Possibly among all the writers, artists, filmmakers and thinkers that have come to Chile in recent years, no one has generated such interest and expectation as Werner Herzog last January. The author of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, two of his most famous works, is more than an important filmmaker. He is also seen as a model of the reconciliation between art and life.
More than a special case, Werner Herzog is a phenomenon. It’s hard to find a filmmaker with such a provocative, passionate and dilated body of work as his in contemporary film. It would also be hard to find even among younger artists, someone capable of surpassing his energy and daring attitude in terms of undertaking difficult or seemingly impossible projects. And there definitely isn’t anyone in the current horizon of film that has his compulsion to learn or the hunger for humanity that his films reveal.
Herzog represents a very different model of the artist genius than the filmmaker-author that was installed particularly in the 1960s. It was a model -that went from Fellini to Bergman, from Antonioni to Godard- of the suffering, tormented or egotistical artist, secluded in his traumas and demons, that looked at the world with disdain and every two or three years surprised the world with a new project that updated its insomnias, memories, ghosts and obsessions.
The author of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo has nothing to do with that fauna. Or with that time. If there is a filmmaker that has known how to keep up with the times, it’s him. A Herzog film is not a cathartic exercise, at least not in the same way as signature films of the 1960s, and less so, an alternative to psychoanalysis, the way in which director-stars kept their internal accounts at peace. Herzog has always kept a huge distance from these discourses and for him cinema is rather a form of knowledge, a way of understanding the world, also a way of living it; it’s a formidable, fascinating, dangerous, clear approach that’s on the edge of a cliff, amazement or ecstasy.
There isn’t a film of Herzog’s that doesn’t engage in combat that’s sometimes glorious, sometimes pathetic, nearly always metaphysical, with excess, with impossibility, with fantasies. Already in his first feature-length film Signs of Life, the story of a mentally unstable German soldier in Crete during his recovery of the traumas of war, imposed a definitive mark. It was a deplorable rebellion in vain. In the film about Lope de Aguirre, searching for El Dorado, or in Fitzcarraldo trying to take the opera to the Amazon, there was of course more epic. In various of his projects the excess isn’t only translated into rupture with reason and inherited order, but also in moral rebellion, in huge feats, the struggle with illness or physical limits, in tributes of extraordinary lyricism towards tenaciousness and delirium. The doubt, of course, is whether Herzog is among the masters of film such as Hitchcock, Renoir, Ford, Visconti, Welles or Godard. Maybe the question is too hard to answer in a few lines. But, even before trying to answer, it’s worth considering some circumstantial facts that might not aim to get to the bottom of it, but that can be revealing.
The first observation is related to the kind of legitimacy that Herzog has won in the cultural world. This is an artist who long before having been invested as an author in the cinephile world, had carved, for different reasons, a name, a prestige, an unmistakable fame in areas such as adventure, risk, autonomy or eccentricity. When Herzog seriously started to question the cinephile brotherhood of the world, the truth is that he was already a consolidated artist. Legitimised and all, however, Herzog didn’t generate anything close to the kind of unconditionality, cult, trivia, vassalage even, that David Lynch or David Cronenberg’s work produced at the time. And this was possibly because access to his films aren’t limited by hermetic codes. On the contrary, his films seem to be more open and less endogenic than that of other authors.
“Herzog didn’t generate anything close to the kind of unconditionality, cult, trivia, vassalage even, that David Lynch or David Cronenberg’s work produced at the time. And this was possibly because access to his films aren’t limited by hermetic codes. On the contrary, his films seem to be more open and less endogenic than that of other authors.”
As a consequence of this of course, the filmmaker came to be taken seriously by cinephiles late on. When here in Santiago Herzog recalled that during 16 years, Cahiers du Cinéma, the leading European magazine of cinephile conscience, ignored him wholly, the truth is that he wasn’t only bleeding from the wound. It’s easier for an artist to be prepared for being misunderstood than for being ignored, to face the indifference that makes him invisible and ultimately disappear. When recalling the infamy, the filmmaker was also assuming another fact. The weight, the density and eventual greatness of Herzog’s films were forged on a very different front than that which consecrated most of the great masters of cinema. The difference is, in brief, that Herzog is the kind of artist that wages his combat first with the world, with his tremendous charge of paradoxes and mysteries, and only after with film, while the classic author adored by cinephiles fight first for film, understood as a space of expressive potentials and limitations, and only later with the world. This reductive simplification serves to understand why when Herzog speaks about his work, his films, he focuses basically on their physical experiences, on the expressive challenges proposed, and rarely does he quote the work of others or compare himself. Neither does he consider inserting himself in an expressive tradition that he can appropriate. Inadvertent and clearly an unwanted son of the so-called New German Cinema in the late 1960s, Herzog was never part of, neither did he feel comfortable in, a herd. And he is basically the same Steppenwolf that he started out as.
“When Herzog speaks about his work, his films, he focuses basically on their physical experiences, on the expressive challenges proposed, and rarely does he quote the work of others or compare himself. Neither does he consider inserting himself in an expressive tradition that he can appropriate.”
Owner of an enormous and varied filmography that unites more than 60 titles both for film and television, in which fiction and documentary have the same rights, in which the relatively big production is alternated with a scene filmed with not much more than a cell phone, the lines of his work almost always remain intact. Herzog has a special weakness for disturbed characters on the verge. His gallery of characters is imposing and gathers extreme figures such as Lope de Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Gaspar Hauser, Nosferatu, Stroszek and, on another level, exceptional characters like Walter Steiner, the challenging skier in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) or the blind and deaf protagonist of Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) or the bear obsessed youth in Grizzly Man (2005). Crazy, visionary, enlightened, obese, candid, monomaniac. They are characters that haven’t been contaminated by modernity, and that are out of the norm; they live in or look for an absolute, an idea of fullness, of a kind of sanctity that is of course not of this world and that has to do with strangeness, ingenuity, the consecration of a cause but also with the daring nature of someone who ignores or doesn’t understand the scope of the risks being taken.
These characters are the essence of his films. Herzog searches once and again, compulsively, and when he finds them he does everything possible and impossible to put himself in their place, to rewrite their story and to capture even an instant of the vision, the foundational look, the incandescent light with which he sees his reality and the life that they fell into. Because that’s what it’s about: the fall. The myth of the fall is present in various of his films and the idea of the alien, lost in the common vulgarity and predation of the modern world corresponds to a recurring fantasy in his work. In one way or another this is present in the inspiration of Fata Morgana (the early film-essay filmed in 1970 about the fall, the creation of the world and the hypnotic power of the African desert landscape) and, more evidently, in The Wild Blue Yonder a false documentary from the year 2005 that establishes strange poetic connections between images of space captured by Nasa and submarine images of the millenary ice of Antarctica and that claimed the idea of an exhausted and alien planet.
Perhaps a more beautiful image that crosses the work of Herzog is that of the virginal image. His supposition is that the modern world -and particularly television- has done nothing other than banalize and standardize images, emptying them of any persuasive authority and of any ability to transmit truth or knowledge. The veto of Herzog towards television (he also films for this industry), goes back to the start of his career and is still suggestive because ten years before, in 1960, Rossellini had decreed that film had died and that it would be television, or his idea of it, that would save the world. Obviously, things did not develop in the direction that the author of Rome, Open City, imagined. On the contrary, television further devalued our notions of reality and from here Herzog feels that the mission of the filmmaker is to restore the revealing majesty of the image and the primal truth of the first look at the world. This explains in part his fascination for uncentered or strange characters. This is what infiltrates the wonder of his line of work. And it’s what has finally moved him further away from fiction film. It is understandable that he would abandon fiction: world production is increasingly standardized and it’s becoming more difficult for filmmakers to work in the margins of custom formulas. Most of the best work Herzog has filmed in the last 15 years is in fact a tribute to documentary, where the open field of the first approach, to use the minimum expression, is much wider.
There is also -it has to be said- another factor. Herzog’s fiction films have been losing momentum for some time in comparison to the heights they reached in the 1970s. Cobra Verde (1988), the last of five films with Klaus Kinski, the story of a Brazilian bandit that managed to make a fortune in the trafficking of slaves, didn’t reach this level. Invincible (2001), about the figure of a strongman of music-hall that in the Weimar Republic reports against Nazi antisemitism, was for many critics an interchangeable and lacklustre work. Rescue Dawn (2007), a rather patriotic film with Christian Bale about the operative to find a North American combat aviator that effectively fled from a prison in Laos, wasn’t badly criticised, but it can be said to have failed in terms of public appreciation and was only shown in a few countries in the cinema; it went straight to DVD. Bad Lieutenant (2007), with an overdrawn and almost always drugged Nicholas Cage, is an interesting film. Things work better, but the film that has New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as its setting didn’t have the brutality or the wild energy of the original work that it was inspired on, the thriller Bad Lieutenant (1992), starring Harvey Keitel and directed by Aberl Ferrara. His last conventional film to date is Queen of the Desert (2015), with Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Robert Pattinson; Peter Bradshaw, the critic from The Guardian, said that it was well done, academic and boring, “Here is the kind of film you can hardly believe is the work of Werner Herzog”.
Is he becoming dispersed gunpowder? There is no consensus in the answer. The more he neglected fiction Herzog, documentary Herzog would rise. In reality it wasn’t just a question of rising. It was also revindication, because for the first time the old wonderer that he had always been, was converted into an icon of adventure, exploration and bravery. The result was that in some years -ten or fifteen perhaps- the filmmaker would make a brand that is tangent to morality and the outdoor industry on the North, the esoteric on the South, with a shamanic will on the East and prophetic emotion on the West. In Herzog’s films there was always something of all this. Nothing is entirely new. But it was in glorious works like Encounters and the End of the World (2007), about the depths of Antarctica and life there, or Into the Inferno (2016), an impressive account of the interior fires of the planet that erupt in Indonesia, Iceland, North Korea, where these four faces of the filmmaker were articulated in one cosmovision that reconciled the adventurer with the saint and the sensitive artist with the prophet. There was always an irrational pulsation in his work and even in his life. This is a filmmaker who ate a shoe after his friend Errol Morris (author of the documentary Fog of War with Robert McNamara) managed to finance his first film (Gates of Heaven, about North American cemeteries for pets); it’s the same person that at 32 years of age did a trip walking for three weeks in the Winter, from Munich to Paris, for Lotte Eisner, historian, German cinema theorist and friend of his, to recover from a cancer that had her hospitalized; it’s the one who refused to use special effects for the insane feats in the filming of Fitzcarraldo, to carry an entire boat up the mountain that separated two rivers in the Peruvian jungle. That was the story and that’s what had to be done; in his view, this had the value of a sacrament. The epic of the shoe was registered in a Les Blank film in the year 1980; the walk, in the book Of Walking in Ice, a tribute to introspection, loneliness and resistance; and the filming of Fitzcarraldo was published 24 years after the film came out, in a diary -long, anecdotal, reiterative, not very interesting- titled Conquest of the Useless. Herzog is wrong in thinking that his books will survive his films. There is no way.
Herzog crossed various frontiers in the evolution of his trajectory. He became possibly the most internationalized and widely seen German filmmaker of the last decades. He definitively separated himself from the so-called New German Cinema, of which he was never really a member; and which partly aged in museums or was distorted, as in the case of Wim Wenders, in the worst areas of commercial cinema. Herzog also entered the North American market in such a way that few European filmmakers have managed to, in fact he has been living in Los Angeles for years. He himself also started to become more visible in his films, for example in through his voice in the great Grizzly Man. And he became a model, followed unconditionally by a vast number of people that feel disenchanted by modernity, that search for their own destiny and that process their work devotedly. Because, apart from being a celebrated filmmaker, and distinguished documentarist, respected regisseur of the opera for over two decades and an impenitent doctorate in unrepeatable feats, Herzog also teaches film classes and week-long workshops, which are quite expensive, to rigorously selected students from different parts of the world.
One undoubtable point of inflection in the consecration of this new status of the filmmaker took place when he was given, almost as a representative of the human race, the privilege of accessing with a small group of collaborators, the caves of Chauvet, discovered towards 1994 in the valley of Ardèche in the South of France. It was a spectacular discovery of cave painting: over 400 drawings of wild animal combats, bears, rhinoceroses and mammoths, in a very good state of conservation that date back 32 thousand years, being among the oldest discovered. These caves remain closed, no one can visit them, in order to prevent even human breathing that could harm them, and the criteria with which the authorities decided to invite Herzog, and only him, to register the discovery, is not very clear. He did this through the beautiful but debatable documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), in 3D (the use of three-dimensional representation for two-dimensional paintings was discussed), offering an amazing testimony of prehistoric paintings that unfolds the author’s well-known introspective solemnity with his enraptured metaphysics around the mysteries of time, space and the presence of humans on the planet.
An irreducible artist
It wasn’t only this film but also the direction of his work in general that triggered unenthusiastic critics to question how far Herzog was willing to go to appropriate whatever it took, to make signature films. Why does a filmmaker that undoubtedly generated his own poetic, that unfolded a deeply discordant approach to the world, now survive basically on adventure and exceptionality, risks and the furies of nature? It can be a hard and even ungrateful question. But the sense of some of his last works -such as Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), a documentary about internet and robotics, filmed in different latitudes, interesting yes, but not much more- makes this question pertinent.
Whatever it may be, the profile that the filmmaker has created explains the scope of his following: Werner Herzog superstar, Werner Herzog in concert, Werner Herzog unplugged. In Santiago over 1000 people went to see him, to applaud him, in his lecture for “La Ciudad y las Palabras” in Lo Contador campus last January, when he talked with Fernando Pérez, former Dean of Architecture and currently the Director of the National Museum of Fine Arts. It was a great moment. Herzog related his experiences while the warm evening light started to set. Loreto Villarroel, coordinator of the literature and cinema program within the Doctorate of Architecture and Urban Studies of the Pontifica Universidad Católica, that brought him to Santiago, says that she had been following the filmmaker for over ten years. Loreto is patient, she has experience and is used to inviting speakers to “La Ciudad y las Palabras” who live in the realm of film and geniality, and even so, this was a difficult guest to bring. His agenda is always full. Before coming to Santiago, among other things, because he is always making two or three films simultaneously, Herzog had been filming Gorbachov in Moscow, after which he had been leading a workshop for 48 young filmmakers in the Peruvian jungle, and he had been preparing to film a television series, Fordlandia, about Henry Ford’s project to found a city in the Amazon for his business, and he landed in Santiago from Patagonia, because he had been filming a documentary for the BBC about one of the last surviving speakers of the Yagan language.
At the age of 76 when it’s typical for artists to decrease their revolutions, Herzog seems to have no qualms in continuing to work at the same or at an increased rhythm than in his youth. To a huge physical strength, he adds an incredible interior combustion. The question is whether he is filming at this rate simply because he can’t stop now, or if this is his only way of being in the world, of feeding his infinite curiosity of people, experiences, animals and landscapes. Beyond his fans and the critical reactions generated by his work, finally perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Herzog is that it’s about an irreducible artist. It’s not easy to label him, which is the critics’ way to tame wild animals. It’s not easy to situate him within a political arch that goes from left to right. The times he has bordered the beaches of contingency -the idea of revolution in the portentous film Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), the criticism of the death penalty in Into the Abyss (2011), documenting the last days of two youths condemned to capital punishment in Texas, or the Vietnam war in Rescue Dawn (2006)- Herzog has always ended up frustrating the expectations deposited in obvious discourses. He always takes it from the other side, led by questions that have more to do with the human condition than with history or conjunctural policy. Far from being an apolitical filmmaker, the has one head within another, with which he reaches his best development every time he looks beyond.
“At the age of 76 when it’s typical for artists to decrease their revolutions, Herzog seems to have no qualms in continuing to work at the same or at an increased rhythm than in his youth. To a huge physical strength, he adds an incredible interior combustion.”
There is probably a lot of dust, litter and misunderstandings around the name Herzog. Fame is usually toxic for everyone, starting from the famous. But there is a handful of inspired films that will always save him from this confusion and ambiguity. They’re there: it’s a matter of seeing them again.