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Categories: Features

By Tom Floyd


Werner Herzog is famous and infamous for many things, one of which is directing a film with the entire cast under hypnosis. It was Heart of Glass from 1976 and he tells the following anecdote about it in the interview book ‘Herzog on Herzog’:

“Imagination functions very well under hypnosis. I would not just ask someone to write a poem. I told them: ‘You are the first one who has set foot on a foreign island for centuries… You come across a gigantic cliff where hundreds of years ago a Holy Monk had spent his entire life with a chisel and hammer engraving a poem into the wall… And you open your eyes and are the first one to see it. You read out what you see to me.’ One actor in the film tended the stables of a Munich police station. He had no formal education. He stood there and said he did not have his glasses, so I told him to move a little closer and everything would be in focus. He moved closer and in a very strange voice said, ‘Why can we not drink the moon? Why is there no vessel to hold it?’ And it went on, a very beautiful reading. The next guy – a former law student – stepped up and said, ‘Dear Mother, I am doing fine, everything is all right. I’m looking to the future now. Hugs and kisses.’”

It’s a good story – Herzog is a born storyteller – I like that detail about the glasses. It’s about a favourite theme of his, an uneducated figure from the fringes of society revealing something beautiful and strange about us. He loves idiot savants and Holy Fools, his most famous are probably the characters played by Bruno S. in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1976). There is something obviously different about Bruno. There is also a ‘freak’ circus in the former of those two films, and Herzog’s own freak circus of a movie Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) which is about the physical difference of its dwarf cast and nothing else. Think also of the indigenous and/or displaced peoples that constantly come into his oeuvre and how his camera enhances or even exaggerates their various physical or linguistic/cultural differences. Or the deaf-blind people who are the subject of Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and the camera’s obsession with their faces and the way they move, all the while in the knowledge that it can never penetrate their experience of life.

Engaging with extreme difference is how Herzog gets to the truth that he wants to tell us. However he has repeatedly come under fire for both his treatment of these vulnerable or naïve subjects as well as his techniques. Anecdotal evidence abounds of uncompassionate and exploitative relationships on and off set and there are those who would say the vast majority of his films are nothing more than freak circuses, with their director as a kind of cruel, bullying carny.

There is a gruesome moment in Grizzly Man (2005) his documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a man obsessed with grizzly bears who videoed his yearly summer trips to camp among them in Alaska. After 13 years doing this Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by the bears, their video camera running at the time, leaving an audio recording of their deaths. Herzog finds the recording in the possession of Jewel Palovak, one of Treadwell’s oldest friends, then listens to it on headphones in her company. We watch him do this and then promptly tell Palovak that she should destroy it immediately lest she be tempted to listen to it herself. The scene is voyeuristic and forms the dark heart of the film. Of course there is a part of us that is morbidly curious to hear the recording, and that curiosity is fetishized by Herzog letting us know that we never will. He has heard it and becomes its secret-keeper, he is drumming up our interest like a carnival barker, or seducing us with his superior knowledge like a priest of mysteries. We are propelled to the end of his documentary – perhaps we have gained some insight about the dark heart that drove Treadwell. It is easy to argue that Palovak’s grief has been massively exploited for the scene above. Then again it’s impossible to know that she didn’t need someone like Herzog to come and theatrically remove the burden of the recording.

land of silence and darkness

His other recent documentaries feature similar confrontations with grief. The White Diamond (2004) is about Dr. Graham Dorrington, designer of small unique airship for exploring the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. Herzog accompanies him on his latest expedition and we learn that Dorrington’s friend and cameraman died in an accident with a previous model of the airship. Dorrington seems crippled with guilt. Herzog wants to take a camera up on their first flight together and insists on doing it himself – making a point of not letting his own cameraman go up on something he doesn’t know to be safe. The moment feels like a reproof to poor Dorrington (but then maybe the man needed someone to state things so bluntly). Once again it’s about generating narrative through watching the director take a personal risk. Wings of Hope (2000) is about Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon in the 70s, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) is about Dieter Dengler, a pilot shot down and taken prisoner and tortured during the Vietnam War. In both documetaries Herzog makes the protagonists revisit the scenes of their crashes and take part in detailed recreations of their traumas. Both are inspirational stories but can be hard to watch and there is a lingering question over how willing these people actually are to engage in Herzog’s scene-making, and what the consequences of it might’ve been for them personally. They didn’t invite Herzog into their lives – they weren’t requesting to be therapized – the director sought them out for his own ends.

So there is what might be called an ethically troubling streak throughout his work. However he is a romantic in quest of the sublime, and the sublime knows no ethics. He has repeatedly spoken of his attempt to uncover a “poetic, ecstatic truth,” something “mysterious and elusive that can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization”. The meaning of this became clear to me when I was watching Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his documentary about the people who live and work around McMurdo research station in Antarctica. Everyone he meets there has something of the misfit or outcast about them, as if they are in some kind of self-imposed exile from the world. There is one sad-seeming man who wants to talk about his fingers – his little fingers are the same length as his forefingers – he says this is a sign he is descended from Aztec royalty. Herzog asks him to hold his hands up for the camera. We look at them for a long time, much longer than the man is comfortable being looked at, particularly with nothing to do but stand there. The shot continues to hold. We become aware of the fingers as separate from their owner’s strange belief about them – they are just fingers, or rather this is just an image of ever-so- slightly different-from-normal fingers, the raw material of a film. The shot and its subject are awkward – we become aware of the camera as a camera, as well as a palpably intrusive presence in this man’s life.


In moments like this we remember we are watching a film and have space to realise that Herzog’s subjects have lives outside of his frame. Everything around them in the film is a construct, and that artifice is constantly foregrounded, for example by the director’s putting himself in front of the camera. The people he makes documentaries about are often strange, and have had weird and sad lives, and Herzog showing up with his camera is just one more weird event. He uses them to fabricate his stylized images, he is transforming them into language. (The title of his 1994 documentary about opera is The Transformation of the World into Music). So he takes something from his subjects, it might even be their soul and he may or may not give them enough or anything back. We can’t say for sure, we don’t know these people. In turn Herzog gives us something – films which are frequently sublime. The end of Land of Silence and Darkness is perhaps exemplary. The camera watches a deaf-blind man making contact with a tree and then finding his way to its trunk. For me Herzog films often feel something like this – like being brought into contact with something both deeply familiar and infinitely strange – getting hold of something for a moment amidst the chaos of existence. In a way they can change how you see the world. Or maybe they’re just hypnotising you.

Heart of Glass ends with a group of men who still believe the world is flat getting in a boat and sailing for the horizon. A closing title reads: “It may have seemed like a sign of hope that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea”. It may have seemed…

The truth that Herzog is talking about, the thing that his films reveal, is something to be deeply ambivalent about. But it’s there, however we get to it and in a poet’s hands it is ecstatic.

The Spread

The Spread is the official magazine of London-based film community Cinema Jam. We cover everything film, from movie and product reviews, features, editorials, news updates, interviews, and more. Follow @CinemaJam on Twitter for more updates!

Posted on Apr 10, 2014

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