MUBI is showing Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana April 21 - May 20, 2016 in the United States.
I have a bone to pick with conventional wisdom about the films of Werner Herzog. You will often hear it said in a film class or a Herzog article that his body of work, which is acclaimed equally for fiction and documentary films, “blurs the line” between those two storytelling poles. To my knowledge, no filmmaker with as regarded a name as Herzog’s has such a voluminous body of work within the fiction and documentary bounds. Countless filmmakers have reached heights in both, but few have done it as consistently and repeatedly. Making Herzog rarer still are his other films (or sometimes just scenes in his films) which cast aspersions on this kind of talk that separates documentary and fiction as opposites meant to be mixed. The experimental works, of which the beguiling Fata Morgana (1971) is the standout example, reject the binary relationship of fiction film and documentary upon which this common and constricting interpretation of Herzog’s cinema is built. Moment to moment in Fata Morgana and all other Herzog films, storytelling techniques become Herzog’s tools in response to each different filmmaking event—emphasis on “event”—in which he finds himself and his crew. This kind of cinema is an exercise in extreme freedom for both the artist and the viewer, and provides us with part of the key for understanding why Herzog’s films are always inspiring, ambiguous, rejuvenating, and elusive.
The experience of watching Fata Morgana makes for a difficult recap. But it is from an initial point of difficulty that the film can open up into a wealth of detail and personal touches too varied to summarize, too rich to convey in text. It has a clear irreverent spirit, beginning without exposition but rather five long minutes of planes descending onto an anonymous airport runway, a series of shots made from the same camera set-up. The air is smoggy and overheated, and the images swim more and more in the heat waves. The cutting from plane to plane is abrupt—the movie practically coughs for you. After the first scene introduces the film’s arrhythmic beat, it moves to the desert, showing the mirages that fascinate Herzog, give the film its title, and resemble the heat waves of the opening shots. Most of the film takes place among these desert mirages, alongside the very real things found in the desert, like iguanas or discarded military machinery. There are plenty of people too, young and old, who go about their lives or pose for Herzog’s camera, the sequences set to opera, Leonard Cohen, Mayan creation stories read by legendary German film critic Lotte Eisner, you name it. The grab bag of sounds and images add up to a cinematic experience that seems to be inspired by the mirage, the naturally-induced hallucination. Fata Morgana is a world of boundless possibility, where illusions and strange images can take hold of the viewer’s mind, and aesthetic freedom carries over from natural freedom.
Herzog’s missive from the desert does not set out to charge the desert landscapes with a fanciful sense of mystery. The film is extremely grounded, and people from around the area are given a chance to stare down Herzog’s camera and tell their story—rarely speaking, but all in their poses revealing something about their character. But when the film does focus on natural touches and desert landscapes, it conjures some of the strongest such imagery of Herzog’s career (at least until 1992’s Lessons of Darkness). In their attention to detail and the way they revel in strangeness, the images put scores of cinematic landscapes to shame. I do not know what it takes to be a nature photographer, and I have never worked on the set of Planet Earth or any of those other Discovery Channel anthologies. But I’ve seen their images over and over, the same waterfalls, the same shot of a bird jumping off a branch at 200 FPS. These depleted images are the kind that Herzog has lambasted in interviews, and when he calls for the viewer on their couch to throw a grenade into our television like true soldiers of cinema—his terminology—then Fata Morgana is surely his idea of a grenade. It stands in profound contrast to later cinematic excursions into extreme locations like the Sahara desert where those image-makers failed to come back with this. How could these people see the same natural phenomena and travel to the same places as Herzog and his buddies did in a VW van, and return with such blinkered vanilla?
This is not to suggest that Werner Herzog is someone who sees the world the way it really is. He would surely scoff at such a boring pursuit. His films are consistent and have their pet fixations—you could drop many frames of Fata Morgana into Lessons of Darkness and vice versa, and both would fit as well as this odd hypothetical could allow. But their freedom allows the films to place different ideas alongside one another, leading to that feeling of possibility even outside of Fata Morgana. A Herzog film can be a melded, blurry docudrama for a number of scenes, but can have a sequence of conventional documentary, such as in Lessons of Darkness’s stark account of military torture. A Herzog film can also be blithely fictitious, like the coda of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), whose “radioactive albino crocodiles” enrich the entire story about cave paintings and the scientists who study them. And Herzog can be memorably experimental; the famous scene in Grizzly Man (2005) where Herzog listens to the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell’s death is unquantifiable as a particular “type” of scene and haunts me to this day. Even Fata Morgana, with its third chapter beginning with a husband and wife playing a bizarre musical act, contains pure fiction, dramatic staging and costuming. Over it is Herzog’s wry, anti-dramatic voiceover, which links this scene to earlier, non-narrative ones as he talks about the husband and wife in abstract terms reminiscent of a priest delivering a sermon. That Herzog could go from this to Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) within a year or two shows how his ability to adapt his narrative techniques was fully formed early on in his career. In the straightforward fiction The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), employing non-professional actor Bruno S. as a historical facsimile of himself is not so much boundary-shattering docudrama as it is good casting, indicative of the ingenuity that underscores what we think of as Herzog’s fearlessness.
Herzog’s cinema is typified by its resourcefulness and openness. Each of his films, especially his best ones, reject narrowness of ideas and half-gestures. They are committed full-stop. Wherever that kind of energy can be found, there those films will be made, and they will work to replicate the energy the world provides. Many people have rightly seen this, and as such brought forth the line about how his fiction films work as documentaries of their own creation. But this is too often taken as an end when in fact it serves Herzog and us better to think of it as a means to an end. His end is to provide us with a work of art that leads us into the vast world with its collective hallucinations and situations stranger than fiction. Since the camera naturally frames and sections the world to only the part that it can see, Herzog seems compelled to go around the world to putting his camera in any place where he feels it is needed, and then to assemble the resulting film in such a way that is accountable and authentic to the world outside him. I don’t know what to call it. You can call it ecstatic truth, you can call it lyric poetry, or perhaps some kind of speculative first-person essay filmmaking, but I prefer to think of each scene as the right scene for its time and place.