by Colin Waters

The Enigma of Werner Herzog

May 13, 2011 | by Colin Waters

It is a pity Incident at Loch Ness remains unavailable on DVD in the UK. Not only is it a scampish take on the methods and mythology of director Werner Herzog (who acts in and co-wrote the script, but doesn’t in this instance direct), it is also perhaps the closest Herzog will ever come to working in Scotland. Characteristically, his films’ settings are more extreme. The looming green hell of the Peruvian rainforest in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo; the alien beauty of the desert in Fata Morgana; infernal oil fields blazing across post-Gulf War Kuwait in Lessons of Darkness; and now, in his latest film, which bears the almost parodically Herzogian title of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the caverns of Chauvet where he finds in their 32,000-years-old cave paintings ‘the awakening of the human soul’.

This Palaeolithic-era art was discovered in 1994 in the south of France, in a limestone cave sealed off for 20,000 years. The charcoal sketches of horses, bison, and mammoths are twice as old as examples of primitive art found before Chauvet’s discovery. While filming posed technical challenges – the crew couldn’t depart from a narrow metal walkway lest they damage the floor – Cave of Forgotten Dreams must have been a relatively easy shoot to complete compared to the nightmare productions that made Herzog’s name famous and infamous.

There isn’t another film director alive to whom so many legends have attached themselves, and Incident at Loch Ness nods towards many of them, from the tale of how he directed a mutinous Klaus Kinski while pointing a gun at him from behind the camera (false) to pulling a 320-tonne steamship over an Andean mountain (true). (Three steamers were used, with the first – ‘one of the leading characters’ according to Herzog – built in Glasgow in 1902).

The eccentricity that marks Herzog’s more memorable films is largely absent in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Unlike Even Dwarves Started Small, his all-midget send-up of Sixties revolutionary politics, or his remake of art-house schlocker Bad Lieutenant, you can imagine Cave of Forgotten Dreams being played in schools, which is indeed what will happen in France, its government having part-funded the documentary. The chill of tastefulness means it’s a little dull when compared with Herzog’s more idiosyncratic fare, although the subject itself fascinates, and his decision to film Chauvet in 3D – the stone age artists used the contours of the rocks as an effect in their drawings – is ingenious.

The film poses the question: does Chauvet’s art give contemporary man a way to understand ‘human beings who are, in a way, us, and yet [who are] separated by an abyss of time’? For Herzog, the answer is a partial yes. According to his thesis, art was a way for our tribal ancestors to begin to understand themselves and others as individuals. In addition to paintings, this period also saw homo sapiens create musical instruments, body adornments, and a primitive spear-thrower. By contrast, Neanderthals, who also lived in the Chauvet valley in the same period, don’t appear to have developed a similar culture of art or tools; their extinction, although not explicitly mentioned in the film, hangs in the air.

Herzog has linked man’s survival and art before when explaining his greed for new images. ‘The images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution… If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.’ Or Neanderthals.

This need to record experiences and tableaux never captured before has led Herzog on occasion to resemble one of his own protagonists, men motivated by sense-spurning quests. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, Aguirre loses his mind and sanity hunting for El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo plans to build an opera house in the jungle. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, wanted to befriend wild bears, perhaps even thought of himself in some sense as a bear. He spent over a decade in an Alaskan nature reserve filming and getting close to grizzlies. His mission ended when one ate him.

Despite Herzog’s faith in his search for new cinematic visions, his films often sound an equivocal note about the power of art. Art, as in Fitzcarraldo where it takes the form of opera, embodies the values of civilisation, as dubious a project for Herzog as it is for his literary hero Joseph Conrad. ‘I am fascinated by the idea that our civilisation is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness,’ Herzog says in the interview-book Herzog on Herzog.

Art, civilisation, the entire project of human striving, is shown again and again in Herzog’s films to be futile in the face of ancient and elemental forces. Music motivates Fitzcarraldo to conquer his mountain, and his gramophone pacifies a tribe of Amerindians who threaten him. But when his steamship tips into rapids (this sequence was filmed on actual rapids, the fiercest in Peru), destroying his mission, music can’t save his dream, it can merely console.

In other Herzog films, music can’t even provide solace. The music that accompanies gliding aerial shots of Kuwait’s murdered landscape in Lessons of Darkness sets up a tragic counterpoint between the summit of civilisation’s achievements – the work of Grieg, Mahler, Verdi – and its nadir: a desert strewn with charred human bones. At the end of Stroszek, the eponymous protagonist, who has emigrated to America only to find it as cruel as the Germany he has fled, encounters in an amusement arcade a chicken ‘dancing’ round and round upon a revolving record, as perfect an image of futility as has ever been filmed. Ian Curtis may have thought so: in 1980, on the eve of his first American tour, Joy Division’s singer hung himself hours after watching the film.

So often in Herzog’s films people appear small, secondary things compared to the true protagonist, the landscape. The chaos of the jungle disorders the mind of Aguirre as he hacks his way through it. These landscapes possess those who challenge them. ‘These are not just literal landscapes you are looking at,’ Herzog says, ‘but landscapes of the mind too.’

In Fata Morgana, there is no character other than the Sahara. This film was inspired by one of the director’s typically quixotic quests: he wanted to film a mirage. As if shocked by the desert’s endlessness, the camera spools out equally unending tracking shots of the scorched sands, empty of people. When the camera comes to rest, we see rotting, abandoned machinery, the dregs of a retreating civilisation. Herzog had travelled to the Sahara to film footage for a science-fiction film. He abandoned that project yet Fata Morgana still brings to mind a ruined future-world, specifically one of J.G. Ballard’s terminal landscapes. The mise-en-scène could be a backdrop in an adaptation of Ballard’s The Drought or his short story ‘The Cage of Sand’: ‘To his surprise he noticed that he no longer cast any shadow on the sand as if he had at last completed his journey across the margins of the inner landscape he had carried in his mind for so many years… An immense pall of darkness lay over the dunes, as if the whole of the exterior world were losing its existence.’

Ballard and Herzog share a belief that civilisation is a façade, a consequence perhaps of formative experiences during World War Two. Ballard, the elder of the pair, was a boy when he was interned in Lunghua, in a Japanese POW camp. Although his parents were also prisoners, he ran with a pack of semi-feral kids, the adults’ authority undermined by their status as captives. Herzog, who was born in 1942 in Munich, had in some respects a similar childhood. His father was absent and after the war he played in bombed-out ruins. ‘It was anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch’

Herzog denies any link between his work and Nazi Germany. Aguirre, for example, is not a cipher for Hitler. And yet, during a discussion of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the cannibalistic dictator who terrorised the Central African Republic between 1966 and 1979, and who is the subject of Herzog’s documentary Echoes of a Sombre Empire, the director said, ‘Maybe we are above such things now, but people like Bokassa show us that cannibalism is still something that can resurface. Look, for example, at the Nazis in Germany. The Germans were a dignified people, the greatest philosophers, composers, writers and mathematicians. And in the space of only ten years, they created a barbarism more terrible than had ever been seen before.’

Remembering Fata Morgana, perhaps the true mirage Herzog has spent his career filming is civilisation itself. This is the message encoded in the extreme landscapes Herzog’s imagination has nested itself within. And what of Chauvet? The director’s lust for new, unexploited imagery has brought him into contact with the oldest to be found in the world. The film ends not in the cave but in a synthetic ‘tropical zone’ created with hot water from a nuclear power station near Chauvet. Here, crocodiles, unchanged biologically since the age of the dinosaurs (like the Loch Ness monster?), have given birth to albino off-spring. Her-zog’s voice-over asks whether modern man understands the Chauvet images anymore than the mutant crocodiles would. ‘Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?’ he asks.

In a typically Herzogian twist, he recently admitted he invented the ‘tropical zone’ and that the crocodiles are in fact alligators. His question remains though, supplemented by the lesson of his films. How can we hope to understand the deep past when we fail so often to read the true significance of the present?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is on general release and will be available on DVD later this year.

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