Welcome to the Jungle

The confounding cinema of Werner Herzog thrusts Western society into the wilds of its own mind

Watery clouds stream over blue mountains, cows graze in a diffuse blue mist, a blue waterfall tumbles and steams, and the voice of a shepherd intones the cruel promises of apocalyptic prophecy. Meanwhile, in a rose-colored valley below, a glass manufacturer loses the secret to "his" product (it was always his workers' secret anyway), and starts killing his laborers and torching their livelihood. So goes German director Werner Herzog's 1976 film Heart of Glass. To call it one of his more opaque efforts is not to say much: Herzog's movies, screening through April in a 17-film Walker retrospective, live someplace west of, say, David Lynch in their penchant for ambiguous symbolism.

This preference for the striking image over the straightforward plot has left the notorious director's 30-plus years of filmmaking open to startlingly divergent interpretations. To some viewers Herzog is a counterculture visionary; to others, a passive nihilist. Some say his elevation of nature and demonization of society echo the German Romanticism behind Hitler's conceptions of racial "purity." Others view the outsiders and misfits brought to the center of Herzog's movies--such as the shepherd prophet of Heart of Glass--as arguments for social tolerance. Herzog touts a dangerous irrationality; no, he is arrogantly antifeminist. Unwrapping this body of work from its carapace of opinion is one of the pleasures offered by this Herzog festival (which culminates with the filmmaker's appearance at the Walker in a Regis dialogue with critic Roger Ebert): What do you think? Genius or jerk?

It's certainly no hardship to sit through one, or ten, of the man's movies--despite their deliberate lack of narrative hand-holding. In Heart of Glass, the colors alone pulse and glow so entrancingly that critics accused Herzog of attempted hypnosis. Lessons of Darkness, paired with Glass on April 7, fills the screen with billows of smoke from burning Iraqi oil wells; Herzog's gory, gorgeous post-Gulf War requiem records devastation as if touring the wonders of hell. Indeed, the director's undeniable gift for creating and finding intense images may be the reason viewers are compelled to label him. To explain his intent distances the viewer from both the picture and the feeling it inspired.

Actor Sepp Bierbichler delivers Herzog's strange vision in Heart of Glass
Actor Sepp Bierbichler delivers Herzog's strange vision in Heart of Glass

This is an understandable reaction: You don't want just anyone touching you there--where has he been with those hands? And what if you respond inappropriately, with some bad emotion you have locked away? Herzog himself has made trust difficult by fashioning a public persona so vainglorious as to be, by now, nearly laughable. It wasn't enough that Herzog, born in 1942, was part of the first German generation to confront parental involvement in a lost and terrible war: He has repeatedly called himself "fatherless" (his father apparently wandered in and out of family life) and set himself up as a self-made artist/man, born fully grown and uninfluenced by present-day culture, politics, psychology. (We don't hear about his mother: It's only that monstrous, absent father--Herr Hitler--that matters.)

When Herzog describes his heroes, they tend to be talented men, misunderstood and even vilified in their time: Roman general Fabius Maximus, Dutch painter Hercules Seghers, sixteenth-century composer Gesualdo. He portrays his own not hugely unique struggles as a filmmaker in the terms of torturous epics. "I live my life or I end my life with this project," he claims, typically, in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's film on the making of Fitzcarraldo. With legendary labor problems, Herzog's self-promoted martyrdom, and two documentaries about the shoot, the story of that movie's four-year construction emerges as a greater legend than the product itself. Which may be appropriate for a film about an opera fanatic who drags a ship over a mountain to earn money for an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. Perhaps Herzog believed he had to be seen accomplishing the impossible for his fleeting vision, like Fitzcarraldo's, to be appreciated.

Still, I'd rather think that the writer-director has carved out a critical distance from what some have called his muses and mirrors: those artless, victimized misfits and violently driven egomaniacs who people his films. For sure, he keeps the viewer at a teasing remove from the characters. Whether the marginal subject is a criminal dwarf (Even Dwarfs Started Small, April 23), a weary vampire (Nosferatu, April 9), or an ill-treated soldier maddened to murder (Woyzeck, April 28), Herzog draws out their vulnerability and their meanness, inviting audience empathy and horror together. The end result for the viewer is a feeling of uncomfortable identification.


So perhaps the message is: Don't trust this man. Even as Herzog aligns himself with the battered naif of his 1976 film The Mystery of Kasper Hauser (April 2), proclaiming that he, too, is communicating an uncorrupted vision of the world, don't believe him. That natural world of his--so lovely and irrational and pure--is an idea, a sculpted garden, a cultural product: Observe how he has colored the light, sped up the clouds. "I will gladly go to the edge of untruth," Herzog once said, "in order to expose a more intensive form of truth." (This from a man who makes as many "documentaries" as feature "fictions.") But even the notion of that keener truth, which can only be approached through the lie of filmmaking, has become more complicated over time.

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