This month sees The Celluloid Highway dedicate itself to one of the world’s most idiosyncratic and unique filmmakers Werner Herzog. From the moment I saw a rare screening of Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) on BBC 2 in 2000 I have been hooked on this odd man from Bavaria. The sublime images captured by Herzog in Aguirre imprinted themselves on my mind, and for the first time I saw the importance and value of natural landscapes to the creation of highly symbolic and metaphorical statements on the human condition. But little did I know that viewing this film was merely the first step of the process - the discovery of the rigours and chaos of the shoot and of the maniacal ravings of Klaus Kinski, and the sacrifices made by Herzog and his cast and crew too appease Kinski only increased my admiration for the softly spoken Bavarian. As the film concluded and Herzog’s camera circled the raft on which the isolated Aguirre continued to proclaim his dominion over all creatures I thought this was a statement on madness and ego that could never be matched - I was wrong!
Each successive exploration into mankind’s dark heart that I discovered from Herzog only convinced me further that I had accidentally happened on the one filmmaker that spoke to me like no other. There was something in the images that spoke a poetry that no written word could capture. This was a lexicon of film language that seemed to have no hard and fast rules, a syntax and attitude that could only be imitated - never matched. There was something in Herzog’s films that was disturbingly alien. Was it his total disavowal of the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking?, or was it that there was no middle ground in the emotions conveyed within - madness or death, these are often the only choices left open to Herzog’s alienated protagonists. These are men who able to put aside those aspects of human emotion that otherwise bog down other films - romantic subplots are few and far between, the day is rarely saved by an heroic figure, and characters do not function within the rules of cause and effect. They have a life and a fluidity that comes with a more improvised approach to performance. Herzog’s is an unsafe cinema, it breaks rules of form, not out of some gleefully self-conscious reason as might be seen in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, but in service of a vision - a revelatory statement that emerges from the fragmented realm of dreams.
Only in the discordant sphere of dreams can Herzog achieve his visualization of an ‘ecstatic truth’. If this means manipulating and altering reality, or bending the so called rules of truth that govern the documentary form then Herzog is happy to do it. In contrast to this Herzog is also happy to challenge the rules that govern the fiction feature film, infusing narratives with a documentary quality that raises important questions about concepts of naturalism and reality. The process of filmmaking and the hardships therein bleed into the fabric of the finished film - perhaps most prominently in his award winning meditation on the thin difference between madness and genius Fitzcarraldo (1982). Herzog has also strayed into the territory of genre - offering bizarre science-fiction parables in the shape of Fata Morgana (1971) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), and the horror genre in his brave remake of Nosferatu (1979). In recent years Herzog’s profile has risen to unprecedented highs, thanks chiefly to the double success of Grizzly Man (2005) and Rescue Dawn (2006) - the latter possibly his most commercial film to date. Despite this Herzog holds to a credo or manifesto of cinema, a set of internal rules, no matter how commercial the material this manifesto is certain to provide results that present the material in an off kilter and awkward fashion. Is it possible for Herzog to make a truly commercial film? Even Rescue Dawn with its generic POW narrative still offers us a protagonist in Dieter Dengler who is strange, enigmatic, and at times otherworldly. For those of you who either haven’t heard of Herzog, or haven’t seen any of his films I hope the following reviews and articles this July will inspire you to seek out the films, to everyone else I hope you can bear with me while I get this this out of my system.