Tuesday, 13 December 2016

On Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" in his films "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (1974), "Stroszek" (1977), "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982)

Werner Herzog’s career spans from the early 1960s to the present day, and consists of nineteen feature films, seven short films and thirty-seven documentaries; he has also published a number of books and staged opera and theatre productions. Arguably his most influential films, however, remain those from earlier in his career, specifically the decade spanning 1972 to 1982; concentrating on no more than five films from this vital creative period allows a tautness of focus which a broader retrospective of his entire body of work would not permit. The five films in question - Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972), Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) - are in some respects dramatically different (the first and last take place in the Amazon jungle, the third is predominantly set in the USA, and the second and fourth are the only ones that embrace Germanic/European landscapes, while no two are set in the same time period), but in other respects they share common threads running through them. Herzog is a filmmaker who is in the habit of identifying his own themes and dissecting them, whether that is in his prose writings, his commentary tracks, his behind-the-scenes documentaries, any one of the copious interviews he has given, or even in one instance, his commentary track reflecting on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of one of his own films; while he would seem to enjoy discussing the inspiration or thematic richness of his films, he is not much given to scholarly analysis of them, or more accurately rarely lets himself be pigeonholed into lending credence to one interpretation over another. Nonetheless, examining what these five films have in common is rewarding in so far as it helps us understand what Herzog means when he talks of his attempts at pursuing “ecstatic truth”[1].

This phrase - which will need more than a little unpacking - is at the crux of Herzog’s artistic efforts. We might link ‘ecstatic’ to ‘the sublime’ or das Erhabene (his work forming “a quest for the sublime”[2]), which would appear to put Herzog in a form of Romantic tradition: a seeker of transcendence. But his is, perhaps, a different sublimity, or a sublimity which does not show us the same things. Crucial in the similarity, but also the difference, between Herzog and the true Romantics - such as the painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose fog-swathed figures are well-documented as influencing Herzog’s artistry[3] - is their attitude towards nature and landscape. Nature is undoubtedly significant for both: whether Transylvanian mountains or the Amazon River, Herzog’s films are noted for their “sublime settings”[4] and an extremity which echoes Romantic visions of nature; both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo open with shots of fog-covered forest vistas which echo the Romantic tenet of Waldeinsamkeit; and all of these five films bar one are named for their central protagonists, isolated, lonely outsiders who share their “self-stylization as literary figure[s] in search of solitude”[5] with David Friedrich’s Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (the fifth, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, is nonetheless named for its protagonist Kaspar Hauser in the film’s English release). Herzog himself has evoked Caspar David Friedrich, calling him “a man who never wanted to paint landscapes per se, but wanted to explore and show inner landscapes”[6]. One is struck by the similarities and differences between the opening shot of Aguirre and the painting Der Wanderer über dem Mittelmeer - both feature foggy mountains and diminutive human figures, but they are composed differently: Aguirre’s famous shot is of a huge caravan of Spanish conquistadors traipsing across the mountainside, rather than a single contemplative figure. While David Friedrich’s wanderer is lonely, he also dominates the frame; Herzog’s conquistadors may be in a group, but they are dwarfed by the awe-inspiring scenery.
This comparison neatly illustrates the extent to which Herzog is an “un-Romantic”[7] who nonetheless borrows from the iconography of the Romantic tradition to aid this quest for “ecstatic truth”. Landscapes form a key element of this dichotomy; the landscapes in Herzog’s films are almost as significant as the characters themselves, because of what they signify about the human characters’ interiority[8]. In this respect, Herzog is also working within the rich tradition of psychogeography (sometimes called psychotopography), which Guy Debord defined in his 1955 essay Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”[9]. Herzog is thus more of a psychogeographer than a Romantic in that he sets immense store by nature and what images of the natural world can illuminate for us, but not because nature has an intrinsic meaning (i.e. not because it has been “consciously organized”). It is the opposite - the landscape’s utter indifference to us, and the extent to which we take this into our own interior spaces to give it meaning - which fascinates him: “[Herzog] demands that we see nature and animals as fundamentally resistant to our efforts to create a harmonious worldview, efforts he reveals as puny and ineffective attempts at self-defense.”[10] Not for Herzog the “eroticism” of the jungle, as actor Klaus Kinski liked to describe it during the making of Aguirre; the filmmaker instead saw such a location as somewhere humans do not belong, as his monologue from the making-of-Fitzcarraldo documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) attests:

“I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and rotting. The trees here are in misery. The birds here are in misery - they don’t sing, they just shriek in pain. Erotic? No! There is an overwhelming fornication! There is a curse on this landscape, and whoever goes too deep into it has a share of this curse! We are cursed for what we are doing here! It is a land that god, if he exists, has created in anger! There is no order here, no harmony in the universe! The only harmony is of overwhelming, collective murder! It is a vile, base obscenity! We don’t belong here!”[11]

The sentiment is expressed again in the on-screen text at the start of Fitzcarraldo: “das Land, in dem Gott mit der Schöpfung nicht fertig wurde”[12]. Instead, much as in works like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness (the film adaptation of which, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), owed a significant debt to Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes), the landscape becomes a psychic externalisation of the desire to explore, to conquer. As Lope de Aguirre’s dreams of conquest intensify even at the cost of the other members of his expedition, Herzog uses the animal kingdom to illustrate the futile absurdity of Aguirre’s megalomania - such as in the film’s final moments on a deserted raft, with Aguirre addressing a troop of monkeys and saying, “Zusammen werden wir über diesen ganzen Kontinent herrschen. Wir halten durch. Ich bin der Zorn Gottes. Wer sonst ist mit mir?![13]. He receives, of course, no answer but the indifferent chattering of apes. Similarly, one of the Spaniards sees a vision of a boat moored in one of the jungle trees, which Herzog shows us as if through the Spaniard’s eyes: the landscape itself has taken on a psychological dimension over and above its “true” appearance, a dimension bound up with the dreams of Lope de Aguirre and the others. The word “dream” recurs in Fitzcarraldo, too, with great frequency: “es sind nur Träumer, die können Berge versetzen”[14]; “der Dschungel ist voll von Träumen, Lügen, und Dämonen. Ich habe zu unterscheiden gelernt zwischen der Realität und Halluzination”[15]; “...daß unser gewöhnliches Leben nur eine Illusion darstellt, hinter der sich die Realität der Träumer verbirgt”[16]; and other, less explicit, reiterations of the theme, in which Fitzcarraldo’s epic project - his dream in the other sense of the word - is set against the unwelcoming and specifically non-human world of the Amazon rainforest.
This blending of dream and reality in the landscapes in which Herzog sets his films is not just limited to the jungle, but can also be found in Nosferatu. Jonathan Harker’s mood becomes more feverish, the nightmares of his wife Lucy more terrifying, as Nosferatu’s power grows, but even from the very beginning he experiences the Transylvanian castle as somehow dreamlike, with its obvious Kafka resonances (“das ganze Schloss kommt mir so unwirklich vor, dass ich glaube, ich träume es mir”[17]), in comparison to the seemingly corporeal world of the town of Wismar. Yet even his hometown attains its own dreamlike quality once Nosferatu arrives there and subjects it to his influence (for instance, the renowned sequence in which Lucy drifts through Wismar’s town square to the haunting Georgian folk song ‘Tsintskaro’, the humans around her slowly regressing into atavistic impulses as the rats spread the plague and most individuals realise they only have a few days left to live).
This psychogeographical connection between the exterior and the interior can be applied to broader kinds of film theory, in particular the school of cinéma vérité and the extent to which Werner Herzog distances himself from it, and thus aid our understanding of what is meant by “ecstatic truth”. Despite his status as a renowned documentarian, Herzog is not a literal filmmaker in the cinéma vérité vein. In Herzog’s “rejection of cinéma vérité[18], which he rejects on account of its being a purely factual “truth of accountants”[19], we find a “fervently anti-realist cinema that is built upon the often-tenuous relationship between what we see and what we think we know”[20]. Herzog’s quasi-real, quasi-surrealist cinema is built upon instinctive gut reactions as to what is the “correct” way to stage a scene and enhanced by an almost obsessive drive to perfect the film’s aesthetic that even sees him re-scripting and rehearsing his documentaries over and over until they show the “truth” as he wants it to be shown. Lutz Koepnick calls Herzog’s unique style “Cave Cinema”[21], in an obvious nod to Plato’s metaphor of the cave and other film theorists such as Baudry, Elsaesser and Hagener[22] (and, indeed, to Thomas Mann’s description of a darkened film auditorium in Der Zauberberg (1924)). However textured a film may be, however real its locations may look, it can of course only ever be a two-dimensional approximation of an actual place or event; an incorporeal reflection of something corporeal. Herzog himself has said much the same (“what we do as filmmakers - it’s immaterial. It’s only a projection of light”[23]). Thus his films are always tinted with the pall of unreality - even the United States, in Stroszek, can look like an alien landscape, with its sparse roads, colourless buildings and dusty skies. To successfully convey this is a key part of the “ecstatic truth” Herzog wants to convey, in that the cinema - at its best - should make us insensible to our exterior surroundings and only focused on the projection on the wall.
Intermingled with this ‘Cave Cinema’, and for all that he denies it, are Herzog’s instincts as a documentarian, but not as a documentarian in the sense that we might usually understand the term. He prefers a specially-written, specially-shot kind of truth to the truth in front of him, but nonetheless crafts this truth as though he is recording it for a documentary, shooting major sequences with handheld cameras, predominantly in close-up and avoiding wide vistas unless completely necessary, as though the figure behind the camera is a participant within the action as much as the figures we see on the screen: a technique known as “shaky cameras” that is usually thought of as appropriate mainly for documentaries or news footage. This is evident throughout these films - in Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, for instance, in the heightened moment where Herzog follows Georg Friedrich Daumer through the house to find Kaspar Hauser as the bells toll for him; in Aguirre, where we get the distinct feeling that Herzog is a member of the expedition filming his compatriots rather than a filmmaker who has orchestrated their quest; and in Fitzcarraldo, where Herzog frequently makes us lose our bearings by shooting the ship, the Molly Aida, in close-up and pacing round its side, letting the camera shake as our own vision might, rather than simply cutting to a slick wide-shot of the ship in all its glory. But this is typical of Herzog’s approach to truth: not as something dusty, dry, simply to be recorded, but something to be enlivened, made true to a certain experience even if not accurate in the strictest sense, rendered “ecstatic”.
This “shaky camera” technique thus makes us constantly aware of Werner Herzog as a participant in his own films. Brad Prager writes, “Herzog over time surpassed both Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. as his own most compelling protagonist”[24], here comparing the filmmaker to his two key recurring actors during the 1970s and 80s rather than the parts they play. Herzog focusses in on the cats in Harker’s home in Nosferatu, playing with Lucy’s locket and thus foreshadowing the vampire’s obsessive, quasi-animalistic interest in her, as though this is what interests Werner Herzog as a participant in his own film, despite the fact that the cats do not seem to be noticed by Jonathan and Lucy. In Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski conceive of the famous ‘Kinski spiral’ move, in which Kinski as Aguirre enters the frame by pivoting around from behind the camera, thereby drawing our attention to the actor’s perception and the instant of the cameraman giving the signal to the actor to “enter the stage”. The characters even say this in dialogue, on occasion (“Ich bin das Schauspiel im Wald”[25]). Most significantly, the highly stylized conclusion of Stroszek sees a bunch of captive animals such as chickens and hares perform odd dances and musical acts as part of a strange roadside carnival, a montage which is interwoven with Bruno Stroszek’s final moments. Seemingly arbitrarily, Bruno sets the various animals’ performances in motion before taking a ski lift bearing the words “IS THIS REALLY ME?” up a cliff-side and - so we are led to believe - shooting himself. Is Bruno arranging the scene of his death, like a cameraman, leaving behind a “performed” work that can be examined afterwards? This seems appropriate for a street performer, perhaps, and especially so in a film which began with an opening shot of the distorted reflections of people in a hanging vase of water, as though trapped like goldfish in a bowl. Are we to conclude that Bruno is asking us the question written on that particular ski lift by choosing it? Or is Herzog asking us that of Bruno by composing the shot in that way? Perhaps, in the end, Herzog and Bruno are both analogues of the same “ecstatic truth”, which aims for these sublime moments that - depending on the viewer, of course - resonate with the viewer in a particular instant of their being watched, and lodge with them afterwards.
As one last point of discussion on Herzog’s careful crafting of a faked authenticity whose vision of truth feels plausible no matter how impossible, we must turn briefly to his use of music. Herzog’s films are almost as intense when thought of as aural experiences as they are as visual ones. From the eerie antiphonal chants that haunt Popol Vuh’s soundtrack to Nosferatu to the shamelessly anachronistic choral work that accompanies Aguirre to the careful placement of particular songs in Stroszek that reflect the film’s mirroring structure (the same track plays over the arrival of Bruno’s mobile home, and over its being towed away; there is a similar musical parallel between the journey to Wisconsin and Bruno’s heading off in the car at the end) to the importance Fitzcarraldo places on the Italian opera singer Caruso performing in the Amazon jungle, music is a key element of conveying this truth. Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle opens with the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon and the on-screen words Hören Sie denn nicht das entsetzliche Schreien ringsum, das man gewöhnlich die Stille heißt?”[26] - for all that we pity Kaspar, there is something terrifying and inhuman about the silence in which he has lived. “Es gibt Stille und Stille, und die hier gefällt mir gar nicht,”[27] says Orinoco Paul in Fitzcarraldo; Bruno in Stroszek is mocked for how poorly he plays the accordion, and he replies “besser wie gar kein Instrument”[28]. Herzog’s careful use of music and silence, always in sync with his landscapes and his camerawork, yet again reflects the raw, cruel inhospitality of nature and our world - both animal and human.
When we speak of Werner Herzog’s work, we may talk most frequently about his philosophical themes, or his recurring use of particular actors, or his predilection for extreme feats like that at the core of Fitzcarraldo; but just as important is the way he blends the various aspects of filmmaking together to try and present this “ecstatic truth”. It does not come across as real, and yet it never feels artificial or faked. His best work provokes gut reactions in the moment as well as musing after the fact. The late, great American film critic Roger Ebert put it well in his review of Nosferatu: “Here is a film that does honor to the seriousness of vampires. No, I don’t believe in them. But if they were real, here is how they must look.”[29] Ebert sums up Herzog’s attempts to present us with strange, surreal truths: if our psychic quirks and oddities and megalomania were represented externally, visually, and projected onto a wall, this is how they must look.

Filmography & Bibliography.

Herzog, Werner:
1.      Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)
2.      Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974)
3.      Stroszek (1977)
4.      Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
5.      Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Blank, Les.
  1. Burden of Dreams (1982)

Secondary literature:
  1. Cronin, Paul, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, Faber & Faber, 2014.
  2. Johnson, Laurie, “The conquest of dreams”, DVD liner notes for The Werner Herzog Collection: Eighteen Films, British Film Institute, 2005.
  3. Johnson, Laurie, Forgotten Dreams: Revisiting Romanticism in the Cinema of Werner Herzog, Camden House, 2016.
  4. Koepnick, Lutz, “Herzog’s Cave: On Cinema’s Unclaimed Pasts and Forgotten Futures”, in The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory 88.3, 2013.
  5. Prager, Brad (ed.), A Companion to Werner Herzog, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  6. Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Columbia University Press, 2013.


[1]Herzog, Werner, “Minnesota Declaration” of 1999, recovered from http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/herzogs-minnesota-declaration-defining-ecstatic-truth
[2]Peucker, Brigitte, cited in Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Columbia University Press, 2013.
[3]Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Columbia University Press, 2013.
[4]Johnson, Laurie, “The conquest of dreams”, DVD liner notes for The Werner Herzog Collection: Eighteen Films, BFI, 2005.
[5]Prager, Brad (ed.), A Companion to Werner Herzog, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
[6]Cronin, Paul, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, Faber & Faber, 2014.
[7]Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Columbia University Press, 2013.
[8]This is a practice which extends to the real-world making of the films; a noted champion of the magic of location shooting, Herzog even went so far as to drag his entire film crew to the depths of the Amazon jungle for Fitzcarraldo when the film could equally have been shot just outside the town of Iquitos; he believed, however, that the cast and crew would bring a different energy to the film and to their performances if they knew they were truly lost in the jungle. In remaking F.W. Murnau’s silent German Expressionism classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), Herzog took pains to shoot in many of the same locations as Murnau.
[9]Debord, Guy-Ernest, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in Les Lèvres Nues #6, September 1955.
[10]Johnson, Laurie, “The conquest of dreams”, DVD liner notes for The Werner Herzog Collection: Eighteen Films, British Film Institute, 2005.
[11]Herzog, Werner, in Burden of Dreams (dir. Les Blank), 1982.
[12]Fitzcarraldo, 1982.
[13]Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972.
[14]Fitzcarraldo, 1982.
[15]Ibid.
[16]Ibid.
[17]Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, 1979.
[18]Johnson, Laurie, “The conquest of dreams”, DVD liner notes for The Werner Herzog Collection: Eighteen Films, British Film Institute, 2005.
[19]Herzog, Werner, “Minnesota Declaration” of 1999, recovered from http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/herzogs-minnesota-declaration-defining-ecstatic-truth.
[20]Johnson, Laurie, “The conquest of dreams”, DVD liner notes for The Werner Herzog Collection: Eighteen Films, British Film Institute, 2005.
[21]Koepnick, Lutz, “Herzog’s Cave: On Cinema’s Unclaimed Pasts and Forgotten Futures”, in The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory 88.3, 2013.
[22]Baudry wrote in 1970 that “Plato’s cave foreshadowed nothing less than the perceptual conditions of cinematic experience: the way in which both the womblike darkness of the auditorium and the mechanical time of cinematic projection immobilize spectators so as to entertain them with captivating illusion.” The film theorists Elsaesser and Hagener echoed this in 2010, writing that “the specific set-up of projection, screen and audience, together with the ‘centering’ effects of optical perspective and the focalizing strategies of filmic narration, all ensure or conspire to transfix but also to transpose the spectator into a trance-like state in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the ‘out-there’ and the ‘in-here’.”
[23]Herzog, Werner, quoted in Prager, Brad, (ed.), A Companion to Werner Herzog, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
[24]Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Columbia University Press, 2013.
[25]Fitzcarraldo, 1982.
[26]Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, 1974.
[27]Fitzcarraldo, 1982.
[28]Stroszek, 1977.
[29]Ebert, Roger, Nosferatu the Vampyre: Review, 2011, recovered from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-nosferatu-the-vampyre-1979

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