeping mountains. The iconography in each case draws heavily on nineteenth-century German painting’; Rentschler points out that Riefenstahl’s film explicitly evokes 223

Friedrich’s works such as The Wanderer before the Sea of Fog, and that ‘the final sequence likewise borrows freely from Friedrich’s work, especially as the painter strolls through the woods in the morning fog … Herzog just as strikingly evokes this painterly heritage’ (1986: 170). The connection is not meant to be taken as evidence that Herzog is citing Riefenstahl, particularly because the director maintains that he does not watch such films, but more importantly, Rentschler’s observation should not be understood to suggest that Herzog’s film, made in an entirely different decade and context, should be handled in the same way as films by Riefenstahl. However, the question with which we are today confronted is to what extent is Herzog being deliberately evocative or ironic as he introduces these associations. The film is set in a pre-industrialised Germany – sometime in the eighteenth century – in a village in Bavaria, where the local economy is dependent on its glassworks. At its very opening we learn that the chief manufacturer of the factory’s special ruby-coloured glass has died, taking with him the secret of its production. The livelihood of the entire town is threatened by this sudden death, and the industrialist (played by Stefan Güttler), who is terrified by the prospect of the village’s economic collapse, searches everywhere for the secret. He turns the glassmaker’s home inside out and looks to the cowherd Hias (Josef Bierbichler), a clairvoyant, in the hopes that he might be able to intuit the glass-manufacturing method. Hias, 224

however, has only dark, allegorical visions that are of little use to the industrialist. The latter eventually kills his maidservant, perhaps in the hopes of producing the ruby glass through the addition of human blood. Finally, in despair, he sets fire to the glassworks. Heart of Glass is based on parts of Hubert Achternbusch’s novel Die Stunde des Todes (The Hour of Death, 1975), a sparsely written work that in some measure already resembled a screenplay. Achternbusch, a Bavarian writer and filmmaker and a contemporary of Herzog’s, adapted the work himself, although once the film appeared, Achternbusch accused Herzog of turning his screenplay into a Heimat film (see Wickham 1989: 116). But if anything the film resonates more with consciously anti-Heimat films such as Volker Schlöndorff’s Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach, 1971). To speak in very general terms, the visual style of Heart of Glass – its concealment of its landscape beneath a veil of fog and twilight – not to mention its pacing, resist the cheery mood and bright colours associated with Heimat films. Considered in relation to Herzog’s other works, the opening sequence of Heart of Glass strongly recalls La Soufrière – Warten auf eine unausweichliche Katastrophe (La Soufrière, 1977) which dealt with a volcano, an evacuation and an impending catastrophe. One might even note that that film in fact depicts a forced flight from a Heimat film. As Christopher Wickham points out, the overall atmosphere of 225

Heart of Glass is one of ‘brooding inevitability, enhanced by a monotony of ponderous action, slow speech and slow-tempo music’ (1989: 116). Herzog hypnotised most of the cast in preparation for their performances in the film, which, among its other consequences, may have helped to satirise the stilted and stylised acting of 1950s German cinema. The politics of Heart of Glass should not be defined solely by its critical relationship to the Heimat film. It can also be seen in connection with a discussion of emerging capitalism. The film takes place in the moment of cultural transformation when traditional pre-modern and pre-industrial society was on the verge of being overtaken by industrialisation. The glass works is, in this case, both a handicraft and an industrial product. Not only were the two forms of life, the pre-modern and the modern, differentiated by the material cultures they produced, but the industrialist’s rationalised and economically-defined ideology – here satirised – can be seen as coming into conflict with the film’s mysticism, in the form of the seer, Hias. Viewed from this historical standpoint, one notes that the exploitation of labour at the hands of the industrialist, and especially the murder of the servant girl, Ludmilla (Sonja Skiba), ultimately take on different and more ominous meanings. Looking specifically at the film’s politics, Pat Aufderheide objected to the sense of passivity that Heart of Glass may deliberately or inadvertently engender. She argues that the zombie-like state of the 226

ensemble cast ‘deepen[s] the notion that immobilisation and passivity are inevitable, that we cannot avoid our fate’. Of Herzog’s famous decision to put his actors under hypnosis, Aufderheide comments: ‘Advertisers and supermarket managers are already well aware of the advantages of hypnotic suggestion … Herzog’s hypnotic magic, as impressive certainly as any seductive Christmas display, offers no critique of its subject … in fact, Herzog’s new film participates in the problem’ (1978: 34). Such a view can be taken together with the idea, expressed by Eric Rentschler, that in directing the film in this way – with a hypnotised cast – Herzog has placed himself in the role of mesmerist and inscribed himself into the history of German film as a ‘a benevolent Caligari’ (1986: 160). However, it is not only the characters in the film who are to be hypnotised, but the audience as well. As Rentschler also points out, Herzog hopes the audience will approach his film as though they themselves were blank slates. Rentschler notes that it could be considered problematic that Herzog does not want us to view his film with a critical, intellectual apparatus. He observes that the director ‘eschews Brechtian ploys, ironic reserve and critical strategies meant to engender a thinking spectator’ (1986: 161). This hypnotic aspect of Heart of Glass has been cast in both positive and negative terms. Some critics assert that it is a problem that Herzog’s work does not urge us to follow matters at a distance the way Brecht’s dramas do, and that 227

Herzog does not encourage us to step back and assess what we see in rational terms. This type of filmmaking is seen to incite a model of reception in which the recipient becomes the passive spectator of a work that deliberately forecloses rational engagement. It would likely encourage people not to become involved in communication (in the spirit intended by, for example, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas), either with the screen or with one another, both of which would have been priorities for Brecht. Such works and their directors instead insist that one simply accept the spectacle set before them. Hypnosis – implicitly the hypnosis of the film’s spectators – is part and parcel of this type of filmmaking. Others, however, see Herzog’s provocation positively: his films, especially Heart of Glass, do mean to overwhelm us with their images, yet in this way, as argued by Jürgen Theobaldy, the films take distance from the everyday world, and move closer to the world of myths or dreams, thereby drawing attention to the gap between the real and the ideal (1979: 11). While one can admire Brecht, and the Brechtian position, it is hard to guarantee that audiences will have one or another uniform response to a film, especially to one as ambiguous as this. Heart of Glass may not be the type of stultifying spectacle Brecht’s aesthetics are best suited to critiquing; his critique might be better aimed at the Nazi cinema or at Hollywood than at Herzog. In Herzog’s case, it could very well be asserted that the film’s irrationality – its unanswered questions, its relentless circularity and its implicit critique of the 228

Enlightenment – aids in stimulating rational responses. The film’s fascination with hypnosis already begins in its initial sequences, when Herzog presents us with the image of a waterfall. He has pointed out the importance of the sounds of the German language for this sequence, in which Hias describes an apocalyptic vision. The word ‘Stürzen’ (‘plunging’) is repeatedly used, while listeners are implicitly urged to plunge into a trance. Similar to Max von Sydow’s voice at the beginning of the film Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991), these words are meant to carry us into an altered state, one in which we should find ourselves more receptive to the images that follow. As Herzog expresses it, his intention is that in watching the waterfall we have the feeling that we are moving, soaring past the water, rather than watching the water move. Herzog says that he originally wanted to appear on screen before the film and tell the audience that he was going to hypnotise them. He explains: ‘You can even do it from a screen, and I know that because I have tested it’ (HG ch. 3; 07:24). Later, however, he decided this tactic was ‘too risky’. The critic Ruth McCormick offers a position contrary to Aufderheide’s critique, and underscores the film’s use of hypnosis, arguing that the divide between rationalism and mysticism in Heart of Glass should serve as an index for understanding the film’s title. On the one hand, the industrialist (who is named Goldfinger in Achternbusch’s book), has a ‘heart of glass’; his 229

heart has become a material embodiment of the village’s chief source of capital. This heart is, in turn, no longer organic, or human. McCormick writes: ‘The owner represents instrumental rationality, technology gone mad in the service of profit and privilege for the few’, despite the fact that he, according to McCormick, ‘equates his survival with the common good’ (1978: 33). The industrialist anthropomorphises the glass, noting it ‘has an easily breakable soul’. He adds, ‘A crack is the sin. After the sin, there is no sound.’ Additionally, once Ludmilla has been slain, the industrialist, confusing her body with his wares, says: ‘She is cooling off, then she will not crack anymore.’ At the same time, however, the seer, Hias, can also be said to have a heart of glass, owing to his clear visions. The seer is not an unusual trope for Herzog, and there have been visionaries in his other films. This type of mystical character would not likely have found a place among the Heimat films of the 1950s. The clarity of Hias’s visions are more closely connected to Herzog’s own view about the title. He sees it as having a connection to the way the actors under hypnosis expressed themselves with a certain clarity; it is a height of Herzogian stylisation. He says: ‘I wanted actors with fluid, almost floating movements, which means the film would seem to depart from known behaviour and gestures and would have an atmosphere of hallucination, prophecy and collective delirium that intensifies towards the end … Maybe the title Heart of Glass makes more 230

sense in this light. It seems to mean for me an extremely sensitive and fragile inner state, with a kind of transparent glacial quality to it’ (Cronin 2002: 127). Regardless of to whom exactly the title is meant to refer, it is obviously the film’s major metaphor. Coloured glass – here ruby-coloured glass – has a long tradition in German literature, specifically among the Romantics. It generally suggests the subjective lenses through which we see the world and which prevent us from seeing things as they actually are. Romantics such as Clemens Brentano and Heinrich von Kleist used the idea of green glass as a way to suggest the lenses through which all subjective perception takes place. In 1801, Kleist asked what would happen if everyone had green glass instead of eyes; they would have to judge that the objects they see are indeed green – and would never be able to determine whether their eyes were showing them things ‘as they are’, or if those eyes were not giving the objects of the world something that belonged not to them, but to the eye itself (the world as seen through the eye’s coloured lenses). Kleist continued, noting that the same is true of our comprehension of the world. We are incapable of deciding whether that which we call truth is truly the truth, or whether it only seems so to us. This motif, the subjective character of individual perception, taken in conjunction with the fantasies that pervade the villagers’ lives, comes up early in the film. After the initial, hypnotic sequence, there is a low-angle shot from the 231

bottom of a ravine, one that Herzog says is actually in Switzerland, just across the border from where he grew up (HG ch. 4; 08:08). The villagers there tell Hias about their anxieties, anxieties that end up being prescient with regard to the village’s impending problems. Hias summons the villager, and this wild-eyed man – obviously a cast member who has been successfully hypnotised by Herzog – tells Hias that he has had a vision of a giant, with eyes like millstones. Hias, despite his role as the mystic, paradoxically offers a rational explanation: there are no giants; the giant was just the shadow of a dwarf. The pervasive power of fantasy in the form of anxiety about the village’s impending collapse becomes a central motif throughout the film. The juxtaposition between fantastic visions and a rational disposition, the fact that this film is set not long after the Romantic era, and the important metaphor of the ruby glass are not the only elements that make one want to think about this film in relation to the Romantic tradition. The film resonates on a visual level with German Romantic art. Its use of fog at its beginning, of course, recalls Friedrich’s works, and some of the film’s initial compositions resemble paintings such as Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819). When we first see Hias, his back is turned to us and he faces the fog, as do countless numbers of Friedrich’s well-known Rückenfiguren. The word Rückenfigur is difficult to translate and is generally taken to mean figures in artworks presented from behind such that their face is only partly, if at all, 232

visible. Such images recur in Herzog’s work, particularly here and in Nosferatu the Vampyre. They hold a particular fascination because we are prevented from seeing the expressions on the faces of those depicted, and in this way an obstacle is placed in the way of our identification with them. Additionally, our access to the image is blocked; we do not have the feeling that we are invited to comfortably enter the frame of the painting or the shot as one would enter onto the stage of a play. The Wanderer before the Sea of Fog, as mentioned above, is yet another key example. The figure at the centre of the image stands between us and the vast vista. Images from the end of Heart of Glass strongly recall Friedrich’s The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818–19). Because of studied compositions such as those that appear in this sequence, this film is one of Herzog’s most demanding feature films to watch. Not only does the narrative move slowly, but part of the work’s slowness has to do with its artistry. Many of the sequences recall paintings, and Herzog wants us to spend time exploring them. For some sequences of the film, the work of the seventeenth-century painter Georges de La Tour served as an influence (see Cronin 2002: 132). One can see that de La Tour’s style, similar to that of Rembrandt with dim lights provided by candles illuminating the dark background, guides the way the film’s cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein lit and shot sequences. For the outdoor landscapes, Herzog filmed in a number of locations including Monument Valley and 233

Yellowstone National Park, and he says that for this film, he has ‘declare[d] all landscapes Bavarian’ (Cronin 2002: 132), by which he means that he has told a story of Bavaria using images from other parts of the world. In this light, some of his images may be said to recall the work of artists of the Hudson River School such as Thomas Moran (specifically his Mist in the Canyon, 1914). For Herzog, of course, the actual whereabouts of these locations are inconsequential; while the film may be construed as a comment about German Heimat, the director’s expressed intention is to universalise his landscapes of the mind.

Hias contemplates the fog in Heart of Glass (1976)

At one point in the film, Hias goes to visit Anamirl (Agnes Nuissl), the mother of Mühlbeck, the deceased glassmaker. Herzog explains that the house in which this sequence takes place is


not far from where he grew up. He says: ‘This building here … is only a mile away from where I grew up, from Sachrang … It looks like poverty but it was very good to grow up like that’ (HG ch. 12; 46:32). Insofar as Herzog has often said that what is important in his work as a filmmaker is to become the articulator of collective dreams, it would be worth asking whether or not he is on some level expressing his connection here to Mühlbeck the glassmaker, and whether the film is an allegory for the central role that the craftsman plays, especially when seen in contrast with the industrialist. Herzog, of course, has a distaste for such analogies, but it is difficult not to see the relationship between industry, artistry and fantasy in Heart of Glass as an allegory for his filmmaking practice. Herzog’s use of a set that was not far from his hometown was not the only indication that he was making a film that was somehow more connected to his background than his other works. He tried to capture something authentic about Bavarian life during this period and evidently has a sense of nostalgia for this milieu. The figures of Ascherl (Sepp Müller) and Wudy (Volker Prechtel), the two slow-witted Bavarians who sit together and dispassionately threaten one another, serve as one example. The text of this exchange is taken almost entirely from Achternbusch’s book. Herzog says he knows Bavarian lifestyle to be this way, adding: ‘this is very typical of what I saw … I could predict at the Oktoberfest, when people, two Bavarians are getting drunk. I can tell within the 235

next two minutes they are going to fight. Even though it’s very unobtrusive. They just look at each other’ (HG ch. 5; 11:50). His actors’ lack of affect is of course a consequence of the hypnosis, but it seems that Herzog also feels that this lack introduced something authentic into the performances. As a director who feels that he articulates our collective dreams, one could suggest that Herzog be understood in connection with Hias, the visionary, rather than with Mühlbeck. Hias speaks the truth and he is the only member of the cast not under the influence of hypnosis. He is the one, for example, who warns Ludmilla that she may be in danger from the industrialist, saying to her, quite enigmatically: ‘Leave the mansion. The master could slip and end up sitting on your face.’ Also worth noting in this regard is the way Hias wrestles with the bear towards the end of the film. We are left wondering whether the invisible bear is actually there and is something we cannot see, or if it exists only in Hias’s imagination. The shot of the fire following the bear fight may suggest that he is actually roasting and eating a bear that had been invisible to us. It can only be said that he sees things that others do not, like the man on the cliffs in his vision – the one who is described as the first to doubt. In this film, some seem to see things beyond the space of the hypnotic trance, and are perhaps capable of seeing the world ‘as it really is’. However, consistent with the ideas expressed by the German Romantics, there is no such thing as unobstructed vision. Because of the 236

coloured lenses we all wear, it is impossible to know, to represent, or even to speculate properly about unfettered perception. The final material of the film is a coda of sorts. Herzog cuts away to the Irish island Skellig Michael – meaning Michael’s Rock – where a Celtic monastery was built in 588, and which has long been inhabited by only puffins. Hias says: ‘I see a man on top of the rock. For years he stood alone looking out onto the sea. Day after day always in the same place. He is the first one to doubt.’ The shot above the rock is from a helicopter. And it is almost the same as the one at the very end of Scream of Stone. Herzog correctly points out how this looks ‘almost like the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich looking down from the rocks of Rügen Island … because of that image I have been somehow put into association with German Romantic painting or culture, and I really don’t belong there’ (HG ch. 22; 1:28:50). As indicated, Herzog is right to say that he is not a Romantic, but also right to take note of the fact that he appropriates – sometimes critically and sometimes uncritically, one should add – Romanticism’s key images and motifs. These last shots are not organically connected to the rest of the work. They suggest a separate film, and yet in terms of the work’s major theme – the urgency of awakening from a vision that has kept a community stultified – the sequence is consistent with the larger work. Those who inhabit the rock seem to awaken, thanks to the man who doubts, yet they may be committing collective 237

suicide in the very moment that they choose to do something to improve their situation. An awakening of this sort – their revolution – may have done them more harm then good. Hias tells us they ‘set out pathetic and senseless. In a boat that is far too small.’ Herzog’s ending is pessimistic, yet his final title is poetic. He tells us: ‘It may have seemed like a sign of hope, that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.’ When Norman Hill reminds the director that this may be bleak – that these men are likely setting out to their deaths – Herzog offers only an equivocation: ‘I don’t really have much of an explanation for that’ (HG ch. 22; 1:31:12). The ambiguity, already present in the words ‘may have seemed’, is now underscored by Herzog’s lack of an explanation. Herzog’s poetry may be a sign of hope, and may function as a counterweight to his film’s pessimism. This, like the companionship those birds apparently offer, and like all positive signs from nature in Herzog’s films, potentially and probably misleads. Nosferatu the Vampyre Nosferatu the Vampyre is a somewhat generic film, which is to say that it is rooted more squarely in the genre of the horror film than Heart of Glass is rooted in the Heimat film. It is not a parody of horror films and would not be misplaced on a list of horror classics of the midnight cinema. Fortunately for fans of such films, Herzog had


other things on his mind than challenging the genre’s borders and boundaries. Herzog’s chief interest was in building a bridge with F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens and with cinema of the Weimar era. While he says that he does not see the film as a ‘remake’ of Murnau’s classic, he does say that it ‘is a very clear declaration of my connection to the very best of German cinema … For me Nosferatu is the greatest of all German films, and feeling as strongly as I did that I needed to connect to this “legitimate” German culture in order to find my roots as a filmmaker, I chose to concentrate on Murnau’s masterpiece’ (Cronin 2002: 152). The greatness of Weimar cinema had been expressed canonically and perhaps poetically by one of Herzog’s inspirations, Lotte Eisner. Herzog’s feelings about her, particularly about her work The Haunted Screen (1952), are expressed in a 1982 essay entitled ‘Who is Lotte Eisner?’ (‘Die Eisnerin, wer ist das?’). Most of the discussion of Herzog’s return to this tradition is focused on his respect for Eisner’s judgement. The central question and the chief motivation for choosing Murnau’s Nosferatu was to close the gap or the wound that had opened up between Weimar cinema and emerging New German Cinema. Of course German cinema of the 1950s and 1960s has an unfairly bad reputation, but it was generally accepted throughout the 1970s that Germany had been long lacking a national cinema. German cinema was not viewed as having a defining style nor was it taken to in any way express ‘the 239

German character’. The call for revolution in German cinema (on the part of Wenders, Fassbinder and their contemporaries) was predicated on the perception that the Germans of that generation, the ones born towards the end of World War Two and afterwards, were a generation for whom fathers were conspicuously absent. As Herzog put it: ‘As children growing up in post-war Germany we had grandfathers, but no fathers to learn from. Many men had been killed in the war or were in captivity. My own father was alive, but not around for much of the time, and Fassbinder’s father abandoned his family very early on. As filmmakers coming of age in the early and mid-1960s, we were the first real post-war generation, young Germans with no one around who could give us points of reference. We were orphans who had no teachers and no masters to learn from and in whose footsteps we wanted to follow, unburdened by any traditions or rituals’ (Cronin 2002: 152). S. S. Prawer, who has written a monograph on Herzog’s Nosferatu, also notes that the German and French title of the film includes an additional homage to Murnau insofar it goes by the name Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night. Prawer points out that Phantom was another Murnau film, made immediately following Nosferatu, and that there was a connection between the two projects (2004: 32). Herzog’s affinity with Murnau can also be ascribed to a common tendency in their styles. Both filmmakers emphasise the communicative properties of the image above that of the text. As 240

described in the introduction to this volume, Herzog, although he is a gifted writer, believes film can go farther (can be more ecstatic) than that which can be expressed by language, and although his love for music prevents him from making truly ‘silent’ films, there is something in the director’s work that would rather look to images than to words for meaning. Murnau likewise made clear his interest in doing a film entirely without written text. To look at Murnau’s Nosferatu, there is little reliance on intertitles to explain what is happening, and there is even less so in Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924). In the case of that film, Murnau aimed to tell the complete story without one bit of written language. He almost achieved his goal; there are only a couple of moments when any text at all appears on screen, and it is not in the form of traditional intertitles, but in the form of material that we read over the shoulders of his characters. Despite the fact that Herzog relies on text (particularly in the form of epigraphs and voice-overs), he is fundamentally fascinated by the project of communicating without words. Additionally, Murnau is also famous for his use of mise-en-scène. In critical literature, his style is frequently juxtaposed with that of Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein created meaning through cross-cutting or montage. One can take the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925) as an obvious and often-cited example. He aspired to a dialectical cinema in which viewers would arrange 241

interwoven shots in their imaginations, filling in the blanks. Murnau was sparse with his cuts, preferring to use what at that time appeared to be long takes. In this regard mise-en-scène was paramount and this stylistic tendency connects him with Herzog who likewise lingers long on well-studied compositions. As detailed below, while Herzog’s Nosferatu is not a remake in the traditional sense of the word, it does take some shots and sequences directly from Murnau’s original: the shot of the vampire staring at Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) across the way before he comes over for his fatal night is a direct quotation of Murnau’s film, and the sequence on the boat as it sails from Vilna to Wismar includes Murnau’s famous low-angle shot, often cited by film historians and theorists. One should note, however, that Herzog does not reproduce this shot wholesale. In his vision, Kinski’s vampire seems to emerge out of the darkness against a completely black background, the better to contrast his bloodless skin tone with the darkness of the night. Neither Herzog nor Murnau were adhering all that closely to Bram Stoker’s 1897 work. Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation from 1992 is in this respect a far more accurate adaptation. The legend itself is said to be based on that of Vlad Dracula, or ‘Vlad the Impaler’, a fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia (a region in Romania north of the Danube and south of the Carpathian Mountains). The surname Dracula was taken from the Order of the Dragon, an order of knights meant to uphold Christianity and save it from the Ottoman Turks. It is said that 242

Vlad impaled as many as 100,000 Turkish Muslims. Herzog’s story, unlike Coppola’s, does not refer to this background. Herzog used Murnau’s loose adaptation as his guide; their versions begin with an employee of a Dutch company who is sent beyond the Carpathians to broker a deal with Count Dracula for property in Wismar. The employee, Jonathan (played by Bruno Ganz in Herzog’s version), is to leave at once. Despite the warnings of gypsies who live not far from the Count, Jonathan crosses the Carpathian mountains. There he is bitten by the vampire, who in his isolation and loneliness decides that he wants Jonathan’s wife Lucy (named Nina in Murnau’s version) for himself. Nosferatu sets sail for Wismar bringing the plague with him. Jonathan follows not far behind, but it is too late; he has been bitten and is in any event not there soon enough to stop the sickness from spreading. When Nosferatu first visits Lucy, she realises that he is the cause of the plague and sacrifices herself – relying on her seductive charms she keeps the vampire from his coffin until sunrise – in order to save what remains of the town and possibly even her husband. Herzog’s film ends on a grim note: Jonathan will now become a vampire and may in fact take Nosferatu’s place. Murnau had originally shifted the story to the Netherlands because, according to Herzog, Bram Stoker’s estate wanted a lot of money for the rights, so ‘Murnau made a few unsubtle changes to his story and re-titled it’. Herzog explains: ‘I 243

wanted to inject a different spirit into my film. In Murnau’s film the creature is frightening because he is without a soul and looks like an insect. But from Kinski’s vampire you get real existential anguish. I tried to “humanise” him. I wanted to endow him with human suffering and solitude, with a true longing for love and, importantly, the one essential capacity of human beings: mortality’ (Cronin 2002: 155). As detailed below, Herzog’s Nosferatu uses the humanity of the vampire to bring out issues and raise questions about the figures of Jonathan and Lucy. Whether one watches Murnau’s or Herzog’s version, the premise is meant to connect Jonathan Harker and Nosferatu as though they were one another’s doppelgänger. While some might suggest that Jonathan becomes more like Renfield than like the vampire, acting as a servant of sorts and chasing the vampire’s coffins across the Baltic, the connection between the two can be understood in psychological terms, as a mutual affinity. On the one hand, the Count is lonely and wants Lucy’s affection. We sense his isolation, particularly in the way he is framed by the film, often shrouded in darkness. On the other hand, there is something in Jonathan that draws him towards the vampire; he seems to want to journey to Romania and go beyond the constraints of his bourgeois life. We may even develop the impression that the vampire itself is a manifestation of a desire that is gradually forcing its way out of Jonathan’s psyche. Jonathan is told by the gypsy that the castle does not really exist, 244

that there is only a ruin. Indeed, when we first see the castle from below, upon the ridge, the image can be said to confirm this impression. Even once we are inside the castle, we are made to feel that this is not a literal space, but rather Jonathan’s psychological space. This would not be inconsistent with the Expressionist origins of the film, particularly insofar as Lotte Eisner has pointed out that the chief defining characteristic of German Expressionist film was its depiction of the dark side of human psychology. Freud was, after all, only just developing his theory of the ego and the id as the original Nosferatu was being filmed. Jonathan may indeed be walking around these ruins in a trance or in a dream. As he wanders its empty corridors in the daytime, we recall that Herzog’s chief metaphor for the human psyche is spatial. When asked about his overall antipathy towards psychology, he says: ‘When you move into an apartment, you cannot start to illuminate every corner with neon light. If there are no dark corners or hidden niches, your house becomes uninhabitable. Human beings who are trying to self-reflect and explore their innermost being to the last corner become uninhabitable people’ (Perina 2005: 96). As further evidence that we are inside Jonathan’s mind rather than anywhere else, in this same sequence Jonathan hears the sounds of a violin on the premises, and we see a gypsy boy playing below. The camera then follows the trajectory of the music upwards, towards a high window. Jonathan rushes down to the source of 245

the music, but as further evidence that we are now in the space of his mind rather than anywhere else, he finds nothing. He seems to be standing on the very spot where the boy had been playing, but there is no one there. The whole castle may well be an imaginary vision, and alongside the dopplegänger motif, the sequence plays out just as it would in a Romantic literary tale by a figure such as E. T. A. Hoffmann. It might be understood, for example, as similar to Hoffmann’s famous story ‘The Sandman’ (1817), in that the story deals with the anxieties that attend bourgeois marriage and respectability, played out in the form of a monstrous and sexualised visitor to the home. Yet in placing an emphasis on Jonathan’s psychology, one should take pains to account for the central role played by Lucy as well. At the film’s beginning it seems as though she is an outsider in the unfolding drama between Jonathan and Nosferatu. At times she plays the part of the seer (like Hias in Heart of Glass), warning Jonathan that she has a bad feeling about his impending trip. However, as the film progresses, we realise that the drama involves the three of them equally. Because the film cuts back to her repeatedly once Jonathan arrives at the castle – reproducing in this instance Murnau’s structure – it is evident that they are joined together. This connection becomes especially clear in the sequence in which we observe Nosferatu biting Jonathan in his bay room, a sequence that clearly recalls Murnau’s version. In this scene, Herzog cuts back to Lucy, and creates the sense that the 246

three are in the room together. Lucy at first unconsciously senses that something is wrong and she sleepwalks, as though she were going towards Jonathan. She then cries his name and it appears as though she is wrestling with the vampire in Jonathan’s place. She screams, and the screenplay tells us that the vampire ‘heard the call’ (‘er hat den Ruf gehört’ (Herzog 1979: 113)). He turns, and here Herzog makes a significant change from Murnau’s version. He does not employ the eyeline match found in the original, in which Nosferatu turns around and it seems, to judge by their lines of sight, as though he is making eye contact with Nina. Instead, Herzog places his leading actress in the position of Jonathan, presaging the way she ultimately will find herself in that same position, beneath the fangs of the vampire. In Herzog’s film, Lucy and Nosferatu appear as pronounced opposites of one another: she comes to stand for love and he for evil; she stands for life and he for death. A film that began with an opposition between Jonathan and the vampire concludes with an opposition between the vampire and Lucy, one in which Jonathan becomes the object of exchange. Whether there is something mimetic in Nosferatu’s desire for Lucy – that he has seen Jonathan’s happiness and wants it for himself – or whether there is something particular that draws him to Lucy is less relevant than what happens when he actually meets her. The exchanges between Lucy and the vampire indicate that the film is more existential than it might at first 247

appear. Nosferatu tells Lucy that he believes time is an abyss, as profound as a thousand nights. He is haunted by his own immortality and frustrated by the fact that he cannot die. When he explains his frustrations to her, she responds by saying that death belongs to all of us, and that the rivers will run on long after our deaths. He pleads for her to give him the love that she gives to Jonathan, but that love, she explains, is intended only for Jonathan, it is not even a love that she would share with God. All of her devotion only serves to intensify the vampire’s despair. After Nosferatu’s arrival most of the city of Wismar contracts the plague, and a group of revellers inform us that it was only when they were confronted with the plague that they really began to make something of their lives. Statements such as these confirm the existential tendencies of the film: the repeated assertion that life not lived beneath the shadow of death is an endless abyss. Even the way the film begins underscores the theme of the interconnectedness of death and life. The opening credits depict a series of shots of mummified corpses. As Prawer notes, they all exhibit ‘an astonishing variety of gestures, some of which seem to mimic fear frozen at the moment of death’. Herzog had remembered seeing the corpses in Guanajuato, Mexico in the 1960s, and later returned, took the corpses out of the glass cases in which they had been displayed and carried them one by one to a wall. Prawer goes on to assert that Herzog has ‘arranged them in a


sequence that runs roughly from childhood to old age’ (2004: 41). The film’s existentialism, its constant discourse on the relationship between life and death, plays a part in humanising the vampire, or turning him into a suffering being rather than an inhuman parasite, as was Murnau’s Count Orlok. Herzog claims that humanising him was indeed his intention (Cronin 2002: 155). Not only does Kinski play the role with pathos, but some of the film is staged in a way that underscores his genuine sorrow, as in the scene in which Dracula comes right up to the window of the Harkers’ home at Wismar. He looks in and neither he nor we can hear what is going on inside. The cold blue light in which he is generally cast is contrasted with the warm candlelight illuminating the room, and a pane of glass separates them. The screenplay tells us: ‘Nosferatu observes what transpires inside, unmoved and uncannily. He waits. Silence’ (‘Reglos und unheimlich beobachtet Nosferatu was drinnen vorgeht. Er wartet. Stille’ (Herzog 1979: 140)). Part of the vampire’s humanisation stems from the fact that he is neither an insect nor even a bat that bites, but that he has emotional and erotic designs on Lucy, desires that Herzog’s script does not suppress. Playing up the erotics between the two of them also has the effect of toning down some of the homoeroticism that can be found in Murnau’s version. Murnau was definitely attuned to this, and while Herzog preserves some of it – particularly in the sequence in which Jonathan inadvertently cuts his finger at 249

the dining table – much of that subtext is marginalised by the evident sexual attraction between Lucy and Nosferatu. Prawer notes that in the original script for Murnau’s Nosferatu, the final bite – Lucy’s sacrifice – is narrated in this way: ‘Nosferatu raises his head. He is almost delirious with pleasure. Ellen’s eyes are full of terrible fear … She winds her arms about him. He cannot resist. His head sinks down over her.’ Next to this description of sexual desire, Murnau wrote ‘deleted’ (‘fällt weg’) (see Prawer 2004: 45). Herzog restores this dynamic to the sequence. Lucy knows that she has to seduce the vampire, and Herzog’s script reads: ‘Lucy lets her arms slowly sink and gives her body over. Something enchanting and erotic enters into her being’ (‘Lucy läßt langsam ihre Arme sinken und gibt ihren Körper hin, etwas Lockendes, Erotisches kommt in ihre Gestalt’ (1979: 158)). Instead of being a passive victim, Lucy takes control of the situation, pulling the vampire’s head closer to her. Nosferatu reluctantly gives in to his desires, not for blood but for her. As he drinks her blood, his hand lies suggestively on her breast. From the text, and from the many despairing comments the vampire has made, this death could be understood as a suicide. His love at that moment was worth dying for – an unlikely death for a vampire, and certainly something unusual for the genre. In the screenplay, Herzog writes: ‘slowly and wearily he moves to rise. Then Lucy’s arms wrap themselves around him in love and pull him gently down to 250

her. After a moment’s hesitation the vampire falls onto her, to drink again, like a sated infant. Lucy embraces him’ (‘Langsam und träge will er sich erheben. Da schlingen sich Lucys Arme in Liebe um ihn und ziehen ihn wieder sanft zu ihr herunter. Nach einem Moment des Zögerns ergibt sich der Vampir wie ein gesättigter Säugling, um nochmals zu trinken. Lucy umarmt ihn’ (1979: 160)). These details – the existentialism and the eroticism – concern the substance of the film, but perhaps most striking of all are the film’s visual motifs. Often in the screenplay we are told that the figures appear ‘as in old paintings’ (1979: 106, 136). The obvious connections between these tableaux and paintings are to Caspar David Friedrich or even to Joseph Anton Koch. As with Heart of Glass, this film was photographed by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, a cinematographer Herzog believes to be particularly gifted when it comes to the use of light and dark. In Nosferatu the Vampyre we find the same confluence of Friedrich-influenced outdoor sequences and de La Tour-influenced interiors. For these interiors, the warmth of candlelight is contrasted with the bloodless blue light in which Nosferatu is frequently bathed. Herzog works with some of the same compositions he worked with in Heart of Glass, especially those in which he films his figures from behind. When considering the images such as the ones on the beach, Herzog explains that Hollywood films would show the actors close-up and tearful, but that he would prefer to


put us in a position where we can only conjecture what is transpiring (N ch. 3; 10:02). The screenplay confirms that Herzog had Friedrich in mind when conceiving of such sequences: ‘Lucy stands there, like Monk by the Sea, and looks into the distance’ (‘Da steht Lucy, wie der Mönch am Meer, und schaut in die Weite’ (1979: 86)). Here and at the Borgo pass, the Romantic influence is particularly evident. When Jonathan first sets out on his journey, the landscape is not terribly foreboding. The Popol Vuh score and the daylight almost confirm for us Jonathan’s optimism. At this point, it is even complemented somewhat by the film’s humour: when Jonathan announces to the gypsies at the inn that he intends to go to the castle of the vampire, the silence is awkward and indisputably comic, the sequence may even have been the one John Landis had in mind when he included a similar scene in American Werewolf in London (1981). With the next day’s journey, however, things become bleaker and more foreboding. The ravine seems dark and dangerous, and when Jonathan begins to climb the field of boulders, Herzog writes: ‘Jonathan steps before us, so small, a toy on the cliffs’ (‘vor uns steigt Jonathan, ganz klein, ein Spielzeug der Felsen’ (1979: 95)). He then sits on a boulder, as a Rückenfigur, recalling particularly Friedrich’s Moonrise by the Sea (1822). Herzog writes: ‘we intuit it immediately: now, here, he steps over the border’ (‘wir ahnen es sofort: jetzt, hier überschreitet er die Grenze’ (1979: 96)).


To mark this moment of the transition, Herzog scores the sequence with Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’. The piece, famous for its 136-bar long prelude, is said to suggest the endless and repetitive motion of the Rhine – a river that continues to flow, as Lucy would add, even in our absence. The music carries with it not only the resonance of endlessly moving water in light of our mortality, but also some nationalist connotations. It could be argued that this piece, like the images, benefits from being re-employed in a different context. While Herzog acknowledges the beauty of Wagner’s composition and does not mean to participate in tarring the composer with the dirty brush of German nationalism, the irony comes from its use against this backdrop in what is essentially a genre film. It becomes doubly ironic when one recalls that Herzog’s interest in remaking the film was in recovering so-called ‘legitimate’ film culture from its misuse by over-zealous nationalists. It should be restated that Herzog does not reject Wagner on the grounds of his nationalist associations, and he elsewhere cites the historical importance of Parsifal. In The Transformation of the World into Music (1994) and elsewhere, Herzog implicitly and explicitly acknowledges the influence of Wagner on great cinema. It should also not be forgotten that Herzog has directed operas for the stage. ‘Das Rheingold’ was written in 1853–54 not long before Gounod’s St. Cecilia (1855), from which Herzog draws ‘Sanctus’ for the film’s conclusion. This too has an irony associated with it in that it 253

underscores Jonathan’s flight away from Wismar and into his future as a vampire. Despite the fact that the text of Gounod’s ‘Sanctus’ reads ‘Holy holy holy, Lord God of hosts/Heaven and earth are full of thy glory/Hosanna in the highest’, this is hardly a happy ending.

Lucy, framed like a figure by Friedrich, in Nosferatu (1978)


Jonathan contemplates the twilight sky in Nosferatu (1978)

The idea of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk comes to the foreground during the sequence in the town square. The first time that Lucy had arrived at the town square she pleaded to speak to the town council, which had since dissolved. Standing before a long procession of coffins she protests that she knows the cause of all the evil. The camera here is hand-held, formally emphasising her panic. When she later returns to the town square, after the public has crossed over from a state of emergency into one of madness, the music is the beautiful ‘Zinzkaro’ sung by the Gordela vocal ensemble. The music seals off the scene from stray or unconnected sounds, and this total closure prevents the random or unforseen from entering the frame; everything becomes part


of a single vision. A boundary has been crossed, the madness is total. Even the monks are dancing. The fact that the scene is aurally sealed off is made most noticeable in the moment that a musician comes up to Lucy playing a French horn. We hear only the extra-diegetic music and nothing else. The sequence at the town square begins with a pig defecating. We have seen animals behave this way elsewhere in Herzog’s work, including the defecating dromedary at the end of Even Dwarfs Started Small. This pig is wholly corporeal, and serves as a reminder of the mortal facts of our existence (that we eat, shit and die), facts that we prefer to forget. Nosferatu’s behaviour, in this way, contrasts with that of the people of Wismar; he is a lonely hunter, like a wolf, and as he says at the film’s beginning, city people cannot understand the souls of such lonely hunters. Along these same lines, one might ask why Herzog went to such great lengths to bring rats to Delft during the filming of Nosferatu the Vampyre, making sure that 10,000 were imported and that they were all dyed the proper shade of grey (Cronin 2002: 156–7). Herzog went to such lengths because the rats are a crucial metaphor. It is not so much that these rats are the bringers of the plague, but rather that they, in the banquet scene in the town square in which those who are dying of the plague suddenly themselves become vermin, are necessary to underscore this proximity between the worlds of man and animal. The analogy Herzog suggests here is one between people in 256

their moments of decline and the lowest animals. However, as Nietzsche would remind us, societies in decline are often at their cultural peak, and perhaps Herzog means to say that it is only in the moment that people are compelled to confront the animal facts of their existence that they can learn to live. The Dark Glow of the Mountains / Scream of Stone The scenes in Nosferatu the Vampyre that Herzog filmed in the Tatra mountains depict mist-covered peaks and a protagonist who grows smaller and smaller relative to the rocky landscapes that surround him. These sequences are very similar to certain ones in Herzog’s The Dark Glow of the Mountains, a film shot by cameraman Rainer Klausmann, the one who had found himself stranded on a rock during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. Klausmann later made Scream of Stone with Herzog, a film that is in many ways related to The Dark Glow of the Mountains. The latter is a ‘documentary’ about Reinhold Messner, a mountain climber who sets out with another mountaineer, Hans Kammerlander, to climb two Himalayan peaks, Gasherbrum I and II, on a single excursion – something that has never before been attempted. Both peaks are over 8,000 metres high. In this film, Herzog takes the opportunity to explore Messner’s climbing obsession, asking him not only why he climbs, but


also to confront the fact that his brother had a fatal accident when the two were climbing together. Among other details, Messner shares with Herzog that he has only four toes; the rest have been lost, presumably to frostbite. As in the case of Walter Steiner, Herzog has chosen a protagonist with whom he has some affinity. He says elsewhere that he could not make films about people with whom he does not feel some kind of connection, and one sees evidence of the connection early in the film. The two share an obsession with walking, and Messner makes comments here almost identical to ones that Herzog had made in earlier interviews (see especially O’Toole 1979: 48). Messner says that if he could not climb mountains, he would walk continuously, as far as he could. Herzog says: ‘This is something that I have always thought about. I like the idea of just disappearing, walking away, turning down the path and just carrying on until there is no path to follow. I would like to have Huskies with leather saddle bags and just walk and walk on until there is no road left’ (Cronin 2002: 193). When Messner tries to explain his fascination with climbing and the risks that he has forced himself to take, he acknowledges that there is no real justification for these activities that he can properly articulate. He can only say that he likes to test himself, and he speaks of climbing as an addiction. When Messner sits naked before Herzog’s camera, having returned from his excursion, Herzog asks him what the point of climbing is. Messner explains that he has the 258

feeling that he can write his name on the top of the mountains he climbs, and that although no one can see it, it stays written there for eternity. The permanent inscription of his name is, it seems, a way of combating his own mortality, something that is all the more evocative when one thinks about this film in relation to the existential questions raised in Nosferatu the Vampyre, especially the one as to whether life is worth living when it is not lived in the shadow of death. More to the point, however, Herzog asks Messner if he thinks that mountain climbing, or his desire to climb mountains, is an expression of a death wish. Here, Messner here gives his most interesting answer, explaining that someone who would climb a mountain intending to kill himself could likely not do it once they arrived at the top; he never has the desire to die while climbing. The proximity to death, or his feeling of irrelevance in the face of the mountain, inspire in him a desire to live. The more excruciating parts in the film are those in which Messner speaks about his brother’s death. Messner is calm and collected during much of this conversation, but Herzog then asks him how he broke the news to his mother, and it is probably the specific nature of the question that sends Messner immediately into tears. Herzog of course does not cut away. He talks about the importance of capturing Messner’s honesty on camera, explaining: ‘I woke Messner up and got him in front of the camera, and immediately he starts this kind of media-rap that he is so used to giving. I stopped the camera immediately and 259

said, “That is not the way I want to do a film with you. There is something deeply and utterly wrong to continue like this. Not one foot of film will be wasted that way. I need to see deep inside your heart.” Messner looked at me kind of stunned and was silent most of the rest of the day. Towards evening he came to me and said, “I think I have understood.” There would be no mercy for him, because film per se knows no mercy’ (Cronin 2002: 196). I return to the question of Herzog’s position relative to the concept of ‘mercy’ before the camera in my discussion of Dieter Dengler and Juliane Köpcke, but it is here that one sees the origin of this characteristic in Herzog’s oeuvre, the technique that shows its subjects ‘no mercy’. Herzog’s relationship to trauma, insofar as he is willing to depict narratives of traumas on film, is one in which something original is produced by pushing his subjects away from clichés; he pushes Messner away from ‘the media-rap that he is so used to giving’ and towards the truth. While the revelation of Messner’s trauma, the loss of his brother, is the central event of the film, the general irrelevance of human life in the face of the overwhelming mountain is the film’s over-arching motif. The most defining characteristic of such landscape images, ones that we see over and over again in Herzog, though particularly here, in Scream of Stone and in La Soufrière, is their enormity relative to the humans who scale them. The proportions and disproportions draw our attention to the almost irrelevant dimensions of the human body with respect to nature, and to the 260

landscape’s indifference to our presence. In The Dark Glow of the Mountains, once Herzog accompanies Messner, Kammerlander and their many sherpas to a base camp, the two climbers set out on their own. As Scott Watson writes eloquently and rhapsodically about this film: Herzog’s image of two tiny figures embarking on their lonely ascent, barely visible, now almost lost, finally completely gone in a vast snowy white field, a white field that virtually fills the screen, is the central image of the expedition. As Herzog films the white mountain slopes in the direction of the climbers’ departure and later films those same slopes in anticipation of their return, it is the landscape that is most important, that fills the screen and dominates the image, a landscape that is vast, that is uniformly and homogeneously nondescript, a landscape in which dimension and distance are difficult to determine and in which perspective is almost illusory, a landscape in which two ambitious, courageous and determined humans are absolutely insignificant. Though the camera was there because of and for the departure and return of the two humans and though the film viewers are ostensibly looking at the image trying to hold the impression of two receding human figures until the last possible moment and


later searching for the first sighting of two returning adventurers, the snow-covered mountain slopes are overwhelming and it is clear that the two humans are at their mercy. (1992: 178) Once they begin their journey away from Herzog’s camera, where he can no longer follow them, the two mountain-climbing protagonists grow smaller and smaller until the lens loses them on the vast snowy slopes. They vanish up until the point when Herzog cuts in footage shot by Messner himself, as well as images of Gasherbrum I being overtaken by a snowstorm. These latter images are very reminiscent of Scream of Stone, in which climbers spend a great deal of time at the base of an enormous mountain, waiting for weather conditions to improve. The sequence in which the climbers disappear is similar to the very last shot of that film in which the camera moves farther and farther away from the mountain-climber who stands at the top of the mountain Cerro Torre. The climber becomes smaller and smaller, ultimately reduced to a microscopic and irrelevant detail at the top of an enormous mountain. Herzog had wanted to make a film in the Himalayas and went with Messner and Kammerlander to explore the possibilities of shooting in this rough environment. Herzog explains that this turned out to have been tougher than he thought. He says: ‘During filming we experienced temperatures so low that raw stock in


the camera would break like uncooked spaghetti. Later in the filming a gigantic avalanche hit the bottom of the glacier a mile away from us. Like an atomic explosion, the impact sent a cloud of snow towards us, and wiped out our camp. I quickly abandoned my plans’ (Cronin 2002: 195). Messner, however, had another idea: he suggested a film based on the story of what was said to be the first successful attempt to climb Cerro Torre. Cerro Torre is located in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina; it is not the world’s highest mountain, yet it is a famously difficult climb because of the generally foul weather and the lack of a clear route of ascent. In 1959 the Italian Cesare Maestri claimed that he and an Austrian, Toni Egger, completed the ascent, but over time a number of challenges were raised to Maestri’s account. Maestri’s problems were compounded because he lacked proof; the camera with the summit photos vanished along with the body of his climbing partner. Still today, the account is debated, and most conclude that the two did not reach the summit. There is no trace of their gear, and Maestri’s descriptions have been debunked. Herzog says that Walter Saxer ‘picked up on the story and developed it with a colleague’. Herzog takes distance from the project, adding, ‘[Saxer] really was the driving force behind the film right from the start. I liked the ideas they came up with immediately but also saw the script had many weak points, particularly the dialogue. So at first I hesitated to accept the project because I did not 263

know to what extent I could articulate it in a way I could easily live with … I cannot even say that Scream of Stone is my own’ (Cronin 2002: 223). Perhaps for this reason – because he directed the film based on a screenplay written by others – the film is somewhat atypical. There is, among other things, no central protagonist who can be classified in terms of the typical Herzog typography (the film has neither a Klaus Kinski nor a Bruno S.). What is, however, typical for Herzog is that the battle against the mountain depicted in Scream of Stone returns us to the question of how we relate to the apparently permanent objects of the natural world; it returns us to the confrontation between the imagination and the landscape’s immovable mountains. Scream of Stone begins in an empty stadium where an indoor rock-climbing competition is about to take place. We are to infer that this indoor climbing, repeatedly described as ‘acrobatics’, may be a less serious form of climbing than outdoor climbing. There, the sports-writer Ivan, played by Donald Sutherland, has the idea to set up an outdoor competition between the mountaineer, Roccia (Vittorio Mezzagiorno), and the indoor climber, Martin (Stefan Glowacz), which he would then cover for his magazine (Martin here stands in for Cesare Maestri). Ivan artfully goads the two of them into competing to reach the top of Cerro Torre. The three of them, along with Roccia’s girlfriend, Katharina (Mathilda May), and his assistant, Hans (played by Hans Kammerlander himself), head for Argentina to 264

compete. They are forced to wait for the bad weather at the peak to clear up, and while they wait they encounter the climber Fingerless (Brad Dourif), who explains that he has been up to the top of Cerro Torre, and that he draws his climbing stamina from his love for the actress Mae West. He believes that she is still alive despite reports to the contrary. After waiting for weeks for Roccia to declare the excursion safe, Martin grows restless and attempts to climb the mountain with Hans. Akin to the way in which the actual event transpired, Martin’s climbing partner dies during the attempt, and his body is not recovered. When Martin returns, worn-out and half-frozen, he claims that he reached the top, but he has no evidence because Hans was carrying the camera with which the summit photo was taken. Roccia’s ego is wounded and he stays in South America to take time to collect himself emotionally and consider attempting to climb the mountain again. Ivan and the victorious Martin return to Europe, but because of Martin’s hesitation and anxiety, it grows increasingly apparent that he may be fabricating the story. Ivan, however, pressures him into lying for the sake of his sports magazine. While on a talk show, Roccia’s climbing colleagues accuse Martin of being a liar and he agrees to climb the mountain again to prove them wrong. Ivan then puts Martin in touch with an American filmmaker who will document the climb, and they return to Patagonia to make their film. As Martin makes his attempt despite bad weather conditions, Roccia 265

emerges from the wilderness, determined to beat him to the top. The camera crews abandon the project because of the storm, Martin dies a violent death, and at the film’s climax, Roccia makes it to the top only to see a small photo of Mae West; evidence that Fingerless has been there before him. One should mention that aspects of the plot of this film resemble those of the German ‘mountain films’ (‘Bergfilme’) of the 1920s which have been rightly tarnished by their association – at times more or less explicit – with Nazi ideology. Films such as The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü, 1929) in which a man climbs a 12,000-foot mountain chasing after his wife who has taken off from their honeymoon, deal with risk-taking in the face of challenging climbs and harsh weather. Herzog knew of the potential associations with this tradition, since it is difficult to be a German-born director and make a film about mountain-climbing without evoking filmmakers such as Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl. He has said that the idea of revising traditional, and problematic, German cinema is not a bad one: ‘I liked the idea of creating a new, contemporary form of mountain film, like Peter Fleischmann, who used the elements and rules of the Heimat film in Hunting Scenes in Bavaria [Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern, 1968] and brought a new depth to the genre.’ This sounds in some measure like a description of what he did with Heart of Glass, which pushed the boundaries of the genre of the Heimat film. Herzog, however, backs away from 266

too close a comparison, and adds: ‘I would not push the idea of making a connection between Scream of Stone and the Leni Riefenstahl melodramas of the 1920s, which actually I have not seen’ (Cronin 2002: 223). In the first frames of the film, beneath the opening credits, Herzog makes a brief appearance, directing the cameras and the lights that illuminate the spectacle on the stadium floor. As the camera pans from one area of the arena to the next, Herzog is supplanted by Ivan. The visual exchange between Herzog and Ivan indicates a peculiar form of self-debasement on Herzog’s part (for more on this, see Mazierska & Rascaroli 2006: 89). Ivan is somewhat abhorrent; he documents everything and is willing to substitute the reproduction of experience for experience itself. After Martin wins the indoor climbing competition, for example, Ivan’s first comment is: ‘It was fantastic, wait until you see the video.’ Moreover, Ivan is simply crudely ambitious, wanting the story for his magazine, no matter what the cost. When in the presence of both climbers he deliberately stokes their competitive fires, asserting to Martin that Roccia is generally regarded as the world’s greatest mountain-climber – a claim calculated to offend the sensibilities of both egotistic athletes. The two rock-climbers are neither more redeemable nor more noble. Martin is in no way the helpless victim of Ivan’s scheming. He is self-absorbed and easily given to faking his mountain-climbing accomplishments when the opportunity presents itself. He is motivated to 267

return to the mountain only because Roccia’s friends challenge his masculinity on television. He also fails to negotiate his feelings of guilt for the wounds he has inflicted on Roccia, his part in the death of Hans and his lying – failures that have left him melancholic. In his relationship with Roccia’s girlfriend Katharina, the two are depicted adrift in a rowboat, unable to enjoy themselves. His opponent is similarly unsympathetic. Roccia has an exaggerated masculinity, spending his free time jogging through the ice and snow. His pride was so wounded by Martin’s accomplishment that he is indifferent to the fact that Katharina has abandoned him. One figure in the film, however, appears distinctively linked to the mountain, an old woman, the ‘Indianerin’ (Chavela Vargas). More as a commentator than as a character, she articulates that which binds the main characters to the cliffs, the paradoxical relationship between transience and permanence, or between these men and the mountain, as depicted in the film. She lives at the mountain’s base, and says that she will probably never leave it. Like the seer Hias in Heart of Glass, she has visions that speak a truth that the principal characters fail to acknowledge. In a manner that describes the other characters’ obsession with the unyielding rock, she says: ‘You nailed your God to a piece of wood, because that way you thought he wouldn’t be able to escape you.’ The most telling detail as far as discerning Herzog’s opinions about his protagonists is that they are outdone by Fingerless, the character who 268

gives the film its title. He is the one who volunteers that Cerro Torre ‘is not a mountain, it’s a scream of stone’. At one with the mountain, he explains that not only did he leave four of his fingers at the top, but he adds that he left his name up there as well. Fingerless, of course, recalls Reinhold Messner – the loss of extremities and the idea that one writes one’s name atop the mountains – yet he can also be viewed as a caricature of a Romantic. As Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen hunted for the elusive ‘blue flower’, which appeared nowhere but in his dreams, Fingerless longs to meet Mae West. He has scaled the mountain for her and placed her icon there. Fingerless may be the double of Roccia, the ‘real’ climber; his success makes a mockery of Roccia’s accomplishments insofar as it is ultimately this Hollywood fanatic by whom he is bested. If the film is taken to be about the vexed relationship between these men and their mountain, one might consider it in light of a text such as Kafka’s ‘Prometheus’ (1918) about a man who is bound to a rock. In that text, Kafka offers an exegesis of the legend of the divine emissary who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire from the sun and giving it to man. Kafka offers four versions of the story in which Prometheus is chained down and his perpetually regenerated liver is fed upon by eagles. His versions range from one that depicts Zeus’s total sadism toward Prometheus, to one that depicts his total apathy (a version in which ‘everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair’). Kafka goes on to write that 269

the one thing that remains constant in all versions of the story is the stone itself. In every legend, he continues, ‘there remained the inexplicable mass of rock’ (Kafka 1971: 432). Here, as in ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1923/24) Kafka takes a metaphor (that a salesman might, for example, be a pest) and makes it literal. In this case he takes the figure of the man chained to the rock and allows the new figuration, in which the man merges with the rock, to incite the question: what was the difference between the two in the first place? The rock, in other words, remains constant, and the man appears to be its mere extension. Herzog here engages in a parallel gesture: Ivan, Martin, Roccia and Fingerless are subordinated to the enormous rock in order that we ask what divides them from it; what separates these subjects from the ostensibly permanent objects to which they relate? Both literally and figuratively, the mountain – the rock that looms over the lives of these Promethean characters – disappears behind a veil of clouds. Herzog at numerous points produces a composition typical of Friedrich, recalling in particular his paintings Morning (1821) or his Clouds over the Riesengebirge. In this case Herzog’s composition, in which the mountain disappears behind a veil of fog, suggests that the mountain exists only as a phantasm of the competitors. Its disappearance calls attention to the act of projection involved in relating to the mountain, the way that in Friedrich’s works and in Herzog’s films, the natural world becomes the


manifestation of the innermost soul of the depicted protagonist. But what if one were to assert that there is no ‘soul’ for the landscape to mirror? If one refuses to take the ideas of the soul and of Romantic longing seriously, and proclaims instead that there is nothing there but a void, then one may be compelled to confront the somewhat horrific truth that consciousness is neither more nor less than that which it encounters. Perhaps for this reason, Herzog hides his object, the mountain, behind the veil of clouds. In his film, the mountain is not the focus, but a cipher for the anxieties of the characters around it. Willingly or unwillingly, it plays the part of a meaning-bearing symbol and produces the semblance of order. The meaning produced by the mountain offers insight into Herzog’s single most consistent formal gesture, the 360-degree pan. Not only at the end of Scream of Stone, but at the end of Heart of Glass and Aguirre, Wrath of God, in order to delineate a desperate spectacle of hopelessness, the camera circles around the despairing protagonists. The sweeping pan denotes the opposite of progress – it is the visual analogue to the claim that, despite one’s best intention, one goes nowhere. In some cases, it is not only the camera but Herzog’s characters themselves that turn in circles, as in the case of Bruno S. at the end of Stroszek, endlessly circling the ground on a ski-lift. This ‘going nowhere’ can be seen as a reflection on the substance of the subject itself. It is an ever-widening spiral in which none come 271

closer to the centre, and by virtue of which the permanence of things is endlessly proposed and then negated. The circling camera is, in this way, the film’s formal representation of a Mobius strip. As the high-angle shot with which the final circular pan of Scream of Stone climaxes depicts the undifferentiated man and mountain, Roccia diminishes into a speck on the landscape, apparently absorbed by the mountain on which he stands. In the moment that the camera pulls away from Roccia, however, he grows smaller and smaller. Less and less the master of all he surveys, he becomes a mere fleck on an ever-expanding Earth. Rather than observer, Roccia becomes the observed. He is no longer the subject of the gaze, but, as Herzog underscores, he is its helpless object. The landscape overcomes him all the more as the camera’s view widens. One can thus read Scream of Stone as a comment on the impossible synthesis of the landscape and its surveyor. There are, then, at least a couple of directions in which a reading of Scream of Stone could turn. One could assert that the film is a critique of the typically Romantic subject: the protagonist here appears as a simple ghost or the resonance of a ‘self’ that comes and goes in accord with the mountain to which it is bound, and Scream of Stone undertakes a depiction of the apocalyptic horror of the encounter with that disappearance. In this regard, the film is not about the soul searching for a home, but instead elects to insist on an emptiness associated with that search. On the 272

other hand, however, because Herzog made this film based on a script written by others, and has never really claimed it as his own, one could disavow his connection to it entirely. When seen in this light, Scream of Stone was to Herzog what Spartacus (1960) was to Stanley Kubrick, or Dune (1984) was to David Lynch. La Soufrière Herzog’s fascination with mountains and fog is also on display in La Soufrière, a film he made after Heart of Glass but before Nosferatu the Vampyre. La Soufrière is the name of an active volcano on Guadeloupe, which, as Herzog mentions in the film, was expected to erupt in August 1976. The name of the volcano means ‘sulphur’, but as Kent Casper points out the name also carries with it the resonance of ‘souffrir’ or ‘to suffer’, which emerges as one of the film’s major themes (1991: 31). Herzog tells us it was predicted that La Soufrière was to explode with ‘the force of five or six atomic bombs’ (although one must note, without the radiation). Herzog went to the town of Basse-Terre despite its evacuation, as if to challenge fate. In the film, he says: ‘I was immediately fascinated by a peasant who – living on the slopes of the volcano – had refused to be evacuated.’ As he tells Cronin, ‘As soon as I heard about the impending volcanic eruption, that the island of Guadeloupe had been evacuated and that one peasant had refused to leave, I knew I


wanted to go talk to him and find out what kind of relationship towards death he had’ (Cronin 2002: 148). Apart from the fact that it was filmed by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein (together with Ed Lachman), and that it therefore shares a visual style with Heart of Glass and Nosferatu the Vampyre, its greater similarity with those films has to do with the fact that it is fascinated by death, or with the project of finding out ‘what kind of relationship towards death’ the remaining peasants had. How one confronts one’s own death is a theme carried over into Nosferatu the Vampyre, but this is not the only subject here. The film also addresses what it means to be staring directly into an apocalypse. Following the title ‘La Soufrière’ on the screen, Herzog presents us with the secondary title ‘waiting for an unavoidable catastrophe’ (‘Warten auf eine unausweichliche Katastrophe’). Here, as in many of Herzog’s other works, the individual’s death is as fascinating as the apocalypse itself, though in this case, the apocalypse does not arrive. One could say that this film conveys the same impression of deferred apocalypse found in Heart of Glass, in which the men at the film’s end set sail in a boat; they may be off to meet their doom, yet this is not something that we are permitted to view. Herzog films on the southern tip of the island, in Basse-Terre, which he says is a town of about 17,000 people. Based on the images Herzog shows us, we have the impression that the location was, upon the order to evacuate, quickly 274

turned into a ghost town, one in which the traffic lights continue to change colours for no one. Here again, as in Fata Morgana, the pictures resemble those of a science fiction film. This is a vision of dystopia; a civilisation that has outlived its inhabitants. It appears as though some strange illness has removed the people but not the buildings. A television was left running, a police station was abandoned and dogs now roam the town, having gone for days without food. The indifference of these streets to Herzog’s presence rivals the volcano’s indifference towards the humans at its base. The people of Guadeloupe were aware of the dangers because in 1902 there had been a disaster of this sort in Martinique. The town of St Pierre, like Basse-Terre, lay at the foot of a volcano. We are told that the population intended to flee, but that the governor at the time persuaded them to stay. Herzog shows us a photo of the wake of the catastrophe (images of dead animals and a sunken ship), and he says: ‘The horrified rescue teams found not a living soul. Thirty thousand dead in all. What had happened? … Searing flame, the whole thing could only have taken seconds.’ Herzog then shows us other photos, one after another, including a meal of spaghetti ‘burned to a cinder on a plate’. The photographs recall the speed with which death came upon the victims. A captured instant, all but its photographic trace now vanished from the world, and in the context of the film – a moving picture – the stillness of the photographs is all the 275

more pronounced. After forcing our confrontation with death’s immediacy, Herzog adds a final ironic touch. He tells us about a young thief who was the only survivor because he had been placed in solitary confinement, underground. Herzog adds that he was later exhibited as a sideshow, and given the significance of sideshows in Herzog’s work (having seen Kaspar Hauser, for example, exhibited before a curious and exploitative public) we know that this is meant as a critical remark about our own voyeuristic fixations. Taking the mountain’s overall indifference as his starting point, Herzog sets out to understand why those that stayed behind did so. The first man Herzog comes across had to be awakened for the interview. Kent Casper rightly regards the scene with suspicion, assuming that the man has been coached: ‘though the peasant has to be awakened, he is not startled, nor even particularly surprised to find the three Germans there’ (1991: 34). Herzog asks him why he has refused to leave the district, and he answers: ‘Yes, I’m here because it’s God’s will. I’m waiting for my death. And I wouldn’t know where to go anyway. I haven’t a cent. I am poor.’ Herzog then says: ‘You are waiting for death?’ To which the man replies: ‘Yes, and no one knows when it will come. It is as God has commanded. He will not only take me to his bosom but everyone else. Like life, death is forever. I haven’t the slightest fear, yes, because it’s God’s will and no one can tell when death will come.’ The man welcomes death, and seems to be reconciled with it. When considered in light of 276

Nosferatu the Vampyre, it would appear that Herzog is making a case for the blessings that such a relationship with death can confer. Nosferatu’s life was lived outside of death’s shadow – he was doomed to his immortality – and the absence was the source of his frustrations. Herzog has similar conversations with two other men, and when he asks them whether or not they are afraid, he gets similar answers, the answers of men who are waiting to die: ‘Of course it’s dangerous, but I’m staying here, what difference does it make?’ or ‘I’m not afraid of death. Here I am, and I look after the animals all the time. They have left their cattle behind, so I am looking after them. I am saving them. And if it gets much worse, if things get really bad, maybe I’ll clear out today. I’d like to go and see my children again … But I’m not afraid of dying … we all have to die someday, I’m 55 now, and I’m not scared anymore. We all have to die, just like that.’ Finally: ‘Why should I be [scared]? We all have to die one day. I’m here and I’m poor. I only have myself to look after. I could leave here. Everyone else has fled.’ Towards the end of the film Herzog says: ‘In my memory it is not the volcano which remains, but the neglect and oblivion in which those black people live.’ Perhaps for this reason, because this film is meant to be a sober consideration of a real willingness to die, Herzog calls it a ‘report’ (‘Bericht’), a term he only used for one other documentary, The Flying Doctors of East Africa. On the one hand, this film has a death 277

metaphysics: it addresses the indifference one can have about death in the face of forces too large to be comprehended. The peasants’ sense of their insignificance and therefore the meaninglessness of their individual deaths are determined by the overwhelming power of the volcano. On the other hand, the film has a politics: it means to show the pathos in the poverty of its protagonists. Left alone by their government when they should have been evacuated they feel their own lives to have been valueless. Such themes, especially given the background of race and colonisation particular to this setting, take a political position that resonates in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the US. We have all seen images of people left behind in the wake of a natural disaster, and it is perhaps even an understatement on Herzog’s part to describe the condition as one of ‘neglect and oblivion’. The confrontation with death and the apparent indifference with which these people are confronting their deaths (deaths that, by the way, did not occur, at least not right away, insofar as there was no volcanic eruption) is underscored by the extra-textual question of Herzog’s own bravado. Although he sought to deny that he was trying to live dangerously, he is forced to admit that the excursion entailed a massive risk: ‘I can laugh about it now, but of course what we wanted to do was to get out of there with a film in our cameras. I am not in the business of suicide and there was nothing of bravado about the experience. We did not go there to get blown up. Blind and stupid risk-taking is not something I 278

generally practise. I am simply not that kind of a filmmaker. But I do have to admit that with a film like La Soufrière we were playing the lottery. But please note: it really was one of the few occasions I have done something like this’ (Cronin 2002: 150). Herzog tries to play down that he is something of a daredevil, and yet the film is both explicitly and implicitly about the courtship of death. Nosferatu the Vampyre offered the underlying assertion that a life that is not lived in the shadow of death is not worth living (hence the vampire’s despair). As evinced by comments made by Reinhold Messner, the threat of death can itself be vitiating; no one who managed to climb a mountain would willingly throw themselves off. However, in La Soufrière Herzog also manages to show that the confrontation with death, when it comes only from ‘neglect and oblivion’ – is material for tragedy. The Wild Blue Yonder As a coda to a discussion of Herzog’s nature-themed films, one may note that The Wild Blue Yonder is closely connected to the films discussed in this chapter, and that it is especially tied to La Soufrière insofar as it concerns itself with the desolation that follows on the heels of an apocalyptic destruction. The film undertakes a project with which Herzog has long been engaged: attaining a view of the world as a spaceman would see it, a vision of Earth that he tried to achieve


with both Fata Morgana and with Lessons of Darkness. Herzog is fairly explicit about this interconnection, considering all three to be on some level variations on the science fiction film. The narrative of The Wild Blue Yonder deals with an alien who came to Earth several years ago from a watery planet at the moment his species had exhausted that planet’s resources. Since their arrival, the aliens have tried to form a community on Earth, but without great success. Like Lessons of Darkness, The Wild Blue Yonder is broken up into discrete chapters. It opens with images of large numbers of fish, a shot similar to ones found elsewhere in Herzog’s work; the image resembles the flamingos in Fata Morgana, or the swifts in The White Diamond. We are meant to see the fish as an alien race, moving in unison. The strange movements recall a consciousness beyond our perceptions. After being informed by the titles that this is ‘a science fiction fantasy’, we then see a large number of windmills, also a familiar Herzog motif. Herzog seems to draw his own energy from the endless circles that recur in his films and one may recall the windmills in Signs of Life. Brad Dourif, who had played Fingerless in Scream of Stone, is here ‘The Alien’. He tells us that he comes from the outer reaches of Andromeda (‘where I come from is the wild blue yonder’). We are then provided with a second layer of narration, which is the journey into outer space to the alien’s home planet via a wormhole. The footage of the journey is composed of film taken on board the NASA 280

spaceship STS-34, shot in 1989 by the NASA astronauts themselves. They float around in zero gravity, and engage in other mundane tasks on the ship. The astronauts’ real mission on STS-34 was to launch the un-manned Galileo probe to Jupiter. The probe’s mission was terminated in 2003, and one working title for this film had been Wake for Galileo. The Alien explains that a number of aliens from his home planet arrived early, and were, we are supposed to conclude, pioneers of aviation. At this point Herzog includes footage of early experiments in aviation, and the sequence recalls the reflection on the history of flying with which Herzog opened The White Diamond. The scenes are meant to be humorous: even as the Alien says ‘one of us tried to commit suicide’, Herzog integrates archival, black and white footage of a man diving in front of a slow moving and quite unthreatening vehicle. This part of the narrative is largely playful, and the Alien’s tale of disappointment continues in the same tone. He explains: ‘those of us who arrived here just sucked’, later concluding: ‘The aliens all suck. We’re all failures. I guess we’re just failures.’ The underwater footage quickly supercedes the humour as the film’s defining characteristic. In the chapter entitled ‘Mysteries of the Wild Blue Yonder’, we peer through a hole in the ice, far above the divers, and there is a long period with little dialogue, during which Herzog means for us to become absorbed by the images and music. Our rapture is likely meant to be heightened by the 281

original score by Dutch jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger, who is accompanied by the Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla (singing in Wolof) and backed by a Sardinian choir, the Tenore and Cuncordu de Orosei. The unconventional mix was recorded in Paris in 2004, and to judge from the short film about their collaboration, Requiem in Space: Werner and Ernst Make Music (2005), as well as the dynamics evident in In the Edges (about the making of the music for Grizzly Man), Herzog had a strong hand in the score’s production. In Requiem in Space, Herzog explains that he likes to stay in the studio with the musicians so that they do not lose sight of the film for which they are composing. In bringing together Mola Sylla and the Sardinian vocalists, as well as the singer Dora Juarez, Herzog parallels what he aims to accomplish on a visual level in combining images of outer space and Antarctica. These are things that do not appear to fit together organically, yet he wants to show that such unlikely elements can harmonise with one another. The importance of the music, indeed the fact that the musical compositions were prior to the images, underscores the non-dialogic character of the film. The Wild Blue Yonder is intended to be a mesmerising ecstasy. One can argue that Herzog does not mean for us to enter into consciously articulated dialogue with this film, and can additionally assert that it is a film with little at stake politically. The film’s stabs at humour are an attempt to signal that fact. Herzog has, predictably, not provided us with any of the 282

information about the actual spacecraft on which the images were taken or the fact that the underwater footage was shot under an Arctic ice shelf by Henry Kaiser. His disregard for the accountant’s truth about these matters is evident inasmuch as the Alien only gives us information of this type: ‘The wildlife, the creatures are sad because they have been left alone.’ Chapter ten of The Wild Blue Yonder is called ‘The True Story of their Return’. We are informed that when the astronauts made it back, 820 years later, there were no more airfields and Earth had ‘returned to its primitive beauty’. Here again is a conclusion that is in the spirit of Herzog’s Romantic works. As at the end of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner – and as one finds throughout La Soufriére, Heart of Glass and other films – the gap between beauty and the apocalypse of a wholly evacuated planet is a slender one; the world, were it not better off, would at least be more beautiful without its noisome inhabitants. We are intruders and neither volcanoes, mountains nor grizzly bears will take an interest in our well-being. Desolation – the intimation of a lonely abyss – always seems to march hand in hand with Herzog’s depictions of nature. It is indifferent to our presence, and we, the trespassers, are little more than an interruption in the course of time.





To return to the question of theology, which has been remarked upon earlier, Herzog’s comments in Burden of Dreams expressed a strong scepticism about the existence of God. When describing the jungle, he says that if it was created by God, then it was created in anger. His most expressive statements in this regard are among those in the Minnesota Declaration in which he proclaims that that ‘the universe knows no smile’. This is discussed in chapter three, and the question of Herzog’s own faith (his acknowledgement that the landscape does not speak to you as would a loving or a wrathful God) may be less material to his films about faith – films such as God’s Angry Man, Bells from the Deep, and others – than the question of whether organised religion can serve as the source of truly inspirational ecstasy. When Herzog was 14 years old, he had an experience he describes as a Catholic revelation. For a short time he became a serious Catholic, but he abandoned institutionalised religious practice relatively quickly. He says, however, that the force of his initial revelation remained with him. On the


commentary to Signs of Life, Herzog puts it this way: ‘I can only explain that at the age of fourteen … some dramatic events happened. I started to travel on foot, trying to walk around Albania … I converted to become a Catholic in a family of militant atheists … It was some sort of a few weeks of almost complete illumination, and what I saw at that time still carries me’ (SL ch. 6; 15:43). It is no accident that the director’s discourse of ecstatic truth, although it is associated with a poetic transcendence, is a language that recalls the language of religious revelation. When Herzog speaks of what it takes for Fitzcarraldo, and therefore for him as well, to move a mountain, he speaks of it as something that requires ‘faith’ more than muscle. Herzog’s beliefs about filmmaking are consistently bound to a quasi-religious language of revelation, even though he seems neither to go to church nor does he outwardly express much belief in God. What there is instead, in his work, is a reverence for ecstasy. As is argued in this chapter, Herzog occasionally shows contempt for organised religion. Although his films simultaneously revere the ecstasies involved in pilgrims’ worship, fervour and devotion, his work on the topic tends towards irreverence. God’s Angry Man God’s Angry Man deals with Dr Gene Scott, a flamboyant Los Angeles-based televangelist, who died in February 2005. He bears some similarity to


Kinski’s obsessive characters, a similarity that bespeaks an obvious fascination of Herzog’s at the time. Indeed, this film was shot in 1980 during pre-production on Fitzcarraldo. The film depicts what is, by Herzog’s standards, largely un-ecstatic religious truths, and it shows the way in which a certain religiosity stems from Scott’s rage rather than from any manner of bible study or other conventional means of illumination. At the same time, the film also raises the question of how uniquely American evangelical demagogues of this sort are. Herzog does not provide us with a great deal of background about Scott. To borrow Herzog’s phrase, the ‘accountant’s truth’ is that he was born William Eugene Scott, in 1929, the child of a minister, and that he earned his PhD in Education from Stanford University in 1957 with a thesis on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He took over the Faith Center Church of Glendale, California in 1975 and became something of a media personality, starting there as a financial consultant, but once elected as their new pastor he devoted himself to preaching on radio and television. When his media-based fund-raising activities saved the Faith Center Church financially, he took charge of it completely. He would regularly televise ‘Festivals of Faith’ in which he would preach and raise money in an informal style. On the programmes, he is often seen sitting alone, telling jokes and poking fun at his staff. There is much to be explored in Scott’s story, including details of the Federal Communications Commission 287

investigations into his activities, but as in the case of Grizzly Man, Herzog veers away from providing investigative analysis, and instead follows his poetic instincts. Scott takes pride in taking a strong stand. He swaggers, and it is this aspect of his attitude that makes him Kinski-esque. Herzog interviews him in a moving car, which appears to be the back seat of a luxury vehicle. Scott explains to Herzog that he does not bother ever compromising his principles, and he complains of a media that worships ‘the great god of two sides’, labouring under the false assumption that there are two sides to every argument. Scott adds that the media would argue that there were two sides to the question of whether the sun came up. His self-aggrandising tone is most highly reminiscent of Kinski at the moment he boasts: ‘I’d like to be able to go somewhere and not have some life or death struggle. I’m too good to be really bad and too bad to be really good. I don’t enjoy being the good guy because I’d rather do some hellish things. I can’t walk by a guy kicking a dog without getting out and kicking the guy who’s kicking the dog. So that gets me into things like I’m in now.’ He adds: ‘I can’t let a church go down. I don’t enjoy fighting … I have a lifetime of being called in like a surgeon for impossible cases.’ Yet in the same way that Herzog has affection for all his subjects, including Reinhold Messner, Fini Straubinger and Timothy Treadwell, he is compelled by Gene Scott’s eccentricities. Herzog says: ‘I could never make a film about or with 288

people I do not like … I felt [Scott] was deeply unhappy … How can you keep something like this up for so many years?’ (Cronin 2002: 167–8). He often approaches his protagonists with some sort of ambivalence – a tendency discussed at greater length in chapter five – but this type serves, in this case, to underscore the ambivalence he seems to feel about this kind of religious expression; Herzog wants to respect it and be open to the possibility that it too contains some element of ecstasy, but at the same time he is aware that it is a crass aspect of a consumer culture. What comes to the fore more than anything in Herzog’s depiction of Scott is that his religiosity is a function of his will. Insofar as such a statement is not contradictory, one can say that Scott’s religion is presented in Nietszchean terms. It is not about the power of revelation – we do not know how Scott comes by his strong convictions, whether it is by readings of the Bible, through visions, or in some other form – but is instead about the survival of his ministry as a consequence of his strong will. Scott aims to compel the ministry to survive, and to force contributions from the pockets of his viewers. He demonstrates his belief to them through his rage, hence the ‘anger’ referred to in Herzog’s title. In his angriest moments, Scott resembles Kinski performing the role of the angry Jesus at the beginning of My Best Fiend. He is in a contest of wills with his audience to get them to give. The religious experience here is not transcendent; it recalls the way the wrath of God in the subtitle of 289

Aguirre denotes the anger and contempt that man has for man. We see Scott’s wilful intensity when he stares for long periods into the camera and admonishes his viewers: ‘Do you understand, it’s God’s work? … Hang your six hundred miserable dollars! And you sit there glued to your chair. How long must I teach you the principles of spiritual welfare?’ Referring to the money that his viewers certainly have but are not providing, he says: ‘You’d have to tie me down with ropes if we were so close to victory that something I had in my hand would give it. This is War.’ Herzog has not coaxed Scott into being this enraged; he is re-presenting material from Scott’s own show, material that Herzog incorporates wholesale into God’s Angry Man. Among the film’s more interesting sequences is a conversation with Scott’s parents during which we gather insight into the origins of his strong will. Herzog has made plain that he does not give psychoanalysis much credence, yet it is clear that Scott’s background constitutes a dark psychological corner that would benefit from further excavation. The conversation is stylised in the same way that the conversation with Treadwell’s parents is stylised 25 years later in Grizzly Man. Scott’s parents tell the story of what their son was like growing up, and his mother narrates an incident from the time when Scott was two and tried to eat the frosting off a chocolate cake with his finger. She tells us that she slapped his hand, and he fell on the floor and began to scream and hold his breath until his face turned 290

blue. She explains: ‘So I held him up and let the cold water faucet open and he wasn’t long getting his breath back. And he didn’t have anymore of those kind of fits during the time when he was growing up.’ The mother’s strangely violent story in which she disciplines her son with cold water reflects Scott’s own wrathful style of disciplining his television audience. While this was by no means Herzog’s first documentary – it followed Land of Silence and Darkness, The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and others – it seems as though Herzog is somewhat reservedly testing documentary’s formal waters. He asks Scott some investigative questions including: ‘Would you like to have a private house?’ He asks this question gently, even though he knows that Scott was already under investigation by the FCC. Perhaps his less than aggressive posturing comes from the knowledge that he needed not be so irreverent; viewers would immediately detect Scott’s contradictory personality and the overwhelmingly financial focus of his religiosity. Scott begins at one point during his fund-raising to count his money aloud, and his style recalls the auctioneers of How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? whose language was filled with accountants’ cadences. The perversion of language is there tied to crass capitalism, and it is evident that a similar position is being taken by this film as well. God’s Angry Man begins with Scott yelling into the camera: ‘When I yell I want to be heard … ’Cause I only yell when there’s an occasion for 291

yelling’ and ‘God’s honour is at stake every night.’ His subsequent observation – ‘This is not a show, it’s a feast; a feast of the fading experience’ – is intriguing: one wonders whether Herzog here, as in How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?, wants to suggest something about the idea of ‘experience’ in America. The stakes could in this case have to do with whether there is anything worthwhile in this religious and cultural lifeworld, and if not, whether it could then be turned around and re-presented to us as ecstatic truth. Is there any chance that this banal mode of experience could appear as ecstasy in the moment it is framed by Herzog? There seems to be little or no ecstasy in the religious practice depicted in the film, especially when it is compared with the displays of faith one sees in God and the Burdened (Gott und die Beladenen, 1999) or in Bells from the Deep. It could well be that Herzog means to present a moment of ecstasy as the Gideon Band sings, ‘Thank you Lord for saving my soul/Thank you Lord for making me whole’, yet it is more likely that such sequences will be interpreted as ridicule. Here, as elsewhere, the film returns us at its end to an image of an animal. As in Echoes from a Sombre Empire, Even Dwarfs Started Small, Stroszek and in other films, the animal is given the last word. God’s Angry Man ends with a toy monkey beating away on a pair of cymbals. Scott kicks it around, calling it one of the FCC bureaucrats. He says, ‘Look at ‘em. Here’s your FCC monkey bureaucrats … hit ‘em again!’ In this 292

moment, the megalomaniac takes out his anger on an ape, just as a certain megalomaniac had in Aguirre, Wrath of God and as someone had quite vindictively in Echoes of a Sombre Empire (whoever it was who encouraged that film’s primate to take up smoking). Interestingly enough, in this case, it is not a real animal we see, but rather a stuffed, mechanical one. It seems as though the fabricated world of Los Angeles, the one that surrounds Gene Scott, could not even produce an actual monkey for him to kick around. In the end, Los Angeles, filled with simulacra, yields only a false monkey, and it is through these eyes that televangelical Christianity is brought into confrontation with itself. God and the Burdened / Pilgrimage God and the Burdened can also be found under another, similar title: The Lord and the Laden. This film deals with the Catholic Church in Latin America, specifically in Guatemala and Mexico. It was produced as a contribution to a television programme entitled ‘2000 Years of Christianity’, of which it is the ninth instalment. Most of the footage was taken at the basilica of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in Tepeyac, on the outskirts of Mexico City, and then at the shrine to the Mayan God Maximón in San Andrés Itzapa in Guatemala. There is a slightly different version of the film (available from Herzog’s own company) entitled Christ and Demons in New Spain. The films are


similar, yet there are crucial differences. Christ and Demons in New Spain, for example, begins with a title over an image of a native American carrying a hooded figure on his back. The figure is probably a monk in a chair; the Christian is weighing down the native American and this seems to suggest that the ‘burden’ referred to in the film’s alternate title, God and the Burdened, is Christianity itself. The native Americans in question have been burdened by this history of conquest – the history depicted, for example, in Aguirre, Wrath of God – and it is likely meant to be understood as a problematic legacy that can still be felt today. Christ and Demons in New Spain is 35 minutes long, eight minutes shorter than God and the Burdened, and because this is the version released by Herzog’s company, it may be fair to assume that this shorter one is the version the director prefers. It is shorter because it does without some of the didactic sections and has no elaborate framing sequences. Both versions, however, open with the unattributed epigraph: ‘If Jesus returned, would he appear in the New World? Would we recognize him at all?’ (‘Wenn Jesus zurückkehrte, würde er in der Neuen Welt erscheinen? Würden wir ihn überhaupt erkennen?’). This is a key question for the film, insofar as it begins by drawing parallels between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the poor in Guatemala. Christ carries the cross on his back as these people carry their load; the burdens that the peasants carry are juxtaposed with Christ’s 294

burden. At one point, a man carrying such a load is cross-cut with the parade float of Christ on the cross. Images of this sort recall the famous painting The Flower Carrier (1935) by Diego Rivera, a painting that is historically associated with a pro-labour (and largely leftist) tradition in Latin America. Such workers are those we are meant to recognise as ‘the laden’ or ‘the burdened’. Christ and Demons in New Spain, Herzog’s version, offers no voice-over narration. The narration that accompanies God and the Burdened is expository in a way that suggests Herzog did not write it. Christ and Demons in New Spain has a title at the beginning that tells us that we are in Guatemala, but there are very few other accountants’ truths to be found. Herzog does not inform us that we are seeing images of an Easter celebration. In both films we hear Gounod’s ‘Sanctus’, part of the St. Cecilia mass, the same piece that appeared at the end of Nosferatu the Vampyre to denote that the vampire lives on. The intertextual link could be understood to suggest that there is something vampiric in this history of Christianity. The version of the film for the series ‘2000 Years of Christianity’ – God and the Burdened – frames history more generously with respect to the Church. That film begins with an introduction that depicts a march through the desert and, strangely enough, it defines Christianity as ‘an endless procession of humanity’. It returns to the desert for its conclusion and avers that the message of Christ is the 295

message of love, describing the many forms of devotion, including the Latin American ones the film has just depicted, as ‘colourful flowers’. This message is at odds with much of the rest of the film, and those who have seen Aguirre, Wrath of God know that Herzog’s relation to the conquests, especially to the role of the Church in those conquests, is a good deal more cynical and less forgiving.

One of the over-burdened workers in God and the Burdened (1999)

The narrator of God and the Burdened tells us that San Andrés Itzapa in Guatemala is ‘a God-forsaken rather hideous backwater’. One is tempted to add that it may not appear that way to those who live there. As to the sequences that are shot at the shrine to Maximón, Herzog explains: 296

‘they worship a mannequin in a glass case dressed like a ranchero. It is Maximón, an ancient Mayan god who is dressed up like a rich Spanish ranchero to show his power. Part of the veneration involves fumigating him with cigar smoke.’ Maximón is worshipped in western Guatemala. He is believed to be a form of the pre-Colombian Mayan god Mam, who was subsequently conjoined with Catholic and other influences. Here in the film, he is seen represented by an effigy. Worshippers offer him money, alcohol or tobacco. Statues representing Maximón generally have lit cigars in their mouths. At one point, one of Maximón’s worshippers is seen wearing a Jim Morrison t-shirt. The image calls attention to the unusual mixture of developed and underdeveloped cultures, and its emphasis falls on the eccentricities in this form of modern religious devotion. To look at this, or at Wheel of Time, or at Bells from the Deep, there is a respect for the worshippers that competes with an objectification of their practices. The issue here again is one of locating the line between the truth of their religious ecstasies, which for Herzog is always a basis for respect, and the director’s desire to make these things seem strange to us, to de-familiarise us from them. The framing narrative that accompanies God and the Burdened indicates that the film is undoubtedly meant to be marketed to European Christian audiences. The most troubling moment of that version’s voice-over narration follows the history of the Aztec defeat by the Spanish. The 297

narrator says: ‘So deep was their fall in the collapse of their world that [these Christians] seem like disturbed individuals to this day, as if they were in a state of shock. What is concealed behind their puzzling silence, their disturbed state?’ The question that seems to dominate these films is: what does the symbol of the cross mean to them? This and other, related questions are posed as though they were unanswerable. God and the Burdened asks this question explicitly (the narrator speaks it), while one has to admit that Christ and Demons in New Spain also asks it implicitly, through its images. The narrator of the former states: ‘How the two religions combine here remains a puzzle.’ Upon reflection, one has to note that it is probably not such a puzzle to its practitioners. The films include a discussion of written and pictorial records of the conquest in the form of The Codex Telleriano-Remensis and the Florentine Codex. The former depicts history from before the Spanish conquest and is held under strict supervision at the Bibliotheque Nationale. It depicts the arrival of horses in ‘new Spain’ as well as the first baptism there. It is clear that Herzog would be fascinated by a document of this sort, insofar as he is always interested in the question of what it would mean to see the ‘ordinary’ things of our world as though for the first time (as in Fata Morgana, The Wild Blue Yonder and other films). In Christ and Demons in New Spain, Herzog keeps silent, presenting us the images one after the next. In God and the Burdened, however, the 298

narrator is didactic, telling us what the images in the book mean and conveying self-evident information such as the fact that a blue colour in the drawings stands for water. As for the Florentine Codex, which is only included in God and the Burdened, Herzog says he believes this to represent one of the great honourable deeds of mankind, because in the moment that Aztec culture was being destroyed, a ‘far-sighted monk tried to preserve the culture of the Aztecs for our memory’ (Cronin 2002: 295). This latter codex presents the story of the violent conquest of Mexico by Cortés. In God and the Burdened, the television version, the story of violence is offset by the redemptive story of Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth-century Spanish priest and advocate of the rights of native Americans. He is represented to us as the only voice that stood against the violence done to the Aztecs, and as the one who denounced forced conversions. If one recalls the depiction of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal in Aguirre, Wrath of God, it should come as no surprise that this positively-inflected story of wisdom and resistance did not find a place in Christ and Demons in New Spain. The distinction between the narrated and non-narrated versions of the film is important, especially when one looks at Pilgrimage, a closely related work. It seems as though Herzog achieved something more consistent with his principles with this short film insofar as it depicts images of religious devotion set to music while making no concessions to the accountants; the film never 299

tells you in what countries or contexts its scenes of worship take place. Ecstatic scenes are central to the film, and they are largely ecstatic because they are coupled with the music of Sir John Tavener. Herzog explains that narration had no place in this film; referring to a shot of a man holding up a photo of his deceased wife as he prays to the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Herzog says: ‘We know his whole story. We don’t need to hear him.’ Music is the most important element of this 18-minute short, which was part of the BBC series, ‘Sound on Film’. Herzog says: ‘When I first talked to the BBC I heard “music and film”, not “sound and film”, which is the concept that the four other filmmakers seemed to work with. So maybe Pilgrimage is slightly different from the other films in the series.’ He continues: ‘Initially I was very uncertain whether this would work because Tavener had always refused to write music for films. But in this case it was not writing music for a film, nor was I making a film to his music. It was to be music and images finding some common ground’ (Cronin 2002: 295). This film represented another opportunity for Herzog to experiment with eliminating the boundary between music and cinema. Insofar as he has always maintained that cinema is closer to music than any other form, he generally tries to add visuals that are not distinct from but rather at one with the music, or, in his words, he attempts to find common ground between the two. John Tavener was born in London in 1944. He has had a long history of religiosity. He joined the 300

Russian Orthodox Church in 1977, and later left Orthodox Christianity to explore other different religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam. Taverner wrote the song Mahámátra for the film, a song that consists of two words: Mahámátra, which is Sanskrit for great mother, and Theotokos, which is Greek for mother of God. The film is filled with people approaching altars on their knees. The pain of their journey seems intense, and it is evidently only religious devotion that would carry people to this point. There is nothing ironic in trying to capture the devotion of such worshippers and set it to Tavener’s music. The repetition of the names for the mother becomes a mantra; they are intended to produce a trance that is a far cry from any prosaic, analytic description of religion or a literal attempt to ‘explain’ faith. Herzog edits in footage that was apparently shot while filming God and the Burdened, but Pilgrimage also includes images of frozen landscapes that appear to have been shot in connection with Bells from the Deep. The images of lonely and small figures on the ice could well reflect Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea – an image that Herzog meant to cite directly in Nosferatu the Vampyre. The concept of pilgrimage is clearly important to Herzog. The images of Zagorsk (now known once again by its original pre-Soviet name Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra), including a shot of people crossing a bridge in the snow, are among the most beautiful in the director’s oeuvre. In Pilgrimage, as in Monk by the Sea, the sky and the water blend into one another, and the horizon 301

barely separates the two. The image, in its intimation of the convergence of heaven and earth, suggests simultaneously utopian and apocalyptic impulses. Pilgrimage begins with the quotation ‘It is only the pilgrims who in the travails of/their earthly voyage do not lose their way…/whether our planet be frozen or scorched:/they are guided by the same prayers,/and suffering, and fervour, and woe.’ The words are attributed to Thomas à Kempis, the fifteenth-century monk and author of Imitation of Christ, and he would indeed be a likely candidate to have authored them, yet Herzog has in fact invented them, just as he had invented the epigraph found at the onset of Lessons of Darkness. Journeys on foot have always been incredibly important for Herzog. He refers many times to the necessity of walking, but usually when he describes why he would do such a thing, it sounds exactly like a pilgrimage; a trial of one’s faith or a willingness to endure pain out of devotion to something. Herzog tells Paul Cronin that if you live in England and your girlfriend lives in Sicily, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. The most famous of his own pilgrimages took place when he was told in 1974 that Lotte Eisner had a stroke and was going to die. He walked from Munich to Paris, ‘knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there’ (Cronin 2002: 281). While Herzog did not undertake this expedition out of a sense of religious faith – at least not in any conventional sense – he did do it out of a belief that if he sacrificed, if he endured, 302

there would be something given in exchange. For the display of devotion, one hopes to receive something in return. Westerners rarely make pilgrimages; we are no longer nomadic people, and because many spend their days in front of computer screens, walking can at times be understood as a relief from pain. It is universally acknowledged that spending one’s life in a bureaucratic job or in a driver’s seat commuting to work is unhealthy, yet most do little to guard against the ill effects of this lifestyle. One has the sense that Herzog’s praise for walking, or ‘travel on foot’, which he has lauded since the 1970s, comes from the knowledge that we require a break from the unhealthy contortions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At the same time, however, the pilgrimages depicted in Pilgrimage and in Wheel of Time (as discussed below) are pilgrimages of the original type; these journeys entail a sacrifice whereby pilgrims are compelled to endure pain in order to demonstrate devotion. Written across the faces of the figures on their knees in Pilgrimage is the tremendous personal sacrifice that accompanies this type of dedication and this level of belief in the holiness of the Virgin. The figures in Christ and Demons in New Spain are likewise burdened by colonial conquest and the legacy of violent Christianity; they are as weighted down as the martyr himself. Despite this unseemly history, however, Herzog makes clear that the people making pilgrimages in Pilgrimage are enduring their pain in the name of


fervour, of woe, and, of course, in the name of ecstasy. Bells from the Deep It is evident from the use of the term ‘superstition’ in the title Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia that there is a degree of ambivalence in Herzog’s approach to the Russian religious practices depicted in this film. The work shares some of the same simultaneous fascination and cynicism about religion that suffuses Christ and Demons in New Spain. On the one hand, the Christian rituals depicted in the film are certainly ecstatic; the participants are elevated or transported somewhere beyond their everyday realities, as, of course, one is meant to be while watching Herzog’s films. The sequence that depicts a lone pilgrim out on the ice, a sequence in which one can barely separate the grey sky from the frozen surface, again recalls Friedrich, and it would seem that Herzog had the painter in mind. There is certainly something transcendent in these images. At the same time, once Herzog frames the rituals for us, we are made to feel that there is something ‘superstitious’ about them. The apparent eccentricities – the blessing of water in Pepsi bottles or the sudden appearance (in a narrated story) of a wild ox that snorts flames – can be understood to cast a cynical light on these forms of religious devotion. With the exception of the reference to superstition in the title, however,


Herzog never once tips his hand to indicate that his approach is cynical. As is typical of Herzog’s documentaries, both the filmed subjects and their filmmaker straddle the line between the ecstatic and the truthful. This is not only a question as to how these Russians practise their religion, but the extent to which the filmmaker approaches them with his own ecstatic eyes. This film more than any other, with the exception of Death for Five Voices (Gesualdo – Tod für fünf Stimmen, 1995) is the one in which Herzog most obviously eschews the accountants’ truths. He does not worry about whether or not the Tuvinian throat-singing seen and heard at the film’s onset – the same music he also used somewhat incongruously in Little Dieter Needs to Fly – was contextually ‘appropriate’. Herzog tells us: ‘The film begins in the Tuvinian Autonomous Republic, just northwest of Mongolia. An old man is throat-singing about the beauty of a mountain. Later in the film there are two young kids – one is twelve, the other is fourteen – and they sing a love song. What does it have to do with a film about faith, you might ask? And yet it does belong; just by dint of declaration this becomes a religious hymn’ (Cronin 2002: 251–2). Just as Herzog declared landscapes from Ireland and the US to have been Bavarian in Heart of Glass, he here determines the content of his footage by virtue of the context in which he sets it. As for other forms of religious experience, the music here – the Tuvinian throat-singing as well as the singing of various Russian choirs – is central 305

to the film’s ecstasy. Music, poetry and, as far as Herzog is concerned, filmmaking do not communicate prosaically, but ecstatically. It is no wonder that he has a continued interest in the St. Cecilia Mass of Gounod, in that St. Cecilia was the patron saint of music. At an early stage, the art of bell-ringing was meant to be the film’s centrepiece. Herzog speaks about the featured bell-ringer, Yuri, and says: ‘For me the man is a true musician; the way he has strung up all the ropes in the bell tower is incredible. The sound he gets from tolling the bells had such depth to it. I actually planned to start the film at a monastery with one single monk playing one single bell and wanted to show bigger and bigger bell-ringing orgies throughout, and Yuri would have been somewhere in the middle’ (Cronin 2002: 251). Yuri’s story is of special interest to Herzog. He was born in 1944, and was orphaned, tying the loss of his parents to repressions under Stalin. The fact that Yuri barely spoke as a child makes him an object of fascination from the perspective of Herzog’s interest in trauma and because of his similarity to Kaspar Hauser, who also at times chose music for his mode of extra-lingual communication. The camera remains on Yuri for a long time after he says his last words; Herzog wants to encourage us to linger and consider him in silence. Herzog finds several other interesting figures to populate this film. When we encounter Vissarion, a man Herzog describes as among the best Jesus Christs in Siberia, one who even has an agent, he is standing in front of a lake. He is dressed and 306

groomed as though he were Jesus and he speaks in a Russian that is inflected with biblical rhetoric. He brings a message of peace: ‘Dearly beloved children of God, the earth is your only mother … I say unto you a great folly hath befallen the mind of man. Take heed. The struggle of one nation to exalt itself above another nation is a sign of a disturbed mind. And heed the father’s word, which sayeth that everyone who exalts himself over others shall be made low. Deep sorrow furrows the brow of the heavenly father as he looks down upon the obstinacy of his children, especially the obstinacy of the faithful.’ As he asks the camera what has become of love, Herzog cuts to a close-up of his clasped hands. Vissarion continues: Now the time has come. The word of the glorious father is turned once more to your ears, but it is up to you to hearten to his word. May the prophecy of Isaiah not be visited once more upon you, the prophecy which once stated and to this day doth continue to state: they will hear with their ears but understand not. They will see with their eyes, but perceive not, for the hearts of these people have grown dull, and they scarcely hear with their ears and they have closed up their eyes … Be wise then, for mankind is headed straight towards the abyss. But the people have now arrived at the place where the one path branches off


from this perfection.






The vision is apocalyptic, an oft-iterated theme in Herzog’s works. Herzog does not satirise this man – indeed, in a manner of speaking, his sentiments echo ones that have appeared in varied forms in Herzog’s films. It is hard to know, however, how Herzog feels about Vissarion’s self-understanding as a prophet; as viewers it is somewhat hard to accept his proselytising with anything other than a grain of salt. Still harder to swallow is the sequence featuring Alan Chumak, the man who consecrates water. It may seem even more outlandish when one discovers that Chumak is a media creation. He was once a television personality who garnered attention as a faith healer. Russians were instructed to place their bottles of water, oils or ointments in front of the television, even if they were not around to watch his programme, because they would in this way be blessed by him. In the sequence in Herzog’s film, a packed auditorium is told to raise the palms of their hands high. They are instructed: ‘Now try to concentrate on the palms of your hands, as if you were straining to listen the same way you listen intently to a telephone receiver when you have a bad connection. At first you don’t hear anything, and then all of a sudden you’re all ears.’ He then explains how to ‘transmit positive cosmic energy’ with his photograph. He stands in front of a rapt


audience like an orchestra conductor, waving his hands. While there is some ecstasy in what Chumak does, it is difficult to take him – or Vissarion, or Dr Gene Scott for that matter – seriously as prophets. The most fascinating moments in Bells from the Deep concern the lost city of Kitezh. In the extra-textual materials, Herzog reveals his deceit plainly: the people crawling across the ice listening for the sounds of the lost city are actually drunks that Herzog paid to be ‘actors’ in his film. Speaking about Bells from the Deep, Herzog admits that ‘the best of the film is “fabricated” … I saw a frozen lake in the distance with hundreds of people on it who had drilled holes in the ice and were fishing. As it was so cold they were all crouching down with their backs against the wind, all facing the same direction as if they were all in deep meditation. So the film somehow declares them all pilgrims in prayer’ (Cronin 2002: 251). While much is fabricated, the legend is not. There is even an opera from 1903–04 by Rimsky-Korsakoff based on this legend entitled ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya’. Herzog tells the story of Kitezh, and of his inventions, which is a passage worth reproducing whole in that it is a paradigmatic example of Herzog’s ‘documentary’ approach: The legend goes that the city was systematically ransacked and demolished by hundreds of years of Tartar and Hun


invasions. The inhabitants called on God to redeem them and He sent an archangel, who tossed the city into a bottomless lake where the people live in bliss, chanting their hymns and tolling the bells. During the summer you find pilgrims on their knees crawling around the lake saying their prayers, though I was there in winter when there was a very thin layer of ice covering the lake. I wanted to get shots of pilgrims crawling around on the ice trying to catch a glimpse of the lost city, but as there were no pilgrims around I hired two drunks from the next town and put them on the ice. Once of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant’s truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take. (Cronin 2002: 252) Herzog adds: ‘It might seem like cheating, but it is not. Bells from the Deep is one of the most pronounced examples of what I mean when I say that only through invention and fabrication and staging can you reach a more intense level of truth that cannot otherwise be found. I took a “fact” – that for many people this lake was the final resting place of this lost city – and played with the “truth” of the situation to reach a more poetic understanding’ (Cronin 2002: 253).


It is evident why Herzog is drawn to the story. The city beneath the ice – one that can never be found but only envisioned – is a metaphor, like the cave of the swifts in The White Diamond. In the film, we are informed: ‘That’s a part of the Russian character, the Russian soul. The Russian soul is forever striving to behold the sunken city of Kitezh.’ Herzog confirms this: ‘The question is: how do you depict the soul of an entire nation in an hour-long film? In a way, the scene of the drunken city-seekers is the deepest truth you can have about Russia because the soul of the entire country is somehow secretly in search of the lost city of Kitezh. I think the scene explains the fate and soul of Russia more than anything else’ (Cronin 2002: 253). The statement is, of course, somewhat hyperbolic: The idea of some knowledge that is witheld from view can be just as Greek (in that it may be Platonic), or German (in that it may be Kantian), as it is Russian. More significant, however, is that it is an idea that catches Herzog’s eye insofar as he aestheticises the unseen, the incomprehensible and the allegorical. It is part of an overall glorification of that which lies permanently hidden from view. Part of what provides the poetry in these sequences is that they contain a substantial amount of crawling. We see numerous Russians, on and off the ice, who are on all fours, caught up in the search for Kitezh. One chapter of the film is called ‘Pilgrims on Thin Ice’, and Herzog lingers on images of a bearded man on his knees, one who is looking for the sunken city. The use of the term 311

‘pilgrims’ should remind us of Herzog’s fascination with pilgrimages, and some of these journeys appear to be painful, ones in which the pilgrims’ sufferings are written right across their faces. We must, however, still enquire into Herzog’s earnestness here. Towards the end of the film, one final testimony is given by a woman who tells how her pig first bit her cow, and then her hand. There is something daft about her tale of livestock gone out of control, yet the story is complemented by the image of men slithering about on the ice behind her, men we now know were paid to do so. Though there is a temptation not to take her seriously, she is the woman who speaks of hearing bells from the deep, and thus the one who names the film. Perhaps we are in fact meant to take her ecstasy seriously, but even as that thought crosses our minds, we see a pair of speed skaters gliding by on this same ice – ice that been declared, for the sake of the film, a holy ground. The skaters are indifferent to the prayers of those around them. Here too, there are multiple ways of reading: these skaters might be meant to undercut the seriousness of the Christian beliefs depicted in the film, to force us to ask what place they have in the twentieth century. Alternately, however, in their frictionless motion and grace, they may be seen to serve as a metaphor for the ecstatic heights of religious experience. Wheel of Time


Wheel of Time documents the Kalachakra Initiations in the village of Bodh Gaya in India, as well as in Graz, Austria. Kalachakra means ‘wheel of time’ or ‘cycle of time’, and insofar as the wheel is circular it denotes the continuous process of enlightenment for all living beings. We also know that because it is a circle, it is an image to which Herzog is drawn. The first of these two Initiations, from January 2002, had to be postponed because of the Dalai Lama’s ill health. The second one, in Graz in October of 2002, did take place. The Initiations mean that the disciples present may subsequently practise the Kalachakra Tantra with the intention of attaining Buddhahood, or enlightenment. Only the Dalai Lama can minister this, and it is for this reason that people travel from far away – that they make pilgrimages – in order to attend them. With respect to this latter concept, the film is fascinating. It documents pilgrims who have journeyed far for the sake of the Initiation. Herzog shows us those who have made the journey while ritualistically touching their heads to the ground with every step (something that, as we note, is especially challenging to do while crossing a river). The images, and especially the long takes, underscore the difficulties involved. Herzog explores the topic with a Lama, Lhundup Woeser. Herzog narrates: ‘On the second day of the festival, we met this monk. He had travelled in prostrations more than 3,000 miles … He explains that his voyage lasted over three and one half years. He comes from such a remote area that his 313

dialect had to be translated via two separate interpreters.’ We can see the wound on the Lama’s head from his many prostrations, and Herzog continues: ‘bones on his hand had grown nodes, even though he protected them with wooden clogs. And from touching the ground a couple of million times, a wound on his forehead has not completely healed yet.’ The director’s fascination with walking comes into focus during this conversation; walking is a way of genuinely comprehending the earth, a means of true physicality in contrast with alienated means of transportation such as air travel. This is followed by yet another return to Herzog’s favourite theme of travel on foot: in Graz in 2002, Herzog interviews a one-time schoolteacher who was recently released from Chinese prison after 37 years. The man, Tanak Jigme Sangpo (sometimes rendered ‘Takna’, as in the film), was a teacher who was arrested in 1960 and was charged with corrupting the minds of children with reactionary ideas. He was then re-arrested numerous times in the following years, particularly for spreading ‘counterrevolutionary’ thought. In 1991, during an official visit to his Chinese prison by a Swiss delegation, he shouted ‘Free Tibet’ in English from his cell. He was then sentenced again to more years, and had it not been for his medical release, he would have served another decade. From the perspective of the film, and from that of Herzog’s own continued fascinations, it is of interest that the former prisoner has difficulty walking. The years in prison 314

have hampered if not completely crippled his ability to move about on foot. He now relies on a walking stick because in the prison everything was flat and his muscles have been harmed to the point where he has trouble with any elevation. Like Lama Lhundup Woeser, he has journeyed far for the Initiation. The reason that Herzog was drawn to this topic – apart from the recurring image of pilgrimages – is likely that the sand mandala can be described as an ‘inner landscape’, a concept that generally intrigues Herzog. From his earliest moments as a filmmaker, going back to Signs of Life, Herzog has indicated that he believes that there are landscapes inside us that he as a filmmaker realises on the screen. One can see a relationship here between the sand mandala, which is the inner representation of a landscape, and Herzog’s own pursuit of inner landscapes or inner visions. Herzog asks the Dalai Lama specifically about the mandala, and his tone of enquiry is surprisingly informal. Herzog asks: ‘Do we have to understand [the mandala] as a blueprint for a three-dimensional structure, as if it was not just a flat surface?’ The Dalai Lama answers that it is ‘a reminder of our visualisation. The actual mandala … first you meditate on emptiness or shunya, then that very mind which [is] completely absorbed into the outer nature. That now becomes or transforms into physical world … So the main thing is visualisation. Not external mandala, but internal mandala.’ Apart from its consistency with the rest of Herzog’s work (the attention that is paid to the 315

inner landscape), the boldness with which Herzog approaches his holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama is striking. One might even consider his behaviour irreverent. At one point, the Dalai Lama explains that the individual is the centre of the universe, and Herzog replies that the thought makes him feel very good. He then quips, ‘I shouldn’t tell my wife.’ The director’s irreverence is extended in his depiction of the activities surrounding the Initiation. One sequence involves a column in Bodh Gaya that, according to Herzog, the pilgrims believe gives off healing powers. The simplicity of the column juxtaposed with the reverence paid to it by the devotees calls attention to how its power stems more from an act of projection than anything else; things may have healing powers because we endow them with that capacity. The film draws attention to such ostensibly ‘superstitious’ aspects of religious belief and is in this way connected to Bells from the Deep. In another sequence, someone publicly defends their doctoral thesis, which, Herzog explains, addresses the difference between the functional reality of our everyday life, and emptiness, which is considered the final reality according to Buddha’s teachings. Herzog says, ‘by lunch break, the debate remains inconclusive’. Given the topic as it was presented to us, it is hard to imagine the debate could have ended otherwise, and Herzog’s comment could pass as facetious. In a similar vein, Herzog draws attention to what seems to be a cult of personality around the Dalai Lama. Both in India and in 316

Austria, Herzog talks about how people are lined up from three in the morning to hear the Dalai Lama, and explains that 500,000 people have travelled to this point from afar. Especially in Austria, the Dalai Lama seems like a celebrity. In light of the crowds gathered to practise religious devotion at the feet of Alan Chumak in Bells from the Deep, Herzog is arguably drawing our attention to crowds of supplicants with some degree of scepticism. When seen from above, the crowd resembles the colourful portrait in the mandala, but the idea of the inner landscape is underscored by Herzog’s images of the mountains. Herzog can either be said to be reproducing the idea of the mandala on the screen as he depicts Mount Kilash in western Tibet, or attempting to do this ancient tradition one better. We know from Herzog’s comments that these views are meant to be inner landscapes, and that in his work he is playing on the difference between interior and exterior worlds. These images recall ones familiar to us from The Dark Glow of the Mountains, and after Herzog cuts to shots of pilgrims, he then returns us to the mandala. It is not only the shots of the mountains but the colourful array of pilgrims that reflects inner landscapes. Some of the scenes are scored with the music of Florian Fricke, compositions which were among the last he wrote before he died. There are a number of moments in which Herzog breaks into the frame, including a shot in which what is likely the director’s own thumb can be seen wiping a smudge off the camera lens. The 317

shot could easily have been edited out, but Herzog likes to include a digit or a limb of his own where he can (his hand can be found in the margins of Aguirre, Wrath of God and his foot in Nosferatu the Vampyre), perhaps as a mode of formal irony, or as a reminder of his authorship. Moreover, there is a deliberately constructed moment among those in the film’s final sequences in Graz. Herzog says: ‘a lonesome bodyguard remains on duty, apparently not called off his post. Why does he stay on? As a metaphor for a Buddhist concept of emptiness, protecting no one, from not much of a crowd?’ This was, however, one of Herzog’s fictions, meant to make light of the concept of emptiness. After ruminating aloud on this point, he cuts back to Bodh Gaya. The two locations are in this way tied to one another. He adds: ‘400,000 empty pillows – and then there was one, still sunk in prayer. Is he praying for us? Has he reached the state of Enlightenment? And then as a nocturnal animal creeps from its crag, a thought creeps into mind: could it be that he marks the very site where the universe has its centre?’ This last shot thematises the Dalai Lama’s comment that one individual is the centre of the universe, and seen in light of the earlier sections of the film, it may be meant to draw attention to the pilgrims’ devotion. Herzog has more reverence than he has ridicule for these people, a group willing to eat rancid yak butter in order to pray at the foot of the mountain. However much his playful stylisations, irreverence and mise-en-scène undercut his own point, one finds that this film consistently questions 318

whether or not each one of these pilgrims, down to the very last, is in fact the Buddha, each one of them part of the wheel of time. Where the Green Ants Dream The film Where the Green Ants Dream (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen, 1984) is unlike the other films discussed in this chapter, in part because it is a feature rather than a documentary. Additionally, it has a special formal status among Herzog’s works insofar as it is not stylised in a way similar to epic works such as Aguirre, Wrath of God. At the same time, however, this film is directly related to Herzog’s views on religion and its cinematic representation. As Bill Readings has pointed out in a 1992 essay, the film turns on the dual question of whether Herzog can adequately ‘represent’ the religious practices of the Aboriginal people at its centre as well as on whether these people can be adequately ‘represented’ in a court of law. Herzog attempts to engage seriously with both of these issues, but because of his resistance to the techniques of cinéma vérité often connected to anthropological films, Herzog found that his best course would be to invent the story, or myth, of the green ants at the film’s centre. While Herzog does, at one point in the film, have an expert expound on research about the mating and migratory practices of the ants that the Aboriginals in Herzog’s film are said to worship, this is all a stylisation in the hopes of ‘com[ing] close to the thinking and the way of


life of the Aborigines’. Herzog goes on to explain that he is well aware that the film is his brainchild rather than an attempt to offer any anthropological truth about Aboriginal culture: ‘My very limited understanding is that the Aboriginal dreamtime stories and myths explain the origins of everything on the planet and were especially important to the pre-colonial Aborigines. I can say that the film is certainly not their “dreaming”, it is my own’ (Cronin 2002: 207). In writing the film, Herzog was inspired by real events. In the early 1970s he had gone to the Perth Film Festival, and there heard about a court case that had begun some years earlier. In 1968 the Yolngu people of northeastern Australia had filed suit against the Nabalco corporation, a Swiss company engaged in bauxite mining, in order to establish a claim on their territory. This became known as the Gove Land Rights case, because the disputed territory was associated with the Gove peninsula. The judge found in favour of Nabalco because, according to contemporary Australian law, the land was treated as unoccupied before European settlement. Although the Yolngu people lost their case, some felt the trial was a victory because it gave public attention to the inadequacies, and one must say absurdities, in Australian laws. Despite the verdict, the judge in the case had been apparently sympathetic to the Yolngu (as is the judge in Herzog’s film), and according to Herzog the whole matter gave the Australians pause for reflection. It was also a significant decision because oral 320

arguments that might otherwise have been considered hearsay were allowed in order to establish the claim of the Yolngu people on the land, all of which is obviously akin to matters raised in the courtroom sequences of Where the Green Ants Dream. For obvious reasons, Herzog fictionalises the players in the dispute, although his film works along lines evidently inspired by the events. The plot centres on a geologist named Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence) who works for the fictional Ayers mining company. When they are exploring land for potential mining, their blasting is interrupted by a group of Aboriginals who claim that the mining will awaken the green ants who sleep there. The Aboriginal protestors place themselves in front of the mining company equipment. Hackett, who appears sympathetic through most of the film, takes their concerns seriously and tries to negotiate with them, but the protestors are not to be swayed. Ultimately, although the mining company even bribes them with an airplane, the case finds its way to court. In the film just as in reality, the judge seems to take the Aboriginals’ claim to heart, yet he sides with the State and the mining company. The story ends somewhat grimly as Dayipu (Roy Marika), one of the Aboriginal spokesmen, goes missing in the aircraft (and is presumed dead), while Hackett apparently gives up his job with the mining company, having lost faith in the vision of progress he once held. In its somewhat conventional approach to storytelling the film can be seen as an exception 321

among Herzog’s works – perhaps even as an aberration – yet there are aspects of it that resonate with his other films: the desolate landscapes and abandoned construction equipment recall similar images found in Fata Morgana; the theme of the impact of modernity on an indigenous population compares with Fitzcarraldo, the last feature film Herzog completed before Where the Green Ants Dream; and additionally, as Thomas Elsaesser points out, the Aboriginal protagonists ‘sitting in the cockpit of their newly acquired Australian Airforce plane, look as grimly determined as do Herr Scheitz and Stroszek peering through the windscreen of their secondhand Buick on the New Jersey Turnpike, headed for Railroad Flats, Wisconsin’ (1986: 136). Where the Green Ants Dream in this way recalls other Herzog works, though it appears more scripted and straightforwardly narrative than those other films. It feels like an exception. Herzog says that he had taken time off after Fitzcarraldo and then jumped in all at once with a number of projects including Where the Green Ants Dream, The Dark Glow of the Mountains and Ballad of the Little Soldier. Arguably his busyness at the time accounts for the film’s somewhat atypical tone. Although Herzog now says that he likes the film more and more, he does speak of a problematic sense of self-righteousness that made its way in: ‘Well, the film is rather blatant about having something of a “message”. It has such a self-righteous tone to it that I wish I had cut out of the film; it stinks to high heaven. The film is not 322

that bad, it just has a climate to it that I cannot stand’ (Cronin 2002: 208). In his DVD commentary in the company of the filmmaker Laurens Straub, Herzog says that part of the tone comes from its resonance with the rhetoric of the progressive Green Party in Germany. However, Herzog makes the argument that his interest in Where the Green Ants Dream is different than that of the Greens: it is in a dying culture and language. According to Herzog, the Greens are often more interested in animals than they are in people (GA ch. 3; 19:16). Of course, one can hardly say that defending animals and nature contributes to the demise of people and cultures; there are others who could and should be held more responsible for such things. Herzog’s issue here, however, is with a certain inflection of moral superiority that found a place in his film and that makes it look and sound like a product of the 1980s, the period in which the film was produced. He tells Straub, however, that the film has, decades later, grown on him.


One of the desolate landscapes in Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)

Images that Herzog praises without hesitation include the shots of tornados from the beginning and the end of the film, pictures Herzog (displaying his usual affinity for notions of apocalypse) describes as being ‘images as if from the end of the world’ (Cronin 2002: 208). Although much of the film was shot in and around Coober Pedy, a small town in South Australia that has been used as a setting for many other films (including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)), this footage was taken in Oklahoma by Jörg SchmidtReitwein, who invested time chasing tornados alongside researchers at the Center for Severe Storms. Herzog notes that their storm-chasing activities were later picked up by Hollywood (presumably for the 1996 film


Twister). The cinematography has a shimmer to it, an intense play of light and dark that characterises Schmidt-Reitwein’s style in films such as Fata Morgana and Nosferatu the Vampyre. These tornados are a significant metaphor: they recall the circle motif found everywhere in Herzog’s work – in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Started Small and Stroszek – reminding us that things, including the director’s narratives, often move in endless circles, hardly able to close in on their absent centre. These tornados have an additional foreboding connotation: modernity – as it is represented in the film – has a destructive potential, and has spun out of control. It is like a runaway train, and the tornados, in this sense, symbolise a destructive force that appears to have its own consciousness. Over the images of tornados at the film’s onset is a dedication: ‘In memory of my mother.’ The film was made under the shadow of Herzog’s mother’s death, and the music that accompanies the opening credits and the images of tornados, Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Pie Jesu’ from his Romantic work Requiem, consists of the following lines: ‘Merciful Lord Jesus/grant them rest/rest everlasting’ (‘Pie Jesu Domine/dona eis requiem/requiem sempiternam’). In a film about Aboriginal religion it may seem contradictory to begin with Fauré’s ‘Pie Jesu’, yet Herzog has not denied that this film has as much and probably more to do with his own imagination and beliefs as with those of the Aboriginals. Along similar lines, Herzog includes towards the film’s end the 1937 work A Voice in 325

the Wilderness by the composer Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born Jew who migrated to America and often took up Jewish themes. Whether underscored by Christian or Jewish music, the film is meant to be elegiac and somewhat mournful, some of which may be explained in relation to the dedication. Not only do the opening and closing sequences have this quality, but the character of Miss Strehlow (Colleen Clifford), the woman who at the film’s beginning has lost her dog, can be said to stand in for a missing mother as well. At one point late in the film, when Hackett seems to have lost his moral compass, he recounts to her a dream of being a child left behind by his peers because he is forced to go to school. When, in the dream, he is disciplined for not having his lunchbox, he urinates in his pants. The protagonist regresses in this moment, and seeks the comfort of a kind mother. The inclusion of an old woman who has lost her dog in the mines is not only a means to recall an absent mother, but is also a means of telling us something about Hackett’s character insofar as we see that he genuinely wants to help this woman find her dog. Elsaesser notes that there is an unusual nuance in this protagonist, and that he is in no way one of Herzog’s larger-than-life figures such as have been played by Kinski or by Bruno S. He is instead a moderate point of identification who means well in his efforts to come to terms with the needs and interests of the Aboriginals. Elsaesser writes that Hackett ‘is the hero of Where the Green Ants Dream only in the limited (and 326

classical) sense of motivating the progress of the narrative, serving as intermediary between the film’s opposing factions and as mediator of the audience’s sympathies’ (1986: 138). Hackett is a ‘good’ protagonist, not only in relation to Miss Strehlow, but also in contrast to the company employee, Cole (Ray Barrett). Unlike Cole, Hackett never uses racist epithets to describe the Aboriginals, and he is very clear in his intentions to keep force or violence off the table in his company’s negotiations. Cole is willing to use the bulldozer to get his way with the Aboriginals, but Hackett quickly intercedes and apologises. He then calls in Ferguson (Norman Kaye), who represents the company and politely explains to the protestors – Dayipu, Miliritbi (Wandjuk Marika) and Malila (Dhungala I. Marika) – that this is not an area that ‘bears the official status of a reservation’, reminding them that ‘all of us, and that includes you, are subject to the binding strictures of the Land Rights Act of the Commonwealth of Australia’. When Miliritbi responds that the company will have to shoot them to get them out of the way, Ferguson does not take this seriously. The comment indicates an awareness on the part of the Aboriginals that this issue may ultimately have to be resolved through force, yet this is exactly what Ferguson and Hackett are unwilling to avow. Ferguson simply assures them that the company will take legal action. For the most part, in these initial sequences, Hackett comes across as thoroughly reasonable, and by contrast the 327

Aboriginals appear unwilling to make compromises or negotiate. Eventually, however, the film exposes the unreasonableness of the law upon which Hackett relies. Where the Green Ants Dream thus becomes the story of Hackett’s disillusionment. He initially believes in the possibility of reasoned debate and negotiation, but eventually gives up on this after he has witnessed the impossibility of obtaining a proper hearing for the Aboriginals. How is it, one must ask, that the Aboriginals remain ‘unheard’ even though they have their day in court? The courtroom sequence – one that is initiated with the word ‘silence’ – addresses the issues surrounding the subjection of Aboriginals to the Australian legal system. At one point the attorney for the defence objects to the use of a gesture on the part of one of the Aboriginal litigants, wondering how a gesture is to be transcribed for the record, and at another point an object is entered into evidence, one that is paradoxically so sacred that it cannot be viewed by the court. Furthermore, while the pessimistic scholar, Arnold (Nick Lathouris), testifies that the Aboriginals have an entirely different idea of quantity than Australians, and explains their notion of counting in academic terms, Malila, who had been thought of as mute, suddenly moves forward to speak. It is revealed that he has been taken for mute not because he cannot speak, but because he is the sole survivor of his clan and there is no one with whom he can speak. In other words, Malila had a voice, much as the Aboriginals here 328

have a voice, yet it is not one that can be presently understood. Again, as in Signs of Life, there is life even where there is no linguistic ‘sign of life’. Whether or not Malila’s testimony, or the Aboriginals’ sacred objects, can become part of the record and treated justly is fundamental to whether one believes that Australian law could properly address their complaint. The film believes that the law cannot accomplish this goal, or at least that it cannot without great difficulty. Bill Readings has addressed this issue in an interpretation of the film that frames its questions in terms of the abstract concepts of a law that has the pretence of being universal, but which becomes unjust in the moment it presumes a universal subject to whom it can be applied. Such a law presumes that everyone to whom it is addressed is somehow the same, or that they have the same needs. Inspired by Jean-François Lyotard’s work, Readings poses the question: ‘If justice is an abstract universal, how can it reside with the explicitly local?’ (1992: 169). He admires the way Herzog’s film raises this question by presenting a community that is outside of the Australian system of legal representation and adds that we know it is ‘outside’ because of certain aesthetic moments that suggest something beyond the bounds of the language in which the law is written; we have an impression or an intuition that the Aborigines see and know things we do not, yet we, the Western spectators, cannot say exactly what those things are. In trying to incorporate this Aboriginal community, which 329

remains on the outside, Western law subsumes them under the category of a ‘we’ (as in the sentiment, expressed by Ferguson, that ‘all of us’ are subject to legal strictures). The attempt to impose the universal law, of course, creates a kind of violence. With respect to Where the Green Ants Dream, Readings writes: The injustice done to the Aborigines is not the effect of a biased white man’s law. Rather, injustice is the effect of the very fairness of the white man’s law, its blank, bleached, abstract humanity – its claim to be “common law”. Common – both traditional and universally reasonable. That is to say, the silencing of the Aboriginal voices is not the product of an external censorship, a repression that we might denounce as unfair. The Aborigines are killed with kindness, by the assumption that they are the same kind of people as the white Australians; they are silenced by the very fact of being let speak. (1992: 180) Following Readings and Lyotard (and here, perhaps, one can also add Herzog), it may be that the only reaction we are meant to have is that of bearing witness to the fact that there exists a group, or a manner of ‘reason’, that cannot be assimilated under the laws as they exist. This is the position Hackett seems finally to adopt in despair at the film’s end.


Whether one is optimistic or pessimistic with regard to the law is not the only question on which Where the Green Ants Dream turns. In the same way that the tornado represents an ideology of progress gone out of control, one of the film’s major questions centres on the condition of modernity as a whole. Tornados, as well as images of burned-out buses and apparently useless construction equipment underscore the idea that modernity has become a ruin, a mere trace of its grand plan. Found everywhere in this film are images resembling those that pervade the desolate world of Fata Morgana. One sequence that calls the futility of progress into stark relief takes place in an office building in Melbourne as Hackett and Ferguson try to bring Dayipu and Miliritbi upstairs, perhaps to see the view. The lift stalls – it goes nowhere – and they abort their plans and go out for dinner. When they later return to try again, the lift again stalls and as they stand in precisely the same position in which they stood earlier, we see that they are unable to progress. The scene is also one in which we notice that Hackett has taken a position much closer to that of the Aboriginals: he observes over dinner that it could be the case that they are dreaming and still inside the lift. The evidence – that they are once again in the elevator following dinner, standing in precisely the same position – would suggest that Hackett’s light-hearted insight is, in its way, closer to the truth. Hackett has a conversation with Miliritbi in which he tries to identify with him by way of a vexing 331

mathematical problem: what if there is no outside to the universe, but that it is rather one continuous inside, like the shell of a snail? His warped, one might even say tortured, mathematical metaphors bespeak his own painfully contorted position. Hackett uses as an example a man hanging from a tree by a rope, who is spinning. That man, he says, could be steadied by the addition of only one extra rope, but the earth, which is also spinning, could not be steadied because the universe itself is constantly in motion. Miliritbi responds on a different level, noting how lost Hackett seems to him. This is meant neither as a comment on non-Euclidean geometry, nor as a comment on an Aboriginal inability to understand cosmology, but rather as a means of drawing attention to Hackett’s growing discomfort with the position into which he has been forced. He finds himself melancholic, helpless among his mining tools. His problem, as he later confesses, is that he is not ‘getting anywhere’, or that no progress can be made. As was true of having been stranded in the lift, Hackett, for all the energy he expends serving the corporation’s interest, is unable to advance. He cannot even find Miss Strehlow’s dog. All that is left to him is the comfort of listening to a tape recording of an Argentine soccer broadcast. This provides him with some solace, but he ultimately leaves the tape and its player in the hands of a small child, one who likely does not comprehend what the noises – the screaming that accompanies a soccer match – mean. The film’s scholar, Arnold, 332

presents the dilemma in terms of an allegory, explaining to Hackett that it is as if he is on a train moving forward, headed for a crash, and in realising that the crash is coming, his only solution is to run towards the last car. It is not evident that Arnold has gotten off the train, or that anyone can, but Hackett ultimately follows Arnold’s example. He withdraws from civilisation, and the film intimates that he may move into a used water tank that Arnold once inhabited. Hackett heads off into the distance, growing smaller in the landscape, and Herzog explains that this was meant to recall the endings of westerns. Indeed his protagonist here evinces a preference for lawlessness in the face of an unjust law. In Where the Green Ants Dream, Herzog’s relationship to religion is less conflicted than it was in the cases of God’s Angry Man or Bells from the Deep, but it is perhaps this certainty – that this film knows what it wants to say about the Aboriginals – that Herzog came to find disquieting. When depicting faith and modes of devotion, Herzog prefers a position of scepticism. It may be because religious devotion is among the things generally taken for certain that Herzog wants to reveal it in its uncertainty. As his films achieve their ‘truth’ by displacing the accountants’ truths, or by critiquing rationality as myth, Herzog also wants to reveal the certainty of faith as a constitutive part of those myths. At the same time, however, he also respects their ecstasies. Because religious experience can be the medium of ecstasy Herzog is willing to hold on to it – to scrutinise it and to 333

admire it. It is only the certainty that there is a God, and that that God takes an interest in us, which he rejects.




War and Trauma

When German filmmakers deal with war, certain unavoidable questions make it difficult for them to speak without placing themselves in a direct relationship to the legacy of World War Two. If German filmmakers elect not to speak of this war, the question returns with an even greater force by virtue of the silence surrounding it. From immediate postwar films such as The Murderers are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946) and The Bridge (Die Brücke, 1949) through the films of the 1970s and 1980s, including The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1979) and Das Boot (1981), and even up to much later films such as Rosenstrasse (2003) and Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), the German film tradition is replete with works that depict and scrutinise that nation’s Nazi heritage. For better or worse, such films can be said to dominate the canon of German cinema. One might begin to ask whether or not German filmmakers can make films that are not about World War Two, even if only indirectly. Questions arise as to whether or not it is worth investigating ‘entertaining’ films such as Run Lola, Run (Lola rennt, 1998) or Mostly Martha (Bella


Martha, 2001) in light of Germany’s Nazi past. As a consequence of this interpretive proliferation, some readers also see Herzog’s films as an indirect intervention into the discussion about twentieth-century German history, even those films in which Nazis are not mentioned. The question is still earnestly raised as to whether films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God or Even Dwarfs Started Small have anything to do with Germany’s Fascist past, despite the fact that Herzog has denied that German Fascism is central to either work. It is indeed not so hard to tease out allegories for German history in these and other works by Herzog, despite the knowledge that the director can only in part be considered a ‘German’ filmmaker in any traditional sense. At times Herzog has engaged directly with World War Two, and this chapter describes where that war makes an entrance into films such as Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and, most evidently, in Invincible. Yet this is only one of two key points that follow. When one begins to explore Herzog’s war-related films, a second theme emerges, one that has to do specifically with the traumas associated with experiences of war. Herzog, it is evident, has a particular interest in exploring traumatic events in the company of those who have lived through them, going so far as to bring a subject back to the site of a trauma and asking him or her to re-live traumatic moments in his presence. One sees examples of this not only in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but in Wings of Hope and The White 337

Diamond. Beyond examining Herzog’s relationship to war, one might also ask whether the director’s fascination with trauma is employed, consciously or unconsciously, as a means to draw our attention away from political and historical questions. Trauma serves as a means of reducing historical events to localised or individual experiences, and this focus on individual trauma now and again undercuts the possibility of studying broader historical questions about wars and their causes. The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz In order to examine the question central to this chapter, it is worthwhile to turn to Herzog’s early short film The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreutz (1966)). The film depicts four young men arriving at an abandoned fortress, and entering it as if on a lark. They don military gear that they find there and behave as though they are awaiting an attack. The attack, however, never comes. They finally head off to confront their imagined opponent, because, as we are told by the narrator, ‘wars now are more inevitable than ever, and even a defeat is better than nothing at all’. As Herzog later explains, the film is ‘about a group of young men protecting an abandoned castle from imaginary attackers … It is the same kind of theme that I worked with in Signs


of Life a few years later. People think they are being besieged, yet there is actually no enemy and they are left in the lurch’ (Cronin 2002: 18). To look at the title, the defence of the fortress was not so much ‘unprecedented’ as it was ‘without example’ (‘Beispiellos’). Already in this early film, Herzog deals with the failure to navigate the line between fantasy and reality: if the men truly had to engage in a defence of the fortress, there would be an example (Beispiel) of an attack to which they would be responding. As it stands, there is no such example; the defence is something only necessary in their imaginations. The film is less about a particular war than it is about the psychology of conflict in general; it is about how we engage the ghosts and fantasies by which we are besieged. Though it does not seem to have been a consciously chosen influence, the film strongly recalls Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘The Beggarwoman of Locarno’ written in 1810. Herzog occasionally cites Kleist among his influences, and given that he adapted Achim von Arnim’s 1818 story ‘The Madman of Fort Ratonneau’ for his first feature, Signs of Life, only a short time afterwards, he likely had Romantic motifs on his mind. In Kleist’s story, a Marquis is cruel to a beggarwoman who ultimately dies in a corner of one of his castle’s rooms. She later haunts him, and when the Marquis becomes convinced that the haunting is genuine (when it is detected even by the dog), he goes mad and burns down his own castle, killing himself in the act. For Kleist, the question of whether one is ‘actually’ haunted is 339

never a settled score. In his texts, fantasy has more power than that which we take for reality and Kleist frequently constructs narratives that turn on this manner of ambiguity; they create perpetual motion machines out of the possibility that things always may and may not be as they appear in the protagonists’ fantasies. The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz begins with a sober and objective-sounding voice-over that offers the historical information that the citizens in the area surrounding the fortress have to admit that every effort has failed to do something ‘reasonable’ with it. The word ‘reasonable’ (‘venünftig’) is emphasised: it is said twice in the film, and is a word familiar from both Signs of Life and from Even Dwarfs Started Small, films in which madmen are begged to act reasonably; the madness is, in these instances, the failure of reason’s lure. The narrator explains that everything in connection with this fortress, even attempts to grow mushrooms in its cellar, have failed, and that the Russians robbed everything from it at the end of the war. Now its windows are nailed shut; in the inner court grass and grain grow. Before the Russians came, we are told, it functioned as a sanatorium, which lends it a particularly foreboding air. Following the opening titles, a different voice takes over the narration, one filled with diabolical laughter. His narration ceases to be factual, but appears instead to be the inner ravings of a paranoid man. This is perhaps the voice of the ghost that haunts the fortress. 340

It turns out that there is indeed a secret passage into the fortress. This passage, through which the film’s ‘soldiers’ also enter, has the connotation of a passage through to the unconscious. The narrator adds: ‘Whoever lives secretly [heimlich] in a house spares himself the cost of rent’ (‘Wer heimlich im Haus wohnt, erspart sich die Miete’). The word heimlich here has the connotations brought with it from Romanticism and from psychoanalysis insofar as Freud used this Romantically-inflected word as a starting point for his key 1919 study ‘The Uncanny’, which addressed the interrelationship between psychoanalysis and literature, specifically E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’. Herzog, of course, does not assert this connection anywhere, yet it becomes increasingly clear that this voice belongs to a ghost that inhabits the fortress, and it is the type of image one often finds in German Romantic tales. It is not only the voice-over but all of the sounds in the film that are extra-diegetic. While this may have stemmed from practical concerns associated with making a film on a shoestring budget, it also recalls the way the film functions as an inner monologue rather than as an ‘objective’ account. We get a bit of a history of the castle or fortress, which sounds like a history of horrors. The narrator says: ‘When something falls into a virgin’s lap, new life begins’ and this unconventional idiom becomes somewhat horrific once we are informed that the forefather of this castle’s Count was arrested three hundred years earlier for taking the 341

blood of a virgin with the intention of washing his own skin in it. This seems connected to the events we see unravelling before us, insofar as it may be the will of this ghost that the men are fulfilling. Still another ‘saying’ that the narrator shares with us is that corpses that continually grin must be informed of the seriousness of their situation. At one point the film’s soldiers chase after a mouse, and the humour, if this is meant to be humorous, comes from the gap between the script and its images. We are reminded: the enemy could be right beside you, only a hair’s breadth away. The ghost – perhaps the fortress itself – means to inspire this sort of paranoia. An anti-war reading of the film would take it to be suggesting that if one arms oneself for conflict, one might be inclined to seek it out. Equally significant is the idea that if the enemy is as close by and invisible as it seems to be in the film, then one should consider the possibility that the real enemy is one’s self, a point that is made most forcefully at the film’s end, when the enemy finally appears across the field, seen through binoculars. We see a farmer doing nothing but farming. There is neither a real enemy, nor are there real gunshots. There is only a close-up of an innocuous enemy rake, and of an equally innocuous enemy tractor. All is revealed to be the fantasy of these young men. In a foreshadow of Signs of Life, one among many in this film, the soldiers tie up one of their own and put him in a wheelbarrow. The film makes clear that they have been unable – at least beyond the confines of the fortress – to find the 342

conflict for which they were searching. In a gesture similar to the fireworks display at the end of Signs of Life, the men begin to send up smoke signals. ‘They did their best’, we are told, and now there is nothing left to do but draw out the enemy in this fashion. The only war they can fight is pre-emptive, and in this regard, this decades-old film seems particularly current: it deals with a pre-emptive war against a fantasised enemy. If there is an irony in the film’s final line, which instructs us that wars are more necessary than ever, it comes from our knowledge that this war was wholly unnecessary. While the soldiers may be understood as victims of ghosts or of the fortress’s past, as puppets forced to re-enact past violence, the film also lets us know that they found their own way in. As with Stroszek in Signs of Life, these armaments find employment because imaginations may tend towards paranoia. Yet unlike Stroszek, these men sought out a war. The weight of the past – its ghosts – cannot be held wholly responsible for the violence of the present. Ballad of the Little Soldier Herzog’s documentary Ballad of the Little Soldier, made many years after The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, takes a very different approach to war. On its surface, it does not seem to deal on any level with Germany’s troubled history. Studying the film through to its end, however, one notes a recurring


historical motif, a motif that sympathises with the youngest of the German fighters who participated in World War Two. The film at one point makes direct reference to these exploited young men, an element that is to be examined shortly. However, I would first like to examine how the film embroiled Herzog in political controversy, and how the position he took regarding this film was consistent with his overall idea about the role politics should play in his filmmaking. Once again, Herzog appears less concerned by his film’s political claims and their consequences than he is with capturing something unique or something rarely seen on film. Herzog directed Ballad of the Little Soldier with the assistance of Denis Reichle, a writer and photographer who, because of his journalistic work in East Timor, Angola and elsewhere, was described by Herzog as ‘the most fearless person I know’ (Cronin 2002: 191). They shot this film in the early 1980s near the northern border of Nicaragua along the Rio Coco, a river that runs between Nicaragua and Honduras. Ballad of the Little Soldier documents the resistance of the Miskito Indians (their name has more recently been spelled ‘Miskitu’) to the Sandinista government. Because the Miskitos had been maltreated under Somoza, Herzog chooses to depict them as a people who are permanently caught in the crossfire, the victims of competing exploiters. As Herzog summarises during the course of the film: ‘The Indians have no illusions. They know they will always have to defend 344

themselves, regardless of who succeeds the Sandinistas.’ The film focuses especially on young soldiers – the ‘little soldiers’ – who have been drawn into the fight with almost no understanding of the dimensions and causes of the conflict. Herzog and Reichle hear and record accounts of atrocities committed by the Sandinistas against the Miskitos, some of which may date from a bloody campaign in December 1981, which earned the name ‘Red Christmas’. The Sandinistas, of course, told a different story than is represented in the film, attributing much of the violence to the Contras, claiming that former national guardsmen under the guidance of a man named Stedman Fagot, a one-time Somoza security agent, perpetrated Red Christmas. This latter account contradicts Herzog’s depiction of events. One article in The Nation took the position that at the time of that incident the Contras had planned to establish control of the Rio Coco zone by fomenting a Miskito insurrection. Dan Bellm writes: ‘The insurrection never occurred, but the Rio Coco villages were caught in a terrible crossfire, mistrusted by both sides. At least sixty people died in Contra attacks on more than a dozen villages. To prevent the Contras from gaining a territorial foothold, the Sandinistas quickly relocated the Rio Coco population (about 8,500 Miskitos) farther south and burned their villages’ (1985: 475). Bellm here presents the Sandinista side, justifying the transplantation of the Indians and referring to it euphemistically as ‘relocation’. Herzog’s film opts 345

not to present this as a story with two sides. He demonises only the Sandinistas. Such a position of course inspired a predictably strong political response. Given that the subject was so tendentious, it almost seemed as though Herzog was deliberately antagonising the left. At the time, some treated the film as right-wing, pro-Reagan (and therefore pro-CIA) propaganda. Bellm describes the film as ‘careless and misleading’, and points out that Herzog ‘made no effort to talk with representatives of the Nicaraguan government or to visit settlements where Miskitos have not sided with the Contras’ (1985: 475). George Paul Csicsery documented the protests engendered by the film. Many of the accusations seemed to be of the same type as those that dogged Herzog in the wake of Fitzcarraldo: his fascination with Indians was said to amount to little more than a form of exoticising racism. In this case, however, his position cast him as ‘an opportunistic lackey for the CIA’ (Roxanne Ortiz in Csicsery, 1985/86: 7). This criticism emphasised less his German background, as had the criticisms of Fitzcarraldo, than his insensitivity to the specific history and politics of the region he had chosen to document. In response to the accusations, Herzog adopted the pretence of standing outside political debate. As was often the case, he rejected attempts to link his work to existing ideological positions. Once again, he took recourse to the assertion that the truths of his films and the world of politics were separate, and that he had no 346

desire to venture into the latter. To judge from the film itself, Herzog seems intent on provoking what he views as an ideologically rigid political left and puts himself in the position of relaying the brutal and honest truths that (he feels) leftists are afraid to hear: ‘As it was filmed in Nicaragua, the dogmatic left – for whom the Sandinistas at that time were still the sacred cow – could not accept that I was not working alongside the CIA on the project’ (Cronin 2002: 190). He adds: ‘The intellectuals were simply unable to understand that politically dogmatic cinema is not something I practise, and they did not bother to look at what the film is really about; rather they superimposed their own political views on to Ballad of the Little Soldier’ (Cronin 2002: 192). It is surprising, however, that Herzog chose to position himself as an opponent of the dogmatic left in the early 1980s, years dominated by the politics of Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl, and it is likewise hard to imagine that Herzog would at that time have felt challenged by the threatening spectre of leftist ideological hegemony. At the same time, however, this film can also be understood as taking a stance in a specifically German debate, positioning itself in relation to a counter-ideology that was hardened in its particular dogmatism as a response to Germany’s own national-socialist history. That discourse is arguably different from the one that took place in Britain or the US. He may not have been issuing a challenge to the American left, but rather to the German one by way of a detour into a Central American issue. 347

To take Herzog at his word, however, his intention was much more to critique the violence of the Sandinistas as well as their imposition of ‘scientific socialism’ (by which he seems to imply central planning in the style of the GDR). Herzog assumes the inferiority of such planning relative to what he sees as the Miskitos’ ‘primitive socialism on a village level’. According to him, this latter community-based socialism, as practised by the Miskito Indians, is true socialism: ‘in their social structure they traditionally lived a primitive form of socialism. The Sandinistas wanted to help the Indians take a step forward towards “real” scientific socialism, and in an attempt to reorganise the village communes a whole strip of Miskito land on the Honduran border was categorically depopulated and sixty-five towns and villages razed to the ground’ (Cronin 2002: 191). The ‘reorganisation’ or ‘depopulation’ is the source of the dispute. Again, according to the Sandinistas, the move was an opportunity to provide access to medical assistance and education, and to criticise it on other grounds was part of ‘a ferocious, slanderous campaign of lies mounted by the CIA and State Department’ against the revolution (Mercado 1982: 390). Yet Herzog’s implicit argument, that the most ardent defences of relocation as something that benefited the Miskitos were difficult to sustain, was correct: forcing relocation and burning homes is rarely for the good of those involved. The debate around this point goes well beyond Herzog’s film. Most depictions of this series of incidents and the 348

accompanying violence have been slanted either to the left or the right in order to make political points that alternately support or castigate the Sandinistas. Because Herzog’s film weighs in so decisively on one side of the debate it is hard to believe that he did not know that the film he was making was indeed ‘political’, or at least that his film would be drawn into a political controversy. Despite the narrative he presents, and despite his claims about communal socialism’s superiority to scientific socialism, Herzog maintained that this film was not about politics, but rather about ‘children fighting in a war’ (Cronin 2002: 190). He is less interested in uncovering the root causes of the conflict than in documenting its unpleasant symptoms. Herzog has here, once again, provided a perspective on an event while removing the larger, contextualising frame. One might, then, be inclined to ask whether it is possible to present a subject that is this deeply political without taking a political position. Additionally, if one takes seriously the famous contention that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means, would it be possible to assert that a filmmaker could depict the soldiers or the victims of a war without taking up political issues, or without being embroiled in political debate? Herzog, however, asserted he was doing exactly that. Among the problematic aspects of the film is the way Herzog depicts the soldiers as children. It evokes questions as to how one may view a community, particularly a community displaced by development, with respect to its own desires. The 349

problem is similar to the one that emerges in relation to Where the Green Ants Dream. One of the ways to understand the problematic character of the choices in Ballad of the Little Soldier is to look at the way the film depicts its chief subject: children. The film begins with a young man singing a song along with a cassette tape. He sings ‘La de la Mochila Azul’, the lyric of which tells the story of a student who longs for a girl (or a boy in some alternative versions of the song) who is missing from school that day. The student cannot have any fun or read or write when she is not around. The young man sings along with the song on the cassette and is almost affectless. It is as if something speaks through him, as though he were the tool of a ventriloquist. This image can be taken as emblematic for what Herzog is suggesting about the Miskito Indians. He does not present them as independent agents of history, but rather as the victims of forces larger than they are. The question arises as to whether Herzog is presenting the entirety of the Miskito resistance through the figure of the child. It would appear that the children featured in the film stand for the whole of the community. With the limited information with which Herzog provides us, the Miskito fighting forces consist almost entirely of children. If we look at the questions raised by detailed studies of Miskito history and politics, we see that Herzog is recapitulating a problem faced by historians of the Miskitos such as Charles Hale. Although historical work of this sort can be criticised for seeing things solely from the perspective of the Sandinistas, and 350

for downplaying the violence of the early 1980s, one must ask how a political scientist – or a historian, or a filmmaker – can view the Miskito people in terms of their own desires, ones that emerge organically from their community’s response to the external threats imposed, rather than presenting them as political naïfs who can be persuaded to fight based on whatever rumour may be circulating at the time, as is arguably implied by Herzog’s film. Late in Ballad of the Little Soldier, referring to a young fighter, Reichle asks rhetorically: ‘Do you think he knows what is Communism?’ The answer may be ‘no’, and this is certainly the position taken by the film, yet this soldier may also have an understanding of his own as to why he fights – an answer not presented here. Ultimately the film desires to present only war-in-itself, something Herzog also aims at in Lessons of Darkness. Herzog has consistently stated that his intention was not to make a political film, yet in intervening on this subject politics seems unavoidable. One can indeed suggest that the film is politically problematic insofar as Herzog does not take an interest in investigating his claims about the massacres, he is vague about the dates of events, and he depicts the Miskitos as the perennial victims of other people’s plans. Beyond all of this – beyond what he has left out of his film – we can also ask what it is that he does mean to present us with. In part this film is a study of war trauma and, as indicated, this may be a matter of greater interest 351

to Herzog than the politics of war. To take the director on his own terms, he means to study the effect on people – in this case, especially on young people – of living beneath the looming shadow of death. It is a question he has asked in various forms in other films. The Miskitos, who are caught in the crossfire of war, seem transfixed by the face of death as they stand among the ruins of what was at one time their community. A number of them seem to resemble the hypnotised protagonists of Heart of Glass. Regarding one case in particular, we see a traumatised ‘little soldier’ who has trouble telling his story. Herzog describes the situation: ‘I talked to a young boy in a commando unit who was in a state of shock and who could barely speak. His two-year-old brother, six-year-old brother and his father had all been killed and his mother cut in pieces before his eyes. He had not yet finished his training, but he wanted to go out the next day and kill’ (Cronin 2002: 193). The hypnotic death trance that pervades this community is closely bound to that which makes the film specifically German, or that which one can identify as the film’s underlying theme. Towards its end, Denis Reichle makes a couple of telling comments about German history. According to Herzog, his co-director had been a member of the Volkssturm, the military unit of Germans who had been thrown in front of the Russians in the final days before Germany’s surrender, and one can infer that this early experience contributed to Reichle’s aura of ‘fearlessness’. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Volkssturm were 352

extremely young. In his article about the film, Csicsery puts it this way: Reichle sees himself in these boys. Their experiences resonate with his own experiences in World War Two, when the German army was so desperate for manpower that it drafted 15-year-olds, and finally, near the very end, even 14-year-olds. Denis Reichle, it seems, was one of them. On camera, Reichle speaks at length: ‘It’s a very sad moment what I see now. It reminds me too much of my childhood. At the age of 13, 14, if somebody tells you you’re a man and you’ve got to fight for the country, you automatically believe it and you go. And that’s what I see here again. It happened to us forty years ago; and it happens around the world – all over – every time. I can’t put that out of my mind when I see all these kids, that for me, I see them practically dead.’ (1985/86: 12) Csicsery also reads a series of visual motifs during this sequence as resonating with images of Hitler speaking to the troops during the final days of the war, a resonance that may be conscious or unconscious on Herzog’s part. Such an account contributes to understanding the film as a comment on the German past: the Miskito soldier, and thereby by analogy the young German soldier,


is here seen as a victim of forces beyond his control. Viewed in this light, the film is an exculpatory narrative about victimised German fighters, ones that might otherwise be understood as the perpetrators of violence. This is, of course, not the only way to understand Ballad of the Little Soldier. It was also intended to present the horror of war ‘in itself’, distinct from the question of politics, and to provoke the left, which Herzog perhaps saw as too complacent. It remains a topic for debate, whether someone could ever present war ‘in itself’, and whether there is such a thing as war abstracted from the specific political contexts and conditions that make it possible. Little Dieter Needs to Fly In 1979 a German-born US Navy pilot named Dieter Dengler published Escape from Laos, a memoir dealing with his experiences before and after having been shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. It is easy to see why Herzog was intrigued by Dieter’s story, and was led to make Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Like Herzog, Dieter was born in southern Germany and is of the same generation as the director. His memories of World War Two are likewise intertwined with his childhood. Moreover, Dieter later settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, which Herzog also called his home for a time. Perhaps most importantly the traumatic events in Dieter’s past took place in the jungle, something that enabled Herzog to film in a


fortress of foliage as thick as the Amazon, an environment pregnant with metaphors and one to which he was always attracted. Indeed, this is the story he found so fascinating that he returned to it years later, as the subject of the feature film Rescue Dawn (2006). As was the focus of Ballad of the Little Soldier, Herzog’s recounting of Dieter’s story begins with childhood experience. Dieter’s perceptions, especially his memories of World War Two, subsequently determined his choices and conditioned his world-view. During the course of the film, we are told that Dieter witnessed the air raids on his home as though they were an attack from the heavens themselves. In his memoir Dieter confirms that his story indeed started at this moment. He writes that soon after his father had been killed in Russia, his hometown of Wildberg (in the southwest of Germany) ‘received its first visit from Allied fighter planes … At that time I would never have understood or anticipated that someday I, as a pilot, would spread the same kind of fear among peasants in a land thousands of miles away. I was captivated by those sleek looking planes with loud screaming engines’ (1979: 13). He identified with the attackers so much that he was inspired to become a bomber pilot, and presenting that fact is clearly one of Herzog’s salient fascinations. Here we have to recall that Herzog has elsewhere detailed his own, somewhat similar, early experiences of Germany during wartime, experiences that include a shaking ceiling, window glass shattering around him and 355

the easy access that he had to firearms as a young child in the ruins of a warring nation. As with Dieter, Herzog’s childhood was dramatically altered by the experience. The fundamental roots of this trauma are therefore familiar to him. Referring to this period in their lives, Herzog explains, ‘like me, Dieter had to take charge of his life from a very early age, and because as children we both knew what real hunger was, we had an immediate rapport’ (Cronin 2002: 265). Perhaps Dieter’s identification with the pilots, his perceived aggressors, can be understood as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: traumatised by the bombing, Dieter comes to identify with those aggressors, the US. In the film Rescue Dawn the character Duane (Steve Zahn), based on Duane Martin who was a POW with Dieter (who is here played by Christian Bale), sums up the matter succinctly: ‘a guy tries to kill you and you want his job’. Herzog, who wrote the screenplay for Rescue Dawn, is aware of the implications of Dieter’s unusual decision to become a US pilot. In order to drive home the extent of the ordeal suffered by Dieter both during and after the war, Herzog, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, makes the decision to include footage of Germany buried in rubble, immediately following the capitulation (on this point, see Gerhardt 2006). In the film Dieter communicates a memorable detail about having to eat cooked wallpaper served to him by his mother because it may have had nutrients in it. Herzog has elsewhere praised his own mother for being similarly resourceful during that difficult era. Dieter 356

again starved while escaping from Laos, and the film’s unspoken implication is that he was conditioned for this intense starvation in the jungle during the period following World War Two. Twice in the film, Herzog brings us to Wildberg, the town where Dieter grew up. As Dieter explains it, the entire population of this small town had voted for Hitler – everyone, that is, except for his grandfather. Dieter describes the man as having been marched around the town and humiliated for his iconoclastic views, and he sees his own participation in the Vietnam War as, in a certain way, consistent with his grandfather’s bravery. At one point his Laotian captors insisted he sign a document condemning the US presence, but he refused to sign, and Dieter explains to Herzog that his grandfather’s resistance to Hitler and the Nazis inspired his fortitude. Dieter elsewhere underscores the connection between his grandfather’s anti-Nazi stance and his resistance to his tormentors, referring in his memoir to one of his captors by the nickname ‘Little Hitler’. In Escape from Laos, Dieter writes about being told to sign the statement denouncing the American bombing, and he explains that under the circumstances he refused to condemn the war. Dieter later stated that he had problems with the war, and in an interview (with Indiewire, see Stone 1998) shortly after the release of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he indicated that he makes efforts to stay away from films such as Apocalypse Now (1979) or Full Metal Jacket (1987), describing them as ‘a glorification of something we ought to 357

be ashamed of’. When the question of condemning the war comes up, one has to ask why Herzog is so reserved with regard to condemning the role of the United States. Herzog explores this with Cronin, saying: ‘Inevitably I was asked why I did not denounce American aggression in the Vietnam War and why the film made no political statement about the war. Though I feel that the war is always very much in the margins of the film, you have to remember that for Dieter it lasted only forty minutes. It was never his aim to go to war; he just wanted to fly’ (Cronin 2002: 267). Herzog did not feel that political perspectives of this sort were organically connected with Dieter’s very personal story. As was the case with Ballad of the Little Soldier, Herzog imagined that he was just presenting viewers with a painful or traumatic story as such – a story of war ‘in itself’. His work was intended to transcend politics, but this is, of course, unimaginable; Herzog’s film would not truly be able to strip away history in order to depict an encounter with the jungle, torture or death as an event wholly divorced from its surrounding context. Once again, in this film, Herzog edits in archival footage. He makes use of images of the air raids and images of postwar Germany, which is all part of the film’s stylisation. At one point Herzog includes footage from a GI training film to which soldiers such as Dieter might have been exposed (footage that makes its way into an early scene in Rescue Dawn). It shows survival tactics in the jungle – a jungle that looks less like Southeast 358

Asia than like a studio set – and in his narration, Herzog rightly mocks its naïveté. To our eyes, the film looks silly, particularly now that we know how difficult, and to use Herzog’s word ‘alien’, the landscape of Vietnam was for a Westerner. The GI in the film shows how to use his handy knife, start a fire and survive on apparently abundant heart of palm. Once we have heard Dieter’s story, including tales of monsoons and starvation, the training video appears ludicrous. Herzog states in the film: ‘They were worried about Russia and the Cold War. A jungle war didn’t factor much in their thinking.’ The point seems to be that the US – especially a US that was preoccupied with its Cold War against Russia – had very little sense of what it was getting itself into in Vietnam. Part of this American naïveté contributed to Dieter’s own perception of Vietnam from the air. Dieter explains to Herzog that he did not think at all of the reality of the people on the ground: ‘I had one burning desire, and that was to fly. That there were people down there who suffer only came clear to me later when I was their prisoner.’ In this way, the film can be taken not only as a comment on the relative indifference to the population on the ground with which nations enter into air wars – a debate that has renewed currency in Germany given contemporary interventions on the subject of Allied bombings by historians, literary theorists and others – but also as a comment on subsequent US bombing campaigns, especially the Gulf Wars. Herzog means to suggest that there is a wilful blindness on the part of those who 359

would attack a country from the air and not reflect on the experience of the victims on the ground. In the spirit of wanting to put us in the frame of mind of a naïve US soldier (in this case that of a German-born US soldier), or a soldier who is a victim of the war in which they are fighting, Herzog depicts Laos – which here is actually Thailand – as an alien landscape complete with exotic music, deracinated from its source. The moment we enter into the jungle with Herzog and Dengler, the Mongolian Tuva Singers appear on the soundtrack underscoring the apparent foreignness of this world. A foreign landscape such as this one can be taken as that which Herzog has described as ‘a dreamscape of the surreal’ (Cronin 2002: 265). The dreamscape is, in this film, a world beneath the looming shadow of Dieter’s near-death experience. The film begins with an epigram from Revelations 9:6 – ‘And in those days men will seek death and not find it; they will long to die, and death shall flee from them.’ This concept of a landscape dominated by death’s spectre, one in which its dim light recreates everything in its own grim image, recalls themes from the German Baroque tradition, and in particular the German tragic-drama or Trauerspiel. The philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin famously described this literary-historical period as one in which destruction was ‘idealised’. He wrote that in Baroque dramas, ‘the transfigured face of nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption’, and that in such dramas, the face of history 360

appears as ‘a petrified, primordial landscape … Everything about history that from the very beginning has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face – or rather in a death’s head’ (1977: 166). While Benjamin’s philosophically-inflected literary theory is somewhat far afield, it should be pointed out that Herzog works with a similar motif: he is interested in finding a standpoint that looks at a world filtered entirely through death. In this case, he is interested in Dieter’s vision of the world in a moment of intense confrontation with his mortality. What Herzog means to chronicle is how Dieter, during his confrontation with death, was caught between wishing for death and fearing it. As in Nosferatu the Vampyre, it becomes apparent that the threat of death, its looming spectre, can both eviscerate and vitiate its victims. As is typical for Herzog, this tale is less political or historical than it is existential. The film opens with Dieter considering whether or not to get a tattoo in which death is depicted riding on a chariot blocking entry to the gates of heaven. Dieter does not get the tattoo, and Herzog admits to Cronin that Dieter never considered getting the tattoo, it was all part of the film’s stylisation. Dieter did, however, have such biblical, apocalyptic visions when he was near starvation in the jungle. In this regard, death’s most interesting ambassador is the bear that Dieter describes as having accompanied him after his final escape when he was alone and things were at their worst. The bear was most likely waiting to eat him. Dieter himself points out 361

that the bear was death, in a literal and allegorical form: ‘The bear meant death to me. It’s really ironic; the only friend I had at the end was death.’ It is of course an image that returns in Grizzly Man, a film about the courtship of death in the form of grizzly bears in the Pacific Northwest. To view Herzog’s films as all of a piece, which it is tempting to do, one might also note that the image of a bear in the woods appears in Heart of Glass as well, as Hias, the seer, wrestles with a bear in the moment that the town, having lost the secret of the ruby glass, faces ruin. Among the film’s many stylisations, Herzog includes a bear in the film. Alongside his usual admissions, Herzog has said ‘there is hardly a scene in the film that was not shot at least five times until we got it exactly right’ (Cronin 2002: 265). As with the bear, one of the other most evident non-documentary moments involves jellyfish. Dieter describes his feelings as a prisoner as akin to ‘floating along in a real thick medium’. He then points to the tank of jellyfish and adds that this is what such a situation turns you into. Of course, despite the fact that this is a documentary, they are not in front of a tank of jellyfish merely by accident. The boldest example of theatrical mise-en-scène in the film is Herzog’s use of Asian locals or actors for a full-scale re-enactment of Dieter’s forced march through the jungle. As Dieter explains the details of what happened when he was taken prisoner, paid extras encircle him, wielding guns and looking menacing. Herzog then has Dieter’s hands bound behind him and, as the 362

group sets out, with their guns trained on Dieter, he exclaims: ‘Uh-oh! This feels a little bit too close to home.’

Dieter is encircled by extras in Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Herzog tells the viewer, ‘of course, Dieter knew it was only a film, but all the old terror returned, as if it were real.’ For the director, this was an act of stylisation in the interest of producing a strong reaction, or of returning Dieter to the feelings associated with this traumatic moment. This interest in trauma recurs in Wings of Hope, as described below, but here it is important to mention that Herzog is willing to place someone in a position where they might re-experience a terror from the past, as though he were himself a therapist encouraging his patient to work through a


memory. While Herzog would reject the psychoanalytic model, having gone on record many times as being opposed to psychoanalysis and its trappings, what he has Dieter do in this scene takes a position relative to the discourse on working through trauma. It suggests that Herzog is willing to have Dieter experience something horrific for the sake of the film. It also presumes both that there is something to be gained on the viewer’s part from watching this cinematic subject re-experience moments from the past, and that this is not transpiring in an exploitative way such that Dieter is left more traumatised than he was before he met Herzog. Critics of the film, and of Herzog’s method, point out that the film is less about Dieter than about Herzog’s artistic visions. The director frequently speaks for Dieter, recounting, for example, a series of dreams that he attributes to him. They seem to emerge – at least in part – as consequences of Herzog’s own impulse towards stylisation, and the dreams were merely inspired by Dieter’s experiences. One has the impression that the two, the director and his subject, are working synthetically to recount Dieter’s story. Our understanding of the subject’s inner life is complemented if not thoroughly framed by what Herzog tells us about him. He makes observations such as: ‘[Dieter] seems to be normal, but he is not.’ One might be inclined to ask whether Dieter would have agreed with such an assessment; to look at his biography, there is no indication that he saw himself as suffering from post-traumatic 364

stress disorder. Much of the portrayal of his post-traumatic stress comes to us by way of Herzog’s own hyperbole. The curious habits Dieter seems to have acquired as a consequence of his imprisonment, including a fascination with doors (and with artworks that depict doors) and a need to keep a large supply of food in storage (what he claims are a thousand pounds of rice, wheat, honey and sugar) are likely partial stylisations. Additionally, when Dieter jokes that his escape was the fun part of his life, Herzog takes the opportunity to describe him as ‘hiding behind a casual remark’. At the very end of the film when Herzog pans across an airfield filled with miles and miles of airplanes, he describes the scene as Dieter’s fantasy: ‘From horizon to horizon, the planet covered in aircraft against the anguish of the night.’ On the one hand, the point here seems to reflect only the director’s creative constructions, as they were inspired by the story of Dieter Dengler. However, one should add that Herzog has an evident respect and admiration for Dieter’s fortitude, his will to survive and his love for life. He has said many times over that he finds Dieter inspirational. The DVD release of the film contains a telling ‘postscript’ following the end credits: Herzog documents Dieter’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, four years after they made the film together. During the course of the film Herzog had asked Dieter: ‘What does it mean for you to be a war hero?’ Dieter replied: ‘I’m not a hero. Only people who are dead are heroes, and that’s 365

the last thing I want to be and I don’t think of myself as a hero.’ The final sequence depicts him buried in a patriotic ceremony, as Dieter would likely have wanted. ‘America, the Beautiful’ plays in the background, and Herzog keeps the stylisation to a minimum (apart from the sighting of F-14s flying overhead, which may be taken as a reference to the US bombers and the initial violence with which the story began). This restraint might serve as a sign of Herzog’s respect, and as an attempt to memorialise Dieter as the hero that modesty had prevented him from becoming in life. The ending of Rescue Dawn is heroic as well. While some have seen Dieter’s triumphant return as it is depicted in that later film as a moment of unfettered US patriotism, it can also be understood as an effort to see this return through Dieter’s own eyes. The feature film is on the whole less elliptical and fog filled than Herzog’s other works, and critic Anthony Lane is right to point out that Rescue Dawn is without the ‘directionless trance’ that has long been a part of Herzog’s signature style (Lane 2007: 101). There is some circularity to the plot, insofar as one ultimately wonders why Dieter left home to begin with. More important, however, is that the film’s narrative trajectory, which indeed arrives at a more or less redemptive endpoint, was likely intended to mirror, with a minimum of ambiguity, what Herzog sees as his protagonist’s own straightforwardness. Wings of Hope


Using the same techniques he used in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wings of Hope is really a companion piece to that film. Many similar themes are introduced – down to the film’s focus on a plane crash – and Herzog here also spends a good part of the time marching his subject through the jungle. Wings of Hope documents Herzog’s extended interview with Juliane Köpcke, who in 1971 at age 17 was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle, a crash that killed her mother and a planeload of fellow passengers. Over twelve days, wounded from the fall, Juliane struggled and eventually found her way back to civilisation. Similar to the way in which Herzog approached Dieter, he here brings his subject back to the scene and walks her along the trails where she once almost perished. Again, we get a good deal of insight into the film’s subject through Herzog’s narration, perhaps as much as we get from the testimony of the subject herself. Wings of Hope depicts a traumatic event. As Herzog describes Juliane’s attitude, she speaks in the cool tones of a scientist, and his contention is that this is the only means she has of mastering her overwhelming experience. She was raised by researchers and, as she comes across in Herzog’s film, her response to the world around her is guided by an extremely analytic approach. Herzog summarises quite a bit for us and draws many conclusions. Some of her behaviour, as we see it, appears to be eccentric. The apparent detachment with which she speaks about the maggots that ate into her wounds during the period in which she 367

was lost in the jungle, recalls the strange detachment with which Reinhold Messner speaks of the loss of his extremities in The Dark Glow of the Mountains; it is evidence of obsession or denial. There is, of course, no question that the experience and the recounting of it are difficult things, but it is hard to get a sense of Juliane’s emotions about these matters because Herzog speaks for her quite a bit. The facts of Juliane’s experience and her testimony would be enough to leave us in no doubt as to the intensity of her personal drama, but Herzog is motivated to invent death-obsessed dreams on her behalf. He wants to share in them, perhaps because they spur him to poetic rhapsody. As he had in the case of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and to some extent in Land of Silence and Darkness and in other films, Herzog here fashions his subject’s dreams. He has admitted that the dreams in Wings of Hope are ‘all pure invention’ (Cronin 2002: 271). Herzog first undertook this type of creative approach in Land of Silence and Darkness. In that film, which follows a deaf and blind woman, Fini Straubinger, as she visits with and assists other deaf and blind persons, Herzog takes liberties when describing Fini’s imaginary universe. He tells Cronin that a line quoted at the end of the film, ‘If a world war were to break out now, I would not even notice it’, is not something that Fini ever said. Herzog explains: ‘That is something I wrote that I felt encapsulated, in only a few words, how someone like her might experience the world … And the 368

lines at the start of the film when Fini speaks about the ecstatic faces of the ski-flyers whom she says she used to watch as a child are also written by me. It is all pure invention. She had actually never even seen a ski-jumper, and I just asked her to say the lines that I wrote. Why? Because I felt that the solitude and ecstasy of the ski-jumpers as they flew through the air was a great image to represent Fini’s own state of mind and solitude’ (Cronin 2002: 240–1). Similarly, 28 years later, Herzog again invents his protagonist’s visions. The very first words we hear in the film are Herzog recounting Juliane’s dreams: ‘In her dreams, Juliane often sees herself on the streets of a city. Shops, display windows, bargains … everything seems normal. Then, all of the sudden, the faces she encounters are broken.’ At the moment Herzog says this, he includes images of mannequins with damaged faces and skulls, with bandages and broken teeth. Herzog continues: ‘The heads are smashed. Disfigured. But strangely enough, she is not afraid.’ This sequence suggests that she, like Dieter, lives beneath the looming penumbra of death. With respect to this particular use of mise-en-scène, one may note that a mannequin makes an appearance in Little Dieter Needs to Fly as well: when Dieter puts his flight suit on, as their journey back in time begins, he removes the suit from the body of a mannequin. Seeing the two films in connection with one another, the mannequin appears as the symbol of the walking dead, or as the doppelgänger of a protagonist who is frozen in 369

time. It represents the alter ego of a figure who has been so close to death that he or she cannot help but see the world through its thick veil. Wings of Hope is meant to depict Juliane’s trauma, yet her dreams have been embellished if not cut from whole cloth. At a later point in the film, Herzog depicts Juliane walking about in a research facility, and he explains: ‘Juliane has her safeguards against the horror. She has frequent dreams about shelves, cases and racks where millions of butterflies are stored away – all existing species of this world.’ Juliane is seen pulling out a drawer filled with pinned down and preserved butterflies. The music swells dramatically as Herzog provides both the dream and its interpretation. Reporting her speech for us, he states that she says: ‘It is … as if I could safely lock away all the airplanes in the world, so that they could not hurt me anymore.’ In Herzog’s interpretation of the dream – a dream that he himself has written – these butterflies are airplanes, reproduced endlessly, precisely as the airplanes in the final sequence of Little Dieter Needs to Fly had been. Insofar as butterflies are the symbol of a transformation, they also serve as a reminder that Juliane, once traumatised, can never return to being the person she once was. Yet Herzog goes further. This dream, as it is, is perhaps too mild; it has too little direct entanglement with the death-obsessed world Herzog aims to depict. He thus takes more creative licence to convey us to a landscape populated by the dead. Herzog continues: 370

‘[Juliane’s] dream turns into a nightmare. Suddenly there are no more living beings, no animals, only trophies. They are stored away in large halls, whole warehouses are filled with them, and the trophies are for sale. And then animal skins of every species, with only few remaining frozen in poses from a distant past. They will never move again, they will never stir. They are caught in the abyss of time.’ The animal trophies are frozen between the worlds of the living and the dead, just as we are supposed to understand Juliane, who – like Dieter – owing to a traumatic confrontation with death, is stuck in the past, frozen at a moment of trauma. As Herzog follows her through the natural history museum, we see that he has staged some of his visions of the dead landscape. There is even a stuffed, preserved bear. The rooms of her dream are a world in which life has been covered over by pervasive death, leaving behind reminders that living beings once inhabited these skins. One has to ask why Herzog opts to invent on behalf of his documentary subjects rather than to let them speak for themselves. Perhaps this is because, as in other films (though especially here and in Little Dieter Needs to Fly), the filmmaker has chosen subjects with whom he has a particular personal entanglement. Incredibly enough, Herzog just missed getting on this very flight with Juliane in 1971 as he was scouting locations for Aguirre, Wrath of God, hence his fascination with this particular story. Her trauma could have been his, or as is more likely, it would 371

have been his end. Herzog wants to remind us that he only missed sharing her dark fate by a hair’s breadth. Perhaps he feels entitled to write her dreams for her because he might have died in the crash, and this coincidence enables or allows him to justify speaking on her behalf. It is not only coincidence – the accidents of being born in Germany, having lived through the Air War or having flown out of Peru on a particular day – but the director’s compassion that plays a role in his choice of entanglements. Herzog obviously has strong feelings for almost all of his subjects, and he has frequently and strenuously rejected accusations that he mistreated protagonists (such as Bruno S. or the dwarfs featured in Even Dwarfs Started Small, to cite two examples). Herzog dismisses such accusations by speaking of the affection he holds for his performers. It is not only, then, that his fate is entangled with figures such as Juliane and with Dieter, but he may be said to care about them as well. In the clearest of terms, Herzog has described his attitude: ‘I am sure you can tell that I have a great deal of sympathy for these people to the point where Schmidt-Reitwein used to joke that I should play all the characters in my films myself … I could never make a film about someone – whether I am making features or “documentaries” – I do not have some sympathetic curiosity for … In fact, when it comes to Fini Straubinger in Land of Silence and Darkness, Bruno S. in Kaspar Hauser, and Dieter Dengler, these people are points of reference not just for 372

my work, but for my life … There is certainly something of what constitutes them inside me’ (Cronin 2002: 69). By the end of Wings of Hope, Herzog’s account of Juliane’s state of mind has become so exaggerated and hyperbolic that a viewer might be led to conclude he is deliberately overstating the traumatic effects of the crash if not in order to mock Juliane, then to test the limits of our acceptance of the idea that she was traumatised. Although Herzog would likely not agree with such a reading, his stylisation has, in the last moments, rendered his own empathy ironic. He narrates: ‘Juliane sees herself again during her flight into the void. Alone, strapped to her seat, she sails on further and further. There is nothing around her, but a yawning abyss. She flies on for weeks, then it becomes dark. As it becomes bright again, she sees a way out, a door of deliverance. She walks through the door and all of a sudden she beholds an angel engulfed in light. All fear departs from her, all screaming falls silent. She does not breathe anymore. Overwhelmed by bliss, her heart stands still for a minute, and she knows that a boat will come slowly and softly to carry her away, to rescue her at last.’ Herzog punctuates many of his films with similarly poetic reflections, and one has to ask whether it is not, in this case, self-evidently excessive. This subject, however, is one that is difficult to approach ironically. Juliane is unambiguously a victim of fate, and she hardly comes across as arrogant or self-aggrandising. We are even given to wonder to what extent she 373

blames herself insofar as she seems to have no definitive answer as to why she and not others survived the crash; she is well aware that her landing, relative to the deaths of the other passengers, was a mere fluke. Moreover, it is made clear that she may take responsibility for her mother’s death insofar as they flew on that particular day because Julianne did not want to leave town for the holidays until after her school prom. Herzog’s exploration of Juliane’s trauma recalls both cinematically and thematically other films in which victims’ experiences are retraced for the benefit of the viewer. In particular Herzog may be said to be stylising the film in a way that refers to other ‘trauma documentaries’ including and in particular a film such as the Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985). In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann went back to the scenes of deportations (the points of departure, the places where Jewish and other victims were taken east), as well as to concentration camps and death camps, with victims and bystanders, and insisted that they go through every last detail of what had happened to them. While his work as a ‘Holocaust documentary’ cannot rightly be said to be part of a ‘genre’, it can certainly be asserted that Herzog approaches his subject in a way similar to Lanzmann. He means to witness Juliane’s testimony, and in order to be as accurate as possible encourages her (as he had encouraged Dieter) to re-live every detail of the difficult traumatic experience. 374

In this regard, it is fair to ask whether Herzog means to hold up for scrutiny – or even parody – this manner of documentary filmmaking insofar as stylisation always involves an element of parody. Herzog’s intention was, in this case, to bring his subject back to the scene of the accident and accurately trace her true path. Herzog has explained that once Juliane agreed to the project she knew there would be ‘no mercy’, and he speaks of the importance of having her sit in precisely the same seat she sat in at the time of the crash (window seat F, row 19) when they flew back to Peru. Herzog also presents us with black and white photos of numerous scenes from her past, including one of Juliane smiling with her parents, and we are reminded that this life was interrupted by tragedy. We are not to forget that she is a survivor, a point that is additionally underscored by the inclusion of images of the memorial at the beginning of the film. This sculpture, referred to as ‘Alas de Esperanza’, is simultaneously a marker of a tragedy, but it also stands for Juliane’s inspirational will to live. As is the case with many Holocaust memorials, the statue is an occasion to remember both the survivors and the dead. This is not to say that Herzog intended to parody work such as Lanzmann’s, but rather that in this period – the time in which he made Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Wings of Hope – something intrigued Herzog about reliving a trauma through the eyes of one who survived it. One cannot, however, truly document trauma insofar as it is 375

erased from memory, and this is one limit of a film such as this. The other limit is imposed by Herzog: he cannot treat a subject cinematically without stylisation, he cannot empathise without making a show of his empathy. Any empathy the director displays quickly transforms into its own self-conscious excess, into ‘over-empathy’, and in the case of his identification with Juliane and Dieter, it manifests itself as a defence against any truly affective display. The White Diamond To take still another, related, example, Herzog’s The White Diamond also begins with an emotional shock, one that causes lasting psychological damage. Because we do not see the subjects of these films – The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wings of Hope or The White Diamond, ones that include testimonies of the traumatised – on the proverbial couch, it is difficult to say with certainty that they are traumatised in any strict psychoanalytic sense. Clearly, however, Herzog works with persons who have been through terrifying or difficult experiences that colour their perceptions of the world and test the limits of the speech to which they have access. This definition of trauma, in other words, is intended rather broadly. In the case of The White Diamond, the focus is more on a sad story of loss than on a tale of terror or torture. Nonetheless it is an occasion for the


director’s consideration of how we represent and confront difficult experiences. The film deals with the efforts of Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer, to build an airship that will fly silently over jungle canopies in order to investigate otherwise obscure flora and fauna. Dorrington and Herzog travel to Guyana to test Dorrington’s recently constructed prototype, but we soon learn that Dorrington has been down this road before. While he was testing an earlier, similar airship in Sumatra in 1993, the filmmaker Dieter Plage, with whom he was working, had fallen to the ground and died. In The White Diamond, Herzog puts Dorrington in a situation that would potentially recreate aspects of that earlier traumatic scenario. Plage’s death is at the heart of the film, although Herzog initially leaves the details about it mysterious. Early on, Dorrington explains that because of the past, it was always difficult to get in an airship, and Herzog clarifies: ‘What Dorrington is referring to is a catastrophe that befell him in an earlier airship he built.’ The centrality of this event is reiterated by Dorrington who adds: ‘My mind will always have this heaviness in it … it’s still the past … I’m hoping that this project will finally, I don’t know, at least prove that what we did back in Sumatra was right, and that Dieter Plage’s vision was justified.’ Herzog lets Dorrington tell us twice about the fatal incident. The first time, he speaks of his feelings of guilt, remarking: ‘I know I’m not responsible for the detail of the accident, but if I hadn’t had the dream in the first place, if I hadn’t had the idea of doing 377

this – then it would never have happened. [Dieter] would probably be alive and filming today.’ The second time, the story is a more emotional recounting of this difficult memory, and although Herzog intercuts the narrative with images of the airship, he does not interrupt or intervene. As Dorrington tells us about watching Dieter Plage fall to the ground his voice trembles with emotion, especially as he says: ‘even though it happened very rapidly I can still see the falling, and then I heard him hit the ground, with a thud. And the terrible thing is, it was like meat in a butcher shop, slamming down on the ground.’ Here, Herzog is neither entangled in Dorrington’s psychic life, nor is he merciless. He provides Dorrington with the room he needs to display affect. Somewhat later in the film, Herzog makes a different decision. Dorrington takes the airship on a successful flight, and he is clearly euphoric upon landing. When he tries to describe his ecstatic feelings, he suddenly recalls Dieter Plage and laments his absence. Rather than lingering on Dorrington and encouraging him to go deeper into the space of memory, Herzog abruptly turns his camera to other matters, and his typically relentless scrutiny manifests itself as a lack of interest. Herzog cuts away, remarking: ‘We felt the right thing now would be to leave Dorrington alone and have a complete change of setting. A few miles downriver from the waterfall, Brazilians operate a diamond mine…’. Herzog then takes us elsewhere, and his camera, which so often unblinkingly monitors his protagonists, now simply 378

turns away. Turning away, however, should not be taken for antipathy. Herzog obviously appreciates Dorrington, a charming engineer with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Yet at the same time, there are inevitably two suppositions, or two positions, that guide Herzog’s relationship to these cinematic subjects, the ones who have been through difficult experiences. There is a split between the director who professes compassion and care, on the one hand, and that which we are supposed to take to be the animus of his camera, with its relentless, icy gaze. Herzog likes for us to imagine that these latter traits are only functions of the camera itself, but this is far from the case. As evinced by his relationship to Juliane and to Dieter, Herzog is caring, but his care is always framed or unsettled by moments of intense scrutiny. One should add that there is, of course, more than the mere depiction of trauma that makes this film interesting. Once again, Herzog elects to include documentary footage from other sources at the onset of the film. Herzog establishes Dorrington’s investment in flight by narrating for us the ‘age-old dream of flying’. The motif of man trying to get off the ground, that which one could describe as the Icarus motif in Herzog’s films – found in The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and elsewhere. Herzog explains that man imitated the flight of birds, describing the more comical attempts at airships as machines that resemble boats with wings, or behemoths that could hardly get off the 379

ground. As with the inclusion of such material in other films, notably in The Wild Blue Yonder, it is included in a way that suggests a certain irony. While the inclusion of documentary material in a stylised ‘documentary’ can be seen as always already ironic, it looks here to be tongue-in-cheek. In some cases the inclusion of the material is less so; the documentary footage filmed by Plage – the very dramatic footage of apes and elephants – is certainly among the most exciting footage in the film; the brief animal attacks recall and perhaps surpass the intensity of similar scenes in Grizzly Man. An issue key to understanding the film is the way that Dorrington is depicted. As indicated, Herzog finds him interesting, but he also scrutinises him somewhat coolly, holding his camera’s objectifying gaze upon him. Herzog almost requires him to perform in order to fill in silent gaps. In an early moment of the film, Dorrington talks about his love of flying and while the camera sits before him, Herzog remains silent. Dorrington nervously adds, ‘let’s go fly, let’s go fly’. The camera scrutinises and objectifies in the very moment when it seems to be generously providing Dorrington with the chance to tell his own story. Similarly, Dorrington also explains how he lost two fingers on his left hand from experimenting with a rocket when he was 14 years old. The loss of fingers, especially in the name of passionate pursuits, is a recurring trope for Herzog; it appears in The Dark Glow of the Mountains as well. Dorrington tells his story in a way that is charming, but at the same time this is 380

a difficult memory for him. The unblinking gaze of the camera allows for both responses – empathy and objectifying scrutiny. A major motif of The White Diamond involves a cave of swifts near the waterfall where Herzog and Dorrington are testing the airship. Swifts are birds that sometimes perch on vertical surfaces, as on the walls of caves, and, akin to bats, they have developed a system of echolocation for navigating the dark caves in which they roost. Herzog shows flocks of swifts in his film similarly to the way he depicts flamingos in Fata Morgana or schools of fish in The Wild Blue Yonder; he is fascinated by their collective behaviour, or the way they function as an apparently like-minded organism, moving in unison. We are told throughout The White Diamond that no one has looked into the cave that the swifts inhabit. It is supposedly the great mystery of the area, largely because of the cave’s inaccessibility, and the story recalls that of the Lost City of Kitezh. Despite Herzog’s interest in preserving this mystery he encourages Michael Wilk, the team doctor who happens to be an expert mountain climber, to lower himself down the side of the ravine in order to get a good view of the cave. Herzog sends a camera down as well, and as he lowers it over the side of the gorge, it spins in circles. Herzog ultimately acquires the footage of the unseen site, but says, ‘I chose not to show the footage’, showing us instead the camera spinning and spinning. Once again, we have something that can now be described as a Grizzly Man problem insofar as Herzog is in 381

possession of footage he is electing not to share with us. He presents us instead with a spinning camera, moving in 360-degree turns, an image we have again and again in Herzog’s work. It indicates motion without end, a radius that does not decrease; one never gets closer to the goal, and the centre remains empty. The spinning camera is not only a significant metaphor in the sense that Herzog means to talk about what we cannot see, but also in that it pertains to the idea of vision in Herzog’s work. In one related scene, Dorrington speaks to the film’s other protagonist, Mark Anthony Yhap, and Dorrington observes that it was as though the people in the village did not see his airship – ‘the white diamond’. It was as though it were invisible to them because it was too ‘outside their world’. The discussion is very much like one that takes place in The Flying Doctors of East Africa, about the possibility of someone from one culture understanding another’s code of visual images. Dorrington continues, adding that the swifts must certainly think differently from us and perceive time differently from the way we do. The image of their cave becomes Platonic: we can never see into it, and arguably cannot understand them – their perceptions are different from our own. The final epigraph restates the importance of this metaphor – of withholding information about the swifts – because it expresses the wish that the ‘Secret Kingdom’ of the swifts would be preserved until the end of time. For a director who does not believe in psychoanalysis, the metaphor of looking 382

around dark spaces in a film about trauma is all too significant. On the one hand Herzog thinks of nothing but probing around in these darkest spaces, yet on the other he seems to feel that some regions are best left unexplored. One should add that there are a number of stylisations in the film, and the most significant may be the staged conversation between Herzog and Dorrington in which Herzog insists on being allowed to join him for the inaugural flight of the airship. Herzog’s case for being included is less than convincing, and it concludes with the argument that excluding him would constitute a ‘stupid stupidity’. According to Dorrington, they filmed this scene at least five times, and the tool Dorrington holds during this argument, the one that makes him appear mildly threatening, was an agreed upon prop. The scene ‘stages’ more than it ‘documents’, yet it seemed necessary in order to justify Herzog’s own entry into the film. In a similar vein, Mark Anthony Yhap’s extraordinary line in response to the question of whether or not he is able to see the whole universe in a single drop of water (‘I cannot hear what you say, for the thunder that you are’), was also rehearsed numerous times. Herzog explains: One of the local Rastafarians [Mark Anthony Yhap] is going out foraging for medical herbs. He does that in real life and I filmed him doing it. But in a part that is all scripted, he shows us the water drop –


which wasn’t even a water drop, it was glycerin [made into a fake water drop by the cinematographer] because glycerin has better optical qualities and properties than water. And then Mark Anthony looks through it and explains how you can see the waterfall in it. We see him from behind, and my voice off-camera asks him, “Mark Anthony, do you see an entire universe in one single drop of water?” It’s a silly, new-age question, and it’s scripted. And he slowly turns around, and what he says is scripted … He has a kind of imperceptible smirk on his face and he says, “I cannot hear what you say, for the thunder that you are.” (Sterritt 2005: 81–2) Herzog adds: ‘In normal life I would never ask a stupid question like that: it’s in the great tradition of Hollywood movies, like Fred Astaire movies. Fred Astaire would have asked that question!’ (Sterritt 2005: 82). Perhaps the most curious stylisation has to do with Yhap’s pet rooster, a banal bird in contrast with the mysterious soaring swifts, which are the real subjects of the film. Yhap, who lives and works in Guyana, wants to fly in Dorrington’s airship, but when pressed explains that more than anything else, he wants to take his rooster flying with him. He explains: ‘His name is “Red”. He has five wives – five hens, so I have five eggs every day.’ The rooster, like the chicken, is a motif in


Herzog’s films. Dorrington knew this and played an active role in putting Mark Anthony up to drawing Herzog’s attention to his pet. He encouraged Yhap to say things that he would not have otherwise said, which may be a new wrinkle in Herzog’s quest for ecstatic truths: the more widely his work is known the less he may stumble upon accidental ecstasies in the course of making his films. Invincible Returning to the question of World War Two, one notes that films such as Ballad of the Little Soldier or even Little Dieter Needs to Fly can certainly be viewed as indirect engagements with the issues surrounding the part Germany played in that era. As mentioned above, other Herzog films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God are far less direct in their engagement with the past, and Herzog may be right to suggest that critics should avoid seeing the image of Hitler in Kinski’s character, as it was not his intention to make a film about Fascism in Europe. Of all of Herzog’s works, only Invincible directly depicts German anti-Semitism and Nazis. In that film, Herzog can be said to have made a contribution to the discussion of Jewish reactions to anti-Semitism in the runup to World War Two. His work is doubly significant for its somewhat unconventional choice to focus on eastern European Jews and the Shtetl, rather than on


secularised, Western Jewry, as has tended to be the norm. The film presents a contrast between an eastern European protagonist, Zische Breitbart (Jouko Ahola), and Erik Jan Hanussen (Tim Roth), a Jew who has made a name for himself in Berlin, though largely as a consequence of his complete concealment of his Judaism. In distinction from contemporary German historical dramas – films such as The Harmonists (1997), Aimée and Jaguar (1999), Gloomy Sunday (1999) and others – Herzog provides us here with a very different sort of engagement with World War Two. Indeed, Invincible may be seen as a reaction to these sorts of heritage films. (On this type of filmmaking, see Koepnick 2002.) Herzog’s film focuses on Jewish culture as an independent entity, and even on its lore, rather than on the ostensibly healthy symbiosis of Jews and Germans in the period leading up to the war. Invincible pays specific attention, for example, to the story of the lamed-vav, or the 36 ‘just men’ of Talmudic legend. The focus not only enables Herzog to reflect on questions of ethics, but also permits him to take his historical arguments one step further: he analyses the period prior to the Holocaust and the spread of anti-Semitism in light of metaphysical questions rather than in terms of a nostalgic longing for a better past, prior to the intrusion of Hitler onto the European scene. Invincible begins in eastern Poland in 1932. Its opening titles indicate that it is based on a true story, although Herzog has taken a number of 386

liberties with the facts. The central character is Zische Breitbart, a Jewish blacksmith with strength enough to become a strongman renowned through Europe. He is approached by an agent who encourages him to leave his Jewish community and come to Berlin in order to perform alongside Erik Jan Hanussen at the famous Palace of the Occult. Once Breitbart arrives in Berlin, he is informed that he has to avoid giving any indication that he is Jewish and appear on stage as an incarnation of the Teutonic icon Siegfried, the hero and dragon-slayer featured both in the Niebelungenlied and in Richard Wagner’s famous Ring cycle (Der Ring des Niebelungen, 1854–74). Obligingly, Breitbart dons a blonde wig and a suit of armour, and entertains audiences, including a fair number of Nazis. Shortly thereafter, because he has drifted far from his home and participated in an anti-Semitic performance, his remorse begins to overwhelm him. Hanussen, the show’s director, meanwhile continues to sell his theatre programme to the ideologues, telling German audiences what they want to hear: that true power lies in the hearts of the German people and that Hitler is a great light that will lead them.


Breitbart, in costume, begins to fall for Marta in Invincible (2000)

Hanussen runs into trouble when Breitbart, following a brief visit from his family, publicly professes that he is Jewish. He suddenly takes the stage name ‘the new Samson’, after the lion-wrestling hero of the Old Testament. His public transformation temporarily draws in large numbers of Jews but soon enough inspires strong objections from Nazi audiences who assert their anger over the idea that a Jew could ever be a strongman. Hanussen and Breitbart eventually quarrel over the situation, as well as over Hanussen’s girlfriend Marta (Anna Gourari), a musician who is likely Jewish, who Hanussen treats badly, and with whom Breitbart has fallen in love. Their quarrel lands them in court, and the trial reveals that Hanussen, who had hoped to become Hitler’s Minister of the Occult, is in fact himself a Jew named Herschel Steinschneider.


The Nazis, feeling misled and betrayed by a showman they had counted among their own, have him taken out to the woods and murdered. Shocked by this turn of events as well as by everything else he has seen in Berlin, Breitbart returns home to Poland with the intention of warning his fellow countrymen that a great evil is coming and that they must get organised in order to defend themselves. The film makes clear at this point that Breitbart has been given the gift of clairvoyance, and that he offers his people a prophetic vision of the atrocities to come. He goes from one community to another in his effort to convince Jews that they must prepare for an impending attack, but he fails to convince anyone other than his devoted younger brother. In the end, Breitbart dies alone pursuant to a cut from a rusty nail. As indicated, Herzog made a number of adjustments to the real story of Breitbart. The story was initially brought to him by a man named Gary Bart, a descendant of Breitbart, who became a producer of the film. Herzog says that the story as it was first presented was something he did not want to film, because it was more or less a success story. He immediately said no, though he then returned to it, adding a number of reinventions. Herzog changed the dates of Breitbart’s birth and death. The strongman was actually born in Lodz in 1893 (rather than the Shtetl depicted in the film) and was already working as a strongman when a circus director spotted him in 1919, 13 years earlier than the date 389

with which Herzog provides us. By 1924 Breitbart was famous and had even toured the US. While he indeed died young from an accident, the accident took place in 1925 not in 1933. Though few will object to Herzog’s manipulation of the facts, they are worth noting insofar as they provide insight into his intentions. Herzog means to bring the events of the film closer to the Nazi seizure of power in order to give them added significance. Additionally, by presenting Hanussen and Breitbart not as rivals but as colleagues, the two figures function as foils for one another, typifying two possible responses to 1930s anti-Semitism. As viewers, we are to understand that Herzog is staging a contrast between an eastern European Jew and a cosmopolitan Jew on the threshold of World War Two; between one who does not fit in among Berlin socialites and another who passes among its Nazis. While Herzog subdues the historical Breitbart’s own sense of Jewish nationalism (on this point see Gillerman 2004: 71–2) the film does attempt to take seriously the eastern European Jewry it depicts. Shortly before Herzog made Invincible a number of German historical films had exhibited nostalgia for a time prior to Hitler when Jews and Germans lived and worked side by side. The problem with such films is that they idealised German history in a way that distorted the emergence of anti-Semitism. Such a vision of German/Jewish relations may in part be accurate, but it hardly tells the whole story. Moreover, films of this sort serve the function of reassuring 390

contemporary audiences that without Hitler and his henchmen things between Germans and Jews would have been thoroughly unproblematic. Invincible, by contrast with that wave of historical films, attempts to take seriously the differences that existed between Jews and Germans, insofar as not everyone was seamlessly assimilated. All this attention to the lives of Jews, however, comes with a certain difficulty: owing to Herzog’s usual emphasis on authenticity one may be prompted to ask whether Herzog does not exoticise the ‘difference’ associated with eastern European Judaism. Peter Weir, for example, had been criticised for an exoticisation of this sort when it came to his depiction of Amish culture in Witness (1985), a film that also features a young boy and a culture set apart from urban industrialisation. As we watch the loving and wise son of Invincible, Benjamin (Jacob Wein), self-sacrificingly turn Passover Matzo over to his younger sibling, allowing a loved one to collect a prize in his place, we are made aware that Breitbart’s familial relationships taught him fundamental truths about compassion. Additionally, when Benjamin and his mother (Renate Krößner) later come to visit Breitbart at Hanussen’s Palace of the Occult, Breitbart is reminded that he must reclaim his Jewish identity. Herzog may sometimes fail to distinguish between behaving ethically and the idea that Jewish culture is somehow essentially identified with ethical thought.


Nevertheless, Invincible is made in some measure unique by way of its connection to Hebrew myth and tradition, especially in its attention to the story of the lamed-vav. During the course of the film it is pointed out that the protagonist, Breitbart, may be one of the legendary 36 ‘just men’, to whom that number (lamed-vav, or 36) refers. At one point, after Breitbart has become a local hero in Berlin, a Rabbi approaches him and explains, ‘you might be one of the unknown “just” … In every generation there are born among the Jews 36 men whom God has chosen to bear the burden of the world’s suffering, and to whom God has chosen to grant the privilege of martyrdom.’ Though the story sounds somewhat Christological in its reliance on martyrdom (on this see Gillerman 2004: 71), this legend is a Hasidic one that was told to Herzog on the set by the father of Jacob Wein. Herzog said that the story impressed him so much that he took it into the film. The term lamed-vav refers to a story originating in the Babylonian Talmud, in which it is written that there are 36 righteous men in the world who receive the divine presence. These men are responsible for the world’s fate, and at times of great peril a ‘lamedvovnik’ would make a dramatic appearance, using his hidden powers to defeat the enemies of Israel. The figure is then said to return to obscurity after performing a heroic act. According to the story, the lamed-vav are hidden, but they could be anyone, a fact that is important when Invincible is understood in terms of its philosophical claims. The ‘just men’ of legend 392

do not themselves properly recognise their calling; it remains outside of comprehension. According to the Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem, the lamed-vav are not supposed to be aware of their own nature: ‘they radiate their holiness and righteousness in hidden deeds without even knowing that they belong to those chosen 36’ (1971: 255). Furthermore, Scholem explains that there are no families of hidden ‘just men’, but rather, ‘the hidden just man – if he is anything at all – is your neighbour and mine, whose true nature we can never fathom; the concept … is a warning which is even more impressive because it is sustained by a somewhat anarchic morality: your neighbour may be one of the hidden just men’ (1971: 256). To provide a way to understand Herzog’s ethical perspective in this film, what makes the ‘just men’ ‘just’ is not the way they appear (indeed they may be your neighbour or mine), but rather it is their acute ability to recognise suffering, or their empathy. This characteristic of the lamed-vav functions as a bridge to the arguments of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who I would like to consider in order to offer some insight into this film. Levinas maintains that individuals – not only the ‘just men’, but everyone – have a uniform debt to others. Although Breitbart is not meant to have stopped the Holocaust through simple acknowledgement of his personal ethical duties, he behaves (consciously or unconsciously) in accord with the dictum that his fate is not distinct from that of those around him. In Levinas’s 393

writings, our empathy, even with strangers, is the basis of our being in the world. His ethics, in other words, emerge prior to our conscious comprehension of duty. For Levinas, the presence of other beings entails a primordial obligation; a debt that has been incurred because our condition as individuals comes subsequent to the existence of others. Our individual being first emerges out of this relation. It is always already constituted by a world in which there are others, and it is thrown into that extant world (on ‘throw-ness’, see Levinas 1989: 92–9; on our ethical debts to others, see Levinas 2001, especially 220). What is compelling about Herzog’s film is the degree to which the director presents this ethical debt in terms of his protagonists’ choices, and how in particular he constructs the circumstances under which Hanussen – the occultist who passes as a non-Jew – chooses to ignore his ethical obligation to others. For a philosopher such as Levinas, ethical debts do not require that they be recognised. He remarks that although everyone recognises the vocation of holiness, nothing guarantees that we act upon it. Presumably, if everyone were required to act in accord with their ethical obligations, there would be far less suffering in the world. What Herzog meditates on are the causes and consequences of opting not to accept this obligation. In Invincible, it is clear that Hanussen, in contrast with Breitbart, is no lamedvovnik; he is depicted as having a decision to make, and he chooses to ignore his proximity to anyone’s needs but his own, to deny his debts and 394

duty to others. Herzog makes a connection between Hanussen’s passing among the Germans – his wilful and aggressive struggle for assimilation – and his choice to ignore his ethical obligations. Unlike István Szabó’s Hanussen, as portrayed by Klaus Maria Brandauer in the film Hanussen (1988), who is a sympathetic victim of the press, the politicians and his own melancholy prophecies, Herzog’s Hanussen is vilified as he attempts to rise among the Nazi ranks. Hanussen engages in an opportunistic self-denial, which Herzog depicts as only a short step from a denial of the needs of those around him. Hanussen’s decision to pass is a constitutive part of his decision to disavow the rights of others. Of particular interest in this regard is a sequence that takes place shortly after the film’s opening. Breitbart’s brother, Benjamin, narrates a famous parable about a rooster-prince. Breitbart sits next to his nine-year-old brother, who is a font of Talmudic wisdom, and who repeatedly provides evidence that he is too wise for his years. He tells Breitbart the story of a prince who thought he was a rooster (not a surprising or unusual trope in Herzog’s films) and hid under the table, refusing to live and eat alongside his family. He explains that after magicians and doctors fail to tease the prince out, only an ‘unknown sage’ succeeds. The sage convinces the prince to return to the table by reminding him that he should never forget that no matter what he does in the world of men, he will always be a rooster. There are a number of ways in which this fable could be interpreted: it may 395

mean that we should see Hanussen’s identity as troubled, and Breitbart, in the role of the unknown sage, is given the opportunity to rescue him. On the other hand, it could be taken to suggest that Breitbart has become a rooster in Berlin society and that the unknown sage is his brother Benjamin, who encourages him to return to the community and to his origins. As a third possibility, however, one could assert that the fable deals with another question: that of the other’s right to recognition. What allows the unknown sage to help the rooster-prince is that he does not deny the rooster his right to exist as a rooster. The fable argues for an ethics that, as Levinas would assert, allows the other their right to be. Breitbart, however, is not the ‘just man’ who single-handedly aims to save the Jews. He calls upon Jews to stand and fight, and here Herzog takes his cues from the story of the real Breitbart. According to the historian Sharon Gillerman, ‘[among] the poorer, Yiddish-speaking East European Jews … “Zische” or “Shimsun hagibor” (Samson the hero), as he was known, had become a genuine Jewish folk hero whose exalted status as Jewish Übermensch (Superman) and legendary figure found expression in Yiddish and Polish poems, ballads, legends and elegies’. She adds, ‘According to one popular saying, “were a thousand Breitbarts to arise among the Jews, the Jewish people would cease being persecuted”’ (2003: 87). In this way, Herzog’s Breitbart is no simple lamed-vav; his story can also be said to point us towards the legend of the Golem, which in 396

Jewish folklore was a story of a creature fashioned from inanimate material who protects the community through strength. Yet in Herzog’s film, both tales – that of the lamed-vav and the Golem – are revealed as mere metaphors. As in reality, Breitbart did not save the Jews. No lamed-vav would have been strong enough to stop the destruction that was carried out with such merciless efficiency. The film contains a number of familiar Herzog tropes including the use of hypnosis. The character of Hanussen recalls that of Cipolla in Thomas Mann’s story ‘Mario and the Magician’ (1929), a character who uses his powers of hypnosis to manipulate his audience and in a style that many have said was meant to suggest the manipulative powers of Fascism. Seen in the ethical terms of the film, Hanussen, the mesmerist, erases the identities of his subjects, and in that moment he enables his own participation in the objectification and stereotyping of Jews. Herzog, through drawing attention to Hanussen’s ‘passing’ as a non-Jew also draws attention to his willingness to stifle Breitbart’s background. While Hanussen acts as though he is untroubled by his own performance as a non-Jew, there is a sadism involved in forcing Breitbart to perform his identity in a way with which he is evidently uncomfortable. He insists that Breitbart mask himself and change his name, with the explanation that his present name is too Jewish. In an early scene in the Palace of the Occult, Breitbart observes a skit in which a Jewish caricature – a Herr Rothschild – 397

comically tries to make off with profits from World War I, yet he cannot because his suitcase is too heavy for his feeble Jewish body. The defacement entailed by the skit involves caricature and stereotypes, which reflect the trope of the weak Jew. Breitbart does not understand the skit and chuckles to himself, whereupon Hanussen admonishes him, saying that his laughter is not permitted; in the Palace of the Occult, he tells him, it is only the audience that is supposed to laugh. His reproof may be an indication of his feelings of guilt about his own anti-Semitic show, or perhaps it is a remainder of the difference between his ‘self’ and the mask he wears. Hanussen’s resemblance to the famous magician of Mann’s story extends to his efforts to dominate Breitbart. It is as though Breitbart’s powerful Jewish body and his open acknowledgement of his Judaism are an affront to Hanussen and must be contained. In one sequence Hanussen demonstrates to Breitbart how his power makes itself manifest. In his office, the magician calls for Marta and has her sing a refrain from a song about not wearing any underpants. He then lifts her skirt to prove that she is indeed not wearing underpants. She is made unhappy by this game; not only because she has been objectified, but also because the game has been played in front of Breitbart, for whom she is developing feelings. Here and elsewhere, however, Hanussen fails to convince Breitbart that real power lies in the dehumanisation and manipulation of others. In watching Marta’s 398

objectification at the hands of Hanussen and comparing the scene with his emerging sense of violability – with the knowledge that even he, a strongman, is not invincible – he recovers an intuitive sense of obligation, not only to Marta, but to the community from which he came. The powers of illusion possessed by Hanussen paradoxically interfere with his ability to see clearly or to recognise the coming atrocities. He gambles that Fascism will not reveal his identity, and he fails to prophesy his own murder. By contrast, however, as Breitbart’s empathy and his understanding of his own Judaism are awakened, he becomes clairvoyant; a transition that may be taken to indicate that he has rediscovered the Judaism he abandoned in his move to Berlin. Here he joins characters such as Moshe the Beadle in Elie Wiesel’s Night (1955), who prophesy destruction yet remain unheard and are helpless to stand in its way. Breitbart’s awakened ethical sense brings him accurate visions of the violence that is to come. In a vision, he sees railroad tracks, an iconic sign of the deportation of Jews, and reports to the Berliner Rabbi: ‘It was as if the Almighty spoke to me directly … I see something terrible coming, so terrible that I don’t have words to describe it … a danger, a horrible danger for us Jews. It’s like as if I have now become Hanussen the clairvoyant. I mean, I can see it all before me … I must be the new Samson for my people.’ The film is exceptional in its willingness to provide an ending that is not at all redemptive. Though Breitbart has seen the truth, he has come 399

to understand, more than anything else, the base willingness on the part of the Germans to engage in violence towards the Jews. He has become aware of this not only through the misery inflicted upon him, but through the murder of Hanussen as well. Though the film does not lead up to the Holocaust itself – Breitbart’s death comes in advance of the war and the deportations – it offers a perspective on the dehumanising of the Jews in the period prior to the war and is distinct from films that would emphasise only the happy harmony between prewar Germans and Jews. The cinematographer of Invincible is Peter Zeitlinger, who had also worked with Herzog on Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Wings of Hope. Herzog points out that Zeitlinger was once an ice hockey player who has a real feel for the rhythm and the physical unfolding of a scene. In the illumination of the Seder in Breitbart’s home, we again see the single light source that gives the shadows a real intensity and again this type of cinematography recalls paintings by Georges de la Tour, referred to elsewhere in Herzog’s oeuvre, not to mention the play of light and shadow found in Rembrandt’s work. Throughout, this film is intensely stylised, and more than any other Herzog film it calls Fassbinder to mind. It is a historical film in the mode of The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1979) or Lola (1981) more than The Harmonists, which had been released only a few years before Invincible. The stylised melodrama gives everything the appearance of 400

having been staged, and the line-readings of the Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola are stilted. The strangeness of the performances, especially Tim Roth’s Hanussen – a performance for which Herzog apparently instructed him to walk like a lizard – may be intended as a self-critical remark on the connection between the mesmerist on stage and the ‘benevolent Caligari’ who lurks behind the scenes.




An Image of Africa

Herzog says that he has always had a difficult relationship to Africa, and that things often went wrong for him there. It is a place where he does not feel at home, and he caricatures those who do feel at home in Africa in the following way: ‘I am not one of those Hemmingway Kilimanjaro nostalgia people who love to track animals through the underbrush with an elephant gun while being fanned by the natives’ (Cronin 2002: 47). Although it is difficult to picture whom exactly Herzog has in mind, it is to his credit that he acknowledges that as a European his relationship with Africa is in some measure always already vexed. There are problems of intercultural understanding that enter the frame in unique ways when a filmmaker undertakes to present an image of Africa. In general terms, it can be asserted that Western fantasies about Africa always indicate more about the ideas of the culture that produced those fantasies than about those nations or persons that they purport to represent. This is the case whether one is watching Steven Spielberg’s film about the slave trade, Amistad (1997), a Nazi film such as Ohm Krüger (1941) or even Bud Abbott and Lou


Costello in Africa Screams (1949). Chinua Achebe once elaborated on this problem when he wrote his essay ‘An Image of Africa’, which addressed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). In Achebe’s words, there has long been a historical need to set up Africa as a foil for Europe, as ‘a place of negotiations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest’ (1977: 783). Achebe argues that Africa is an inappropriate backdrop for Western existential rumination, adding that the frequently asserted claim that Heart of Darkness is about the breakdown of a Western mind, but simply happens to be set in Africa, is problematic because any Western representation of Africa inevitably makes a political statement. The moment Western literature (and presumably film) represents Africa, it engages in an already politicised discourse about slavery, colonisation and race. This chapter concentrates less on the question of whether these types of depictions may imply that their authors (or directors) are themselves racists, and more on the overall claim about the inadvertent and inevitable politics of representing Africa. For the purposes of this study, Herzog’s films on Africa have been divided into phases – the first of which deals with two ‘documentaries’, The Flying Doctors of East Africa and Fata Morgana, and is followed by a discussion of the related film Lessons of Darkness, which takes place in Western Asia. These films are linked not only through their imagery, but also through their 404

particular interest in the problem of intercultural communication. We then turn to the films Cobra Verde and Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun (Wodaabe – Die Hirten der Sonne, 1989). In that part, I address the questions those films raise concerning the specifically German cinematic tradition in which they embed themselves. The chapter then concludes with an analysis of Echoes from a Sombre Empire, Herzog’s reflection on the Central African dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa. The Flying Doctors of East Africa Herzog refers to The Flying Doctors of East Africa as a report (Bericht), which is also the designation he gave to La Soufrière, years later. Taken in contrast with the distance he generally takes from the documentary form, this term can be seen to suggest that there is something uniquely serious that he means to capture on film. Herzog was approached by an organisation that provided medical aid to underdeveloped parts of Africa, and they asked him to make this film documenting their efforts. The doctors and nurses depicted work primarily in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Herzog also uses the phrase Gebrauchsfilm to describe the work, which means that it is a ‘film for use’: it explains what exactly the ‘flying doctors’ do and their organisation can presumably use this film to raise funds or to educate. It contains a good deal of exposition about treating medical wounds resulting from animal attacks and violent conflicts


(mostly from tribal clashes), as well as some discussion of how difficult it is to treat properly this type of injury in the East African environment. The problems stem not only from the lack of resources – no doctors, no x-ray machines, no running water – but also from the difficulties in having the Africans in question follow simple medical instructions. Other medical problems include the eye disease known as trachoma, which causes blindness (and which is still prevalent today in underdeveloped countries). Is it perhaps the seriousness of these and other matters that makes the film a ‘report’ rather than one of his stylised ‘documentaries’. There is no question as to whether he is taking these issues seriously, and perhaps because he plays it so straight, he needs to give the film a label that distinguishes it from the other documentary films. One way to compare this film with his other Africa films, particularly with Fata Morgana which was made within the same overall timeframe, is to examine how Herzog alternately photographs the flamingos in the two films. While the footage presented in The Flying Doctors of East Africa is interesting, it is not aestheticised in the same way that the images of flamingos are presented in Fata Morgana, as a blur that is difficult to isolate under a particular concept. When we are presented with flamingos in the former film, the narrator relates ‘accountants’ truths’ about them, and we hear the sound of the plane’s engine in the background. We are guided by the sober voice of the narrator mentioning that there are pelicans on the lake as 406

well. The film does not present the landscape as the site of aesthetic ecstasy. Herzog takes us to an Irish mission hospital in Tanzania, and one doctor describes in detail the types of surgery needed. The greatest problem, it seems, is that of communication. One man, who has a spear through him, has been fed secretly by his family despite the doctors’ orders. We are told about a patient – perhaps this same man – who ate without the knowledge of the nurses and choked to death while under anaesthetic, and another who stubbornly removed his cannulae. A nun summarises that these patients have no idea how to behave ‘from a medical point of view’, and that they have to be watched all the time. The question, however, is not only one of communication but rather one of cognition; the subjects of the film understand the world differently. The people of the Masai tribe in Kenya, for example, have trouble negotiating a very small staircase leading up to a mobile clinic. Herzog’s narrator points out that they are athletic but the problem is in their lack of experience with steps. Also, when an aircraft lands on a landing strip, the enthusiasm of the waiting crowd comes from the fact that they have never seen an airplane before. This discussion – about differences that are cognitive rather than communicative – is gradually introduced, but it comes most clearly into the foreground when we see a nurse named Betty Miller treating trachoma patients in Uganda. She makes the point that you can educate schoolchildren about keeping their eyes clean and 407

keeping away from disease-carrying flies through the use of visual aids, because they are used to learning from books, but the adults, who are not accustomed to this, do not have access to a similar visual or hieroglyphic lexicon. The film explains that when someone looks at an enlarged drawing of a human eye, he or she might identify the image as a fish or the sun if they have a different sense of visual literacy. Herzog’s ‘report’ becomes interested in this problem, and engages in an experiment to adduce how many of a group of workers could recognise a sign that was hung on its side (verkehrt) and how many could recognise a picture of an eye. Unsurprisingly, many fail to do so. The way the issue is raised recalls the discussion between Graham Dorrington and Mark Anthony Yhap in The White Diamond concerning whether the locals in Guyana could register the presence of an airship as it passed overhead. Thirty-five years later, Herzog’s films are still exploring this same question of cognition. After showing us the results of his experiment, Herzog’s narration concludes by reminding us that it was not his intention to demonstrate that these Africans are stupid, but rather that they see something different from what we do, even when we have identical images before our eyes. Herzog’s narrator adds: ‘After centuries of colonial rule in Africa, we have still not even arrived at the beginning of how to communicate. If we really want to help we must start over with communication, from the very beginning.’ One can draw many examples from Herzog’s oeuvre, but 408

this one does not take a particularly pessimistic path. Because this is a Gebrauchsfilm, Herzog leaves open the possibility that the doctors’ work can benefit these communities and that a path to communication can be found. Bleak moments do come during the course of the film, moments such as when an eight-year-old Kenyan boy of the Loien Galani tribe near Lake Turkana (once known as Lake Rudolf) is rejected by his family. Nine months earlier he had been flown to the capital for medical treatments and was subsequently no longer welcomed at home. An arrangement has been made for him to be adopted. He is probably traumatised as he refuses to speak – a trope seen in Herzog’s other films such as Bells from the Deep and Lessons of Darkness – and Herzog’s narrator wonders whether the opportunities that will come of his improved economic situation can really be counted as ‘advantages’. Here and elsewhere Herzog manages to reflect on the value of progress as well as on the limits of intercultural communication. He even manages to inflect the problem philosophically, and one can go so far as to say that this philosophical inflection is evidence of stylisation, even in the midst of this ‘report’. There is, however, little discussion of the colonial past in this film, and arguably the theoretical problems associated with the question of cognition sidestep practical truths that the film might have otherwise addressed about the history of colonisation in Africa.


Fata Morgana Herzog means to use images of Africa to encourage us to question our own understanding of the world, both in The Flying Doctors of East Africa and in the related film, Fata Morgana. The film’s title means ‘mirage’, and the term originates with King Arthur’s deceitful half-sister, Morgan Le Fay. This film is less about Africa than it is about our inability to differentiate the world as we imagine it from the world as it actually is. Herzog, in other words, wants to depict all acts of seeing as mirages, because seeing takes place primarily in the mind’s eye. Using Africa as a landscape of the surreal, or as a world that appears strange and distant to Western eyes, Herzog conceived of Fata Morgana as a science fiction film that depicts an arrival on the planet Uxmal – the name of an actual ruined Mayan city in the Yucatan. Herzog explains: My plan was to go out to the southern Sahara to shoot a kind of science fiction story about aliens from the planet Andromeda, a star outside of our own galaxy, who arrive on a very strange planet. It is not Earth, rather some newly discovered place where the people live waiting for some imminent catastrophe, that of a collision with the sun in exactly 16 years. The idea was that after they film a report about the place, we human


filmmakers discover their footage and edit it into a kind of investigative film akin to a very first awakening. With this completed film we would be able to see exactly how aliens perceive the planet. (Cronin 2002: 47) He recounts however that he quickly scrapped this idea, ‘opened [his] eyes and ears, and just filmed the mirages of the desert’. Insight into what Herzog had in mind with ‘science fiction’ came clear later in the form of Lessons of Darkness, which seems to take place on a strange, uninhabitable world of fire, and in The Wild Blue Yonder, which partly takes place in a world of water and genuinely strives to be a science fiction film. As in the science fictions of Stanislaw Lem the genre is less employed as a means to imagine a future than as a means of imagining some standpoint other than our own, or seeing our world from a vantage point from which we would be led to question our present day habits of vision. One could even say that the film, in its quest for such a standpoint, has a dystopian character. In order for Herzog to accomplish this goal, he takes images from an Africa already unfamiliar to his viewers, and attempts through use of mise-en-scène, repetition and other devices to make them even more so. The film’s strange dystopian sense guided Herzog’s choice as to which texts would accompany the images. Unlike The Flying Doctors


of East Africa, the narration is not expository in any conventional sense. We are never provided with context – a verifiable sense of time and place – that would help us determine the facts that lie behind the film’s images. In the first part of the film (entitled ‘Creation’), the film scholar Lotte Eisner reads from the holy Mayan text, the Popol Vuh. The fact that she is a film scholar can be taken to underline how Fata Morgana is a film that is in a fundamental way about ‘vision’ or ‘seeing’. The words ‘Popol Vuh’ translate as ‘voice of the community’ and the book was transcribed in the sixteenth century to preserve an older tradition, perhaps in the awareness that that tradition was dying out. It has little or nothing to do with African history, detailing instead the originary history of the Quiché Maya, who inhabited territory in what is today Guatemala. In the Popol Vuh, the gods create the earth and man, and then the sun, the moon and the stars. The creation ultimately leads to the foundation of the Quiché kingdom. In its story of creation it can be compared to works such as William Blake’s The Book of Urizen (1794) which itself draws on ancient mysticisms in a Gnostic style. The creation of the world from nothing has an apocalyptic character typical for Herzog: it compels us to recall the fact that the world once did not exist, to recall the possibility that it may not continue to exist, and also that it could even at this time exist differently. Both the world’s creation and its demise inform Fata Morgana’s desolate landscapes, landscapes that Herzog has referred 412

to as ‘embarrassed’. The concept of embarrassment may be understood along the lines of ‘debasement’ insofar as many of the landscapes in Fata Morgana are profaned, and one may add despoiled, by construction equipment. The words from the Popol Vuh aestheticise the loneliness and the silence, the stillness and the void. The film conveys the overall impression that progress has interrupted silence’s beauty, and the isolated construction equipment comes across as a tear in the fabric of nothingness. As indicated above, one of the more stunning images in Fata Morgana is a highangle shot taken from a helicopter of thousands of flamingos moving swiftly across the Kenyan landscape. Here, however, the image is framed differently from similar images found in The Flying Doctors of East Africa. Apart from the fact that music here accompanies these images, the birds in Fata Morgana are hardly recognisable as flamingos. They are pink blurs on the landscape, and on the director’s commentary, Herzog explains that he wants it that way (FM ch. 3; 17:24). The sequence is meant to wash over the viewer and challenge the categories through which we perceive form, particularly in relation to the living world. We see birds, yet they are seen to move unlike any organism we know. On the one hand they recall the swifts in The White Diamond, but on the other, this image recalls the tornados at the beginning and ending of Where the Green Ants Dream. In this case, the animals are not meant to be 413

understood in the same way as Herzog’s monkeys or chickens – as a critique of our consciousness as undifferentiated from that of the basest animals. The flamingos are meant instead to occasion the somewhat ecstatic sensation that accompanies our attempt to place a concept around something in the expansive natural world. If Herzog achieves his goal, then we sense that there is a consciousness at work, yet as we watch its motion we cannot quite articulate its purposes. While we try to place a concept around this image, to understand and follow the flamingos’ movement, we cannot help but treat the landscape as though it too has a consciousness. If it were not conscious, then how else could we perceive it as ‘embarrassed’? Throughout the film, the landscape is likewise anthropomorphised, and this is nowhere more evident than the shots taken from a helicopter careening over the sand dunes. The wind creates subtle movements that give us the sense it is breathing, or that blood flows beneath its surface. The images look like studies of nudes, and as John Sandford points out, ‘the travelling camera makes sculpted sand dunes cross and sway like a human body’ (1983: 51). But if we cannot articulate nature’s purposes, how are we meant to respond to these images of nature? While we may react with a sense that we are seeing something beautiful – we feel the intimation of a project, of something larger at work, but we cannot quite express what that is – a reaction such as this is not particularly communicative. It is not discursive, but instead is 414

one characterised by mute marvelling, and one might here use the verb staunen (‘to marvel’). Herzog’s own reaction to the images when he first encountered them would suggest that they are meant to elicit just such a reaction. He says: ‘We would find machinery lying in the middle of the desert – a cement mixer or something like that – a thousand miles from the nearest major settlement or town. You stand in front of these things and are in absolute awe. Was it ancient astronauts who put these things down here? Or are they man-made and, if so, what the hell are they doing here? … But you know, there is something very primordial and mysterious and sensuous about the desert. It is not just a landscape; it is a way of life. The solitude is the most overwhelming thing; there is a hushed quality to everything’ (Cronin 2002: 50). Herzog here refers to the ‘awe’ and the ‘hushed quality’, but he also genuinely means for us to ask what these man-made things are doing here. Herzog seems proud to have encouraged his audience, perhaps through the strangeness of the images, to ask this question. He says this is the one film in which he least intended to tell the viewers what to think: ‘Maybe more than any other film I have made it is one that needs to be completed by the audience, which means all feelings, thoughts and interpretations are welcome’ (Cronin 2002: 46). At the same time, however, on the DVD commentary Herzog tells Norman Hill and Crispin Glover that when they look at the film they should ‘forget about logic’ and ‘forget about any academic sort of schooling’ they 415

may have had (FM ch. 7; 40:06). They are instructed instead to listen to the text as if they were listening to music. Its appropriate reception, in other words, is meant to take place outside of language. The question remains: can the film do both; can it produce a response both in language and outside of it?

Sand dunes that resemble human bodies in Fata Morgana (1970)

Though little of the film takes place ‘in’ language, it calls for an act of ‘sense making’ or interpretation. In as much as the film is named after a mirage, it wants us to ask what the meaning is of what we have seen. There is, however, no guarantee that viewers will respond in one specific way or another, but perhaps because Herzog would rather that we take the film in


without the help of language, he almost entirely excluded all ‘dialogue’ from the film. The film depicts people occasionally communicating with the camera, but never with one another. In one sequence, a boy stands silently in front of the camera holding a small fox (a fennec). Herzog speaks on the commentary track about loving the moment of uncertainty. The boy holds the fennec by the neck as if he has killed it. Herzog says this is not the case, and we even see the fennec alive later in the film, but it certainly appears that way. The uncertainty has to do with the inadequacy of communication between the camera and its subjects. A group of women also look back at the camera, and Herzog describes them as being ‘like aliens, from an alien civilisation’. In another sequence, a blind soldier with his medals speaks to the camera, but Herzog does not translate his story. He says on the commentary track, ‘you don’t translate that’, as though he were acting in accord with a mandate to keep this alien world at a distance. One may note, along similar lines, the sequence in which Manfred Eigendorf’s poetry is read aloud. The lines are declaimed by the actor who played Becker in Signs of Life (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) while another man laughs. After reading the lines ‘an inner voice urges us to look at the vigorous plant growth that we are forcing from the earth’, one of the men holds up a potted plant. Given the addition of the potted plant and the other figure’s nonsensical laughter, the poetry reading appears to be somewhat absurd; it 417

would almost pass for Dada theatre. The scene of the couple singing in the brothel, a scene to which Herzog returns numerous times, is another example of a sequence in which no linguistic communication takes place. The pimp sings in Spanish, but his words are highly distorted. Herzog observes that even for native speakers, the lyrics are incomprehensible. He describes it as the saddest music in the world and does not interpret it. He only says: ‘God knows what he sang’ (FM ch. 12; 1:05:22). Throughout Fata Morgana, Herzog wants to create a sense that there is no such thing as unmediated history, or that there is nothing ‘natural’ in natural history. History is history insofar as it has been determined by human consciousness. It is along these lines, Alan Singer proposes, that we look at the introductory sequence that depicts airplane landings repeatedly, one after the next (see 1986: 186–8). Given the film’s science fiction pretence, it would seem that this first shot is the arrival on a new and strange planet. Herzog explains his intention this way: The first scene of the film is made up of eight shots of eight different airplanes landing one after the other. I had the feeling that audiences who were still watching by the sixth or seventh landing would stay to the end. This opening scene sorts out the audiences; it is a kind of test. As the day


grows hotter and hotter and the air becomes drier and drier, so the images get more and more blurred, more impalpable. Something visionary sets in – something like fever dreams – that remains with us for the entire length of the film. This was the motif of Fata Morgana: to capture things that are not real, not even actually there. (Cronin 2002: 48–9) Singer notes that the repetition is meant to underscore the mediated character of our perception of time, binding the knowledge of its passage to the fall from paradise. Herzog’s logic of creation and destruction would ‘return us full circle to a timeless beginning’, signalled by the apparently endless repetition of the landing. Singer adds: ‘In the context of this visual logic we can no longer believe that culture ever proffered immediate experience, that there ever was a time before culture’ (1986: 187, 188). As repetition, temporal experience is always already processed, and our experience of arrival – in the movie house or on the planet Uxmal – is inseparable from formal irony. While Fata Morgana does present an image of Africa, it is fair to say that one cannot learn about Africa from viewing the film; it is instead a reflection on the process of looking at Africa. It avoids providing context for understanding that continent’s colonial past, for coming to terms with its contemporary poverty, or giving any


encouragement concerning the possibilities for communication. How a rusted oil drum found its way onto this desert landscape is a question worth answering, but it is not an answer Herzog offers. The answer to that question is no more related to this film than Mozart, Blind Faith and Leonard Cohen are related to the music of Africa. Herzog readily avows that this vision is entirely his and that he here pursued an ecstatic truth, making his visual and musical choices intuitively. However, one may rightly ask whether it is right to use Africa as a desert landscape of the surreal, or as a silent dreamscape lacking in voices or music other than those that Herzog projects upon it. Lessons of Darkness While Fata Morgana stays away from that which is explicitly political, Herzog did get himself entangled in a controversy about aesthetics and politics with Lessons of Darkness. This later film is about Kuwait following the first Gulf War, and although Kuwait is in Western Asia rather than in Africa, I have included the discussion of the film in this chapter because it is so strongly connected to Fata Morgana that it is difficult to think of one without the other. It was a film that was notoriously poorly received in Germany, and Herzog says that at the world premiere of his film, at the Berlin International Film Festival, over 1,500 people yelled at him and threatened him. As he tells it, he stepped up to the podium, and when there was


finally silence he stated boldly: ‘You are all wrong.’ Herzog then adds, ‘Of course, the screaming and shouting started even wilder!’ (see Cheshire & Knipfel 1999: n.p.; see also Cronin 2002: 245). The film was made in 1991 when Herzog travelled to Kuwait to film the burning oil fields left in the wake of retreating Iraqi troops. Most of the aerial footage was shot by the British cinematographer Paul Berriff, who had obtained a permit to shoot. Herzog arrived only one month before the last fire was extinguished. He frames the images as though they were part of a work of science fiction about a planet being consumed by fire. Rather than informing us that this is Kuwait, we are told at the film’s onset that this is ‘a planet in our solar system’. Stated more clearly, this is a planet in Herzog’s solar system, complete with mountains and with a fog that parts for the overture as though it were the same metaphoric curtain we have seen in his work many times before. The film is related to Fata Morgana and could almost be viewed as a sequel, one in which the destruction of the world has been seen through to completion. There is hardly the sense that one finds in Fata Morgana of quiet beauty among the ruins, but rather a sense that one has stumbled into hell. And if there were any doubt that this burning planet is supposed to be similar to hell, Herzog compares his work to Dante’s Inferno (Cronin 2002: 245). Additionally, the final thesis of his Minnesota Declaration ties the two together. Herzog writes: ‘Life in the oceans must be sheer 421

hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species – including man – crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.’ (Cronin 2002: 302). What are the ‘lessons’ of this work? Herzog here, as always, works intuitively, and the film’s lessons have more to do with conveying an impression of an apocalypse than with educating viewers about the politics of the first Gulf War. It should perhaps go without saying that Herzog means to use these images of destruction to make a universal claim, one about the fate of our planet, rather than a historically specific one. The information that the film conveys is often misleading, as in the case when the images of Kuwait City at the beginning of the film are accompanied by a narration that tells us, ‘this city will soon be laid waste by war … Nobody has yet begun to suspect the impending doom.’ The war was already over when this footage was shot. Along similar lines, the very first moment of the film contains a stylisation: a quote from Blaise Pascal about the collapse of the universe (‘The collapse of the stellar universe will occur like creation – in grandiose splendour’). The quote of course, as with the quote at the beginning of Pilgrimage, is a fabrication. Herzog says: ‘It may sound like Pascal, but actually it is all invented.’ He then adds, ‘Pascal himself would not have written it better!’ (Cronin 2002: 242–3).


A planet consumed by fire in Lessons of Darkness (1992)

The apocalyptic quote ‘from’ Pascal recalls the effect of the Popul Vuh in Fata Morgana, insofar as it conjures up an image of a time when the universe was not there: a reminder that the universe has a beginning and an end. Rather than the desert heat, as in the earlier film, here it is the oil that produces mirages. Herzog narrates: ‘The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water.’ All the themes of Fata Morgana return. The sequence entitled ‘After the Battle’ starts with birds circling overhead, and then moves to now familiar images of bones in the ground, of animal carcasses like the ones depicted in Fata Morgana. When Herzog shows us images of boiling oil, the liquid seems to be alive or to have a consciousness of its own, akin to Fata Morgana’s anthropomorphic dunes. 423

Even the ‘characters’ in this film have analogues from the earlier one: the behaviour of the firemen is made to appear strange and incomprehensible. We know their actions are ‘reasonable’ – that one must continue to burn the oil in order to manage the fires – yet they are presented to us as madmen, similar to the pimps and poets in Fata Morgana. In Lessons of Darkness, the black smoke that rises above the fire (as though from an oven, as one intertitle suggestively asserts) plays the part usually played by fog in Herzog’s films. It is like the dust in Where the Green Ants Dream; it obscures the world and serves as a metaphor for the film’s concealed truths. Much of the film’s cinematography takes us into the plumes of smoke. The shots of oil-soaked and despoiled trees are all part of a natural history of destruction, or, in Herzog’s words, they are a requiem for a destroyed planet. Herzog says: Calling Lessons of Darkness a science fiction film is a way of explaining that the film has not a single frame that can be recognised as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here. I spoke earlier of our ‘embarrassed landscapes’. Well, the landscape you see in Lessons of Darkness is not just embarrassed, it is completely mutilated. The film plays out as if the entire planet is burning away, and because there is music throughout the film, I call it ‘a


requiem for an uninhabitable planet’. Unlike La Soufrière, which tries to document a natural catastrophe, Lessons of Darkness is a requiem for a planet that we ourselves have destroyed. (Cronin 2002: 249) The pace of the film is slow, and it is perhaps in this way that it enacts a critique of how wars have been reported on cable television. CNN comes up frequently in discussions of this film, partly because it established its reputation by covering this war, and partly because Herzog borrows some of CNN’s footage in order to depict the war itself. In ‘Part II: A War’, we do not see the war transpire, but we see it as framed or depicted – in a mediated way – by television news. Neither are Herzog’s images the destruction of war in itself; his images too are framed and mediated. Herzog does not admit any continuity between his compositions and CNN’s, asserting: ‘The stylisation of the horror in Lessons of Darkness means that the images penetrate deeper than the CNN footage ever could, something that bothered audiences in Germany a great deal.’ If there is a difference, it comes from the slow, stylised presentation of the images – that they unfold over a prolonged period. It is the difference that comes of holding our gaze in one place, encouraging us to survey the images (and, presumably, admit that these too are ‘landscapes of the mind’), and our exposure to bits and bites of war on cable television. Nadia Bozak expresses it this way:


‘[Herzog] refuses the “live” frenzy of Gulf War I, the crisis told in the ticker-tape escapades of the network’s real-time broadcasts. Though Herzog’s film was an immediate response to CNN’s images of “Desert Storm” and a reaction to their instantaneous, spontaneous liveness, Herzog does not allow this same urgency to penetrate the fabric of his film’ (2006: 24). For many viewers, however, the problem is not that Herzog forces us to see differently the destruction of war. It is instead that he fails to provide sufficient context for the destruction. Herzog does not even once indicate who attacked whom, which city he is presenting at the onset of the film, or even who it is that is putting out the fires. We see only apocalyptic images and decimation. The chapter titles are each abstract. Herzog says: ‘There was just no need to name Saddam Hussein and the country he attacked. And you know, even if people are watching Lessons of Darkness in 300 years’ time, it still would not be important for them to know the historical facts behind this film. Lessons of Darkness transcends the topical and the particular. This could be any war and any country’ (Cronin 2002: 246). One might wonder if the director’s interest in science fiction and his desire to abstract the images from their political and historical context was not a way to avoid becoming involved in a political debate about the rightness or wrongness of the war. Yet again, as was the case with Ballad of the Little Soldier, Herzog implicitly rejects the notion that the depiction of a war (and 426

its consequences) is always already political. Wars are political, and no one can simply and naively depict the horror of war in itself. By and large, the German position in 1991 was, as in 2003, very critical of US intervention in the region, and the film addresses none of this directly. Because it did not speak about it – because it did not undertake criticism of the American rationale for war – the film was taken as tacit support of it. Moreover, the charge was levelled against Herzog that he aestheticised the violence of war. Apocalypses are always aesthetic for Herzog. It is the way we come to obtain a standpoint beyond that of the everyday or the prosaic; we have to imagine a point outside of conventional rationality and that intuition is generally provided to us through the senses, which is the basis of Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’. Herzog, of course, dismisses the idea that he has rendered war aesthetic, but this point seems indisputable. The flaming streams of oil that depict for us a dystopia of flame exalt destruction. Roger Hillman points out that much of the music used in the film, including Wagner’s Rheingold (used in Nosferatu the Vampyre as well) and Parsifal are operatic or theatrical pieces (2005: 146–50). Herzog has elsewhere re-employed Wagner, but what resonates here is the notion that Wagner had attempted to transform the whole world into music – the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk that creates a world constituted through and through by a singular musical idea. Wagner’s music is certainly about the aestheticisation of the world, and in Lessons of 427

Darkness that world is cloaked in oil and flame. What remains open for investigation is whether an aesthetic presentation of destruction can ever be part of its critique, and to what end such images are used. Images such as these have appeared elsewhere, and the influence of Lessons of Darkness is visible in works such as Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005). Perhaps Herzog’s fascination with the totality of destruction, his vision of a devastated world, of a world on fire, is meant to draw our attention to something specific in the character of modern warfare. More than ever before, war contains the promise of absolute destruction. While the second Gulf War left behind more fragmentary ruins – shops, cities and bodies partially destroyed by car and cluster bombs – than it did total destruction, warfare today is the threat of wholesale devastation. A film such as Lessons of Darkness depicts landscapes, yet the living, growing fires that consume everything in their path do not imply a prior, anterior wholeness; nothing in them suggests rebuilding, and in this way the film’s statement can also be understood as anti-war. In these images, as in the final moments of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), total destruction overwhelms any promise of redemption. The film is also remarkable for the portraits of victims of torture, and the choices Herzog makes here are telling. He explains that there were other people he wanted to film, ‘but the Kuwati 428

government basically expelled me … They had objections against me going into the deepest wounds that the war had created for some of the people’ (Cronin 2002: 245). To go into these deep wounds – territory he has approached before in Little Dieter Needs to Fly and in Wings of Hope – Herzog presents the stories of two victims of traumatic experiences: a woman who has been through a horrible ordeal and cannot speak, and a child in its mother’s arms who has been so traumatised that he has chosen to remain mute. Of the first sequence, Herzog narrates: ‘We met a woman who wanted to tell us something. She had been dragged away by soldiers along with her two grown sons, and had to watch her sons being tortured to death before her very eyes. This caused her to lose her speech, but she still tried to tell us what had happened.’ The woman gestures, points towards the sky and looks sorrowful. She speaks, but Herzog offers no conjecture as to what words or fragments of words she is trying to say. Subsequently, a second mother appears, holding her child in her arms. Here, Herzog translates for us: ‘The soldiers came at night while the children were sleeping. They dragged this one here out of bed and one of the soldiers trampled on the child’s head with his heavy boot and then pressed all his weight down on it. They held on to my husband and me and threatened us with their rifles. I said, “Please, take your boot away you are crushing his head!”’ Speaking of her son, she adds: ‘Look at this little fellow. He hasn’t spoken a word since … The boy used to be able to talk. But 429

now he says nothing more. Only once. He said, “Mama, I don’t ever want to learn how to talk.”’ According to Herzog, there is stylisation in these scenes (Cronin 2002: 241). As we see implements in the torture chamber, for example, we hear Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins. The music stops once the first victim begins to ‘speak’, but resumes before she is done. While we do not know whether he has instructed either of these women as to how to tell their stories, muteness has been thematised so frequently in Herzog’s films – in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Signs of Life and elsewhere – that it is hard to believe that it is not a stylisation. Significantly, however, the sequences lack Herzog’s trademark hyperbole. He does not, for example, write these women’s dreams for them, as he did in the cases of Juliane Köpcke and Dieter Dengler. Although Herzog supplies the language through which we can understand the events, he does not pretend to take a place inside these women’s heads. Here, one can suggest that Herzog approaches this trauma differently in that his own past is so distinct from theirs. There is no chance of Herzog becoming subjectively entangled as he had with Dieter or with Juliane. It is not irony and excess in this case, but cultural difference – the acknowledgement of the communicative gap between him and those he is depicting – that proscribes a limit on his empathetic approach. Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun


We do not hear many speaking voices in Lessons of Darkness. Like Fata Morgana it is a film without anything that can properly be called dialogue. How could one, after all, engage in dialogue with people that are depicted as being ‘from another planet’? The close encounters documented in those films are fascinating precisely because no communication can take place. They are meant to pose questions without answers. However, Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun is different. It is a portrait of life among the Wodaabe tribesmen, though Herzog is careful to assert that it is not an ethnographic film. He says that it is far too stylised and ‘ecstatic’ to be considered ethnographic or anthropological, yet it is indisputably a film from which one could draw conclusions about the life and habits of a group of African tribesmen. The rituals that he depicts do actually take place – they are not fabrications – and, in contrast to Fata Morgana, we hear many of the film’s Africans speaking for themselves. The Wodaabe are a nomadic subgroup of West Africans known as the Fula. They migrate across southern Niger, northern Nigeria and parts of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. At the film’s onset Herzog provides background that he deems relevant, some of which is consistent with his trademarked set of interests: he tells us that these people live ‘under the taboo of purity’ which is meant to suggest that they deify beauty. The idea that beauty is their sublime god somewhat downplays the Muslim influence in their religious practices, something in which Herzog 431

shows less interest. He also adds the unhelpful yet typically Herzogian observation that the origin of the Wodaabe is ‘a mystery’. Throughout the film Herzog explores the daily lives of the Wodaabe (how they churn butter, how they erect their quarters and the role of the dowry in their wedding rituals). Despite the stylised uses of Western music and Herzog’s own voice-over, much of the information – the many accountants’ truths – provide viewers with the sense that the film is somehow ethnographic. Herzog is mainly there to observe the Gerewol ceremony, an annual beauty contest of sorts, which has not been held for the prior four years because drought conditions have been so bad. This year, however, has brought rain. Herzog films the celebration and contest, which involve the men of the tribe putting on make-up to seduce potential suitors. The men rather than the women are preening, hoping to get the attention of the women and likely that of the camera as well. Herzog begins the film with the images of these men in make-up and a recording from 1901 of Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’. According to Herzog, we are hearing the voice of the last castrato of the Vatican. The fact is significant insofar as the theme of reversed gender roles comes to the foreground, and that it was the very last castrato recalls the leitmotif that the culture of the Wodaabe may be dying out as well. Herzog’s use of Western music exemplifies the stylisations in the film. Music by Gounod, Handel and others is in no way organically connected to this African 432

culture. At one point, Herzog switches from the extra-diegetic use of opera to the singing of the Wodaabe. The transition comes at the moment make-up is applied and the ceremony begins. The switch moves us from the space of Herzog’s imagination back to the rituals of the people themselves. It bespeaks a dualism in the film; the film wants to give its subjects a voice, but it is also, as always, primarily a fantasy of Herzog’s. From the narration it would appear that Herzog expects us to be somewhat surprised by the film’s gender-bending. Showing us a panoply of made-up faces, Herzog soberly pronounces: ‘These are all men.’ The young women, we are told, then take their positions and choose a beau. Western standards of beauty cannot be said to apply here in that not all viewers will find the rolling eyes and bared teeth particularly seductive. Once the competition is over, however, much of their behaviour comes across as fairly familiar, particularly when we eavesdrop on young people confessing their attractions to one another. The interest in African rituals on the part of German filmmakers is somewhat over-determined. Herzog has previously distanced himself from an active interest in Leni Riefenstahl so it is unlikely that he has spent a good deal of time examining her footage from Africa: the question is not one of how she influenced him, yet a comparison between the two is illuminating. Riefenstahl was particularly interested in the Nuba of the Sudan (documented in her books The Last of the Nuba (1973) and The People of Kau (1976)). Notoriously 433

for Riefenstahl these tribes were idealised. They were the ancient Greeks cloaked in dark, African skin. Not only did they appear to her as paragons of physical beauty, but she also idealised them as a culture without vice. Riefenstahl started to be interested in them in 1962, and took a particular interest in the Mesakin Nuba. She visited regularly, but by 1974 she had grown disillusioned. Thanks to poor harvests and an inability to preserve traditional means of living from the land, the habits and vices of the city of Khartoum had infiltrated the culture she had once considered pure. She then shifted her interest to the Nuba of Kau, documenting them in her second book. The connection is instructive: although Herzog idealises the Wodaabe and uses their rituals as an opportunity to achieve some kind of ecstatic truth, he is, unlike Riefenstahl, willing to show in the very same film what happens to his subjects once poverty and drought chase them ‘out of the bush’. Here we see the incursion of the twentieth century on an ancient culture, as was depicted in Fata Morgana. Herzog includes footage of children in Arlit as they ‘forage for food in the garbage’. One tribesman, forced to live in the city, says to the camera: ‘This here is the sand of bitterness.’ What likely draws Herzog more than anything else to these people is their nomadic ways – Herzog is always interested in walkers and pilgrims – as well as their refusal to take on the baggage of the twentieth century. They have little but their dowries and some basic necessities. The twentieth century is a hardship on these dignified 434

people. The film presents the paradox that although the Wodaabe claim no one can own the earth (because to claim to do so, one would have to be a ‘herdsman of the sun’), they seem to be in the process of having their way of life taken from them. Herzog’s film does not explicitly speculate about how this is happening, but one has the impression that the film is trying to convey a negative message about modernity and progress, a position similar to the one taken in Ten Thousand Years Older. The film was photographed by Schmidt-Reitwein, and the searing desert sun, an echo of Where the Green Ants Dream, is also of a piece with Fata Morgana. That film’s African rock formation – the one that looked like the kneeling dromedary from Even Dwarfs Started Small – is here brought to life in the film’s final shot: dromedaries crossing a crowded bridge over the river Niger. While Herzog likes to put together discordant pieces and show that he can intuit that things will mesh in unexpected ways, this image, in the context of those that have preceded it, indicates that these pieces – the Wodaabe and modernity – do not fit together well. The viewer is left wondering what will become of this tribe. Cobra Verde In 1980 Bruce Chatwin wrote the partly fictional and partly historical book The Viceroy of Ouidah, which tells the story of a nineteenth-century


Brazilian slave-trader who makes a fortune in West Africa, relying on his ruthlessness and instincts. Because Chatwin was both a novelist and historian his work jumps between the present and the past, exploring the relationship between the moment of the slave-trader’s intervention and later historical developments in the West African nation, Benin. Although it is based on The Viceroy of Ouidah, Herzog’s Cobra Verde is somewhat selective in what it chooses to borrow from Chatwin. Inspired by the vibrant prose of its source, Cobra Verde is an uncommonly beautiful film, yet it veers away from thinking through the consequences of the slave trade with the same historical perspective as the work that inspired it. Instead, Kinski’s histrionic performance in the central role is the film’s centrepiece. As was the case with Fata Morgana, many of the historical questions are bracketed out in the interest of ecstatic truth. Instead of making a film about the racist ideology that subtended the slave trade, which would have been closely aligned with the orientation of Chatwin’s book, Herzog contests the claim that racism both motivated and was used as a justification for imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. Instead of underscoring important connections between racism and European imperialism, Herzog’s film critiques the bourgeoisie in general. This is not to suggest that Chatwin would have objected to Herzog’s film. The two were friends from when they met in 1984 until the writer’s death 436

in 1989. Herzog was fascinated by Chatwin’s book and believed that it was really about ‘the inner world of an amazing character’ (Cronin 2002: 212). His interest in it was, of course, consistent with his interest in figures such as Fitzcarraldo, and Kinski was an obvious choice for the part. Yet one may note that in emphasising characters of this type – European colonialists – Herzog consciously or unconsciously sidesteps some questions specific to German history and identity. Although this sidestepping is not the case everywhere in his oeuvre (especially when one considers Invincible), his films that take colonial exploitation as their subject rarely relate specifically to German history. Focusing on a Spaniard in Aguirre, Wrath of God, an Irishman in Fitzcarraldo and now a Brazilian in Cobra Verde, Herzog’s films have addressed colonial violence as a European problem, but not as a particularly German one. Because Herzog is German, however, some viewers draw clear connections between his worldview, his protagonist’s fantasies and German history. The German tradition brings with it a great deal of specific baggage from the Third Reich, and while discussions of this type may seem quite loaded, they are instructive with regard to both the historical German employment of the image of Africa and the particular set of problems with which Herzog presents viewers of Cobra Verde. Although German colonists were prolific writers, Germany never produced a canon of literary texts that defined its discourse around that subject. For 437

this reason, the Nazis could – and indeed had to – displace their colonial images on to other nations’ colonial pasts in order to fit the demands of their propaganda machine. One can look, for example, at the Nazi film Ohm Krüger from 1941 in which the English are depicted as barbarians as they attempt to move the Boers from their South African Heimat. The Boers stand in unambiguously for the Germans in that film, dutifully fighting a difficult war to protect their homeland, their beliefs and their honour. The film is so intent on making England look merciless that it takes pains to vilify that nation’s wartime use of concentration camps. Tellingly, there is little else in that film besides Germans posturing as the good Dutch and the evil English. It was made in German studios, and there is next to no depiction of the colonised. Africa is, in other words, the most distant of backdrops, a screen upon which German filmmakers and audiences project their national anxieties. Though Ohm Krüger is about a war in Africa, it has little or nothing to do with Africa itself. It became a means of addressing specifically German interests by way of a detour into a conflict imagined to have been exclusively between Europeans. Herzog clearly succeeds in representing more of Africa than the Nazis did in Ohm Krüger, doing much of his filming in Ghana and working with a cast that included hundreds of Africans. He does choose, however, to centre his film squarely on its white, slave-trading protagonist. Africa serves as a backdrop for Herzog’s study of Kinski much as it 438

did in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As was the case with that novel, Herzog’s film deals with the crisis and collapse of a single white man. In turn, whether or not one accepts the conclusions of Achebe’s essay as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, his argument makes clear that race is a central issue in Heart of Darkness, and that one cannot simply let the way in which it is understood, in Conrad’s novel or in Herzog’s film, remain undiscussed. In fixating on the travails of his main character, Herzog brackets out key historical questions, and Cobra Verde attempts to be an exploration of its title character’s Nietzschean sense of economic efficiency and his struggle for power. It is not a film that chooses to be concerned with the history of racism as such. Against what he has described as a ‘politically correct’ position, Herzog argues that depictions of the slave trade have unfairly placed all the emphasis on the evil-doings of whites – a position Herzog likely sees as too Manichean. But in order to participate in this type of argument – one that rejects the traditional treatment of the historical concept of race – Herzog constructs Kinski’s character, the slave-trading protagonist of Cobra Verde, as sympathetic. He also has to set aside numerous questions about his main character’s own racism and about racism as a justification for imperial expansion. Departing from Chatwin’s work, Herzog couples the figure Francisco Manoel da Silva, based on the nineteenth-century Brazilian slave-trader Fernando Felix de Souza, with that of 439

the legendary bandit known as ‘Cobra Verde’, who is mentioned only briefly in Chatwin’s book. As the film begins, da Silva (Kinski) is developing a reputation in Brazil as a violent thief, but is then unwittingly hired by the sugar baron Colonel Octavio Cothino (José Lewgoy) as his new overseer, responsible for keeping the slaves in check. Da Silva refuses to be made civil by steady work and one by one seduces Cothino’s many mixed-race daughters. When the plantation owner discovers the outrage, he conspires to have the governor appoint da Silva to manage the slave trade on the Bight of Benin, an assignment that means certain death because the present King of Dahomey, Bossa Ahadee (Nana Agyefi Kwame II), is taken to be a brutal madman. Rather than run from his new assignment, da Silva decides to make the journey, in part so that he may fulfil his dream of crossing the ocean. Once in Africa, he finds he is managing his relationship with the King well, despite the latter’s propensity towards arbitrary violence. One day the King has da Silva and his quartermaster abducted and brought to the royal residence at Abomey to be executed for no apparent reason. The King begins raving about the Portuguese and smears da Silva’s face with black ink because they have no precedent for killing a white man. Before his execution, however, he is liberated by the King’s nephew, Kankpé (Kwesi Fase), a character based on the historical King Gezo. Together with Kankpé, da Silva conspires to overthrow the present King and restart trading African prisoners 440

of war as slaves. Da Silva then organises an army of women warriors and attacks the King’s residence. The raid is successful and the King surrenders, allowing himself to be strangled to death by his wives. At this point, da Silva becomes the Viceroy of Ouidah, taking the seat of power alongside Kankpé and the two become ‘blood brothers’. The slave trade resumes for many years until all at once da Silva’s overseas partners call a halt to it and Kankpé decides to reassert his power, delivering groups of crippled men instead of healthy slaves. Da Silva is left with nothing and heads to the shore to die a lonely death, collapsing beneath the oncoming waves. Herzog asserts that his film was deliberately not intended to be a statement about the morality of the slave trade: ‘The film never denounces slavery. It works within the climate and thinking of that time … That of course is to a certain degree not politically correct. So, what? So, I have no problem with that’ (CV ch. 10; 23:47). In this regard he believed he was following Chatwin’s lead. In the author’s memoir What Am I Doing Here? (1989) Chatwin wrote about the time during the late 1970s when he returned to West Africa to do his historical research in preparation for writing The Viceroy of Ouidah. It was seven years after he had first visited in 1971, and Chatwin observed that he had needed to step back from his object of study and turn himself into an objective photojournalist of sorts. He writes: ‘Dahomey had changed its name to the People’s Republic of Benin. The “thought” of Kim Il Sung was all the 441

rage and, to my amazement, I found myself one morning arrested as a mercenary, stripped to my underpants, and forced to stand against a wall in the searing sun while vultures wheeled overhead and the crowd outside the barracks chanted “Mort aux mercenaires!” A platoon practised arms-drill behind my back, and the soldier guarding me cooed melodiously, “Ils vont vous tuer, massacrer même!” … After this interruption I lost the stamina to pursue my researches, though I had acquired ripe material for a novel. Since it was impossible to fathom the alien mentality of my characters, my only hope was to advance the narrative in a sequence of cinematographic images’ (1989: 137). Chatwin, in other words, generated a quasi-fictional account, a method that probably appealed to Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truth, rather than generating a historical account because he wanted to depict the sensuality and violence of his experience in Benin without pretending that he had overcome the obstacle of writing from a thoroughly Western perspective. Chatwin hoped his tone would correspond to his attempt to hold at a distance a culture that was so different from his own, one that he found ‘impossible to fathom’. Though both Chatwin and Herzog believe they present things as they were, there are substantial differences between the book and the film; Chatwin’s work is more historical than one might assume when watching Cobra Verde, and the difference is worth noting. The Viceroy of Ouidah was originally published with a lengthy preface in which Chatwin detailed 442

the research he had done, but Patrick Meanor, in his study of the work, notes that the unabridged preface to the book appears only in the first edition and was subsequently cut. Citing one critic, he points out that the omission may have been intended to encourage focusing on the book as a work of fiction. Meanor continues: That omission … deprives the reader of the valuable knowledge of Chatwin’s sources, and Chatwin was a consistently reliable researcher and genuine scholar. For example, he admits to reading, as a boy, about King Gezo and to studying accounts of human sacrifice by such Victorian travel writers as John Duncan, F. E. Forbes, Richard Burton and J. A. Skertchly; he also met Pierre Verger, the master of Afro-Brazilian studies. Further, he discloses in the preface that he came into contact with many of de Souza’s descendants and actually called on King Gezo’s grandson, Sagbadjou. In later editions of Viceroy, the editors included only the first two paragraphs of the preface – without calling it a preface. Without the remaining nine paragraphs – the autobiographical section – the book begins like a novel. (1997: 39) Because Chatwin attempts to remain conscious of his own historical distance from nineteenth-century Africa, his work tries to restrain its flights of fancy


by way of the rigorous strictures of historical research. As indicated, the novel is based on the life of Fernando Felix de Souza. After falling out of favour with King Adandozan, who reigned when de Souza first set foot in Africa, he then developed a thirty-year relationship with the subsequent King of Dahomey, Gezo. According to Patrick Meanor, ‘King Gezo appointed de Souza “Chacha”, or chief customs collector, and Viceroy of Ouidah … The effect of these powerful appointments was that de Souza exercised a monopoly on all trade – including the slave trade – in the port’ (1997: 40). One of the chief points of Chatwin’s book is that the establishment of King Gezo’s power and the massive exportation of slaves that followed came directly from the gun trade facilitated by de Souza. Meanor cites a historical account, explaining that de Souza was also King Gezo’s chief supplier of armaments from Europe. He notes some differences between the real story and Chatwin’s work, writing that de Souza ‘prospered enormously and upon his death (8 May 1849) human sacrifices were offered for him in Whydah [Ouidah]’ (1997: 40). Chatwin’s book undoubtedly underscores the mutual imbrication of blacks and whites in the slave trade. He takes some liberties with history, yet his interest is not in intervening in a discourse on that epoch itself, but rather on the effect of the West African slave trade on more recent events. The Viceroy of Ouidah contends with the legacy of the 10,000 slaves a year who were shipped through the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from that West African port to 444

the Americas (especially to Brazil and the Caribbean). Though it does make de Souza somewhat of a sympathetic victim, the focus of the The Viceroy of Ouidah is not so much on the slave-trader as on the consequences of his appearance in the country that came to be known as Benin. By bringing the book up to the present – starting and ending it in the 1970s – Chatwin is able to introduce questions concerning the consequence of the slave trade on the development of virulent nationalism in the twentieth century. A dogmatic form of anti-white Marxism prevailed in Benin and ultimately became the official state ideology. Readers can, therefore, draw conclusions about the connection between the slave trade and those subsequent events. However, in making a film that is squarely about da Silva – de Souza’s quasi-fictional counterpart – Herzog follows only Chatwin’s third, fourth and fifth chapters, but not the first, second and sixth ones. Herzog does not so much make a film about the history of Benin but one about Kinski’s character, the ‘bandit’. He sets aside the book’s diachronicity, telling the story entirely in the early nineteenth century. Cobra Verde thereby wanders away from Chatwin’s research and becomes much more a study of da Silva’s tortured mind. Herzog never draws attention to the fact that the bandit Cobra Verde and the slave-trader da Silva are distinct figures in The Viceroy of Ouidah. In Chatwin’s book the bandit appears only briefly and disappears just as quickly. Herzog’s film 445

makes the two one and the same. As has been pointed out, Cobra Verde at no point condemns da Silva for being a slave-trader. Perhaps because he found something missing, Herzog chose to supplement his slave-trading with actual lawlessness. He needed to supplement it with something, as he was attempting to work within the logic of an age in which a slave-trader would have been an accepted insider, not a social outsider. Because Kinski’s characters are always outsiders, however, Herzog turns da Silva into a bandit with contempt for the laws of the bourgeoisie. Even though da Silva is depicted as a criminal, he is not motivated purely by greed. Had he been, then Cobra Verde’s argument about the roots of slavery would be more Marxist than it is. Kinski’s character is instead Nietzschean through and through, interested in sensuality and rejecting the hypocritical morality that accompanies civility. Da Silva’s defining characteristic is not that he is a racist, it is that he is anti-bourgeois. He is offended by Octavio, for example, not because he is a slave holder, but because he is fat, proud of his property and possessive of his beautiful daughters. Da Silva’s anti-bourgeois attitude is defined not only by a sense that he is above the law, but also by his consistent refusal to wear shoes. Moreover, once he arrives in Africa he is offended by what he perceives as the gratuitous sadism of the Africans, who somehow seem engaged in violence that offends even his sensibilities as a slave-trader. Indeed, da Silva appears to occupy a higher moral 446

ground than others; his contempt for laws and bourgeois norms has left him capable of looking past human appearances and physical limitations. For example, he quickly makes friends with the handicapped boy Euclides Wanderley (Guillermo Coronel) on the basis of the younger man’s perceived integrity. He also maintains a lasting friendship with his black majordomo as further evidence that he rejects and refuses contemporary Brazilian racial and social mores. One might argue that Cobra Verde is not intended to be a film about the history of the slave trade, but one about hardship and character formation. Yet the issue is that Herzog’s film is indeed a comment on Africa and Africans. One cannot depict colonisation, or the confrontation between European and African nations, without consciously making representational choices that participate in the long pre-existing history of Western discourse on Africa. Depicting historically complex events like the slave trade inevitably engages one in an ongoing conversation about those events – in this case about the causes and the consequences of that epoch. Cobra Verde is a stunningly beautiful film yet there are, understandably, issues raised by its use of Africa – and nineteenth-century Africa in particular – as a show-place for ecstatic truths. Hans Günther Pflaum comments on the way Africans are figured in Cobra Verde, noting that among the ‘typical Herzog motifs’ in the film is one scene in particular in which ‘an endless human chain, using white flags, passes a message across 447

the land … the panoramic view of these many rotating flags alludes to the turning windmills that foreshadowed final catastrophe in Signs of Life’ (1990: 125). This scene attains its ecstatic truth precisely because the actors are turned into props, less individual bodies than one mass, organised body. Even more grating are the scenes of military drills in Cobra Verde during which da Silva trains an army of women warriors to overthrow the barbaric King Bossa Ahadee. When Kinski takes command, he organises the army in the style of the Prussian military. On the DVD, Norman Hill comments that the atmosphere in the scene is similar to that of a Leni Riefenstahl film, and he is likely thinking of Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) in which National Socialist military practices turn thousands of soldiers’ bodies into a single, well-organised organism (CV ch. 22; 1:19:28). Herzog does not address this comment, but it is worth asking whether re-employing this sort of imagery in a different context can be said to be equivalent to its critique. The Africans here, in this beautiful sequence, are a part of an overall aesthetic effect. As John Davidson points out, we assume that Herzog’s films are meant to be reflections on the consequences of colonial abuses, yet they frequently leave one asking the question of whether they ultimately criticise or enact such problems (1999: 25–6). As a focus of attention Kinski is the immovable centrepiece of Cobra Verde. He appears in every sequence, even if only peripherally. The film 448

begins with a troubadour explaining that we are about to hear the story of Francisco Manoel, the bandit Cobra Verde. Herzog follows this with an extreme close-up of da Silva and then a 360-degree pan from his perspective as he looks out on the arid Brazilian landscape. While the 360-degree pans in Heart of Glass, Aguirre, Wrath of God and Scream of Stone are ones in which the camera surrounds the protagonists, suggesting that they have become subsumed with the ever-expanding world beneath their feet, Herzog here shows us the world from da Silva’s perspective. Instead of taking distance from him, we are meant to be sutured to him. In the following sequence we see da Silva looking for gold in Brazil. He is covered in mud from head to toe, which is a potent image in a film about the slave trade. It arguably conveys Herzog’s intention to diminish the question of racism in the film. This opening sequence foreshadows the later one in which he is covered with black ink while being held captive. The scenes are not minstrel shows, but rather suggestions that on both continents da Silva had managed to metamorphose, to change his skin colour and reveal a new one, perhaps as the cobra referred to in the film’s title sheds its skin while moulting. While one of Chatwin’s first descriptive comments about da Silva’s background had been that the people of his hometown ‘hated negroes’, Herzog wants us to think of da Silva otherwise; his race is treated as though it were transparent or non-existent. We are to see da Silva as an economic opportunist, but 449

not as a character defined by race and racism. Herzog underscores this in that the first words we hear out of Kinski’s mouth are ‘Where is my money?’ Despite the fact that he was one of the richest slave-traders in West African history, he is not presented as a racist. Indeed, he is the only one who makes any remark against the slave trade, explaining in one of the film’s final sequences that he finds slavery to have been an enormous crime.

Kinski is taken prisoner in Cobra Verde (1987)

Herzog wants to underscore the interconnected culpability of blacks and whites in the history of the slave trade. His intentions are clearest once Kinski becomes the blood brother of Kankpé, the character based on King Gezo. After the two of them have overthrown King Bossa 450

Ahadee, da Silva assumes the seat of the ‘shadow King’ or the ‘bush King’ who is legendarily invisible and is said to rule by the King’s side. In this way, Herzog depicts them as equal partners. The installation of da Silva as the ‘shadow King’ is Herzog’s way of making clear that the black King and European slave-trader were both implicated in exploiting Africa. Herzog is unabashed about the fact that this approach is decidedly politically incorrect. As indicated above, the director claims that he is indifferent to such criticism. Later, when Norman Hill asks: ‘Is this true, Werner? Did a lot of the people of Africa sell their own people to slavery?’ Herzog responds: Yes, well it is a well-established fact which is of course denied by many people who are against slave trade. Of course everyone, every thinking person is against it, but it has been a little bit wiped under the carpet that African kingdoms and African potentates were very much involved in slave trade as well. But of course they would follow the demand; it’s an exchange of resources and demand, and a part of the slave trade between the New World and Africa. There was slavery of course over the ages and massive slave trade between the Arab world and black Africa. And even within African nations a lot of slave trade … so it’s not such a one-sided affair as we normally are made [to] believe. But when


I’m saying that, of course, it is considered politically incorrect, but one cannot deny that there is a very well-documented history of slave trade far outside and beyond the slave trade between North America or Brazil and Africa (CV ch. 15; 50:29). This argument has the appearance of being brutally honest, and Herzog is not wrong to put forward that there was slave trade among African nations as well as subjugation of Africans by other Africans. One must, however, simultaneously account for the conflicts and complexities of colonialism as a function of an ongoing resistance between the colonisers and the colonised. As a rule, such resistance takes place on a variety of more and less apparent levels. To take one example, in Cobra Verde, da Silva is rejected (as de Souza was rejected), first by one King and then by the other, but the film does not acknowledge this rejection as a response to the colonial intrusion of the Brazilians. It is taken instead as a sign of childishness and impetuosity. In his reading of Heart of Darkness, Edward Said attributes a strikingly similar misrecognition to Joseph Conrad. Said argues that Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz, like Conrad himself, fail to recognise that ‘what they saw, disablingly and disparagingly, as a non-European “darkness” was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as to one day regain sovereignity and independence, and not, as Conrad reductively says, to


re-establish the darkness … Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not conclude that imperialism had to end so that “natives” could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them’ (1993: 30). It was perhaps inherent in Chatwin’s book that this drive to become sovereign was part of that legacy of the slave trade that in some historical accounts played a role in the development of rabid nationalism. His work did not mean to assert, however, that blacks and whites or Africans and Europeans were equal partners in the slave trade. Certainly, Cobra Verde offers ‘ecstatic truth’, whether it is found in the flag signals across the beach, the images of Brazil at the film’s onset or the crabs, which both here and in Invincible are a metaphor for despotism. One should add that it successfully avoids what Herzog describes as an Out of Africa (1985) nostalgia (Cronin 2002: 213). The fact that there are self-evident race problems with a film like Out of Africa, or with a German film such as Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, 2001) bespeaks the dilemma of representing the legacy of Europe in Africa; such representations are always already political. Herzog insists on his ecstatic truths, yet he elects to turn away from the issues of race and history that intrude upon the stage he has set. None of this goes to suggest 453

that Cobra Verde fails to become a work of art, only that the viewer would do well to look at the film with due consideration for the legacy and effects of a racist slave trade. Echoes from a Sombre Empire Herzog’s Echoes from a Sombre Empire deals with the reign of Jean-Bédel Bokassa over the Central African Republic. Herzog focuses on the strange behaviour of Bokassa, who crowned himself Emperor in 1977. The dictator at the centre of the film was born in 1921. His father was beaten to death by the authorities for having committed a petty crime, and his mother committed suicide. Because the nation that later became the Central African Republic was at that time a French colony, Bokassa joined the French army and served with distinction, earning the legion d’honneur. When he returned to the Central African Republic in the early 1960s, David Dacko, a cousin of his (who makes an appearance in Herzog’s film), was president. Bokassa overthrew Dacko in a coup d’état in 1966. Bokassa then promoted himself to general, to marshall and eventually to Emperor. Often compared with that of Idi Amin, his reign was marked by his strange and violent excesses and insatiable sexual appetites, as well as stories of cannibalism, torture and murder. Dacko finally removed Bokassa from power with the help of the French government in 1979.


Herzog does not provide viewers with an excess of historical background. We eventually come to find out some details about Bokassa – from Dacko, from a lawyer who works on the case and from people on the street – but we have little information as to how he came to power, or about the relationship of French colonial history to this type of violent dictatorship. While some of the problems of the Central African Republic, from its founding in 1960 to the present, are a direct consequence of colonial history, none of this is addressed by the film. Of course, this is not meant to be a film of that type. Herzog says: ‘To call Echoes from a Sombre Empire a “documentary” is like saying that Warhol’s painting of Campbell’s soup cans is a document about tomato soup’ (Cronin 2002: 242). There are, as usual, a fair number of stylisations. Herzog begins by explaining that he is concerned about Michael Goldsmith, a foreign correspondent who serves as a focal point for the film, because he is presently working in Liberia and has gone missing (Goldsmith did eventually get out of Liberia, though he died three weeks after this film premiered). Herzog reads to us from a letter that he says is from Goldsmith, which states that he wants people to understand that when he was abused by Bokassa, as described in the film, he remained calm; he observed his situation as a scientist would have, studying himself as though he were studying an insect. He then explains that he has had dreams of crabs taking over the earth. The images Herzog then includes, of crabs 455

crossing train tracks, are familiar: he later used these images, or similar ones, in Invincible. The assertion that Goldsmith has now gone missing is consistent with the music we hear when we first see Goldsmith driving to conduct an interview. The score is almost Hitchcockian, and the stylisation adds fuel to the pervasive sense of mystery. It thematises the journalistic act of uncovering. Herzog presents this as though Goldsmith is going to reveal some truth, although, as we know from his other works, he is unlikely to find any satisfactory answer to the question of how Bokassa came to be the way he was. Goldsmith surveys the traces of Bokassa’s rule, and he studies an image of him dressed in Napoleonic regalia. Herzog then cuts to footage of Bokassa standing before crowds. At this point, Herzog has not yet told us what we are seeing, though those familiar with his work will recognise once again his interest in African dictators, particularly if one recalls the influence of John Okello on the figure of Aguirre. This is not the first time that Herzog has wondered on film about such madness. One aspect of this fascination is illuminated by a film Herzog often cites, one mentioned earlier: Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous. That film is an ‘ethnographic’ film that captures the possession rites of the Hauka in Ghana. The mysterious ritual that Rouch documents therein is a mirror of official protocols in which the participants, in a trance-like state, take on the roles of generals and governors while they foam at the mouth, writhe on the ground and drink animal 456

blood. Rouch films the ceremony in detail, and at points it is difficult to watch. Once it is over, Rouch emphasises, the participants return to their ordinary lives. What is fascinating about Rouch’s film is the mimetic relationship of this ritual to the colonial culture. It is a critique of modern Europe that one can understand to reveal, as if through a dark looking glass, that it is Europe itself that is insane. The film re-presents the official protocols of the West in a wholly distorted form. Objections have been raised to Rouch’s film, because its interpretation as a critique of colonial practice, rather than a simply racist attempt to point out how bizarre the Hauka are, may not be so readily available to all viewers. Yet the film (and Herzog’s interest in it) provides insight into why Herzog may have been curious about Bokassa, a man who was trained as a French soldier, who claimed to revere Napoleon above all others (repeatedly screening films about him), and who returned to Africa from his military service with a sense of superiority towards African culture (as explained in the film by Francis Szpiner). One notorious aspect of Bokassa’s madness was his cannibalism, and one of the charges in the indictment against him was ‘anthropophagy’. It is said that Idi Amin also indulged in cannibalism, and the idea in general is associated with reinforcing one’s power through consuming one’s enemies. Cannibalism is a recurring interest in Herzog’s films – it is mentioned in Fitzcarraldo and in Aguirre, Wrath of God – and it is evident that 457

Herzog likes to shroud it in mystery. It is a grim theme, and possibly partakes of a sinister sublimity, which is to say that it is something too doleful to be properly confronted. David Dacko soberly confirms the rumours of cannibalism, though the credibility of some of the courtroom testimony on the topic was undermined by Bokassa’s chef, who said that while feeding a body into a meat grinder for Bokassa, one of the corpse’s hands detached and gripped him (see Shoumatoff 1988: 112). This type of mythologisation intrigues Herzog, who says: ‘I think it is good that something of a mystery remains and will always remain, even though during the trial there were very precise accounts given by Bokassa’s cook about what the Emperor liked to eat. There is also evidence that when the French paratroopers who assisted in deposing the Emperor opened up the huge refrigerators in his palace, they found half the Minister of the Interior deep frozen.’ Herzog makes it clear, however, that this behaviour is not exclusive to African culture, adding: ‘Cannibalism is certainly within human nature, and it is a phenomenon that has always interested me because it has a direct link with a part of ourselves that is very ancient and buried deep within us. Maybe we are above such things now, but people like Bokassa show us that cannibalism is still something that can resurface. Look, for example, at the Nazis in Germany. The Germans were a dignified people … and in the space of only ten years, they created a barbarism


more terrible than had ever been seen before’ (Cronin 2002: 218). Bokassa’s most Napoleonic excess was a lavish coronation ceremony in 1977 in which he declared himself Emperor. Herzog includes footage of the ceremony along with images of Bokassa’s $5 million crown. He is rumoured to have spent $25 million on the ceremony, which amounted to between a quarter and a third of the nation’s annual revenue. Another example of his mania is the story about his search for a daughter that he fathered when he was serving in Vietnam. In 1970, Bokassa knew only that her name was Martine and that she would be 17 years old. He selected one from a pile of files on 17-year-old Martines sent to him by the French embassy in Saigon, and brought her to Bangui, welcoming her as though she were his own. A month later the real Martine surfaced, with the right paperwork. She too was brought to Bangui. Both the real and the false Martines stayed in the Central African Republic. The false Martine’s husband, an army officer, later attempted to assassinate Bokassa with a hand grenade in 1976 and was in turn executed by firing squad. The false Martine was pregnant at the time and Bokassa was later charged with having had her infant son poisoned, perhaps with the help of the real Martine (according to the rumours). Herzog says that Bokassa later decided to send the ‘fake’ Martine back to Vietnam, but that she was ‘put on a plane that returned only a half an hour later’. Herzog adds: ‘it was quite clear to everyone that she had 459

just been pushed out over the jungle’ (Cronin 2002: 217). Herzog’s interest in the journalist Michael Goldsmith recalls in some measure his interest in Dieter Dengler. While Herzog does not feel the same apparent affinity with Goldsmith that he did with Dieter – there is little merging of their experiences, despite the fact that the dream of crabs is most likely an invention of Herzog’s – the director brings Goldsmith back to the scene of a traumatic memory. Goldsmith had been punished by Bokassa because in the process of telexing a story to the Associated Press in Johannesburg there had been a brief break in the circuit causing some lines of gibberish to appear. This was taken by the chief of police as an attempt on Goldsmith’s part to transmit a coded message, whereupon he was taken before Bokassa who, together with one of his sons and some other men, badly beat Goldsmith. Goldsmith tells the story, showing how he was hit and precisely how his glasses were stomped upon. Rather than speak directly to the camera, Herzog has him tell his story to a small group of children. This may be intended as a reminder that Bokassa himself acted like a child, or that he had approximately fifty of his own children, one of whom participated in Goldsmith’s beating. Most likely, however, the children’s presence is meant to recall for us the way cultural memory is passed down. The sequence begins with Goldsmith looking at the fallen statue of the dictator in the tall grass, and the children show little or no recognition of who this despot was. 460

Goldsmith has no means of making sure that the information about the man who has traumatised him and the whole of the Central African Republic will be passed on. Unlike the sequence in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in which Herzog has Dieter re-enact the trauma, the presence of the children in this sequence is a reminder that trauma, as something that is already difficult (if not impossible) to represent on film, is difficult (if not impossible) to communicate between generations. Moreover, there is a chance that the children in the scene will display a level of affect that Goldsmith is unlikely to display. Consider the remark in the letter at the beginning that he had observed his own situation with a scientific gaze. Whether or not the letter is his, his overall demeanour does not seem to be a function of post-traumatic stress. He has the investigative temperament of a good journalist. Herzog, however, is trying to illuminate something about that perspective: from what outside vantage point can all of this be observed? Possibly because he is searching for such a standpoint, Herzog ends the film with the image of the smoking monkey in the zoo. Goldsmith goes looking for the animals that Bokassa had kept at his villa at Kolongo – lions and crocodiles known for feasting on human flesh. He does not find the lions, but is shown a monkey that has picked up the human habit of smoking cigarettes. The monkey holds out its hand, requesting a cigarette, which perhaps indicates that it is addicted. According to Herzog: ‘In the decrepit zoo we found one of the saddest 461

things I have ever seen: a monkey addicted to cigarettes thanks to the drunken soldiers who had taught it to smoke’ (Cronin 2002: 242). Herzog explains that ending the film this way was a stylisation, and underscores the scene’s pathos with Schubert’s Romantic Notturno. He is careful to add, however, that he is not the one who taught the monkey to smoke. The monkey mimes human behaviour, drawing on a cigarette and staring back at us. In this way he recalls the mimetic aspects of the film: colonial violence – its abuse – always returns in a haunting, unexpected form. Here there is something accusatory in the monkey’s gaze. It is as if this primate is more human than the humans that would do such things to one another, the ones that would act as torturers and cannibals. Unlike the chickens, the dromedaries and the jellyfish in Herzog’s films, this monkey asks us if we can still recognise any trace of what was once human in ourselves. In what is doubtless a stylisation, Goldsmith says that he can no longer stand to look at the smoking monkey, and Herzog responds: ‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold.’ Goldsmith then has him promise that this will be the last shot of the film. The level of stylisation recalls the final shot of his most stylised work, Death for Five Voices, in which there is a staged call on a mobile phone. Unlike that film’s last moment, however, this one is no laughing matter. It is a final accusatory gaze, one that comes of the effort to find a perspective outside of the film, one through


which an unlit terrain of national and personal traumas can be brought into the light.




Cinematic Poesis

Echoes from a Sombre Empire begins with a mystery. Michael Goldsmith is stylised as a scientist or a detective searching for the truth, but it rapidly becomes evident that the story of this African dictatorship is not a mystery Herzog means to solve, at least not in any logical, methodical way. Here, as in his other films, Herzog offers explanations that go beyond the prosaic and the rational and into the realm of the poetic. If his films document anything, it is the constant search for a standpoint beyond conventional means of experiencing the world – an aesthetic standpoint, one that cannot be found on the editorial pages of newspapers. For this reason Herzog resists ‘the accountants’ truth’, breaks the frames and makes short work of history. From the perspective of his films, the truth is elusive and is best approached through a process of negation, which is to say through the exchange of prosaic facts and aesthetic fictions such that a reflection on the constitution of ‘truth’ itself comes to the fore. His perspective is that rationality is always intrumentalised for curious motives and is best undermined by its aesthetic


other, by a search for a space beyond its prosaic limits. The director’s standpoint is not sought in argument, and it is never achieved through the accumulation of facts, but instead finds footing in the conjunction of music, images and occasional poetic epigraphs. Herzog’s search is, in this way, rooted in an existential problem: where is the alternative or outside position from which we can stand and view ourselves? There is, however, no fixed standpoint of this kind. The most we can hope for, and that for which Herzog aims, is that we view ourselves ‘as if’ we were standing outside. We can seek the utopian intimation of an elsewhere, or the intuition of a different perspective. Insofar as this is his motivation, Herzog is no humanist; he is not searching to view the world through the filter of that which is best in our humanity, but to see that which is human through eyes other than our own: eyes of the alien or the animal, for example. From his interest in extraterrestrials, who see the world with something other than our values and our language, to his fascination with cannibalism, that unspeakable boundary of human behaviour which helps us conceive of our own limits, the quest for new images that Herzog articulated throughout the 1970s can today be understood as a quest for a transcendent, possibly even post-human, point of view. The search for this standpoint can already be found in Herzog’s earliest films. One could look at Land of Silence and Darkness, a film that explores the world of the blind and deaf, which pays special 466

attention to Fini Straubinger, a woman who has learned, against all odds, to communicate. In that film, Herzog’s apparently isolated cinematic subjects pay a visit to the zoo, something we are told is a rare event in their lives, because it is hard to find willing guides for them. Straubinger tickles the belly of a chimpanzee, and here with the animal she has a very human moment of reprieve from a difficult world in which there are hardly adequate social structures for the deaf and blind. Bearing in mind the images of other primates in Herzog’s work, the scene can be understood to contrast with the cruelty and barbarism evident in Echoes from a Sombre Empire, Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, Wrath of God, films in which primates are made dependent on cigarettes, suspended from crucifixes and thrown into rivers. What are these animals if not the lenses through which we may encounter our inhumanity? Herzog’s works, by way of their animals, offer us the intuition of a boundary line that, he suggests, we have already crossed. Such scenes of compassion are not the only motifs in Land of Silence and Darkness. Fini Straubinger is thoughtful about her own isolation. She is generous and she is a figure to whom Herzog often returns when he describes the protagonists with whom he found himself most sympathetic. It is hard to believe that he did not have her in mind, at least in certain respects, when he scripted The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Like Kaspar, Straubinger is kind-hearted, but her situation is difficult; words always seem 467

inadequate to articulating her experience, the inner representation of which at times comes to her in quiet images. Straubinger’s description of her condition is itself poetic and Herzog would like for us to take it as evidence that there is a truth – evidently an aesthetic truth – beyond the truth with which we always live, which is to say, beyond the dull facts of our existence. Straubinger rhapsodises: If I were endowed with the divine gift of a painter, I would paint the fate of the deaf and blind roughly like this: blindness as a dark melodious stream which slowly but surely flows towards a fall. To the left and to the right are beautiful trees with flowers and birds which sing wonderfully. The other stream, which comes from the other side, should be very clear and transparent. This stream flows slowly and soundlessly downward as well, and then, below, there is a very dark, deep lake. First there would be rocks on both sides where the rivers converge, the dark one and the clear one, against which the waters push, foam and form whirlpools; and then, very slowly, very very very gently, they flow together in this very dark pool. And these waters would be very still and from time to time they would spray upward. This would depict the tortured soul of the deaf and blind. I don’t know if you actually understood properly.


The pushing and spraying of the waters against the rock are, so to speak, the psychological depressions of the soul which accompany the deaf and blind when he proceeds towards deafness and blindness. I cannot paint it otherwise, it is right inside me so, but one doesn’t know how to get it out in words. (Herzog 1980a: 192–3). Fini Straubinger protests that she does not know ‘how to get it out in words’, yet it seems evident that she has done a marvellous job. As with Kaspar, she is presented as having a remarkable advantage over us; she apparently has insight into a utopia, one that is utopian precisely because it is unburdened by chatter. In the cinema of Herzog, language, insofar as it is an extension of the culture that produced it, is an obstacle to be overcome through ecstatic images and through poetry. Whether or not Herzog truly believes the obstacle can be overcome (whether or not he is naively Romantic), the problems presented are slippery: one ultimately needs language in order to show that one can exceed its bounds. Just as one must fabricate to get to the truth, one is forced to use language to identify its limits. And along exactly these lines, one must note that in the ‘documentary’ Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog also invents. When it comes to Fini Straubinger’s memory of seeing a ski-flyer, it is a memory Herzog has written for her. Perhaps this aspect, his willingness to fabricate and his


Nietzschean distrust of ‘truth’ is what is most distinctive in Herzog’s work. Although he has been fabricating truths for decades, there is presently a renewed interest in such fabrication, an interest that goes along with the technology of digital reproduction. Although questions were already raised in the nineteenth century as to whether photographs communicate the truth – whether they constitute, more than written documents, ‘evidence’ of anything – it was at the turn of this new century and in the name of digital art that artists themselves began to forget the difference between photographs and paintings. Works by contemporary German artists such as Gerhard Richter and Andreas Gursky eschew this distinction. Today it is more urgent than ever to avow that works are neither the one nor the other, or to assert that the question is irrelevant. That one could today be contained by a medium, particularly a medium defined by its ability to state truths against lies or facts against fictions, appears as an anachronism or at least a compromise at the expense of art. It is against this background that one may choose to read Herzog’s resistance to the concept of the documentary in relation to that of the feature film. In this way, the question of genre (of documentaries and features) misleads: because film is constituted by photographic images we expect it to present things as they really are, but for Herzog this expectation denies film its real potential. There is no reason that film would not be a poetic medium more than a means to convey 470

information, and this is perhaps why, when Herzog speaks of influences, he mentions the poet Hölderlin more often than he mentions other filmmakers. Those whom he does mention – D. W. Griffith, Carl Theodor Dreyer, F. W. Murnau, Jean Rouch and Tod Browning – have a certain poetry in their work. Herzog acknowledges this, yet he also seems to speak of the film-historical canon as though it were a straightjacket. It is not so much that comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola or Terrence Malick diminish his work, but rather that he does not want to be known only as a filmmaker; Coppola and Malick produce works that may be too easily framed in comprehensible categories – facts and fiction, documentaries and features. Herzog’s engagement with the question of art’s transcendent potential places him in the position of the poet, and as he sees it, poetry is subject to its own, autonomous standards of truth. At the same time, however, and as I have tried to indicate throughout this book, this wholly aesthetic viewpoint – one that is concerned only with the truth of art – carries with it certain risks. The search for standpoints that set themselves in the sphere of poetry and beyond that of politics is illusory; the standpoint itself is a mirage. Whether as epic or as aphorism, poetry contains politics, and even the least engaged works are often inadvertently embedded in extant debates. Is it really possible to imagine one’s self standing elsewhere, outside of ‘the political’? Would progressive audiences in the US and Europe be able to tolerate another Ballad of the Little Soldier 471

or Lessons of Darkness, another film that thumbs its nose at political engagement in the name of beauty or in the interest of challenging our preconceptions about film form? One has the impression that Herzog sometimes presses the point precisely in order to test his audience’s willingness to follow. Were audiences to turn away, it would only prove what Herzog has known all along: they are not willing to pay more than lip-service to the ideals of ecstatic truth. As indicated at the outset, Herzog can, in this way, appear to be a demanding superego. One of so many Herzogs available to the imagination is the one that appears in the film Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), directed by Harmony Korine. In that film, Herzog plays a father of a schizophrenic boy, Julien (Ewen Bremner), and a teenage wrestler, Chris (Evan Neumann). Spraying cold water from a garden hose at his more athletic son, Herzog attempts to teach him to ‘be a man’ and to quit his ‘moody brooding’. Later in the film he tells his schizophrenic son that he looks ‘utterly and completely and irrevocably stupid’. In what is likely improvised dialogue, Herzog insists: ‘If I were so stupid I would slap my own face … You should slap your face!’ Such imposing incarnations – ones we find in his documentary and in his feature films – make it hard to imagine that Herzog would allow any group of spectators, critics or producers to influence the course of his work. Yet despite his manifest strength of will, Herzog’s weighty proclamations with regard to form have also yielded a measure of playfulness, one that is 472

apparent in films such as The Wild Blue Yonder, as he documents the aliens’ initial arrival on Earth or when he lets the camera linger on a sneezing NASA scientist, or in Death for Five Voices, when he stages a debate between Italian chefs as to whether or not Gesualdo was the devil incarnate. The boldest example of his humour, however, can be seen in connection with Incident at Loch Ness (2004), a film in which he and the film’s director Zak Penn experimented with the boundary between documentary and feature films through an extra-filmic manipulation of rumours and realities (see Church 2005). For the purposes of the film, the mythical Loch Ness monster was an apt subject. Herzog and Penn circulated press releases suggesting that Herzog was at work on a documentary about the monster, and the film, a ‘mockumentary’ of sorts, was later framed as recovered fragments of a documentary about Herzog’s own film, one that was originally to be titled Herzog in Wonderland. Incident at Loch Ness is clever, yet even in its parodic dimensions it questions the boundaries of genres less aggressively than the fifty or so films that constitute Herzog’s own oeuvre. His body of work has continued to expand in ways that make less sense rather than more, which is to say ways that force us to re-evaluate and reassess our expectations about cinema. Rescue Dawn, his feature film version of Dieter Dengler’s story, courts an abundance of related issues, ones that Herzog has raised before: In taking on this task was he aiming to put himself through Dieter’s 473

difficulties? Did he turn his own documentary into a feature in order to prove that there was no difference between the pilot’s ‘documented’ experience and its aesthetic realisation? Somewhat predictably, the production of Rescue Dawn ran into problems when the company paying for the film began to oversee the shoot in Thailand. Herzog is fiercely independent, yet, as was reported in The New Yorker, he was getting interference from a producer who asked him to watch The Rundown (2003), a film featuring the actor known as The Rock, with the idea that Herzog should hire that film’s cinematographer in place of his longtime collaborator Peter Zeitlinger (see Zalewski 2006). The way the story unfolded, one might suggest, is presaged down to the letter in the staged antics seen in Incident at Loch Ness; life imitates art, and as is appropriate to Herzog, the facts and fiction, here and elsewhere, turn tables on one another. It is precisely this dialogue between art’s conceits, held tenuously in the frame and on the screen, and the multiplicity of truths exposed by its ecstatic promise, that one hopes will continue.




The following filmography is limited to the dates, titles, durations and cinematographers of Werner Herzog’s films. Though different sources periodically provide different dates, I have relied for information on the website of Werner Herzog Film . More comprehensive filmographies are included in Herzog on Herzog, at the website of Werner Herzog Film and at the Internet Movie Database . Herakles (1962) 12 min. Director of Photography: Jaime Pacheco. Spiel im Sand (Game in the Sand) (1964) 14 min. Director of Photography: Jaime Pacheco. Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreutz (The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz) (1966) 15 min. Director of Photography: Jaime Pacheco. Letzte Worte (Last Words) (1967) 13 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life) (1968) 87 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika (The Flying Doctors of East Africa) (1969) 45 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Maßnahmen gegen Fanatiker (Precautions Against Fanatics) (1969) 12 min. Director of Photography: Dieter Lohmann. Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen (Even Dwarfs Started Small) (1970) 96 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch.


Fata Morgana (1970) 79 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Behinderte Zukunft (Handicapped Future) (1971) 43 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit (Land of Silence and Darkness) (1971) 85 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, Wrath of God) (1972) 93 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner) (1973) 47 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, aka Every Man for Himself and God against All) (1974) 109 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass) (1976) 97 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? (aka Observations on a New Language/Beobachtungen zu einer neuen Sprache) (1976) 45 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Mit mir will keiner spielen (No One Will Play with Me) (1976) 14 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Stroszek (1976) 108 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. La Soufrière – Warten auf eine unausweichliche Katastrophe (La Soufrière) (1977) 31 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein and Ed Lachman. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre) (1978) 103 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein.


Woyzeck (1979) 81 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. God’s Angry Man (1980) 44 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Huies Predigt (Huie’s Sermon) (1980) 43 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Fitzcarraldo (1982) 157 min. Director of Photography: Thomas Mauch. Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten (Ballad of the Little Soldier) (1984) 45 min. Director of Photography: Jorge Vignati. Gasherbrum – Der leuchtende Berg (The Dark Glow of the Mountains) (1984) 45 min. Director of Photography: Rainer Klausmann. Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen (Where the Green Ants Dream) (1984) 100 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Cobra Verde (1987) 110 min. Director of Photography: Victor Ruzicka. Les Gauloises (1988) 12 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Wodaabe – Die Hirten der Sonne (Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun) (1989) 52 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Echos aus einem düsteren Reich (Echoes from a Sombre Empire) (1990) 93 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Film Lesson (1990) 240 min. Director of Photography: Karl Kofler and Michael Ferk. Jag Mandir: Das excentrische Privattheater des Maharadscha von Udaipur (1991) 85 min. Director of Photography: Rainer Klausmann, Wolfgang Dickmann and Anton Peschke. Scream of Stone (Cerro Torre: Scream of Stone) (1991) 105 min. Director of Photography: Rainer Klausmann.


Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness) (1992) 52 min. Director of Photography: Paul Berriff. Glocken aus der Tiefe – Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland (Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia) (1993) 60 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Die Verwandlung der Welt in Musik (The Transformation of the World Into Music) (1994) 90 min. Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Gesualdo – Tod für fünf Stimmen (Death for Five Voices) (1995) 60 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Flucht aus Laos) (1997) 80 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. Christ and Demons in New Spain (1999) 35 min. Director of Photography: Jorge Vignati. (Alternate version: Gott und die Beladenen [God and the Burdened or The Lord and the Laden] 43 min.) Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel (Wings of Hope) (1999) 70 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend) (1999) 95 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. Invincible (2000) 120 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. Pilgrimage (2001) 18 min. Director of Photography: Jorge Pacheco. Ten Thousand Years Older (2001) 10 min. Director of Photography: Vicente Rios. Wheel of Time (2003) 80 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger. The White Diamond (2004) 87 min. Director of Photography: Henning Brümmer and Klaus Scheurich. Grizzly Man (2005) 103 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger.


The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) 81 min. Director of Photography: Tanja Koop. Rescue Dawn (2006) 126 min. Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger.




The work most frequently cited here is Herzog on Herzog (2002), the volume of the director’s own reflections, edited by Paul Cronin. It is referred to throughout the text parenthetically by the editor’s name, followed by a page number. Citations from the Minnesota Declaration are taken from this same volume, and the declaration can also be found at the website of Werner Herzog Film . Key early studies of Herzog include the volume Werner Herzog (1979), which contains contributions by Hans Gunther Pflaum, Hans Helmut Prinzler, Jürgen Theobaldy and Kraft Wetzel, as well as the study Werner Herzog (1982) by Emmanuel Carrère. The scholarly collection The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History edited by Timothy Corrigan (1986) contains a number of significant essays, referenced individually below in the bibliography. Herzog has also expressed thoughts and opinions about his work in conversations with Norman Hill and others on the commentary tracks of his DVDs. His comments on those tracks have here been cited parenthetically in the form of an identifying abbreviation followed by the chapter during which the comment appears and the time at which the comment can be found. DVDs cited A = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Aguirre, Wrath of God. 1972. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2000.


CV = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Cobra Verde. 1987. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2000. ED = Herzog, Werner, Crispin Glover and Norman Hill, commentary. Even Dwarfs Started Small. 1970. DVD. Anchor Bay, 1999. F = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Fitzcarraldo. 1982. DVD. Anchor Bay, 1999. FM = Herzog, Werner, Crispin Glover and Norman Hill, commentary. Fata Morgana. 1970. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002. GA = Herzog, Werner and Laurens Straub, commentary. Where the Green Ants Dream. 1984. DVD. Tango Entertainment, 2006. HG = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Heart of Glass. 1976. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002. KH = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. 1974. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002. N = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Nosferatu the Vampyre. 1978. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002. S = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Stroszek. 1976. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2002. SL = Herzog, Werner and Norman Hill, commentary. Signs of Life. 1968. DVD. New Yorker Video, 2005. Work by Werner Herzog Herzog, W. (1976a) ‘Why is there “Being” at all, rather than Nothing?’ S. Lamb (trans.) Framework. A Film Journal, 2, 1, 24–7. ____ (1977a) Drehbucher I: Lebenszeichen, Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen, Fata Morgana. Munich: Skellig. ____ (1977b) Drehbucher II: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen Alle, Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit. Munich: Skellig.


____ (1979) Drehbucher III: Stroszek, Nosferatu: Zwei Filmerzählungen. Munich: Hanser. ____ (1980a) Screenplays: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, and Land of Silence and Darkness. A. Greenberg and M. Herzog (trans.) New York: Tanam. ____ (1980b [1978]) Vom Gehen im Eis. Munich: Hanser. Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris 11/23 to 12/14, 1974. M. Herzog and A. Greenberg (trans.) New York: Tanam. ____ (1982a) Fitzcarraldo. Erzählung. Munich: Hanser. ____ (1982b) Fitzcarraldo: The Original Story. M. Herzog and A. Greenberg (trans.) San Francisco: Fjord Press. ____ (1984) Wo die Grunen Ameisen Traumen. Filmerzählung. Munich: Hanser. ____ (1987) Cobra Verde. Filmerzählung. Munich: Hanser. ____ (2001 [1982]) ‘Die Eisnerin, wer ist das?’, in H. H. Prinzler and E. Rentschler (ed. and introd.) Der alte Film war tot. Frankfurt, Germany: Autoren, 263–7. ____ (2002) ‘The Minnesota Declaration,’ in P. Cronin (ed.) Herzog on Herzog. London: Faber. ____ (2004) Eroberung des Nutzlosen. Munich: Hanser. Herzog, W., with H. Achternbusch and A. Greenberg (1976b) Heart of Glass. Munich: Skellig. Books about Werner Herzog Blank, L. and J. Bogan (eds) (1984) Burden of Dreams: Screenplay, Journals, Photographs. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. Carrère, E. (1982) Werner Herzog. Paris: Edilig. Corrigan, T. (ed.) (1986) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen. Cronin, P. (ed.) (2002) Herzog on Herzog. London: Faber and Faber.


Gabrea, R. (1986) Werner Herzog et la mystique rhénane. Lausanne: L’Age D’Homme. Nagib, L. (1991) Werner Herzog – o cinema como realidade. São Paulo: Estação Liberdade. Pflaum, H. G., H. H. Prinzler, J. Theobaldy and K. Wetzel (eds) (1979) Werner Herzog. Reihe Film 22. Munich: Hanser. Prawer, S. S. (2004) Nosferatu – Phantom der Nacht. London: British Film Institute. Presser, B. (ed.) (2002) Werner Herzog. Berlin: Jovis. Reitze, M. (2001) Zur filmischen Zusammenarbeit von Klaus Kinski und Werner Herzog. Alfeld/Leine: Coppi-Verlag. Books with sections that address films by Herzog Carroll, N. (1998) Interpreting the Moving Image. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge. Corrigan, T. (1994 [1983]) ‘The Original Tradition. Hypnotic Space in Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser’, in New German Film: The Displaced Image. Revised Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 127–44. Davidson, J. (1999) Deterritorializing the New German Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hillman, R. (2005) Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Kaplan, E. A. (2005) Trauma Culture. The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Klawans, S. (1999) Film Follies: Cinema out of Order. London: Cassell. Kolker, R. P. (1983) The Altering Eye. Contemporary International Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.


Mazierska, E. and L. Rascaroli (2006) Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie. London: Wallflower Press. Pflaum, H. G. (1990) Germany on Film: Theme and Content in the Cinema of the Federal Republic of Germany, ed. R. Picht. R. C. Helt and R. Richter (trans). Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Sandford, J. (1983) The New German Cinema. London: Oswalf Wolff. Interviews with Werner Herzog Anon. (2003) ‘Director Interview’ with BBC Four. 13 February. Available on-line: bbcfour/documentaries/storyville/ werner-herzog.shtml; accessed 9 July 2007. Basoli, A. G. (1999) ‘The Wrath of Klaus Kinski: An Interview with Werner Herzog’, Cineaste, 24, 4, 32–5. Cheshire, G. and J. Knipfel (1999) ‘Every Man for Himself’, New York Press. 10 November. Available online: print.cfm?content_id=611&author_id=13; accessed 9 July 2007. Ciment, M. (1975) ‘Entretien avec Werner Herzog’, Positif, 169, 6–15. Cullum, P. (2006) ‘Mad Bavarian Duke: Werner Herzog’, Stop Smiling, 25, 24–7. Davies, D. (2006) ‘Filmmaker Herzog’s Grizzly Tale of Life and Death’, National Public Radio. 13 January. Available on-line: story/story.php?storyId=4774946; accessed 9 July 2007. Epstein, D. R. (2005) ‘Werner Herzog’, Suicide Girls. 9 August. Available on-line: interviews/Werner+Herzog; accessed 9 July 2007.


Foundas, S. (2002) ‘Strong Man on a Mission: Werner Herzog Talks About Invincible’, Indiewire. 23 September. Available on-line: int_Herzog_Werner_020923.html; accessed 9 July 2007. Fuchs, C. (2005) ‘A More Athletic Approach: An Interview with Werner Herzog’, PopMatters. 11 August. Available on-line: herzog-werner-050811.shtml; accessed 9 July 2007. Ingman, M. (2005) ‘Discord and Ecstasy. Werner Herzog on Grizzly Man’, Austin Chronicle. 19 August. Available on-line: 2005-08-19/screens_feature.html; accessed 9 July 2007. le Viseur, R. and W. Schmidmaier (1977) ‘Playboy Interview: Werner Herzog’, Playboy (German edition). January, 29–37. O’Brien, G. (1997) ‘Werner Herzog in Conversation with Geoffrey O’Brien’, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 22, 1/2, 40–55. O’Toole, L. (1979) ‘I Feel That I’m Close to the Center of Things’, Film Comment, 15, 6, 40–50. Peary, G. (1984) ‘The American Friend. Ed Lachman, cameraman, talks to Gerald Peary’, Sight and Sound, 53, 4, 250–4. Perina, K. (2005) ‘Werner Herzog. On Introspection’, Psychology Today. July/August, 96. Available on-line: pto-20050620-000014.html; accessed 9 July 2007. Renaud, N with A. Habib and S. Gailero (2003) ‘The Trail of Werner Herzog: An Interview’, Offscreen. 31 December. Available on-line:

487 werner_herzog.html; accessed 9 July 2007. Sterritt, D. (2005) ‘The Ecstasy of Truth’, MovieMaker, 12, 59, 78–83. Walsh, G. (1979) ‘“Images at the Horizon”: A Workshop with Werner Herzog Conducted with Roger Ebert’, Chicago: Facets Multimedia. Scholarly articles, chapters and reviews Arthur, P. (2005) ‘Beyond the Limits’, Film Comment, 41, 4, 42–7. Atkinson, M. (2000) ‘The Wanderings of Werner Herzog’, Film Comment, 36, 1, 16–19. Bachmann, G. (1977) ‘The Man on the Volcano: A Portrait of Werner Herzog’, Film Quarterly, 31, 1, 2–10. Bellm, D. (1985) Review of Ballad of the Little Soldier, The Nation, 20 April, 475–7. Benelli, D. (1986) ‘The Cosmos and its Discontents’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 89–104. Benson, S. and M. Karman. (1976) ‘Herzog’, Mother Jones, November, 40–5. Berman, R. (1982) ‘The Recipient as Spectator: West German Film and Poetry of the Seventies’, German Quarterly, 55, 4, 499–510. Bozak, N. (2006) ‘Firepower: Herzog’s Pure Cinema as the Internal Combustion of War’, CineAction, 68, January, 18–26. Brown, G. (1992) ‘Kant Stop Loving You’ (Review of Echoes from a Sombre Empire), Village Voice, 37, 21 July, 58. Caltvedt, L. (1988) ‘Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the Rubber Era’, Film & History, 18, 4, 74–84.


Canby, V. (1977) ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Haunting Film by Herzog’ (Review), New York Times, 4 April, 43. Carroll, N. (1985) ‘Herzog, Presence, and Paradox’, Persistence of Vision, 2, 30–40. Casper, K. (1991) ‘Herzog’s Quotidian Apocalypse: La Soufrière’, Film Criticism, 15, 2, 29–37. ____ (1996) ‘Herzog’s Apocalypse as Eternal Return: The Circularity of La Soufrière’, in T. Ginsberg and K. M. Thompson (eds) Perspectives on German Cinema. New York and London: Prentice Hall, 526–33. Casper, K. and S. Linville (1991) ‘Romantic Inversions in Herzog’s Nosferatu’, The German Quarterly, 64, 1, 17–24. Cheesman, T. (1991) ‘Apocalypse Nein Danke: The Fall of Werner Herzog’, in C. Riordan (ed.) Green Thought in German Culture. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 285–306. Chipperfield, A. (2001) ‘Murmurs from a Shadowless Land: Fragmentary Reflections on the Cinema of Werner Herzog’, Senses of Cinema. Available on-line: 01/15/herzog_alkan.html; accessed 9 July 2007. Church, D. (2005) ‘Incident at Loch Ness and Herzog’s Hunt for the “Ecstatic Truth”’,, 9, 9, 30 September. Available on-line: incident_ness/; accessed 9 July 2007. Cleere, E. (1980) ‘Three Films by Werner Herzog: Seen in Light of the Grotesque,’ Wide Angle, 3, 4, 12–19. Corrigan, T. (1986) ‘Producing Herzog: From a Body of Images’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 3–19.


Csicsery, G. P. (1985/86) ‘Ballad of the Little Soldier: Werner Herzog in a Political Hall of Mirrors’, Film Quarterly, 39, 2, 7–15. Dargis, M. (2005) ‘Exploring One Man’s Fate in the Alaskan Wilderness’ (Review of Grizzly Man), New York Times, 12 August, B11. Davidson, D. (1980) ‘Borne out of Darkness: The Documentaries of Werner Herzog’, Film Criticism, 5, 1, 10–25. Davidson, J. E. (1993) ‘As Others Put Plays upon the Stage: Aguirre, Neocolonialism, and the New German Cinema’, New German Critique, 60, 101–30. Eisner, L. (1974) ‘Herzog in Dinkelsbuehl’, Sight and Sound, 43, 4, 212–13. Elsaesser, T. (1986) ‘An Anthropologist’s Eye: Where the Green Ants Dream’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 133–58. Finger, E. (1979) ‘Kaspar Hauser Doubly Portrayed: Peter Handke’s Kaspar and Werner Herzog’s Every Man for Himself and God against All’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 7, 3, 235–43. Franco, J. (1992) ‘High-Tech Primitivism. The Representation of Tribal Societies in Feature Films’, in J. King, A. M. López and M. Alvarado (eds) Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas. London: British Film Institute, 81–94. Fritze, R. (1985) ‘Werner Herzog’s Adaptation of History in Aguirre: The Wrath of God’, Film & History, 15, 4, 49–59. Gandy, M. (1996) ‘Visions of Darkness: The Representation of Nature in the Films of Werner Herzog’, Ecumene, 3, 1, 1–21. Gerhardt, C. (2006) ‘The Allied Air Bombing Campaign of Germany in Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly’,


in W. Wilms and W. Rasch (eds) Bombs Away! Representing the Air War over Europe and Japan. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 345–54. Gerulaitis, R. (1989) ‘Recurring Cultural Patterns: Werner Herzog’s Film Every Man for Himself and God against All, the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’, Journal of Popular Culture, 22, 4, 61–9. Gitlin, T. (1983/84) Review of Fitzcarraldo, Film Quarterly, 37, 2, 50–4. Greiner, R. (1982) ‘Why Herzog Differs’, Commentary, 74, 6, 59–67. Hoberman, J. (2005) ‘Werner Herzog’s New Direction’, New York Times, 8 May, 13. Horak, J-C. (1986) ‘W.H. or the mysteries of walking on ice,’ in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 23–44. ____ (1979) ‘Werner Herzog’s Écran Absurde’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 7, 3, 223–34. Kawin, B. (1980) Review of Nosferatu, Film Quarterly, 33, 3, 45–7. Koch, G. (1986) ‘Blindness as Insight: Visions of the Unseen in Land of Silence and Darkness’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 73–88. Koepnick, L. P. (1993) ‘Colonial Forestry: Sylvan Politics in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo’, New German Critique, 60, 133–59. Koning, H. (1983) Review of Fitzcarraldo, Cineaste, 12, 4, 42–3. Lane, A. (2007) ‘Battle Scars’, The New Yorker, 9 and 16 July, 100–101. Mayne, J. (1986) ‘Herzog, Murnau, and the Vampire,’ in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog:


Between Mirage and History. New York: Meuthen, 119–32. McCormick, R. and P. Aufderheide (1978) ‘Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass: Pro & Con’, Cineaste, 8, 4, 32–4. Mitgutsch, W. (1981) ‘Faces of Dehumanization: Werner Herzog’s Reading of Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 9, 3, 152–60. Mouton, J. (1987) ‘Werner Herzog’s Stroszek: A Fairy-Tale Film in an Age of Disenchantment’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 15, 2, 99–106. O’Toole, L. (1979) ‘The Great Ecstasy of the Filmmaker Herzog’, Film Comment, 15, 6, 34–9. Overbey, D. L. (1974/5) ‘Every Man for Himself’, Sight and Sound, 45, 1, 73–5. Perlmutter, R. (1979) ‘The Cinema of the Grotesque’, Georgia Review, 33, 1, 169–93. Perlmutter, R. and A. Perlmutter (1997) ‘Ghosts of Germany: Kaspar Hauser and Woyzeck’, Literature/ Film Quarterly, 25, 3, 236–9. Peucker, B. (1984) ‘Werner Herzog: In Quest of the Sublime’, in K. Phillips (ed.) New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen through the 1970s. New York: Friedrich Ungar Publishing, 168–94. ____ (1986a) ‘The Invalidation of Arnim: Herzog’s Signs of Life (1968)’, in E. E. Rentschler (ed.) German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations. New York: Methuen, 217–30. ____ (1986b) ‘Literature and Writing in the Films of Werner Herzog’, in The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York, Methuen, 105–118. Pflaum, H. G. (1979) ‘Interview’, in Werner Herzog. Reihe Film 22. Munich: Hanser, 59–86.


Prager, B. (2003) ‘Werner Herzog’s Hearts of Darkness: Fitzcarraldo, Scream of Stone and Beyond’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 20, 1, 23–35. ____ (2004) ‘The Face of the Bandit: Racism and the Slave Trade in Herzog’s Cobra Verde’, Film Criticism, 28, 3, 2–20. Prandi, J. D. (1985) ‘Point of View and the Possibility of Empathy: Woyzeck’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 13, 4, 210–14. Readings, B. (1992) ‘Pagans, Perverts or Primitives? Experimental Justice in the Empire of Capital’, in A. Benjamin (ed.) Judging Lyotard. New York and London: Routledge, 168–91. Rentschler, E. (1986) ‘The Politics of Vision: Herzog’s Heart of Glass’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Methuen, 159–82. Rogers, H. (2004) ‘Fitzcarraldo’s Search for Aguirre: Music and Text in the Amazonian Films of Werner Herzog’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 129, 1, 77–99. Rokem, F. (2002) ‘Witnessing Woyzeck: Theatricality and the Empowerment of the Spectator’, SubStance, 31, 2/3, 98/99, 167–83. Silverman, K. (1981/2) ‘Kaspar Hauser’s “Terrible Fall” into Narrative’, New German Critique, 24–5, 73–93. Singer, A. (1986) ‘Comprehending Appearances: Werner Herzog’s Ironic Sublime’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Methuen, 183–208. Sinka, M. M. (1988) ‘The Viewer as Reader: Werner Herzog’s Stroszek in Film and Prose’, Post Script, 7, 3, 27–41. Staskowski, A. (1988) ‘Film and Phenomenology: Being-in-the-World of Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God’, Post Script, 7, 3, 14–26.


Stiles, V. M. (1989) ‘Fact and Fiction: Nature’s Endgame in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 17, 3, 161–7. ____ (1996) ‘Woyzeck in Focus: Werner Herzog and His Critics’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 24, 3, 226–33. Stone, D. (1998) ‘Learning to Fly, Dieter Dengler Speaks about Werner Herzog’s latest Doc’, Indiewire. 14 April. Available on-line: int_Dengler_Dieter_980414.html; accessed 18 July 2007. Theobaldy, J. (1979) ‘Fahrten ins Ungeheure’, Werner Herzog. Reihe Film 22. Munich: Hanser, 7–58. Van Wert, W. F. (1980) ‘Hallowing the Ordinary, Embezzling the Everyday: Werner Herzog’s Documentary Practice’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5, 2, 183–92. Vitiello, G. (2005) ‘Facing the Extreme: Echoes from a Sombre Empire and Post-Traumatic Documentary’. Paper presented at Werner Herzog’s Cinema: Between the Visionary and the Documentary, The Goethe-Institut, London, 16–18 September 2005. Vogel, A. (1986) ‘On Seeing a Mirage’, in T. Corrigan (ed.) The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. New York: Methuen, 45–9. Vogel, S. (1988) ‘Ontological Critique in the Work of Werner Herzog’, Post Script, 7, 3, 2–13. Von Conta, M. (1979) ‘Die Herzog Horror Picture Show’, Stern, 49, 29 November, 100–13. Waller, G. A. (1980) ‘The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner: Herzog and the “Stylized” Documentary’, Film Criticism, 5, 1, 26–35. ____ (1981) ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God: History, Theater, and the Camera’, South Atlantic Review, 46, 2, 55–69.


Watson, S. B. (1986) ‘“Harried by His Own Kind”: Herzog and the Darker Dimensions of Icarus’, Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature, 3, 2, 71–8. ____ (1992) ‘Herzog’s Healing Images: Mountain Climbing and Mankind’s Degeneration’, Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, 10, 1, 169–81. Wetzel, K. (1979) ‘Kommentierte Filmographie’, Werner Herzog. Reihe Film 22. Munich: Hanser, 87–144. Wickham, C. (1989) ‘Heart and Hole: Achternbusch, Herzog and the Concept of Heimat’, The Germanic Review, 44, 3, 112–20. Young, V. (1977) ‘Much Madness: Werner Herzog and Contemporary Cinema’, The Hudson Review, 30, 3, 409–14. Zalewski, D. (2006) ‘The Ecstatic Truth. Werner Herzog’s Quest’, The New Yorker, 24 April, 125–39. Other works cited in this volume Achebe, C. (1977) ‘An Image of Africa’, The Massachusetts Review, 18, 4, 782–94. Achternbusch, H. (1975) Die Stunde des Todes. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp. Anon. (2006) ‘Yes, It’s True … News You’re Not Supposed to Know’, in Premiere, April 2006, 21. Arnim, A. v. (1988 [1818]) ‘The Madman of Fort Rattoneau’, in German Romantic Stories. M. M. Yuill (trans.) New York: Continuum. Benjamin, W. (1977 [1928]) The Origin of German Tragic Drama. J. Osborne (trans.) London: New Left Books. Büchner, G. (2004 [1836]) Woyzeck. D. Farrelly (trans.) Dublin: Carysfort Press. Chatwin, B. (1980) The Viceroy of Ouidah. New York: Summit Books. ____ (1989) What Am I Doing Here? New York: Viking.


Curtler, H. M. (1997) ‘Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness’, Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies, 29, 1, 30–40. Deleuze, G. (1986 [1983]) Cinema 1: The Movement Image. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ____ (1989 [1986]) Cinema 2: The Time Image. H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta (trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. De Man, P. (1984) The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Dengler, D. (1979) Escape from Laos. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press. Eisner, L. (1973 [1952]) The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Feuerbach, A. (1996) Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. J. M. Masson (trans.) New York: Free Press. Freud, S. (1963 [1917]) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in General Psychological Theory, ed. P. Rieff. New York: Collier, 164–79. ____ (1963 [1919]) ‘The Uncanny’, in Studies in Parapsychology, ed. P. Rieff. New York: Collier Books, 19–60. Geyer, P. (2006) Klaus Kinski. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp. Gillerman, S. (2003) ‘Samson in Vienna: The Theatrics of Jewish Masculinity’, Jewish Social Studies, 9, 2, 65–98. ____ (2004) ‘Strongman Siegmund Breitbart and Interpretations of the Jewish Body’, in M. Brenner and G. Reuveni (eds) Emancipation through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 62–74.


Hale, C. (1994) Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Heidegger, M. (1962 [1927]) Being and Time. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (trans.) New York: Harper. Hinton, D. B. (2000) The Films of Leni Reifenstahl. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. Jans, N. (2005) The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears. New York: Dutton. Kafka, F. (1971 [1918]) ‘Prometheus’, in The Complete Stories, ed. N. Glazer. W. and E. Muir (trans.) New York: Schocken Books. Kinski, K, (1996 [1991]) Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski. New York: Penguin. Kleist, H. v. (1988 [1810]) ‘The Beggarwoman of Locarno’, in German Romantic Stories. R. M. Browning (trans.) New York: Continuum. Koelb, C. (1989) Kafka’s Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Koepnick, L. (2002) ‘Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s’, New German Critique, 87, 47–82. Levinas, E. (1989 [1968]) ‘Substitution’, in S. Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 88–125. ____ (2001) Is it Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Locke, J. (1894 [1690]) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol. I, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser. Oxford: Clarendon. Meanor, P. (1997) Bruce Chatwin. New York: Twayne. Mercado, S. R. (1982) ‘Nicaragua Makes its Case’, in The Nation, 234, 13, 3 April, 390–1.


Petterson, D. (2002) Revolution in Zanzibar: An American’s Cold War Tale. Boulder, CO:Westview. Pratt, M. L. (1992) Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge. Riefenstahl, L. (1976) The People of Kau. New York: Harper and Row. ____ (1995 [1974]) The Last of the Nuba. New York: St. Martin’s. Said, E. W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf. Scholem, G. (1971) The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken Books. Schrader, P. (1972) Transcendental Style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Shoumatoff, A. (1988) African Madness. New York: Knopf.




Page numbers refer to the print edition but are hyperlinked to the appropriate location in the e-book. Achternbusch, Hubert 94, 96, 99 Adorno, Theodor W. 3–5 Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) 2, 9, 12–13, 18–21, 26–36, 39, 42–3, 46–9, 60, 67, 76–7, 88, 114, 122–6, 134–5, 137, 142, 158, 164, 186, 191, 195, 199 Aguirre 26–30, 33–6, 43, 45, 48–50, 60, 72, 195 Aguirre, Lope de 26–7 Ahola, Jouko 21, 164, 170 animals (in films by Werner Herzog) 15, 33–4, 52, 54–5, 59, 65, 70, 75–6, 78–9, 86–9, 108, 116–17, 123, 157, 161, 171–2, 176, 180, 195, 197, 199; apes (also monkeys, also primates) 29, 34–5, 46, 58–9, 76, 123–4, 161, 176, 197, 199; bears 85–90, 92, 99, 119, 153, 158; butterflies 48, 157; cats 54–5, 78; chickens 54–5, 57, 75–6, 79, 163, 176, 197; crabs 33, 193–4, 196; crocodiles 197; dogs 46, 52, 78–80, 116, 122, 138, 144; donkeys 55; dromedaries 59, 69, 76, 108, 185, 197; elephants 161; flamingos 54, 83, 118, 162, 173, 175–6; horses 34, 53–4, 64–6, 79; jellyfish 153–4, 197; lions 165, 197; lizard 170; pigs 33–4, 47, 108, 132; roosters 11, 163, 168; oxen 129; rats 108; sloths 34; swifts 91, 118, 131, 162–3, 176 anti-Semitism 164, 166–9 Antonioni, Michelangelo 15 anthropomorphism 87, 96, 176, 180


apocalypse [as a motif in Herzog’s films] 22, 26, 35, 95, 115, 118–19, 127, 130, 137, 153, 175, 179–82 Arnim, Achim v. 12, 50–1, 54, 82–3, 143 Aufderheide, Pat 94–6 athletic endeavour 2, 6, 21–4 ‘Ave Maria’ 184 Ballad of the Little Soldier (Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten) 11, 51, 136, 143, 145–50, 152, 164, 182, 201 Bart, Gary 165 Barthes, Roland 10 Baudrillard, Jean 10, 73 Bavaria 12, 16–17, 40, 54, 93–4, 98–9, 129 Beckett, Samuel 5 ‘Beggarwoman of Locarno, The’ 143 Bellini, Vincenzo 37, 44 Bellm, Dan 146 Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (Glocken aus der Tiefe – Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland) 10, 13, 85, 120, 123, 126–32, 134, 141, 174 Benjamin, Walter 153 Bergman, Ingmar 14 Berling, Peter 29 Bernhardt, Sarah 43 Berriff, Paul 179 Beyond the Pleasure Principle 24 Bierbichler, Josef 79, 94 Blake, William 175 Blank, Les 4, 37, 39 Bloch, Ernest 138 bodybuilding 2, 21–2 Bokassa, Jean-Bédel 172, 194–7 Book of Urizen, The 175 Brando, Marlon 40, 73


Brecht, Bertolt 76, 95 Breillat, Catherine 9 Breitbart, Zische 165–6, 168–9 Brentano, Clemens 96 Bresson, Robert 15 Brogle, Peter 50, 54, 77 Broomfield, Nick 7 Browning, Tod 56, 201 Bruegel, Pieter 84 Bruno S. 1, 3, 49, 71–3, 76, 111, 114, 138, 158 Büchner, Georg 3, 63, 76–9, 81 Burke, Edmund 15 Canby, Vincent 29 cannibals, cannibalism [as concept in Herzog’s films] 55, 57, 194–7, 199 Carroll, Noël 4, 84 Caruso, Enrico 20, 36, 41, 43 Casper, Kent 51, 115–6 Cassavetes, John 72 Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, The 97 Chatwin, Bruce 186–90, 192–3 ‘choir-organ’ 35 Chopin, Frédéric 52 Christ and Demons in New Spain (Alternate version: Gott und die Beladenen [God and the Burdened or The Lord and the Laden]) 123–7 Chumak, Alan 130, 134 cinéma vérité 5, 9, 23, 72, 135 circle or circles [in Herzog films] 33–5, 42, 47, 60, 70, 75–7, 114, 118, 132, 137, 162, 178 Clouds over the Riesengebirge 84, 114 CNN 181 Cobra Verde 8, 10, 21, 28, 172, 186–94 Conrad, Joseph 171, 187, 193 Coppola, Francis Ford 28, 40, 102, 201


Corrigan, Timothy 65, 69 Cronin, Paul 1–2, 4–7, 9, 12–14, 16–17, 21, 23–7, 32–3, 37–8, 46–7, 52, 55–7, 61, 66, 68–9, 71, 73, 76–7, 82, 84, 96–8, 100–2, 104, 108–9, 111–12, 115, 117, 122, 126–9, 131, 135–7, 143, 146–9, 151–3, 156–8, 171, 174, 177–83, 186, 193–4, 196–7 Csicsery, George Paul 146, 149–50 Dacko, David 194–5 Dalai Lama 1, 132–5 Dark Glow of the Mountains, The (Gasherbrum – Der leuchtende Berg) 21, 108–10, 134, 136, 156, 160, 162 Das Rheingold 106–7, 182 Daumer, Friedrich 67 Davidson, David 23 Davidson, John 191 ‘death drive’ (Todestrieb) 24–6 Death for Five Voices (Gesualdo – Tod für fünf Stimmen) 129, 197, 201 Dengler, Dieter 7, 109, 150, 152, 155, 158, 183, 196, 202 Deppe, Hans 93 de las Casas, Bartolomé 126 de la Tour, Georges 97, 105, 170 Deleuze, Gilles 8, 20, 49 Der Ring des Niebelungen 164 Derrida, Jacques 8 de Souza, Fernando Felix 187, 189–90, 193 Dick, Kirby 7 Die Stunde des Todes 94 Dieß, Johann 77 di Lasso, Orlando 65– Dix, Otto 57 doppelgänger [as motif in Herzog’s films] 47, 102, 157 Döring, Helmut 57


Dorrington, Graham 9, 160–3, 173 Dourif, Brad 111, 118 Dreyer, Carl Theodor 15, 61, 63, 80, 201 Driest, Burkhard 73 Dylan, Bob 73 Echoes from a Sombre Empire (Echos aus einem düsteren Reich) 28, 33, 35, 59, 76, 123, 172, 194–9 Edel, Alfred 3, 72 Egger, Toni 111 Egli, Sam 86 Eichendorff, Joseph von 83 Eisenstein, Sergei 101 Eisner, Lotte 16–7, 100, 103, 128, 175 Elsaesser, Thomas 136, 138 Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, The (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle) 3–4, 13, 35, 37, 50, 53, 55, 60–72, 74, 76, 80–1, 158, 183, 199 Ernani 43–5 Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen) 2, 18, 33, 42, 49–50, 52–3, 55–6, 60, 66, 71, 75–6, 79, 108, 123, 137, 142, 144, 158, 185, 199 Fallico, Franc 87, 89, 91 Fanck, Arnold 112 fascism 58, 142, 164, 169–70 Fase, Kwesi 188 Fassbinder, Rainer Werner 16–17, 23, 100, 170 Fata Morgana 13, 47, 56, 58, 65, 83, 87, 116, 118, 126, 136–7, 140, 162, 172–80, 183–6 Fauré, Gabriel 138 Faust Part Two 37 Feuerbach, Anselm 61 Fichte, J. G. 83 Fitzcarrald, Carlos Fermin 36–7


Fitzcarraldo 1, 9–10, 17, 20–1, 23, 26, 31–2, 35–45, 47, 49, 70, 77, 108, 121, 136, 146–7, 186, 195 Fleischmann, Peter 112 Flower Carrier, The 124 Flying Doctors of East Africa, The (Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika) 27, 56, 162, 172–5 fornication [as theme in Herzog’s films] 57, 80, 82, 88 Freeman, Morgan 88 Freud, Sigmund 24–5, 46, 64, 103, 144 Fricke, Florian 24, 35, 44, 52, 134 Friedrich, Caspar David 11–12, 82–5, 92–3, 97, 99, 105–6, 114, 127, 129 Friedrich, Karl Ludwig 60 Game in the Sand (Spiel im Sand) 11 Ganz, Bruno 92, 102 Gesamtkunstwerk 45, 107, 182 Gillerman, Sharon 166–8 God’s Angry Man 35, 89, 120–4, 141 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 37 Goldsmith, Michael 194–8 Gounod, Charles 107, 125, 129, 184 Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, The (Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner) 21–3, 25–6, 48, 119, 123, 161 Griffith, D. W. 201 Grizzly Man 1, 4, 18, 21, 30, 53, 81, 85–92, 119, 121–2, 153, 161–2 Grosz, Georg 57 Grünewald, Matthias 84 Gulf War 152, 179, 180, 182 Gursky, Andreas 200 Habermas, Jürgen 95 Hale, Charles 148 Handke, Peter 61


Haunted Screen, The 100 Hauser, Kaspar 60–1 Heart of Darkness 171–2, 178, 187, 193 Heart of Glass (Herz aus Glas) 6, 13, 17, 29, 65, 70, 84–5, 92–100, 103, 105, 112–16, 119, 129, 149, 153, 191 Heidegger, Martin 4–5, 13, 18 Hemingway, Ernest 73 Herakles 21–2 Hernani 43 Hill, Norman 8, 54, 100, 177, 191–2 Hillman, Roger 182 Hitler, Adolf 28, 58, 150–1, 164–6 Hoffmann, E. T. A. 103, 144 Hölderlin, Friedrich 5–6, 82, 201 Homburg, Wilhelm von 73 Horak, Jan-Christopher 13 How much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? 74, 123 Hugo, Victor 43 Hunting Scenes in Bavaria 112 Huguenard, Amie 85–7 Hussein, Saddam 181 hypnosis or hypnotism [in Herzog’s films] 2, 6, 55, 94–7, 99, 149, 169 Invincible 8, 10, 21–2, 33, 66, 79, 143, 164–70, 186, 193–4 I puritani 37, 42, 44–5 Jagger, Mick 38 Jans, Nick 86, 90 Jarmusch, Jim 73 Jews or Judaism [in Herzog’s films] 80, 164–70 John, biblical book of 80 Juarez, Dora 119


Kafka, Franz 5, 18, 56–7, 113–4 Kaiser, Henry 119 Kant, Immanuel 7, 12–13, 15, 31, 36, 83, 132 Katmai, National Park 85–7 Keats, John 82 Kempis, Thomas à 25, 128 Kinski, Klaus 1, 6, 9, 20–1, 26, 28, 32–3, 35–6, 38–9, 45–8, 71, 76–8, 80, 90, 101–2, 104, 111, 121–2, 138, 164, 186–7, 190–2 ‘Kinski Spiral’ 33, 90 Kitezh, Lost City of 10, 131–2, 162 Klausmann, Rainer 39, 108 Klawans, Stuart 40 Kleist, Heinrich von 12–13, 68, 96–7, 143–4 Koch, Joseph Anton 105 Koning, Hans 39 Köpcke, Juliane 46, 109, 156, 183 Korine, Harmony 201 Kubrick, Stanley 115, 182 Lachman, Ed 8, 115 lamed-vav [legend] 164, 166–7, 169 Land of Silence and Darkness (Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit) 63, 123, 156, 158, 199–200 landscape 10–15, 17–18, 24, 30–1, 44, 55, 65, 69, 74, 83–5, 87–8, 90, 92–4, 97–8, 106, 108, 110–11, 114–15, 120, 127, 129, 133–4, 136, 141, 152–3, 157–8, 173–9, 181–2, 191; also ‘embarrassed landscapes’ 175–6, 181 Lang, Fritz 16 Lanzmann, Claude 159 Last Words (Letzte Worte) 47, 51 Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, The 131 Lem, Stanislaw 175 Lenz, J. M. R. 63


Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim 36 Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis) 11, 13, 25, 65, 118, 128, 149, 172, 174–5, 179–83, 201 Lewgoy, José 42, 187 Levinas, Emmanuel 167–8 Linville, Susan 51 Little Dieter Needs to Fly 7–8, 22, 51, 129, 143, 150–61, 164, 170, 183, 197 Locke, John 6 Loien Galani (tribe) 174 Lorre, Peter 80 Lynch, David 67, 115 Lyotard, Jean-François 139–40 Madman of Fort Ratonneau, The 50, 143 Magic Flute, The 62, 64, 70 Mann, Thomas 169 Malick, Terrence 15, 201 Marcello, Alessandro 81 ‘Mario and the Magician’ 169 Mattes, Eva 45, 72, 78–9 Mauch, Thomas 39, 44, 58 McCormick, Ruth 96 McElwee, Ross 7 Meanor, Patrick 189 Mendes, Sam 182 Messner, Reinhold 108–11, 113, 117, 122, 156 Miller, Betty 173 ‘Minnesota Declaration’ 5, 9, 13, 87, 120, 179 Miskito Indians 146–50 Mist in the Canyon 98 Monk by the Sea 12, 85, 106, 127 Moran, Thomas 98 Morning 114 Mountain Landscape 11, 29, 31, 69, 73 ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ 46


Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus 62, 66, 70–1 Murnau, F. W. 16, 100–5, 201 Musäus, Hans 63 Narcissus, or narcissism [in Herzog’s films] 21, 25–6 Nazi ideology/Nazis/National Socialism 16, 21, 28, 51, 53, 57, 93, 95, 112, 142, 151, 164–6, 168, 171, 186–7, 196 New German Cinema 16, 93, 100 No One Will Play with Me (Mit mir will keiner spielen) 25 Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) 16, 18, 59, 70, 76, 83–4, 92–3, 97, 100–9, 115–17, 125, 127, 134, 137, 153, 182 Notturno 197 Novalis 83, 113 Nuba [people of Africa] 185 Oberhausen Manifesto 16 Oberlin, Johann Friedrich 63 ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ 82 Of Walking in Ice 17 Ohm Krüger 171, 187 Okello, John 27–8, 195 Ortiz, Roxanne 146 Overbey, David 2, 61–2 Ozu, Yasujir 15 Palovak, Jewel 89–90 Parker, Kathleen 89 Parsifal 107, 182 Pascal, Blaise 25, 180 Penn, Arthur 62 Penn, Zak 201–2 Pentecost 62–3, 81 Petterson, Don 27


Peucker, Brigitte 2, 4–5, 15, 64, 68, 93 Pflaum, Hans Günther 191 Phoenix, Joaquin 18 Pilgrimage 25, 124, 126–7, 180 pilgrimage [as concept in work of Herzog] 17, 24, 43, 69, 127, 132–3 pilgrims 43, 121, 128–9, 131–2, 134–5, 185 Plage, Dieter 160–1 Platonic or Platonism [as motif in work of Herzog] 132, 162 Popol Vuh [group] 35, 43–4, 106 Popol Vuh [text] 175 pornography 9 Prawer, S. S. 101, 104–5 Precautions Against Fanatics (Maßnahmen gegen Fanatiker) 53–4 Prechtel, Volker 65, 98 Presser, Beat 45 Prokofiev, Sergei 183 prosopopeia 88 Readings, Bill 135, 139–40 Reichle, Denis 146, 149 Reichmann, Wolfgang 51, 77 Reijseger, Ernst 92, 119 Renoir, Jean 13 Rentschler, Eric 93, 95 Rescue Dawn 150–2, 155, 202 Revelations, biblical book of 153 Richter, Gerhard 200 Riefenstahl, Leni 93, 112, 185, 191 Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai 131 Rivera, Diego 124 Robards, Jason 38, 40 Rogers, Holly 35


Romantic motifs; also Romanticism 11–15, 35, 50–1, 57, 67–8, 82–3, 85, 92, 96–7, 99, 103, 106, 113–15, 119, 138, 144, 197, 200 Rouch, Jean 59, 195, 201 Roth, Tim 164, 170 Rückenfigur [concept in German art] 97, 106 Said, Edward 193 Sandford, John 176 Saxer, Walter 47, 77, 111 Scheitz, Clemens 70, 72, 74 Schelling, F. W. J. 83 Schlöndorff, Volker 94 Schmidt-Reitwein, Jörg 97, 105, 115, 137, 158, 185 Schmolling, Daniel 177 Scholem, Gershom 167 Schrader, Paul 15 Schubert, Franz 197 science fiction [as theme in Herzog’s work] 116, 118, 174–5, 178–9, 181–2 Scott, Eugene William 35, 45, 89, 121–4, 130 Scream of Stone (Cerro Torre: Schrei aus Stein) 8, 13, 21, 60, 84, 99, 108–15, 118, 191 Segers, Hercules 55 Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen) 11, 35, 50–6, 58, 71, 77, 83–4, 118, 120, 133, 139, 143–5, 177–8, 183, 191 silence [as a motif in Herzog’s films] 4, 13, 41, 54, 61, 63, 68, 85, 104, 106, 126, 130, 139–40, 142, 175 Silverman, Kaja 65–6, 68 Singer, Alan 15, 178 Skertchly, J. A. 189 Skiba, Sonja 94 Sonata for Two Violins 183 Soufrière, La (La Soufrière – Warten auf eine unausweichliche Katastrophe) 94, 110, 115–19, 172, 181


‘St. Cecilia Mass’ 124–5 Steiner, Walter 22–6, 108 Stiles, Victoria 26, 77, 79, 81 Stipetić, Lucki 69 Stoker, Bram 102 Straub, Laurens 137 Straubinger, Fini 122, 156, 158, 199–200 sublimity; also, the sublime [in Herzog’s films] 5, 7, 12, 15, 20, 31, 43, 49, 83–4, 184, 195 Stroszek 33, 50, 55, 60, 70–9, 114, 123, 137 Sutherland, Donald 111 Sylla, Mola 119 Szabó, István 168 Tavener, John 127 Ten Thousand Years Older 28–9, 36, 185 Thompson, Richard 91 Theobaldy, Jürgen 95 Tieck, Ludwig 14, 83 torture [in films by Herzog] 152, 160, 182–3, 194, 197 Transformation of the World Into Music, The (Die Verwandlung der Welt in Musik) 107 trauma or traumatic experience [in Herzog’s films] 18–19, 109–10, 142–3, 149–52, 154–61, 163, 174, 183, 196–7 Treadwell, Timothy 4, 18, 21, 45, 85–92, 122 Truffaut, François 61–2 Two Men Contemplating the Moon 97 ‘Uncanny, The’ 144 Ungern-Sternberg, Wolfgang von 52, 178 Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, The (Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreutz) 143–5 Uru Eu Wau Waus (tribe) 29


useless, uselessness [as a motif in Herzog’s films] 8, 36–7, 42, 44–5, 49, 58, 60 Vargas, Chavela 113 Verdi, Giuseppe 20, 36, 43 Vernet, Claude-Joseph 84 Vernünft (reason) [as concept in Herzog’s films] 52, 57, 79 Viceroy of Ouidah, The 186, 188–90 Vietnam War 150–2, 196 Villon, François 46 Voice in the Wilderness, A 138 von Sydow, Max 14, 95 Wade, Ralph 74 Wagner, Richard 17, 36, 45, 106–7, 164, 182 Walser, Robert 25 Wanderer before the Sea of Fog, The 12, 84, 93, 97 Wassermann, Jakob 61 Watson, Scott 22, 110 Weir, Peter 166 Welles, Orson 8, 73 Wenders, Wim 10, 16, 28, 73, 100 What am I Doing Here? 188 Wheel of Time 1, 11, 126, 128, 132–5 Where the Green Ants Dream (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) 135–41, 148, 176, 181, 185 White Diamond, The 8, 22, 91, 118, 131, 143, 160–4, 173, 176 Wild Blue Yonder, The 8, 55, 92, 118–19, 126, 161–2, 175, 201 Wilk, Michael 162 Wings of Hope (Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel) 46, 143, 154, 156–60, 170, 183 Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (Wodaabe – Die Hirten der Sonne) 172, 183–5


Woeser, Lhundup (Lama) 133 Wolff, Christian 36 World War Two 16, 50–1, 93, 100, 142–3, 45, 49–51, 164, 166 Woyzeck 3, 50, 59, 66, 71, 76–81 Woyzeck, Johann Christian 77 Wyborny, Klaus 69 Yhap, Mark Anthony 8, 162–3, 173 Yolngu [people] 135–6 Zech, Paul 46 Zeitlinger, Peter 170, 202