Country: WEST GERMANY
Fata Morgana is the most oblique and inscrutable of Werner Herzog’s early films. It is neither a work of fiction, nor a documentary. But exists within a liminal space between these two spheres of representation. It is totally devoid of plot, employing none of the narrative conventions of Hollywood cinema, preferring to approach time and space from a position of non linearity rather than cause and effect. The editing strategies employed in post-production emphasise this attitude towards time, and the result is a film that has the timeless quality of a myth or a fable. Its position as myth is clearly signposted by Herzog’s inclusion of the Popol Vuh (a Mayan creation myth) which is narrated over the images by German film historian Lotte Eisner. This is further confirmed by a three part structure which gives the film the appearance of a meditative and free flowing essay. The three parts are titled Creation, Paradise and The Golden Age and are an echo of Herzog’s early conception of the film as a science-fiction document of alien visitors recording their findings of a long dead civilisation. The imagery that Herzog selects however often undermines the chapter it is within - The Golden Age for example has a number of deeply ironic and unspeakably sad scenes, and Paradise offers us the vista of a blasted landscape crushed under the unyielding glare of the sun. There is subsequently a deep contradiction at the heart of Fata Morgana, a contradiction that seems to exist within most of Herzog’s films, and which makes the viewing experience an oddly disquieting one.
The film slowly but surely enters the world of man. The first signs of civilisation are unsettling rather than comforting - hundreds of empty oil drums for example, broken machinery, a factory left half built and abandoned, a downed aircraft. The decaying and dusty remains of animals offer up a stark reminder as to the difficulty of existence in this most unforgiving of terrains. But hardened people battle on - Herzog shows us two men working arduously in a lime pit, a sad confusion etched on their weather beaten features. They remain in shot just long enough for the tableau to become uncomfortable and obtrusive. The children of the village are unsure how to react to the aliens in their midst, both repelled and attracted to a camera that seeks to capture a brief snippet of their lives. Herzog also shot in Algeria (a tracking shot of a ghostly military compound providing an inkling of the risks the filmmakers underwent), Burkina Faso, The Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lanzarote (the volcanic Canary Island on which Herzog shot Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) at the same time as he culled footage for this film), Mali and Tanzania. The aerial tracking shots over the African coast are some of the most sublime images in the film - a mass of Flamingo’s a pink blur against the salty crust of the water.