Werner Herzog is a cinematic mystic, a shaman of the silver screen whose restless and curious spirit has gifted us with the lush and unnervingly poignant imagery of his idiosyncratic cinematic determinations. His career has been expansive and he himself, has become a recognized and revered icon in the cultural zeitgeist.
1978‘s “I Am My Films: A Portrait of Werner Herzog,” by Christian Weisenborn and Erwin Keusch, is a lesser known documentary about Mr. Herzog, existing in the shadows of the far more celebrated “Burden of Dreams.” The latter film explores the painstaking effort to make “Fitzcarraldo”; yes, the one about getting that huge boat over the daunting hill, while “I Am My Films” sets its sights on Herzog’s overall career up to the point of “Stroszek” in which the making of that film is highlighted.
There have been a number of films about Werner Herzog including the aforementioned and most famous “Burden of Dreams” by Les Blank and “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” also directed by him where Herzog loses a bet to Errol Morris regarding Morris’s completion of his reverently lauded “Gates of Heaven.” Werner literally cooks and eats a shoe ala Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” to atone his defeat. Even a fictive documentary entitled “Incident At Loch Ness” directed by Zak Penn emerged in 2004. It’s a cozy romp around the famed, moody lake with the alleged monster thrown in to boot. Herzog comfortably plays himself amidst the forced shenanigans, not falling prey to overacting or the like; and it’s a tribute to his renown and strength of personality that a contrived (and wonderful) narrative such as that was based around him.
The works covered in “I Am My Films” span 1962’s “Herakles” to “Stroszek” which was released in 1977. Along that timeline are amazing offerings such as: “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970), “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972), “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner” and “Heart of Glass” where many of the actors Herzog had hypnotized. It’s a remarkable body of work in a short period of time. And as for “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner,” that intoxicating opening shot in extreme slow-motion of the airborne skier accompanied by the haunting synthesizer score of Popol Vuh will forever stick with me. The same goes for the beginning of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” where the explorers descend the steep mountains like slow, determined ants, and also accompanied by the musical enchantment of Popol Vuh.
In “I Am My Films” Werner’s primarily questioned in what appears to be his office. But he’s concerned that the interview is beginning to feel too much like a “talk show.” They get that resolved and move on. Herzog explains his love of maps; makes sense, the world is definitely his oyster – albeit, a cantankerous one. And that attitude goes for the documentary itself, for it possesses a gritty, and at times, murky look.
Herzog explains that he was raised in a small farm area in Bavaria and was pretty much given free reign from adults. He despised institutional rigors and being forced to read “Faust” in school made him want to vomit. He hung around with a group of kids, yet at the same time he was also used to spending plenty of time alone. And that comfort with solitude played out later in such episodes as a three week foot trek to Paris from his home land. He believes in engaging in the physicality of life, and that goes for his filmmaking as well. And he learned that art of filmmaking himself, hands-on; no film school.
Highlights of the documentary include a bemused Herzog playing a secretly captured audio tape of a hysterical Klaus Kinski ranting and raving on a film set. And then there’s an uneasy confrontation between one of the brutish lead actors (who appears intoxicated) and Werner Herzog on the set of “Stroszek.” Herzog dutifully but playfully stands his ground. Nothing more comes of this but as Herzog has reminded us, filmmaking can be a very physical process.
As for myself, I believe that the first Herzog film I ever saw was, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” And if memory serves me correct, it was from a video rental store in Cedarburg, a small town north of Milwaukee, an area lingering in the hinterlands of my own waking dreams. But first I came across a still photo of “Aguirre” in a film book: of Kinski as the demented leader, in a serious pose with his onscreen daughter, the iconic image of that film. It was a very dramatic, realistic portraiture, and that’s what indelibly hooked me. But even before that I had encountered Herzog in “Burden of Dreams” on 16mm at a university screening.
Back to “I Am My Films.” It covers “La Soufriere,” the title being of one of his documentaries and also that of a potentially explosive volcano. This is a threatening situation but it does not stop Herzog on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe where the impending disaster might take place. 75,000 citizens have been evacuated from the area but Herzog heads in the opposite direction right to the nexus of peril. In doing so, he sneaks through military barricades to get up close and dangerous. Ultimately luck is on everyone’s side for the volcano doesn’t explode. It’s amazing to think that our heroic filmmaker put himself in such a precarious crisis. But that’s his bread and butter after all.
In far more subdued worlds, “Land of Silence and Darkness” concerns people who are both deaf and blind. With next to nothing for money and a two man crew, one of whom is Herzog on sound, he documents this almost unthinkable life-situation brought to bear on those afflicted. It gives one good pause to appreciate one’s own fortunes: for nothing in life should be taken for granted. These challenged souls continued to make a go of it – shouldn’t we?
“Stroszek” is one of my favorite Herzog films, partly shot in Wisconsin and some of it in Plainfield – the infamous town where Mr. Ed Gein did his business.
In this film, a trio of disparate comrades flee the perils of Berlin to seek the solace of rural Wisconsin and our state’s landscape is portrayed as both an eerie and beautiful firmament. And for a few brief seconds, the film reaches spiritual transcendence with the opening melody of a mournful Glen Campbell tune as Eva Mattes cradles Bruno S. in a mobile home with wood paneled walls – a classic Midwest Americana is felt in this heartbreaking scene.
All-in-all, Herzog’s oeuvre contains a wondrous terrain of soldiers, dwarfs, high-flying skiers, rural landscapes, mountainous peaks, restless volcanoes and everything else in between. It is a dreamlike tapestry of fiction and reality – an uncanny admixture of the real and the realized. And it stands as an important cinema and one that recognizes that it is first and foremost a cinema and not at a forced remove from that fact. And it’s in this knowing engagement that gives Herzog’s films a unique vitality. Even though he admits that at times he manipulates reality in his documentaries for his own purposes, that does not dilute the overall experience of the matter at hand. And his fiction films stand equally strong as well.
Werner Herzog waves the wand of a delirious magician, frame by frame, an adept in the conjuring of cinematic intrigue and importance. He makes us think deeply about the lands that we trek and the people that we encounter. His alternate vision sidesteps the pedestrian, pulling back the veils of the preconceived and offers the world anew through the contours of an enlightened prism.
Each of us possesses our own singular adventures in the labyrinth of our psyches and within the throes of our souls; and fortunately for us, Herzog has turned his own internal wonderment outward and onto the big screen for all of us to revel in and absorb.
As Herzog emphatically states: “All I am is my films – I am my films.” And we believe him.
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