PRINT March 2008


Werner Herzog

WERNER HERZOG HAS SPENT decades deconstructing the ossified categories of documentary and fictional film, incorporating real feats into feature films (most famously, of course, hauling a ship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo [1982]) and introducing fictional elements into documentaries. This would seem to make him of great interest to contemporary art circles, which have for the past decade and more been deeply invested in such endeavors. But although he has a large following among artists, Herzog’s status in the art world has always been shaky. He has never spoken a language, either verbal or visual, with which theoretically and politically inclined critics can feel comfortable. The double focus of his films, on landscape and on quixotic loners, is often seen as smacking of unreconstructed romanticism, and his notion of “ecstatic truth” presents two equally unpalatable terms to those who might otherwise be sympathetic to his criticisms of the dominant visual culture.

In part, Herzog is a victim of the prevalence of intentionalism, whereby we refuse to take works of art seriously—that is, to treat them as implicit or potential theory—if the artist does not point us in the right direction with his or her own statements. Indeed, Herzog’s example demonstrates that the rejection of the expressionist model of the artist as idiot savant has, for all its virtues, led to an impoverishment of the range of cultural production that is considered seriously. Unlike historically and politically conscious monteurs such as Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, and Harun Farocki, who have been embraced by curators and critics, Herzog can come across as a hillbilly. In an art world obsessed with otherness, Herzog’s otherness is too much. In this, he exposes how critical discourse—itself increasingly part of a lifestyle for a portion of the urban precariat—has as little tolerance for those who do not pay attention to the mode du jour as does fashion, the doppelgänger in which it takes such an obsessive interest.

Herzog’s reception is not made any simpler by the fact that his productions—documentaries and feature films—are scattered across different economies. If not exactly a blockbuster, the director’s recent film Rescue Dawn (2006), which stars Christian Bale as the German-born American pilot Dieter Dengler, certainly reached a larger audience than the film on which it is based, Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In the latter film, Dengler himself remembers, retells, and reenacts the Vietnam-era story of his plane being downed over Laos, his imprisonment, and his eventual escape, while in Rescue Dawn, Bale plays the pilot’s role in a more conventional, linear, fictionalized narrative. If this film lacks the tension of Dengler himself directing locals in impromptu reenactments, it nevertheless contains some very powerful moments. When Bale’s Dengler is on the run in the jungle, he is all but absorbed by the environment, sleeping or hiding under immense leaves. At one point, he stares through bushes, his disembodied eyes appearing Cheshire Cat style in the foliage, as if the forest has become sentient.

Such scenes suggest possibilities for a reading of Rescue Dawn that would save it from becoming the generic war film into which studio publicity and the film’s (almost Steven Seagal–worthy) patriotic ending threaten to turn it. Indeed, these moments of becoming one with the environment—which have parallels throughout Herzog’s work—should not be seen merely as exercises in New Age holism or symptoms of a primitivist longing for the prehuman past. Rather, they explore the relationship of actor and environment beyond Hollywood convention, and embody a refusal to turn the natural world into a mere backdrop for gung ho human action.

The intrusion of human history into natural history is likewise a concern in Herzog’s most recent “documentary” film, Encounters at the End of the World (2007), shot in Antarctica with a single-person crew (cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger). As is usual in his documentaries, Herzog’s voice-over plays a prominent part, and at one point he murmurs, “Our presence on this planet does not seem to be sustainable.” Encounters is clearly related to the ecological concerns of Herzog’s “sci-fi trilogy,” comprising three films in which his blurring of the boundaries between documentary and fiction is at its most extreme: Fata Morgana (1971), Lessons of Darkness (1992), and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). In fact, Encounters almost seems a remake of the last film, whose esoteric narrative involved aliens trying to settle on Earth to escape an ecological catastrophe on their own planet. With its frequently overbearing music and mind-numbingly uninteresting NASA footage, that film crumbled hopelessly under its own ambitions. Some ingredients were, however, again remarkable: in particular, Brad Dourif’s role as an extraterrestrial ranting about a desolate and decaying “alien” settlement, along with the footage of his fictitious home planet, for which Herzog used stunning shots of divers (and the odd jellyfish) under a thick crust of ice, all taken by Henry Kaiser, an underwater cameraman working in Antarctica.

Kaiser’s footage also features prominently in Encounters—again accompanied by domineering music unnecessarily stressing the sublimity of the images, but benefiting from being part of a much more convincing montage, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As Herzog moves between McMurdo Station, the largest settlement on Earth’s southernmost continent (which looks, as Herzog remarks, like “an ugly mining town”), and various outlying research bases, including the camp where Kaiser works, the film alternates between spellbinding views of the landscape’s white and blue expanses, conversations with scientists, and interviews with McMurdo’s denizens—many of whom seem to be dropouts of some sort. The film thus runs the gamut from existential meditation to comedy; indeed, it is perhaps Herzog’s funniest film. To recognize Herzog’s humor as such is often a challenge, but Encounters had festival audiences in Amsterdam in stitches.

In one scene, the director tries to make a reputedly increasingly misanthropic and shy scientist relax by asking him probing questions about sexual deviancy among penguins. The bemused expert ventures that, while he knows of no gay sex, there is some evidence of threesomes and “prostitution.” This all-too-human behavior leads Herzog to ask whether there are cases of mental derangement among these birds. Some penguins, it turns out, become insane and abandon their group; we see footage of one penguin who stays put as others go on their way, and who eventually waggles, alone, toward the bluish-white horizon—where, Herzog’s voice tells us with a hint of barely suppressed glee, “certain death” awaits. This brings to mind various other Herzog protagonists, those played by Klaus Kinski in particular, who subordinate everything to some overriding vision and therefore act in socially unproductive ways. If anything, such “deranged” outsiders allow us to see the insanity of business as usual more clearly. (Dieter Dengler is an interesting example, suggesting an ultimate complicity of obsessed outsider and destructive system: In order to realize his dream of flying, he becomes part of the imperial war machine.) But in a film that repeatedly gives voice to the concern of scientists over global warming, the larger implication is that humanity itself, like the deranged penguin, is marching toward certain death.

Indeed, although Herzog is highly critical of Al Gore’s pimped-out PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Encounters takes up many of the same motifs, albeit in a more imaginative way. In what may well be one of the staged scenes that Herzog includes in his documentaries in order to go beyond what he has, speaking of cinema verité, called “superficial truth, the truth of accountants,” Encounters shows a marine biologist and his colleagues watching the trailer for the 1954 film Them! on a computer monitor. In Them! natural history is out of joint, as nuclear explosions beget a race of giant monster ants. All of Herzog’s sci-fi films in fact have similarities to this film—they are disaster (if not monster) movies, showing landscapes full of industrial junk or otherwise ravaged.

Herzog has always abstracted from political and economic specifics, and, especially after Lessons of Darkness, he was criticized for this. The film largely consists of footage of burning oil fields in Kuwait, set on fire by retreating Iraqi troops. Rather than dealing with the circumstances that gave rise to this entropic nightmare, Herzog mythifies the images, which, he says, were recorded on “a planet in our solar system.” Yet Herzog’s sci-fi treatment is the opposite of a depoliticizing “naturalization”; if anything, it is a form of distantiation. By decontextualizing his images, Herzog imbues them with an oddly materialist quality: Discarded equipment and burning oil fields take on a presence, a thingness, that is rarely accorded them. Even if Herzog’s voice-over is pessimistic, his roving camera can be seen as engaged in a search for evidence, for clues that would enable interventions in the far-from-steady state of things.

In Encounters, this becomes much more explicit. Media coverage of global warming often implies that the process is so radical as to be all but unstoppable, and thus it often serves to breed passivity, even when accompanied by ostensibly actionist rhetoric. This is the effect of one scene in Encounters, in which a computer screen displays a time-lapse animation of icebergs moving northward, where they will inevitably melt. The film as a whole, however, opposes such intimations of inevitability with a rich and varied rhythm, a temporality that counters linear scenarios with spiraling movements between men and penguins, between the “cathedral” under the ice and the edge of an Antarctic volcano. By proposing time as something malleable, Herzog suggests that today’s unnatural natural history is still open to intervention—that there are possibilities for action in and beyond entropic end-time.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.