Dir: WERNER HERZOG
Country: WEST GERMANY
This unusual and obscure little film from Werner Herzog emerged in between his two feature films The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Heart of Glass (1976). The former is quite rightly lauded as one of Herzog’s finest achievements, and introduced the world to the bizarre talents of the non-professional actor Bruno S. The latter was a challenging fable of prophecy and apocalypse, a highly stylised and visionary film in which the director famously hypnotised the majority of the cast members. It seems odd that Herzog would return to the short film at this stage in his career. His previous short film was made seven years before and was entitled Precautions Against Fanatics (1969), and in that time he had achieved his international breakthrough with feature films like Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972), the aforementioned Kaspar Hauser, and critically acclaimed documentaries such as Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974), both of which were made for West German television, but achieved wider distribution due to the directors new found fame.
What is noticeable about all the films mentioned is the manner in which they challenge and subvert cinematic conventions of narrative, of form, of stylisation. The way in which Herzog utilised landscape as an expression of inner torment or inner ecstasy, and married the images to pieces of music by Popol Vuh in a way which seemed to mirror the feelings the landscape created. In short these films seemed to possess an inner lexicon of their own, a formal language that was complex and fresh, in service of stories with universal themes. By contrast No One Will Play with Me feels like a major regression. This short fourteen minute piece is extremely simplistic; both as a story and in the way that story is constructed and communicated. But despite the relative lack of complexity or should I say ambitiousness, this is still unmistakably a product of Mr. Herzog. The key area which distinguishes it in this way is that although this is a fiction film, it feels like a documentary. The line between Herzog’s world of fiction and world of documentary ‘fact’ is an extremely fine one. This tension between reality and fiction is dramatised in its most oblique fashion in his pseudo documentary Fata Morgana (1971) and the weird apocalyptic science-fictional landscapes presented in the remarkable Lessons of Darkness (1992).
No One will Play with Me is a tale of bullying, solitude, segregation, and abuse. We follow the efforts of a small boy called Martin has he attempts to integrate himself into the affections of his classmates. But this is not an easy task when he is insulted, ignored, and banished under a table in a dark corner of the classroom. Herzog presents the classroom set up in a very naturalistic way, and the non-professional child actors display a self consciousness due to an obvious awareness of the camera. But this is precisely what gives the film its documentary feel. We soon discover that Martin’s isolation is due to a dreadful home life that includes regular beatings from a father we never see, a mother dying of cancer, and a diet that consists entirely of popcorn. His only companionship comes in the shape of a talking raven he keeps in a cage. Martin has had his innocence destroyed by the adults in his life, but due to the efforts of a classmate called Nicole, Martin is able to eventually reintegrate himself into the whole. This is symbolically indicated by the exchange of the raven for the cute gerbils we see at the end.
This is a very bleak and depressing little film, and as if aware of this, Herzog presents us with a happy ending, rather than his usual strategy of ambiguous closure. There is no indication that the abuse suffered by Martin will end, but he has at last been accepted by the classroom community. The world outside the classroom is grey, cold, and dismal. It’s exactly the same depiction of urban West Germany that we get in Stroszek (1977). It is one of several spatial metaphors in the film which signify the central characters imprisonment. In a strange decision Herzog almost entirely decides to excise adults from the film. We do briefly glimpse Nicole’s mother has she tends to Martin’s injured foot, but Martin’s parents are entirely absent, and even odder still so are the school’s teachers. But what does exist is the effect that adult behaviour has on children; most markedly in the cruelty of the children’s insults and ignorance. That it is the animal world that eventually bridges this gap is not a major surprise. Animals figure prominently in Herzog’s films, but on this occasion rather than contributing to the strange, surreal, and weird tenor of his films, they provide solace and unity. No One Will Play with Me does at times have the feel of a public service film, but the personality of the filmmaker shines through despite the restrictions of the form and the simplistic nature of the narrative. For this reason it will be of great interest to Herzog enthusiasts, but is unlikely to engage anyone who isn’t.
© Shaun Anderson 2013