@ CINEFAMILY: The Ecstatic Truths of Werner Herzog: Documentaries, 1971-1992 -
In recent years, audiences have become more aware of Werner Herzog’s skills as a documentarian, but a closer look at his career shows a fascination with the non-fiction form going back to the very beginning. No one has done more than Herzog to promulgate the deeper truth that every fiction film has an element of documentary, and that all documentaries are constructed fictions. Herzog’s docs show an appreciation for imagination, poetry, adventure, and most of all -- how documentaries at their best can be an expression of one artist’s vision of the world. Join Cinefamily for twelve of Herzog's finest!
“I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does - they are the accountants of truth. I'm after something deeper. I call it the ‘ecstatic truth’ - the ‘ecstasy of truth’.” -- Werner Herzog
Lessons of Darkness
La Soufriere - 7:30p
Before going to hell and back to film the near-impossible images of burning oil fields in Lessons of Darkness, Herzog first covered a different eruption: that of the looming, belching volcano ready to pop on the Carribean island of Guadaloupe. Scratching their collective death wish itch, Herzog and his camera crew arrive at the island’s deserted ghost-town village at a moment when the volcano could erupt at any time, and interview a couple of primo Herzogovian outsiders left behind, who await death-by-lava with a semi-insane equanimity. Our man’s in great form, evading toxic sulfur gas and filming gorgeous smoke clouds, demonstrating with this film more than any other his willingness to capture his visual poetry at all costs.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1977, DigiBeta, 30 min.
Lessons Of Darkness - 8p
A work of catastrophic beauty and sublime horror, Lessons of Darkness finds Herzog fighting fire with fire, confronting devastation with an ironic grace. Filming the unfathomable destruction caused by the Kuwaiti oil fires of the first Gulf War as a series of breathtaking aerial tableaux, Herzog transforms a landscape ravaged by war into an image of an alien world. Herzog scores these infernal panoramas to the soaring arias of Mahler, Schubert, Verdi, and Wagner, punctuated by brief aphoristic voiceovers and titles designed more to provoke and overwhelm than to inform. As in his later nature documentaries, Herzog here confounds that humanistic view of our world which stands mute and uncomprehending in the face of disaster and savagery, for the brutish nature on display in these chilling Lessons is that of man himself.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1992, DigiBeta, 50 min.
Fata Morgana - 9:45p
Herzog journeys to the Sahara to film mirages, goes home with some wonderously trippy footage, and has charming film critic Lotte Eisner narrate the Popol Vuh creation myth over the top. One of Herzog’s earliest features, Fata Morgana begins with a audacious zoned-out opening, and hits transcendent straight off before getting even stranger as its chimerical imaginary civilization passes from Golden Age to Decline. As well, the film crew shoots like tourists to a different planet where the presence of life is largely manifest through detritus and death: a car turns endlessly in circles, and a bearded man in welding goggles flourishes a monitor lizard at the camera. The onscreen subjects of Herzog and frequent collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein (who lensed 17 of Herzog’s films) are frequently enhanced by the mythic, mirrored properties of the heat haze, and an eclectic soundtrack that switches from Handel organ music to Leonard Cohen, and onto a weird local drum/piano duo. An absolutely stunning Herzog head film!
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1971, DigiBeta, 79 min.
Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun
Bells From The Deep: Faith And Superstition In Russia
Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun - 7p
A rare example of Herzog tackling the "ethnographic" corner of the documentary genre, with wonderfully mystical results! Herdsmen of the Sun tells of the Wodaabe tribe, a nomadic African community (self-described as “the most beautiful people on earth”) who annually practices a festival called Gerewol, in which females choose their mates from a lineup of super-elaborately adorned men with wild makeup, feathers and kaledoscopic robes draping their seven-foot frames. Starting with the first scene, Herzog accentuates the ethereal nature of this rite further by layering early 20th-century recordings of opera on the soundtrack; the film’s dreamlike depiction of a foreign people, very much at odds with the purist cinema vérité tradition of ethnography without adornment, is the embodiment of Herzog’s own “Minnesota Declaration”: that through “imagination and stylization”, there can be such a thing as a poetic, ecstatic truth. Riverting, singular and totally heartfelt. Dir. Werner Herzog, 1989, DigiBeta, 52 min.
Bells From The Deep: Faith And Superstition In Russia - 8p
A bit like a gentle Herzog take on the concept of a mondo film, Bells From The Deep is a catalogue of highly unusual religious practitioners and mystics throughout the Russian world, from bizarrely cocky Jesus impersonators to mass exorcisms, all the way through to meditating hordes that emit animal-like croaks to achieve a higher plane. Some highlighted personalities are truly off the wall, yet some are grounded in a startling reality, such as the Tuvan throat-singing plainsmen set against a backdrop of ice flows, or the humble servant of God who makes his meager living playing his church's epic network of tower bells like a concert pianist (providing the film's most haunting sequence.) As Herzog provides no narration or overt editorializing, the film's primary objective becomes clear as its strange subjects speak for themselves: it's not about the faith in question, but rather how unique of a road it takes to clarify it.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1993, DigiBeta, 60 min.
The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner
shown with -
How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck
The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner - 9:45p
Woodcarver Steiner’s indelible minutes contain a perfect Herzogian subject: the “ski flier” who sails super-human distances -- a serene young man who is portrayed to exist on a more transcendent plane. Walter Steiner is a medal-winning, record-breaking Swiss ski-jumper whom Werner’s ultra-slo-mo camera routinely captures soaring impossibly, and with an eerie calm usually reserved for monks or yogis. When rendered in hundreds of frames per second, Steiner’s feats dissolve the notion of the act as mere sport, launching it to the level of unearthly art bathed in death-defying ecstasy -- a blissful state that Herzog (a former ski jumper as well) finds himself in whilst doing live color commentary throughout the film. Also featuring an unforgettable, ethereal score by regular collaborator Florian Fricke (aka Popol Vuh), Steiner is easily one of the most visually breathtaking of all Herzog’s films, documentary or otherwise -- so relish this opportunity to see it on the big screen!
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1974, DigiBeta, 45 min.
How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck... - 10:30p
Herzog's yen for discovering the bizarre amongst the mundane here extends to his discovery of an alien language, in this mid-’70s paean to the blindingly fast private code of the Cattle Auctioneer. Planted in the Middle American milieu Herzog would soon return to for 1977’s Stroszek, How Much Wood... is less concerned with the business of auctioneering as it is with the thrill of the “call” itself: how it arose as a language due to capitalism, how the winners at the Cattle Auctioneering World Championships grew to develop their skills, and the purely rapturous sensation of endless cascading machine-gun syllables.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1976, DigiBeta, 44 min.
Land of Silence and Darkness - 7p
One of Herzog’s most deeply felt and compassionate documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness profiles the extraordinary Fini Straubinger, who, after becoming deaf and blind as an adolescent, spent thirty bedridden years in near-isolation. Upon learning hand-to-hand communication, Straubinger found herself awakened, charged with the purpose of sharing this gift. Herzog follows his loquacious subject as she interacts with other deaf-blind pupils, revealing both profound loneliness and true intimacy; one exquisite sequence lingers on expressions of joy and anxiety as the 56-year-old educator and her friends take their first airplane ride, as another reveals disappointment when Straubinger is unable to break through to a withdrawn patient. Though Herzog surprisingly shot only three hours of footage during the making of the film, Land of Silence and Darkness explores its subject masterfully and methodically, culminating in a poignant final shot which Herzog himself called “absolutely unforgettable, a human drama played out in two minutes.” Dir. Werner Herzog, 1971, DigiBeta, 85 min.
Echoes From a Somber Empire - 9:15p
Echoes is Herzog's captivating Capturing The Friedmans-style jigsaw puzzle concerning Jean-Bédel Bokassa, former dictator of the Central African Republic, and Michael Goldsmith, (the film’s atypical “host”, rather than Herzog himself), a European journalist captured and tortured by Bokassa's regime. At first, only momentary scraps of information are revealed: testimony by Bokassa’s current wife, casual reminiscences from his many, many children, and file footage from his exile in France -- deliberately giving you the impression that Bokassa could be simply an upstanding puppet of colonialism. But, as Herzog criss-crosses the historical narrative, he delicately peels back layer after layer of the Bokassa onion (arbitrary executions -- impostor daughters -- casual cannibalism?!?!), letting a wildly complex, unforgettable portrait of a despotic madman bubble to the surface. Deeply unsettling from its opening “dream sequence” (a tableaux of migrating Christmas Island crabs, later re-used by Herzog in Invincible) right down to its impossible-to-forget final image, Echoes is possibly the greatest discovery of this entire series. Dir. Werner Herzog, 1990, DigiBeta, 93 mi
God's Angry Man
God's Angry Man - 7:45p
Dr. Gene Scott, the notorious televangelist whose paranoid grandiosity and fevered rantings made him easily the most complex (and subsequently entertaining) of his ilk, is the wildly entertaining subject of 1980’s God’s Angry Man. Herzog visits Scott on the set of the long-running nightly TV show “Festival of Faith”, filming him in both contemplative and full-on freakout modes; as he hurls bizarre, uncomfortable proclamations towards his at-home audience, Scott reveals himself to be not only passionate about his own teachings, but equally passionate about his own myth of personality. Herzog once called America “the most exotic country in the world”, and out of all his documentaries, God’s Angry Man goes the furthest to prove this point: as he alternately thrills to Scott’s maelstrom and to the creepy Xtian soft-rock musical interludes by Scott’s in-house backing band of pasty musicians with moulded hair, Herzog narrates the action in his native tongue for the film’s original German audience, hipping them to a taste of Americana as alien as the realm of Star Wars.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1980, DigiBeta, 43 min.
Huie's Sermon - 8:30p
Made shortly after God’s Angry Man, the show’s second film finds Herzog capturing a very different, yet no less manic mode of preaching. Filmed at the Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, Huie’s Sermon is the record of a single sermon delivered by its charismatic pastor Huie Rogers, who gradually builds in intensity from placid to a level so intense you’re amazed that he doesn’t drop dead on the spot from an aneurysm. Huie zig-zags across a minefield of hot-button anti-Christian issues (homosexuality, pollution and...artificial insemination...?), and keeps his congregation on its feet every second of the way. Herzog is less interested in the content of the sermon as he is in Huie’s pure immolative delivery, for this preacher burns as hot as the oil field fires of Lessons of Darkness.
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1981, DigiBeta, 43 min. -
Jag Mandir: The Eccentric Private Theater of the Maharaja of Udaipur - 10p
“Herzog's oeuvre is often divided between his documentaries and his fiction films, but there are few directors for whom that distinction means so little -- in almost all of his work, fiction and reality weave together in complicated ways. This is certainly true of Jag Mandir, about a folk art festival arranged in a remote region of India...[t]he film is presented as a record of a festival arranged by the Austrian actor, singer and conceptual artist André Heller, at the behest of a Maharajah who wanted his young son to witness the glory of Indian artistry before such local traditions were erased in the face of "McDonaldization." The bulk of the film is dedicated to a simple document of the show itself: one group of performers after another takes the stage, dancing, playing music, juggling and displaying an array of marvelous costumes. The whole thing is pure spectacle, [b]ut the most impressive performance is probably the simplest, a traditional dance that Herzog excerpts at great length towards the end of the film: a mixed group of male and female dancers who continually rearrange themselves into delicately pulsating tableaux vivant. It is a hypnotic, beautiful slow motion dance, driven by stop/start rhythms and subtle choreography, and is a tremendous way to cap the grandeur and beauty of these rituals.” -- Ed Howard, Only The Cinema - Dir. Werner Herzog, 1991, DigiBeta, 85 min.