Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana

Moviemaking today divides into two main bodies of work: (1) the genre films that are so public a hermit couldn’t escape the omnipresent Nashville-Jaws hype; and (2), a less observed film (Death by Hanging, Not Reconciled, et al.) that leans heavily on the traits of other art forms, is strongly concerned with structure, and mightily taxes the brain with motivations and ideas well worth the dredging that it takes to find them. There are good films in both worlds, but they don’t feed each other in any framing-language-narrational way. Mike Snow never touches a Hollywood ticket and Coppola’s never heard of Fassbinder. This latter Oshima-Guerra-Duras film lives a limited existence: once a year at Berkeley’s Film Archive, then a gypsy route: The VA188 class at Colenzo College in Milwaukee, the once-a-month meeting of the Goethe Club, etc. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the people who create-criticize Mean Streets shun Serene Velocity as though it were invisible.

Right now, a key figure in the less-exposed film is a Munich native, Werner Herzog, a key figure not only because he lives in an irrational movie area only distantly touched by early Buñuel-Franju-Browning, but because of his odd-man-out posture even for Munich, which, thanks to government-owned TV and script grants, is the subversive-film capital. Herzog occupies a left-out role, with no seeming contacts with Fassbinder-Schroeter-Straub and their strong bonds with Brechtian theater.

Herzog, who has carried a film from Munich to Paris by foot and lived in a beaten VW van gathering mordant exotica from all California corners save Hollywood, is a music-addicted gypsy who is a specialist on the limited people (cripples, dwarfs, the blind and deaf) and has an outsized rage as extreme as his odd outré technique. A closed-on-himself artist who’ll never give up, Herzog is weird on distance: His camera, always far away from people, finds strange locations, such as shooting Pizarro’s search for El Dorado, the city of gold (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), mostly at water level in mid-Amazon. The one film where his unpredictable camera views show any interest in the actors is in his magnificently un-artful movie about deaf mutes in German hospitals (Land of Silence and Darkness), where his hand-held camera nuzzles its way close to people who can’t see or hear it. This uncompromising movie—every image shows Fini Straubinger, a German Helen Keller, eyes shifting sideways, or raising her fervent face toward the ceiling, her gaze anywhere but at the camera, since her spatial-sound sense differs from the people shooting the film—is unusually obsessive and awkward, even for a director who has yet to construct a frame that isn’t off-kilter.

All the Munich films are grounded in a Leftist version of present-day society as a maze of cruelty, captivity and frustration. For instance, Fassbinder’s operatic family movie bases itself on the silent group pressure that causes people to come through with philistine passions and behavior: His wurst-shape siblings and shopkeepers take turns being mean and exploitative in a musical chairs of victor and victim. Unlike Fassbinder and Schroeter, who insert an insinuating, outsized Kabuki acting into movies that get a lot of animal sensuality, hedonistic camping, Herzog is a scattered buckshot phenomenologist, who doesn’t give a damn about actors. His movies are compassionate but you won’t find any box-office potatoes (they’re not about human relations: there’s no love theme, anything resembling a genre situation, no family problems, no Altman-ish thrills and defeats).

Herzog can go in a number of film directions—Signs of Life is low-key fiction, Fata Morgana is a didactic poem, and Aguirre often suggests a bad Raoul Walsh adventure, an episodic paceless film in which you’re wondering “will they make it or not”—to inflict his vision: a droll, macabre, romantic, zestful wrathfulness at God’s work. Though he tends towards big themes (normality and mental disorder, the destiny of the Western world, power and conquest), his touch with the medium is unpretentious and he puts awkwardnesses together rather than going for the big, detailed performance, like De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. In place of a ten-minute acting triumph filled with self-assurance, a physical performance no one, square or otherwise, can miss, Herzog creates a perverse world, but one which feels peculiarly truthful, by joining odd-angled small perceptions of events to create a different space than the one with which he started. In this manner, he has done beautiful work with tasks-laborers-hands, i.e. a long tracking shot in Fata Morgana which flows past two construction workers standing in a shanty town. Puzzled by Herzog’s half-directions, they wave at the camera crew, and, then, for some bravado-ish thing to do, they start running parallel, with the tracking camera, each one angling off into a different direction. The last you see they are far back, tiny figures in the distance, shading their eyes and looking dispirited. Herzog’s persistence leads to a queer unfolding poignance in deep space.

Most of Fata Morgana is a catalog of dead colonialism in the Sahara: the abandoned debris from World War II, the mad-magical strain in both the blacks and German tourists digging for ethnic information. It would die were not Herzog a shrewd gambler-manipulator with material often no more lively than a National Geographic display of dunes, etc. With his cache of expressionist ploys (recostuming native blacks into anti-colonial posters, forcing black urchins into stylized poses of combat and postures that somehow escape being cruel, mocking fellow German tourists into witless obsessional panting after scientific facts), Herzog has turned a placid and lyrical desert-landscape image for the travel-folder trade into a spacious gliding visual-aural circus. There is nothing quite like Fata Morgana!

His mordant, bleak style in this breathtaking mirage of space, speed and quirky events made in 1970 could be outlined in four steps:

(1) Endless horizontal tracks like a briskly moving line in a cafeteria; he keeps his camera detached, emotionally as well as actually distanced.

(2) Objects and people are like flotsam, used coffee grounds on a flat, brown desert strewn with military debris, shack houses, animal carcasses, barbed wire, displaced blacks living within the remnants of World War II.

(3) Herzog half directs his actors: It’s clear these confused puzzled tourists and natives don’t know what the mischievous director is doing. His blank-gaze camera stays on them while they become progressively more perplexed.

(4) A shock sound track, one that you’re always questioning: What does the drippy Leonard Cohen have to do with a 1940s bus letting off passengers in a heat haze? Herzog not only vegetates his sound (all types of music, Couperin to Cash) but he razzes it as well. In one fierce Swiftian section, which is devilishly presented as the iconic image of civilization’s Golden Age, a husband-and-wife dance band play on a brothel’s box-like stage, creating jaundice by the excessive amplification and their comatose expressions. The goggled Don Juan on drums and dyspeptic matron at the piano rap out their endless dance tune for no audience amidst tired paper decorations and a resounding hollow echo.

In Even Dwarfs Started Small (1968), all the players are midgets and dwarfs of widely disparate personas and heights. The mostly nonverbal helter-skelter takes place in a reform school built for normal-sized hoods on a lava-like burnt-out island in the Canaries as scarred as the passionate shrieking of the gypsy girl whose song keys the movie’s fiery emotion. The director of the reformatory has gone; the deputy barricades himself in his office with the revolt ringleader as a hostage; as the day goes on, the inmates turn more chaotic and destructive. The deputy becomes more the traditional liberal pleading for reasonable behavior. The two smallest and meekest are practical-joked into the director’s bedroom “to have a go at it”; the blind dwarfs, stand-ins for the Status Quo, are tormented out of a Peaceful Life by the others. The institution car is set in motion to drive in a continuous circle, furniture is smashed, the deputy is bombarded with stones and live hens, and the dwarfs finally march in a procession through smoking flower pots (“the flowers are in bloom, let’s burn them”), holding aloft a pet monkey tied to a cross.

It is an hallucinatory attack on half-baked revolutions, and has most of the anti-culture bric-a-brac that fills a Herzog movie: stormtrooper goggles, rusted barrels and oil drums from past military debacles, long tracks that are like a slow train going through landscape accompanied by a vitriolic or facetious sound track, the ferocious sound of mad laughter, diabolic mistreatment of animals by other animals or humans.

Herzog’s nightmares are speckled with a kind of dormant, lazy, motiveless cruelty: two dwarf women, out of boredom, giggle in comradeship over the killing of an enormous white sow who had been nursing nine piglets. An earlier focus of great friendship was directed against the plant world. “Let’s burn down the director’s favorite palm tree”—this accompanied by the most intense, delighted laughter.

Along with cruelty, a big Herzog item is enslavement. One of the most touching, wistful moments: a high shot down on a woman with her two-story, cigar-box apartment house, an extraordinary miniature of Madame Tussaud’s occupied by two dozen insects dressed in elaborate costumes. The inmates perform this inspection once a week with total delight, and there’s extreme consternation if any tiny convict has had a wing damaged or lost his top hat. Each view of the bride evokes, “Ohhhh, how lovely!”

Herzog’s film—the awkward framing, the jagged pace, a deep space that spreads beyond the edges of the screen—hinges on his being a real German gypsy, an Outsider whose movies sing with sunlight, a keen sensitivity to the beauty of motion, rush of water, bird flight, the trajectory of an arrow, etc. The portrait in Signs of Life of Meinhard, a German soldier on the fringes of the war with nothing to do, is a catalog of restless-grumpy poking around a sun-blasted foreign place. Meinhard, the amiable roach trapper, with his constant questions about animal behavior (“Have you ever seen a caterpillar procession . . . do you know how to hypnotize a chicken . . . what does a kangaroo look like on Sunday?”) is enveloped by space, literally swallowed by sunlight, save for a Herzog trademark: his unflagging determination and physicality.

The only roof Herzog admits to is the sky; even the indoor shots of a dwarf prisoner, roped to a swivel chair, are unenclosed, chaotic, spacious. Herzog perversely subverts any potential drama, always opting for a spontaneous activity over a pre-thought plan. One of his most rambunctious examples of history erupts in Aguirre. The Spanish are making an assault on a cannibal village. They push in front of them an improbably acquiescent black slave on the proposition that he’ll scare the savages to their knees. As they move forward, the ground turns at an angle, the stalwart Castilians roll around like marbles, and the spectator wonders why, where and what the director and his camera are doing. Where are these Indians? Where are these countless arrows coming from? You can image Herzog whipping his frazzled actors before him with some of his movie’s frazzled dialogue: “Move, you sons of ducks, la pudre duh madre, keep the cannon out of the water!” His beautiful, immaculate star, Helena Rojo, changed into her best Balenciaga for this gala chaos, walks into the forest in disgust, preferring a cannibal stew to the company of her noble (no-bull) defenders who are rolling around the ground in various states of slovenliness. “There she goes, never to be seen again.” Could such dishevelment be strategy, or did the jungle heat do them all in?

From the witty observations of the eccentric Meinhard in his seminal debut, Signs of Life, a seedbed of images and themes which appear in every other Herzog, to the disturbing and very moving moments with the deaf-and-blind in Land of Silence, Herzog has been in a perverse situation: He doesn’t want to deal with actors but is obviously fascinated with people as phenomena. His camera is evasive and recessive when the time comes for character-building (with the ironic, above-noted exception of the Fini Straubinger story), he feels people’s relationships are their own business, and could care less about person-to-person situations: His two-shot setups are mostly stiff. A person in relation to his obsession-passion-hobby is where Herzog turns on: Walter Steiner, Swiss ski-jump champion, and his ecstatic ski-flights; Straubinger’s travels spreading the language of touch; a mad lizard worshipper (“you can’t imagine how long it takes to catch them if they run away”); the intensively private experience of a thin hospital patient fingering her dress, making a sign of the cross incessantly and feverishly in a hand ballet that never stops . . . her face delicately befuddled and poignant.

The overwhelming isolation of every mortal in the human kingdom is the sensation of any Herzog frame. When two types of loss-alienation can be split apart within one frame, the movie inevitably is at its most hurtful and associative. Perhaps his entire oeuvre defines itself around the miracle scene, utterly dirty, of a wiry Algerian hammering stones into gravel. His clenched doggedness is suddenly matched by an equally weathered intruder who takes a stiff, belligerent stand toward the camera. It catches a whole area’s existence, dry mid-Sahara, and the outsider’s impotent relation to it. Over this image is a rasping incantation: “The gates of paradise are open to everybody . . . there works are inspected which no one would do . . . you slake lime and are chosen for this by the rich.”

Herzog is one tough guy with an ability to be pliant, gentle. But he’s undivertable, insisting on this seething passion that washes over every frame of Aguirre, Fata Morgana. There’s no moaning in such work, but also there’s no Pollyanna glossing: They’re often fiercely funny, pleasurable, naturally energetic. But always there is this disturbing statement: “This is a treacherous world and there is a considerable amount of dementia in all of us.” His message: “When things become irreal, this is the moment which moves me most.”

with Patricia Patterson; July 13, 1975

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