Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967)


The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz is a short fourteen minute film written, directed, and produced by Bavaria’s finest filmmaker Werner Herzog. It was his third film, following on from his debut short Herakles (1962) and the mysterious and totally obscure Game in the Sand (1964). The latter is a film that Herzog has consistently refused to distribute, and will almost certainly remain hidden, owning to subject matter that still leaves the director disturbed. Fortress Deutschkreuz was Herzog’s first attempt at fiction, and as such it can be seen as something of a dress rehearsal for his first feature film Signs of Life which would follow in 1968. Both films explore the psychology of warfare, as the protagonists do battle with imaginary enemies. Signs of Life benefited tremendously from its beautiful Crete locations, brought vividly to monochrome life by the cinematography of Thomas Mauch, and the brilliantly unhinged performance of Peter Brogle as the brittle fantasist Stroszek. Fortress Deutschkreuz by contrast is still a little uneven and crude in places and the quality of the transfer I viewed does not aid its cause. However it does set up a satirical attitude to warfare that Herzog would develop and refine throughout his career.

The fortress itself is an abandoned castle on the Austro/Hungarian border and the site of a fierce and brutal battle between German and Russian forces during the Second World War. The spectre of this conflict hangs over the building, insinuating itself into the very fabric of this once imposing building. The film is anchored throughout by sardonic and ironic narration, this voice over not only serves to inform of us of the history of the fortress, but also to put forward Herzog’s philosophy on the need within mankind for warfare. The building stands as a monument to this need, a scarred relic whose history of bloodshed and suffering means that it can no longer be put to any productive use. Instead the fortress is left by the townspeople and its mayor to moulder and decay, to lose its conflict with the vines, weeds, and plants that have encased it in their asphyxiating grip. But into this begotten environment comes four young men, who are initially at least, up to a bit of harmless mischief, but whose identities soon become subsumed into the violent history that symbolises the fortress.

The inability of the townspeople and authorities to reintegrate the fortress into the community, and move beyond the past, has led to the fortress becoming a museum to World War II. Amid the overgrown vegetation are discarded helmets, army uniforms, sandbags, and even weaponry. The shot of a small dying bird gasping for air next to a rifle is the sort of obvious symbolism that Herzog would rectify in favour of subtlety and intricacy in later films. But here it is a potent and prophetic sign which links up neatly with the narrator’s central thesis about the need for warfare and the folly of peace. As the four men innocuously play dressing up games, the narrator’s assertions makes their behaviour sinister and disturbing. Once totally bedecked in army fatigues and sporting rifles, the four men exist in liminal space, neither part of the past or the present. But the great dilemma they face is that they are now soldiers, equipped for warfare and killing, but lacking an enemy. The central tenet of the film is that when placed in such a situation people will create enemies. Initially at least this involves torturing a mouse. With no human opposition in sight, the men turn their sadistic ire on a defenceless animal. With nobody else to fight the men inevitably find a threat in their own ranks, before ultimately storming out of the fortress gates in search of the farmers they spotted with a pair of binoculars.

In a short space of time Herzog creates quite an effective atmosphere of paranoia, and elicits effective performances from his small band of non-professionals. Of the cast members only Wolfgang Von Ungern-Sternberg would go on to appear in other films; mostly notably in Herzog’s next film, his debut feature Signs of Life. The plaintiff guitar and flute of Uwe Brander, who also provided the music for Herakles and Game in the Sand creates an effective counterpoint to the increasing madness of the would be soldiers, and is possibly the single most successful element of the film. The cinematographer Jaime Pacheco was also held over from Herakles and Game in the Sand, but aside from the finale in which the largely static camera suddenly moves in tandem with the sprinting soldiers, the look and style of the film is largely undistinguished. Fortress Deutschkreuz was easily the most important film Herzog had made up to that point. It is an effective thematic rehearsal for Signs of Life, shows a much higher degree of professionalism, and a greater ambition in terms of both scope and ideas. It is also odd, with much contained in it that leaves disquiet and disharmony. In many ways Fortress Deutschkreuz could arguably be considered the first real Herzog film. 

© Shaun Anderson 2013

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