A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Ecstasy Of Truth

I feel compelled to write a few words about film-maker Werner Herzog, one of my favourite European arthouse directors, after reading Chris Townsend's latest post on Herzog's new 'documentary' film set in Antarctica, Encounters At The End Of The World, and after seeing Alan Yentob's reverential interview with Herzog on BBC1 last night.

Although I've a lot of respect for New German Cinema in general - particularly for Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders - the director who really does it for me is Werner Herzog. When I was living in Frankfurt in the mid-1970s a friend and I went to a showing of Herzog's magnificent, hauntingly bleak film The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. It affected me most profoundly at the time. In this film the 'madman', the 'simpleton', the Dostoyevskian 'idiot' - played frighteningly well by Bruno S. who had never acted before - is totally misunderstood and often violently victimized by a 19th century German bürgerlich society.

Legends about this unconventional, eccentric, iconoclastic film director abound - indeed they have been encouraged by Herzog himself. I can't possibly recount all of them here. But, yes, I think it's true that he was once shot in the stomach in the middle of an interview; that he stole his first movie camera; that he dragged a ship over a mountain for the film Fitzcarraldo; that he once ate his own shoe...

Herzog's films and documentaries (for him fiction and non-fiction are always blurred) aspire to a kind of mystical revelation, and all are charged with poetry, resonate with meaning and are full of unforgettable images. These images may or may not be symbols - it appears to be intentionally vague. It seems to me his movies have a strong correlation with music - and the actual musical soundtracks to his films are always carefully thought out and indescribably evocative.

He has described the aim of his film-making as an ecstasy of truth.

This is Herzog's advice to someone who wants to make a career in film:

Work as a taxi driver, work as bouncer in a sex club, work as a warden in a lunatic asylum. Do something which is really into pura vida as the Mexicans would say, into the very pure essence of life. I would prefer you to work as bouncer in a sex club to earn money. You have to take the first steps yourself because nobody is going to be on your side. And once you have something presentable, from there it may or may not take off, but at least you have a much better chance. At least you can make the film.

Herzog hates the superficial naturalism of cinéma vérité:

...there are very deep strata of truth inherent in cinema which we have almost stopped asking for. I seek a deeper truth than the cinéma vérité truth which only scratches the surface.

I end by quoting in full Herzog's 1999 Minnesota Declaration:

Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema "Lessons of Darkness"

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Vérité is devoid of vérité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Vérité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail."Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Vérité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Vérité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can´t legislate stupidity."

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn´t call, doesn´t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota April 30, 1999


Chris Townsend said...

Thanks for that very interesting post. I missed the Herzog documentary the other night. I find his films full of resonances and emotional and intellectual stimuli. Months are after watching one I find myself reminded of it or suddenly thinking about it and seeing some aspect of it in a different light. The lengths he goes to with some of the films is extraordinary. Actually building a boat and hauling it over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo is astonishing. Apparently the Indians who appeared in that film offered to kill Klaus Kinski for Herzog.

There are many Herzog films I have yet to see. Which is wonderful to know.

The Solitary Walker said...

I've quite a few of his films yet to see myself, Chris. 'Stroszek' is a particular favourite of mine - with the famous dancing chicken at the end. Apparently his cameraman refused to film this sequence, he thought it so naff!

From a walking perspective, there's also his book 'Of Walking In Ice' about his winter walk from Munich to Paris in 1974. Strangely enough, I did the same journey myself 6 months later. But hitch-hiked.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this very interesting post - especially the quotes! I have many happy memories of spending a week in a cinema in London in the 80s when they were showing nothing but Herzog. It has become a yardstick against which I measure all my experiences in the cinema. (By the way, you'll be gratified to know that your blog was the 6th link in the list when I googled Herzog Yentob bbc1!)

The Solitary Walker said...

You won't believe this, Dominic, but you are my wife's cousin!(Well, there aren't too many people in the universe called Dominic Rivron, are there?) C sends her love to you and K. What an amazing coincidence!

We can't have seen each other for 20 years!

I know you love walking etc - why don't we meet up for a hike?

dominic rivron said...

Good idea.