The Documentary Films of Werner Herzog, through Thursday, June 7 at Film Forum
“The deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically, and mathematically correct.” — Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is concerned with “the deep abysses of the human heart,” and in his 36 genre-rattling documentaries appearing at Film Forum through June 7th, he explores the heart’s crevasses more thoroughly than any living director. The man himself showed up three nights in a row, looking uncomfortably formal in a baggy suit jacket. His prior claim of not understanding irony was manifest in his earnest, Schwartzenneggerian tone and the frighteningly literal gaze in his deep-set eyes. Yet Herzog has a sense of humor, someplace. He once rationalized eating his own shoe with: “A grown up man should eat his shoes every once in a while.” This humor, if you could call it that, is the result of literal thinking pushed to extremes, which may explain Herzog’s special contempt for Jean-Luc Godard, a director he equates with “intellectual counterfeit money.” What Herzog wants has nothing to do with irony, ideology, or abstraction. “I am not so much influenced by films,” he said one night, “as by pure, raw life.”
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Herzog uses the word “stylize” to encapsulate the concoctions, fabrications, and staging that go into his putatively factual documentaries. The first few scenes of Little Dieter suggest serious stylization. Protagonist Dieter Dengler immediately gives the impression of a man failing to imitate himself; a stunningly optimistic guy who’s been instructed to “act natural” as he parrots lines. Herzog intends to portray Dieter truthfully. But it’s unclear whether inventing memories for Dieter, like the tank full of jellyfish that recall Dieter’s hallucinated death in Vietnam, allows Herzog to achieve a deeper truth.
What is clear is that Dieter’s a fucking rock. During his deprived Herzogian childhood in the Black Forest he worked as an apprentice blacksmith. His mother sometimes cooked wallpaper for dinner, for the nutrients in the glue. Looking out his bedroom window one day, Dieter made eye contact with an allied bomber pilot—mid-flight—before the plane laid waste to his village. This seemed to have settled things for him, and at 17 Dieter immigrated to the U.S. to fly for the Navy. After three weeks of active service he was sent to Vietnam, where he was shot down and underwent six months of captivity and torture. Yet the clips of Dieter relating these atrocities months later—in Navy whites, grinning from ear to ear—show a man happily coexisting with hard-earned knowledge of inhuman cruelty.
Dieter was practically made for Herzog. This may account for Little Dieter’s numerous stylizations. But the film has moments that surpass any question of style. After telling the true story of recovering his engagement ring from a severed Laotian finger, Dieter hugs a queasy-looking local cast member. “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie,” he says. “You’ve still got all your fingers and everything.” Herzog seems stunned by the gesture, and pans away slowly to a man peacefully sewing in the sun.
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984)
Reinhold Messner was the first man to solo Mt. Everest without oxygen, and the first to summit all fourteen Himalayan peaks higher than 8,000 metres. In 1970, descending the mythical and lethal Nanga Parbat, Messner lost his climbing partner/brother Gunther, plus seven toes and three fingers, to a winter storm. Herzog became fascinated when he heard that Messner planned to climb Nanga Parbat again. As with La Soufriere—in which Herzog traveled to the erupting and evacuated volcanic island of Guadeloupe to interview the lone villager who insisted on staying put—he is fiercely curious about Messner’s relationship to death. Herzog’s interest in the ski-jumper Walter Steiner is predicated on pity for Steiner’s physical weakness in the face of a stubborn athletic desire to fly. But his interest in Messner is clearly competitive. Messner’s epic physical ambition seems to intrigue and frustrate Herzog, especially considering Messner’s reluctance to reveal his motivations. Werner’s solution is to ask questions like, “Do you have a death wish?” and “How did you break the news of your brother’s death to your mother?,” the latter of which causes Messner to break down crying in his tent. By cracking the stoic Messner, Herzog attempts to make way for the apotheosis of ecstatic truth. The therapeutic value of this moment for Messner is, of course, suspect. Herzog excuses himself on the grounds that “he knew there would be no mercy for him, because film per se knows no mercy.”
Gradually we come to see that Herzog’s triumph over Messner’s stoicism mirrors Messner’s own triumph over Gasherbrum 1 and 2 (the two 8,000+ metre mountains in the film). Messner took the actual summit footage. Herzog suffered from altitude sickness at 6,500 metres and had to return to base camp, as broken physically as Messner had been emotionally. By the end, both men successfully summit the film itself, like climbing partners who, out of professional necessity, could not allow an emotional connection to form.
The Great Ecstasy of Wood Carver Steiner (1973)
Outside Film Forum on Sunday night, someone told Herzog that Walter Steiner—whom Herzog has been seeking for decades—lives with his wife in the Swedish town of Falun. According to Wikipedia, Steiner works as a gardener there, apparently foregoing the woodcarving that makes a scant but significant appearance in The Great Ecstasy. Herzog appears in voice or person in almost every frame; the sponsoring German television station insisted he act as a commentator for the ski-jumping, or ski-flying as he calls it. Unlike Messner’s case, there is no need to break Steiner down in this film; Steiner’s terror of jumping (ie, of crashing, or of landing on the flat and breaking his neck) does most of the work. Remarkably, Herzog tries to raise Steiner’s spirits, continually flattering him at the bottom of the hill. He and members of the crew even carried Steiner through the streets on their shoulders, as Herzog declared him the greatest ski-flier alive.
Bearing the physical weight of the man somehow informed Herzog as to the importance of the flying shots. Steiner’s musculature and body language proved more significant to the director than whatever Steiner might be prodded to say. Yet Steiner does deliver a poignant soliloquy. Avoiding eye contact with the camera, he tells the story of his childhood pet raven—his only friend at the time—whom Steiner eventually shot to save the bird from its constant torment by other ravens. Herzog juxtaposes this tale with the ski-jumping judges’ refusal to shorten the ramp at the Planica contest, even as it’s clear Steiner will overshoot the landing.
The way Herzog captures the ecstatic physicality of Steiner and his competitors in flight—mouths open, cheeks rippling in the wind, bodies angled at the sun—makes the ecstasy palpable. The ski-fliers seem to just keep rising and rising, much as Messner and Herzog in The Dark Glow imagine themselves setting off one day and walking forever, until the world stops.
The White Diamond (2004)
“The soundtrack was composed before we began filming The White Diamond,” Herzog said at Film Forum, “so the rhythm of filming was done according to the music in my head.”
Werner’s interest in The White Diamond’s kooky, British aeronautical lead character Graham Dorrington wanes twenty minutes into the film. He then turns the camera on local Rastafarian Anthony Yapp, a man infatuated with his pet rooster and capable of profound spiritual reflection. But even Yapp can’t sustain the director’s attention. Yearning for a deeper element, Herzog locates it in the grandeur of Kaieteur Falls, and finally in clouds of swifts entering a cave whose inner depths he shot (the first person ever to do so), but chose not to show. This final image harmonizes perfectly with the music, which, as Herzog filmed, must have been roaring in his head.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.