Welcome to the Jungle
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.
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.
Herzog and his critics have often described the conflict in his films in terms of rational consciousness and irrational myth: The former has brought humanity to this fallen, trivial state (where dull people, alienated from their environment/work/bodies, follow rules because rules must be followed); the latter, the forgotten language of dreams and nature and some art, might remind humans of a more charged experience of being. Herzog's early films, like Kasper and Heart of Glass, exaggerate this divide to wonderful tragicomic effect. Stroszek (April 21), a contemporary version of Kasper also starring fragile outsider Bruno S., takes contagious delight in bringing this critique to a hotbed of the buying-equals-living credo: Wisconsin.
As he has grown older, however, Herzog has blurred the lines of his principal conflict. Fitzcarraldo (April 14), for instance, represents a kind of corrective to its 1972 predecessor, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (which the Walker unfortunately decided to screen after Fitzcarraldo, on April 23). In Aguirre Klaus Kinski's greedy fifteenth-century Spanish soldier pulls off a coup during a hapless Amazonian expedition. As the soldier's compatriots die, picked off by hunger and invisible Indians, Herzog's anarchic jungle creeps in to overtake his soul. Kinski's Fitzcarraldo, also a white man on the big river, is harder to type: His passion for the opera may signify the "pure" idiocy of dreams, but his plan to exploit the jungle in order to build an opera house is extremely "sensible." Meanwhile, the mysterious, implacable jungle and its people eventually express their own inner logic and agency, which sticks a spike into Fitzcarraldo's schemes. His final ecstasy is a compromise.
Herzog's stated goal to "make a film on the conquest of Mexico, but from the Aztecs' point-of-view" would make a trilogy of these dense films, moving from a "corrupt Europeans" versus "pure nature" dualism to something less condescending (one hopes) to the consciousness of the Indians. That's the problem with using marginal people, or nature, to symbolize qualities like purity: It freezes them, turns them into something less than real, even as you attempt to exalt them. Herzog's latest documentary, Wings of Hope (introduced by the director May 1) takes again to the jungle, presenting a woman who, as a girl, survived an airplane crash into the Peruvian river plains. The film's production notes claim that audiences will learn "how to survive in the jungle...what the real dangers are." Which makes it sound like Herzog has finally witnessed enough of this nature's rules to feature it as something besides dumb chaos.
Herzog is not wrong, I think, to believe Western culture needs new (or newly remembered) mythic images to balance all the Coke, Honda, and McDonald's signs. He is not wrong to believe that any effective movement against consumer materialism requires profound visuals as much as, if not more than, smart words. Instead of burdening these necessary myths with the label "irrational," though, he might simply explain them as other avenues of perception. That very dialect, rational versus irrational, has enabled the West to stomp all over the rest of the "not like us, so kill it" world.
At base, Herzog realizes this, I think. Because, at base, Herzog's films are not about different ways of seeing. They're about seeing his way--the white, European way--more clearly. His ecstasies of self-annihilation in nature are the flip side of the West's emphasis on the self apart from nature. His self-made madmen and confused innocents are the admen of Western "rationalism" and their hapless prey. What we--audiences under capitalism--do during Herzog films is sink into ourselves, feel ourselves in all our brutality, fear, obedience, and dislocation. Herzog (and his cast of amazing cinematographers: Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, Thomas Mauch, Paul Berriff) makes Nosferatu so dazzling and deep that the vampire becomes Coke, Honda, and McDonald's altogether and human besides. You can't just hate him, because you would hate yourself. But you can now distinguish in yourself the part that frightens, the part that is frightened.
Like the clouds streaking over his mountains, Herzog's films want to move: They chart change. The change they're most fascinated with is death. And the death they're most fascinated with, I would argue, is that of the vast, gruesome engine of Western culture that lofted men like Herzog to the top of the bloody pile. Sometimes Herzog's films cry out for that death and it never comes. Sometimes visionaries go to the hills and watch it, though not without grief. Lessons of Darkness couples scenes of immense destruction--oil fields burning a hundred meters into the sky--with the sweeping songs of august composers Verdi, Mahler, Wagner. It's not ironic.
Their beauty exists at the same time as--even because of--this destruction, and vice versa. It's all a "Dinosaur's Feast," as one of Herzog's subtitles puts it. Or as Heart of Glass's prophet says: "From the falling and flying, a new land arises." A land inside our eyes.
"The Great Ecstasy of the Filmmaker Herzog" screens at Walker Art Center from April 2 to May 1. Herzog appears April 30 in a Regis dialogue with critic Roger Ebert; (612) 375-7622.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.