Herzog: Ecstatic Truths, a retrospective dedicated to Werner Herzog's documentary work, will be running on MUBI in the United States from March 31 - May 20, 2016. It will be followed by Herzog: Ecstatic Fictions, devoted to the director's fictional features.
“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor." In white letters sharply defined against a black screen, Blaise Pascal’s famous quote fittingly opens Lessons of Darkness (1992), Werner Herzog’s spectacular documentary about ecological disaster and the Gulf War. I say fittingly because the quote is fake (it was fabricated by Herzog to direct his audience to engage on a very “high level” before the movie even properly begins) and because Lessons of Darkness, for all its profundity, isn’t exactly a true documentary, either. It is, however, exemplary of Herzog's nonfiction style.
Werner Herzog’s fame has been focused on his feature-length fiction films since his beginnings as an internationally recognized director. His notoriety escalated as much from his outlandish shooting strategies and monumental set-pieces as it did from his finished films, even though they were stylistically noteworthy on their own without the oft-histrionic production stories that surrounded them. Herzog has understandably drawn the attention of the press and appropriately been mythologized by his fan base as a supreme generator and ringleader of spectacle arising from his shoots. To realize the unique visions in his head and physicalize them into the final celluloid form of his narrative features, he has willingly undertaken an assortment of conspicuous hardships. He transported a 300+ ton steamboat over an impassable rainforest mountain. He hypnotized an entire cast to access their most zombie-like affect, and then he honed a method to successfully direct their shuffling masses. He cast Klaus Kinski in five films whereas many other directors failed to make it through a single shoot with the infamously extreme and unpredictably violent actor. Then again, none of those other directors threatened to shoot Kinski dead in a jungle-crazed blaze of murder/suicide.
With anecdotes as legendary as these perpetuating the popularity of Herzog’s fiction films, some viewers may not be aware how heavily his oeuvre is actually tipped in the direction of documentary work. Between the release of his first feature length film Signs of Life in 1968 and his final collaboration in 1987 with Klaus Kinski on Cobra Verde, Herzog alternated regularly between documentary and fiction. For the next ten years, he maintained his prolific output of more than a project a year, yet he released only one fiction feature during that entire time. Since the beginning of the new millennium, he has realized nineteen projects, about three quarters of which are nonfiction.
Clearly, in spite of his fiction films’ wider-reaching success and acceptance, Herzog has remained consistently devoted to nonfiction output. He also persists that he makes no true distinction between fiction and nonfiction undertakings, wonderfully describing a documentary as “a ‘feature film’ in disguise” in his 2009 interview with the Notebook. The diverse titles in this extensive oeuvre of rogue fictions have been financed and distributed through a much wider variety of television, festival, theatrical, and internet sources than his fiction films, and it shows in their noticeably varying shapes, sizes, durations, and levels of polish. Those already smitten with the gripping, striking, and haunting narratives of Herzog’s major fictions are in for a pleasant surprise as they delve into this alternate universe of parallely developed works, no less fascinating than their counterparts, even if somewhat less well known outside of his relatively recent popular documentary comebacks, Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).
Herzog does indeed blur the line between fact and fiction across his entire body of work, though the blending tends to manifest itself differently depending on which classically categorized mode he is operating in. His traditionally designated fiction films often gain as much drama from their plots and performances as they do from the palpably bristling reality of the conditions under which they were filmed. Herzog’s “documentaries” on the other hand, unapologetically present coached, scripted dialogue, staged scenarios passing as truths, and countless other journalistic malpractices peppered throughout a nonfiction base. Herzog has dabbled with this mediation of fact since the beginning of his career, but it is only since the 1990s that he has referred to the practice ideologically as “the ecstatic truth,” a knowing mix of truth and lies that gets at the emotional core of a chosen subject more accurately than the hated “accountant’s truth” of statistics and inflexibly hard facts ever could. Three years into his feature filmmaking career, he wrote lines and created memories for the protagonist of his documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), Fini Straubinger. He made Dieter Dengler embody the habits of an obsessive-compulsive door-opener for a falsified anecdote in Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). For Bells from the Deep (1993), he has bribed Siberian vagrants in bottles of vodka to get them to lie down on a frozen lake and pretend to peer deeply into it for one glimpse of a fabled underwater city. So smitten was Herzog with the image that he repeated it with a group of scientists in Antarctica during Encounters at the End of the World (2007). These are only a few of the liberties that he’s openly admitted to taking during interviews or in his own writings. As such, it can be hard to view any moment in a Herzog documentary without some degree of skepticism.
Riding that line of audience ambivalence might be fundamental to his style. To attain the ecstatic truth doesn’t mean merely to improve upon the poeticism of an interviewee or film participant’s words, nor does it simply mean to crank up the aesthetic qualities of a selected image to make it as beautiful as possible. What has developed as one of the most consistently unique aspects of Herzog’s style is the friction that occurs when the viewer senses clashing between fictive elements that are awkwardly laminated atop apparent truths; a fit the viewer perceives as tangibly if ineffably not-quite-right. L.M. Kit Carson described Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) as “driving spikes into ordinary moments to crack them.” Herzog also intentionally crazes his films in a way that invites the viewer to marvel at and be baffled by how brazenly disparate their surfaces are from what lies beneath. When Herzog “cast” the burning oilfields of Kuwait to play-act the role of a sci-fi apocalypse in Lessons of Darkness, no viewer was expected to believe it as such given its historical significance, but the overlaid fiction paradoxically elicits the response, “How could this insanity be Earth?” Peter Jackson’s doomsday computer generated imaginings of Mordor pale in comparison. In My Best Fiend (1999), the selected film clips included from Herzog’s collaborations with Kinski remain rife with the crackling dramatic energy of their original storylines, but they also now conversely and confusingly play out as quasi-home movies after the addition of Herzog’s autobiographical anecdotes delivered in his unmistakable Bavarian voice-over.
And often it is an icy surface that Herzog cracks into perplexity. For a director associated with active physicality and near-swashbuckling campaigns, Herzog’s footage has a frigidity that retards and traps his subjects nearly as often as his camerawork exhibits enlivening derring-do. When Herzog directs a non-actor to step outside the comfort zone of his or her inalienable personal history and play-act a partially fabricated on-screen persona, as with both the bespectacled scientist and the little boy who endlessly offer up their respective lizard and fox to the camera in Fata Morgana (1971), the cinematography often lingers on these characters well after they’ve completed their prescribed line-readings or fulfilled their expected role. The resultant creeping inertia leaves the viewer to process the subjects’ questioning looks offscreen to the seemingly non-directing director: “What now?” we intuit from their eyes. “Did I do it right? Did you...cut?”
The sensational fiction filmmaking stunts of Herzog’s early career may have made it inevitable that he would be pigeonholed as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema import package of the 1970s, rather than a thought-provoking peer to the likes of Brechtian heir Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet Herzog’s documentaries are rife with double-take inducing Alienation Effects. Some of his constructed moments may divert his viewers initially from the truth of a matter only to make them ultimately marvel two-fold at the raw reality therein. All the while, the cumulative mixed message of Herzog’s ecstatic truth and the importance it places on his own subjective interpretation of the topics he covers is that “the director is authority,’” yet also “you’d be wise to question authority.” Land of Silence and Darkness, for example, nurtures faith in the autonomy of human experience by being an outsider’s audio-visual examination of a community of deaf-blind German citizens who instead experience the world through tactile interaction. Indeed, the decadence and failure of leadership has provided a career-long strain that can be followed across his fiction films, many of which will be streaming on MUBI in our next installment next month, obsessed as they are with monomaniacal male figureheads whose follies are as fascinating to watch from the comfort of a cinema as they would be unendurable in real life.
Herzog even toys with his own self-made public persona, primarily establishing himself as a stern-voiced autocrat auteur (who, depending on the project, slides in and out of feeling like the lead character), but over time, he has subversively grown into his secondary identity as a somewhat mischievous entertainer. Even though he has confided in interviewers about his fear that the filmmaking industry will turn him into a clown, are those the words of a man who agrees to portray a caricature of himself in a mockumentary about the Loch Ness Monster?
It’s ironic, then, that Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) saw Herzog overtly tackling the dangers of authoritarianism, yet this film fell under some of the heaviest criticism of the director’s career for bending the truth of a situation. The film begins more generally as a document of the conflict between the Sandanistas and Miskito people along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras before honing in on the use of child soldiers. It pointedly culminates in a surprising revelation: co-director Denis Reichle regretfully confesses that he too was a naively patriotic youth swept into service during the last-ditch efforts to defend Nazi Germany. He cautions that no generation of youths anywhere should be traumatized by such potentially fatal expectations. In light of the film's concluding thoughts, the Sandanista's assault on the Miskitos is an unequivocal tragedy.
After the film’s initial television release in 1984, academic and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz accused Herzog and Reichle of documenting what she claimed were in fact invented scenarios of anti-Sandanista disinformation staged by the pro-Contra CIA. The filmmakers had lied, claimed Dunbar-Ortiz, whether they were aware of it or not. Indeed, entire passages of the film's "visible evidence" are easily manipulated depending on the literal meaning grafted onto them through voice-over or interview. In one such scene, an image of an empty and otherwise tranquil jungle space becomes populated by ghosts of the martyred victims who once lived there only because an onscreen subject testifies that brutal violence once occurred there. Otherwise, the image belies anything like atrocity.
Yet Herzog vehemently denied Dunbar-Ortiz's accusations in his written response to her. Five succinct words from his much more extended letter contrast with his typical stance on nonfiction film by instead presenting unerring faith in the medium's powers of documentation: "my camera tells the truth."