What More Is Mankind Than Nature’s Parasite? Reflections on ‘Herzog: The Collection’

For Werner Herzog, man’s tug-of-war with nature is not a present imbalance but a lost cause, the barbarous beauty of nature made mere barbarism by humankind.

Like Gustav Mahler, Werner Herzog emerged as an almost fully-formed artist early on, perhaps to his detriment. Just as Mahler’s First Symphony presages the orchestral colors, invocations of nature, and contorted folks songs varied and developed in later symphonies, so do Herzog’s earliest films, especially Fata Morgana (1971), augur the surreal landscapes and deceptive confrontations between man and nature that mark his auteurism. I’d stress the “deceptiveness” of these confrontations not merely because Herzog’s relationship with romanticism is ambiguous, but because we know the man-nature binary, whether applied literarily or bio-evolutionarily, is empirically false. Though conditioned and corrupted, man stills embodies nature in his pulse and perceptions, in his arteries and neurons, and whether Herzog’s heroes are hubristic (as represented by Klaus Kinski) or innocent (as represented by Bruno S.), they all succumb to unsparing entropies at once naturally predestined and socially derived.

Herzog may in fact despise both man and nature, or, at least after the tribulations of Fitzcarraldo (1982), imply that man’s foolhardy ambitions are preferable to nature’s terrific beauties. Undoubtedly, what he loves most is cinema, in its technology, its aura, and its ability to reframe chaotic landscapes as rationally composed ruminations. Close-ups are rare for Herzog, and his landscapes are uncanny—often to the point of quiet horror—rather than objective or godlike. Drawing inspiration from the grotesquerie of Bruegel and the mist-shrouded landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, Herzog appoints the image a primal position that supersedes even meaning itself.

As Herzog says: “…let me tell you: [my] ideology is simply the films themselves and my ability to make them. This is what scares those people who try so hard to analyze and criticize me and my work. I do not like to drop names, but what sort of an ideology would you push under the shirt of Conrad or Hemingway or Kafka? Goya or Caspar David Friedrich? I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization… The biggest danger, in my opinion, is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials.” (Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin, London: Faber and Faber, 2002, 80)

Watching Shout Factory’s Herzog: The Collection, a set of blu-rays that traverses his career from 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small to 1999’s My Best Fiend, one sees clearly, maybe too clearly, the landscapes that repeatedly enthrall his vision. Semioticians often speak of the “symptomatic” (that is, neurotic) character of the auteur, and when watching Herzog’s films out of chronological order, his obsessiveness and circularity become all the clearer. Nevertheless, Herzog’s works always have a deliberate sense of groping incompleteness. Whereas Ingmar Bergman, for instance, tends to repeat himself fully, with each new film building up from scratch what he’d said two years before, Herzog’s spiraling eternal return seems only a partial sign of a single vision that has yet to imagine a coherent whole.

There’s something oddly encouraging or reassuring in Herzog’s commercial success. His static, pensive imageries provide no crowd-pleasing narrative thrust, and unlike Fassbinder and Wenders, he has little to no interest in paying homage to Hollywood genre filmmaking. (Herzog’s single essay in Americanist genre, 2009’s sardonic Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, happily decorticates the policier, revealing its underlying social psychoses.) Logically, he should be no more popular with mass audiences than was Tarkovsky, as each of their transcendentalisms is signified by hypnotic, gorgeously composed stasis. But Herzog is also a shameless self-promoter, selling his auteurism at every turn and even appearing on The Simpsons (can you imagine Tarkovsky or Bresson as a self-parodying cartoon?). An image-maker in love with cinematic artifice, Herzog is himself an imagistic creation; in this, he remains a Romantic in the truest sense of the word; not as a naïve glorifier of nature but as an artist who creates himself through art.

By remaking Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Herzog might seem to embody or inherit the legacy of expressionism, but his 1979 homage has greater relevance to Herzog’s own body of work than to the history of German silent film. If Herzog’s canon is sui generis, belonging to no genre but his own, his “not inadequate” images also defy monolithic categories, even if specific compositions echo the montane landscapes of Friedrich (as in 1976’s Heart of Glass) or the stark lighting effects of the Dutch masters (as in 1979’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht). Though he defers to Büchner’s proto-expressionism in Woyzeck (1979) and the affected chiaroscuro of German silents in Nosferatu, Herzog’s aesthetic of “lyrical grotesquerie” (for lack of a better term) is not in itself expressionistic, at least not in the psychologizing sense of the term.

For the fin de siècle expressionists of Die Brücke, many of them schooled in architecture, expressionism was a tool that exteriorized and exposed the angst beneath bourgeois, modern façades. With the possible exceptions of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977), however, Herzog’s canvas is one of uncanny, mannerist surfaces that conceal no repressed psychologies. If anything, his fictions are anti-expressionistic, or perhaps post-impressionistic, to the degree that his characters are not agents protruding angularly from their environments but hapless cyphers enrobed and colored by pulsing landscapes.

Herzog himself has often insisted that his anti-romantic tendencies are stronger than his romantic ones; certainly, his haunted landscapes, alternatively apocalyptic, fanciful, dreadful, and impenetrable, reject the quainter aspects of naturalism. Indeed, his landscapes overbear the insignificant lives that inhabit them; Herzog’s human characters are largely parasitic, transitory, pathetic, and ultimately out of sync with the universe. The animals that populate his landscapes are parasitic too, but appear as ill omens, swarming primevally and signifying the destruction a cruel nature brings.

Consider the plague-bearing rats in Nosferatu, the mindless monkeys that finally surround doomed Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), or the hermit crabs that overrun the colonial outposts of Cobra Verde. When removed from their proper, natural places, Herzog’s animals seem even more absurd, as do Fitzcarraldo’s aristocratic horses, which are fed champagne at the opera house. Only in Aguirre, The Wrath of God does man strike back at his animal competitors—but when, in the middle of the film, Klaus Kinski literally smacks down an obstinate horse on a floating barge, he already realizes nature en masse has bested him, and striking the horse is only a frustrated, buffoonish protest.


Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

If Herzog nests within the romantic process of self-creation, Klaus Kinski’s demented colonialist in Aguirre, The Wrath of God attempts his own creation myth, and in the final fatal image he announces to his collected monkeys, “We’ll stage history as others stage plays.” Surely, this is a standard Herzogian claim: art and history are interchangeable insofar as each is ideally a willed creation. Yet the nature that intervenes between these two elements in Aguirre, The Wrath of God is merciless and overwhelming, reducing any sense of idealized will to hubristic comedy.

The film famously opens, as do so many Herzog films, with cloud-shrouded mountains, as Popul Vuh’s haunting synthesized score—arguably the group’s masterpiece—mimics the sound of heavenly choirs. But Aguirre, The Wrath of God’s conquistadors, from a distance looking like a pathetic trail of halberd-wielding ants, will know no heaven. Indeed, the treble voices of the heavenly choir soon give way to lower baritones, intimating the sinister side of undiscovered countries. Seeking the chimerical El Dorado, the colonialists, both savagers and victims of nature, are picked off by unseen natives lacking the humanity of the aboriginal peoples of Fitzcarraldo or Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). The natives, embodying a fantastic justice, are ironically the wrath of the title, reducing Aguirre’s mad dream to nothing more than himself, alone on a raft with monkeys unconverted to the cause of his new, incestuous Reich. As Aguirre, replete with Richard III humpback, travesties history, the dirge-like qualities of Popul Vuh’s score become clearer, as if its open-mouthed choir were becoming more and more agape at the hero’s hubris.


Fitzcarraldo (1982)

The plays Aguirre can never stage are innocently reborn as the operas — bel canto, no less — that the eponymous hero of Fitzcarraldo wishes to bring to the uncivilized jungle. Though Herzog believes he’s too disillusioned to be deemed a Romantic, Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo more or less embodies Herzog’s own aesthetics, for what he seeks diegetically is what Herzog does extra-diegetically whenever he imposes soundtracks of Wagner or Gounod onto primeval landscapes. Before watching this high-definition transfer, I hadn’t seen Fitzcarraldo in many years, and sadly, it’s even more awkward and lumbering than I’d remembered, almost a self-parody of Herzog’s “legendary” obsessiveness.

But at least a happy ending awaits Fitzcarraldo’s incarnation of Kinski, to whose characteristic madness we’ve become too inured, and who’d always ranked acting below whoring in the list of respectable professions. After all, whores sell only their skin and nerve endings, but actors, tortured by vanity, sell their emotions and souls and every other ingredient necessary to some Method. The actor-whore’s dilemma is central to the documentary My Best Fiend (1999), which reveals an embittered, stage-bound Kinski berating a paying audience assembled to witness his misanthropic antics. At the height of his fame, Beethoven would literally spit upon the decadent audiences gathered to see him concertize, and eyewitness accounts claim that they lapped up the maestro’s oral baptisms gratefully. Kinski, presumably, was born a century-and-half too late, in an era that thinks far too politely of genius.

More compelling both scenically and dramatically than Fitzcarraldo, the lesser-known Cobra Verde (1987) allows Kinski one of his most manic portrayals, filled with spite and well-earned spittle. Here his Third World adventurer is neither the fascist of Aguirre, The Wrath of God nor a quixotic, operatic soul but an ignoble 19th century savage, a barefooted, friendless bandit who tries to outwit the aristocratic slave-traders who employ him. Threatened by Kinski’s ambition, his masters make him an ad hoc lieutenant and send him away to the Kingdom of Dahomey (what is today Benin) to restart the slave trade outlawed by the British in the early 1850s.

The obvious imperialist commentary is overshadowed, however, by Dahomey’s bloodthirsty king, who dreams of thatching roofs with enemies’ skulls and believes himself the brother of the English Queen. Though Herzog paints the kingdom in vibrant, stunning saffron and crimson, Cobra Verde provides Herzog’s least sentimental vision of primitivism, in which tribal society is by turns submissive and sadomasochistic—and, it turns out, even more cunning and deceitful than the machinations of oppressive colonialists.

Given Herzog’s vested interest in uncivil savagery—the same savagery that so maddens him in Les Blanc’s documentary Burden of DreamsCobra Verde ultimately disappoints by denying the audience the dramatic spectacle of Kinski leading his army of Amazons on the king’s fortress and the king’s subsequent ritual strangulation by his own wives. Herzog is wrong to leave these scenes offscreen. One wishes he would abandon tastefulness and heed the advice of David Cronenberg, who has openly rejected Hitchcock’s (unfounded) premise that what remains offscreen, and thus gestates in our imaginations, shocks more than what filmmakers can visualize.

It’s worth mentioning that Cobra Verde’s frustrations also extend to the film’s own precarious soundtrack, which exists in no definitive version. Toggling back and forth between two soundtracks—one dubbed in German and one partly filmed in synchronized English and partly overdubbed—one misses the directly recorded sounds integral to Herzog’s unusual naturalism, and any authentic experience of the film is banished to the imagination, much like the king’s demise.

Political Landscapes

In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), the ignoble savage of Cobra Verde is nobly incarnated in the form of Bruno S., the former mental patient and extraordinary actor who signifies the humanist antipode to Kinski’s raging id. Based on the famous 19th century history of a young man reared in isolation and then abandoned in society, Herzog’s Hauser is clearly romanticized, as estranged from social norms as Aguirre is disconnected from vengeful nature. Just before Hauser is deserted by the man who raised him in captivity, we see an enormous clock shrouded in the mists that, throughout Herzog’s canon, signify an ineffable fatalism.

Herzog’s landscapes overbear the insignificant lives that inhabit them; human characters are largely parasitic, transitory, pathetic, and ultimately out of sync with the universe.

For an asocial creature like Hauser, the clock’s exacting intervals of timekeeping are incomprehensibly rational. Existing timelessly, ignorant of stages of development or notions of mortality and finitude, he evinces a failed transcendentalism that never aspires to better the world, as did Emerson’s quest to reclaim spiritual purity from a corrupted, legalized society. As a sub-Rousseauean experiment, bereft of the autodidactic initiative of Rousseau’s Emile, he learns nothing, unable to fake his way through a Mozart waltz or play the part of the cultivated savage at a nobleman’s salon. He ultimately rejects, too, the carefully tended garden kept by his kindly mentor. Though it once brought him joy, the garden’s naturalness is studied and false, a social construct whose borders make little sense to Hauser, who believes that fruits possess will power and that nature moves man, not the other way around.


The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

he Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’s Aesopian qualities become modernized in the beguiling Stroszek, a humane (but not naïvely humanistic) odyssey in which Bruno S. enacts the autobiographical portrait of a mental patient newly released from an emasculating institution. Unlike the frenzied heroes of Even Dwarfs Started Small (discussed below), he harbors no revolutionary impulse, but he does retain a survival instinct unknown to the sheltered Kaspar Hauser.

Penniless and humiliated in Germany, he joins with a young prostitute and his wizened neighbor (the endearing Clemens Scheitz), who venture the wastelands of Wisconsin. Herzog does not romanticize America, however, as Wim Wenders often does; the brutish German gangsters who terrorize Bruno S.’s hero are crude parodies of American pimps, clad in fur jackets and swigging “Big Valley” whiskey. The American plains in which the trio find themselves are a far cry from the candy-colored Karl May novels that once fed the German imagination. The sort of godforsaken Americana only Errol Morris could love, Herzog’s Wisconsin is populated by gun-toting farmers who grumble over land rights and a mechanic who performs impromptu dental surgery with a garage wrench.

As once sanguine prospects in the New World turn bitter, Stroszek and his old neighbor turn into clownish figures, becoming petty, incompetent outlaws, a hopeless parody of American folk-heroism. In the film’s final scene, Stroszek is left holding three emblems of America: a broken-down pickup truck, a shotgun, and a frozen turkey, all of them useless. He abandons the truck and lets it spin helplessly, the existential linearity of the road movie reduced to directionless idiocy. In his final act, Stroszek rides a ski lift up to the mountains, but he will touch the summit’s ineffable clouds only fleetingly. Much as the American pickup truck betrayed its promise of open-road freedom, the rotating ski lift will soon return him to incredulous police and a corrupting earth.

Tellingly, Herzog’s only successfully transcendental hero is his Nosferatu, who nevertheless remains at the director’s usual distance from heavenly deliverance. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is an odd instance of a tragedy whose predetermination is equally generic and auteurist: although Kinski’s supernatural protagonist overcomes Herzog’s contrived conflict between man and nature by defying each polarity equally, his immortality is lifeless and nugatory. As his pale pate and murine visage, only lightly less monstrous than Max Schreck’s, stares forlornly from pitch darkness, he is disgusted with his unnatural transcendence and longs for the deadliness of nature. Indeed, the sunlight that finally claims him is as unsparing as the blazing jungle that engulfs the monstrous Aguirre.


Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Again, Nosferatu is not expressionistic in the classical sense, as the vampire, symbolic of an anachronistic aristocracy, has no psyche to excavate. Nor does Aguirre, for that matter, who at most symbolizes the egotism guiding historical folly. For the expressionists, the monster was an interior unknown that could only be exposed skeletally or phantasmatically, refracted through light and shadow and sketched in stark strokes. But Herzog’s monsters have nothing to exteriorize. The mad colonialist Aguirre, like the bloodsucker, is a quantity known all too well, and the offscreen chorus that engulfs his exotic procession into nothingness is little different from the choir that, in Nosferatu’s opening sequence, cries in broad octaves over images of open-mouthed mummies, buried deep in the catacombs.

Herzog’s Woyzeck, also made in 1979, likewise acknowledges the expressionism, or in this case, the proto-expressionism, of a German classic, but apart from Klaus Kinski’s grimacing, utterly manic performance, Herzog plays the story unexpectedly straight, keeping Büchner’s grotesquerie at arm’s length. One’s imagination irresistibly defers to Berg’s operatic treatment, whose hysterical dynamics reflect the poor hero’s vacillations between erotic longing and humiliation better than Herzog’s pseudo-naturalist palette does.

Put more simply, Woyzeck’s absurdity requires an overarching atonality that Kinski’s misanthropy and masochism cannot convey. If Arnold Schoenberg liked to downplay the differences between his emotive atonality and the romantic tradition of Brahms, Herzog, in remaking in Nosferatu and Woyzeck, probably overstates the similarities between himself and the German expressionist tradition. Any allegiances to tradition aside, Nosferatu’s nearly Bruegelian compositions and textures, balancing ripe stillnesses with Herzog’s evanescent mists, rank among cinema’s most enrapturing visions.

If the vampire’s allegory allows Herzog to supernaturally intertwine visions of ripeness and entropy, his earlier Fata Morgana (1971), a “science fiction” film in the director’s own words, does much the same mischievously, through absurd contrasts. Largely filmed in still Cameroonian deserts, Fata Morgana is not so much a documentary as a critical essay that subversively interpolates the realist poetry of the nature documentary with signs of grotesque modernity. The film’s first section, “Creation” begins with repetitive, rather ominous images of a jetliner landing on an airstrip, suggesting the mechanistic routine and polluted haze that attend humanity’s descents into technology.

The obsessive images of flight foreclose the naïve sense of wonder that flying later evokes in Where the Green Ants Dream and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The airliner’s technology proposes freedom but generates dependence. Elsewhere, the film’s imagery hints at Herzog’s future; infernal oil derricks augur the Iraqi holocausts of Lessons of Darkness (1992), while rippling sand dunes presage Nosferatu’s final image, which adds to an otherwise lifeless desert the promise of an adventurer on horseback. Most of all, Fata Morgana’s first section presents a creation myth littered with detritus and destruction: we see the decadent dynasty Aguirre sought as it might have been five centuries later, a mess of overturned cars, oil barrels, foundries, and other ancient artifacts of the polluted era. In a startling image, a rock formation looks uncannily like a camel rising from the sands. Is this nature’s last gasp, or its first?


Lessons of Darkness (1992)

The film’s second part, “Paradise”, indeed features Edenic waterfalls but soon finds in the garden signs of serpentine fallenness. A boy begs for a dime, a mad scientist in black goggles fanatically studies extremophilic lizards, and ramshackle mobiles homes dot an unforgiving wasteland, the latter an image of tragicomic transience that recurs in Stroszek and Where the Green Ants Dream. Finally, we reach the “Golden Age”, and civilization fully reveals the fruits of its knowledge, represented by a middle-aged woman banging on an ill-tuned piano while a lounge singer hums into a microphone.

Soon sand dunes swallow sinking tourists, who silently wave for assistance that never arrives. Nature is even more merciless, it turns out, than kitschy lounge spiel. The film’s ultimate comedy is far more pessimistic than, say, the critique of Koyaanisqatsi, whose contrasting images of natural grandeur and technological enslavement suggest a mere imbalance that enlightenment might correct. For Herzog, man’s tug-of-war with nature is not a present imbalance but a lost cause, the barbarous beauty of nature made mere barbarism by humankind.

Nature returns indomitable in Heart of Glass (1976), in many ways Herzog’s most experimental film, whose ubiquitous Bavarian mists serve the primordial function of Fata Morgana’s scorched sub-Saharan earth. Based on a story by the surrealist Herbert Achternbusch and best known for Herzog’s hypnotism of the cast, Heart of Glass has always resisted plot synopsis and close reading. “I look into the distance, to the end of the world,” says one of the film’s rural villagers, all of whom fear the town’s legendary ruby glassworks will perish with the death of the master glassblower, who never revealed the secrets of his craft.

Against vast distances of countryside Herzog envisions claustrophobic, candlelit interiors right out of Bruegel, as peasants with beer-swollen noses live entranced by superstition and prophesies of a doom-bringing giant. Like Kaspar Hauser and Herzog’s Amazonian primitives, the villagers are animists, ascribing living energy to their fiery art, whose absence portends annihilation, the reckoning of Ragnarök itself. Heart of Glass is something of an un-creation myth, a nearly indescribable, laconic vision of social breakdown with mystical hints of Goethe, Dante, even Lewis Carroll. The film’s “radical lyricism” (if one can imagine such a paradox) becomes deliberate incoherence, a solemnly beautiful procession not into hell (the ruby’s fire is extinguished) but into a nihilistic landscape.

The documentary Lessons of Darkness traverses more political landscapes, beginning with astounding wide-angle helicopter shots of Bagdad moments before the first Gulf War, underscored portentously with the lyricism of Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1941). Herzog finds eerie beauty in green, infrared images of rocket fire and flak and, in the film’s best-known sequences, his camera lingers over the Kuwaiti oil fires that the late Carl Sagan (wrongly) predicted would cloak the planet in clouds of choking vapor. The horror, however, is apocalyptic enough, and the scorched-earth landscapes that were comic counterpoint in Fata Morgana here become a fiery realization of Heart of Glass’s anticipated Ragnarök.

As Herzog’s narration claims, the sooty air caused children to drip black mucous and shed tarred tears. Herzog’s voiceover, in search of metaphor, tells us that victims of Saddam Hussein’s violence have lost the power of speech simply by witnessing acts of murder and savagery, a claim that rather too conveniently echoes an episode in Heart of Glass, in which a woman goes mute after witnessing her husband’s death. The coincidence is unlikely and exposes Herzog’s mythmaking. The unethicality of Herzog’s probable lie is arguably less distressing than his insistence on mythic repetitions, but such is auteurism’s abyss, circling like Stroszek’s pickup truck into ever narrower patterns.

The soundtrack of Lessons of Darkness, a barrage of familiar classics, presents more basic aesthetic problems. Groping for borrowed profundity, Herzog relies heavily on Wagner, especially the prologue from Parsifal (which in itself belies Herzog’s claims of anti-romanticism). The deference to classical chestnuts is far too easy a strategy for an artist as good as Herzog, and Parsifal, a tale of Christian redemption, hardly resonates with invading America’s unredeemable oil interests in the Middle East. I had the same reservations when seeing the film two decades ago when it premiered in America on cable television. When John Boorman uses the Parsifal motif in Excalibur (1981), the choice is unimaginative but at least thematically resonant; here, Herzog indulges in a superficial bombast justified only by routine applications of auteurism (i.e., his atmospheric use of Wagner in Heart of Glass, Nosferatu, etc.)

Subtler is his use of the haunting first movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins to underscore images of an Iraqi torture chamber, the heartrending, intertwining lines of the violins evoking the phantom cries of those subjected to exaggerated hammers and a makeshift electric chair. Most effective, though, are those helicopter shots in which Herzog lets his images speak silently, without imposition.

Cinematic Artifice

If Lessons of Darkness observes from a distance landscapes surreally savaged by war, Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly offers a more personal, psychologized view of warfare’s scars. The film uses as its epigraph a quotation from the Book of Revelations, the same quotation, in fact, that Herzog narrates aloud in Lessons of Darkness: “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it, and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” In Lessons of Darkness, Death flees but temporarily, deserting the holocaust only to return when mankind’s belligerence tempts Him anew. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the titular hero, a German émigré and Vietnam veteran haunted by hallucinatory flashbacks, manages to keep Death at bay by confronting his demons, returning to the Laotian prison camp that held him captive in the ’60s.

An image-maker in love with cinematic artifice, Herzog is himself an imagistic creation; in this, he remains a Romantic in the truest sense of the word; not as a naïve glorifier of nature but as an artist who creates himself through art.

From a young age, Dieter had been fascinated with flight, but his perverse narrative complicates simplistic metaphors of airborne freedom: he first encountered the power of flight when an Allied fighter, guns blazing, swooped down in front of his bedroom window during the final leg of WWII. Later, Herzog shows us stock footage of fields of fighter planes aligned in neat rows. The personal power of a single plane becomes a technological monstrosity when multiplied. Still traumatized, Dieter prepares for the worst, hoarding thousands of pounds of flour and rice under the floorboards of his home and covering his walls with paintings of open doors, a constant reminder of his present freedom. Herzog reflects Dieter’s intermingled memories of war and liberation by showing his subject ponder a floating jellyfish imprisoned in an aquarium. When Herzog uncannily buoys the scene with the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, his deference to Wagner, for once, is not crypto-Romantic but genuinely ironic, for the jellyfish glides blissfully in a transparent cage it mistakes for limitless freedom.


The Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)

In the opening of The Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984), co-directed with journalist Denis Reichle, a boy of perhaps 11, clad in camouflage fatigues and wielding an automatic rifle, sings a naïve song about a schoolboy’s innocent love for a schoolgirl. Despite his premature militarization, he smiles awkwardly into the camera after finishing the song’s many verses. He is still a child, after all, and hasn’t yet nurtured Little Dieter’s perverse nostalgia. Thus begins an anguished look at the refugees of Nicaragua’s indigenous Miskito population in the wake of the Sandinista revolution.

Once allied with the Sandinistas to overthrow the American puppet Somoza, the Miskitos now find themselves endangered as the Sandinistas advance a centralized Marxist state by violently erasing Miskito cultures that practice, as Herzog says, a ”primitive rural socialism”. As Herzog and Reichle follow a prepubescent commando unit trained by Somoza’s ex-guardsmen, we learn that Sandinistas have been scourging the countryside, torturing and decapitating Miskitos. We do not learn, however, that the Contras, now uneasily allied with Miskito populations, have committed comparable atrocities. However, Herzog is less interested in politics than in the corruption of youth and simplicity. Their rifles and mortars aside, the children are in Herzog’s eyes an entire army of unwitting Kaspar Hausers, innocents thrust into savage, irrational politics badly rationalized with the term “civilization”.

At one point, an off-camera Herzog presses a boy of about ten to describe the Sandinistas’ murder of his brothers, aged two and six. Toying with his rifle, the boy answers tentatively, eventually asserting his desire for revenge, even if it means killing child soldiers on the other side. The moment is heartrending, but soon the camera’s limitations become obvious: the boy’s coy, superficial smile masks inner conflicts visuality alone cannot reveal. Goaded into vengeance by their Somozist overseer, the child soldiers become little more than “uncorrupted” vessels ripe for brainwashing, as the instructor proudly claims.


Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

The despairing politics of The Ballad of the Little Soldier find an absurdist complement in Even Dwarfs Started Small, whose tinier insurrection is enacted by all-dwarf cast. Rising up against their institutional master, the dwarfs are presented not as heroic or egalitarian rebels but as mischievous imps, their squeaky, restless voices imprisoned in wrinkled bodies. The institution has done its best to permanently infantilize the dwarfs, feeding them powdered milk and providing outsize props, including beds too tall to mount, even in the heat of sexual excitement. In The Ballad of the Little Soldier, children are thrust tragically into untenable adult roles; here, the dwarfs are biological adults condemned to an infantilizing institution. The institutional director, too, is a dwarf, suggesting the asylum shrinks masters and slaves alike.

Like Bruno S. in Stroszek, the dwarfs are already emasculated at the outset, and their rebellion is invested with desire but not direction. As they run rampant in the asylum’s courtyard, desecrating the master’s beloved garden and crucifying available animals, they paradoxically enact an evolution into “positive” chaos, allying themselves with the aborigines and primitives Herzog usually advances as anti-social or anti-cultural heroes. But their courtyard rebellion is too trivial, even as allegory or a kind of inverse Lord of the Flies. Herzog ultimately gives his rebels too little to accomplish, and I found myself veering radically from rapt fascination (with the premise) to long stretches of tedium (the execution).

The small parable of Even Dwarfs Started Small is nevertheless preferable to the explicit politicizing of Where the Green Ants Dream, which is generally, and rightly, considered one of Herzog’s awkward failures, a catalogue of familiar nature-and-innocence motifs hedged into a verbose, too-conventional narrative. Notably, the film presents Herzog’s first rational, non-quixotic hero, an eco-sensitive Australian geologist who is a far cry from the dogmatic logician who appears in Kaspar Hauser, berating the poor hero for reasoning intuitively rather than deductively. Siding with Australian aborigines, who fear an encroaching mining monopoly will disturb sacred lands and catalyze their own version of Ragnarök, the geologist is the inverse of Aguirre. But Herzog’s romance of the noble savage here lacks Kaspar Hauser’s necessary disillusionment or Stroszek’s uncanny irony. Halfway through, Where the Green Ants Dream somehow devolves into courtroom drama, explicating bluntly the themes of despoliation and civilized (that is, imperialist) savagery that remain tacit in earlier films. If anything, Where the Green Ants Dream reminds me of Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), another story of native tradition imperiled by marching, effete technology, spearheaded by a director himself a master of the technologized frame.

It ultimately doesn’t matter if Herzog regards himself as inheritor, transformer, or transcender of romanticism. Art by its nature is romantic, insofar as art imperfectly strives for perfection, aiming for ideals it hardly wants to achieve (in which case the creative game would abruptly end). What Rousseau called the perfectible nature of mankind is doubled in the pursuit of artistic dreams, which can never be realized perfectly by imperfect dreamers. For Rousseau, the caveman was a proto-romantic simultaneously freed and enchained by the social compact; for Herzog, the corrupt social compromise offers the solace of art, but never a political redemption. When Herzog repudiates the sentimental tendencies of romanticism, he attempts to make himself steelier and more rational than what his films actually suggest. He forgets, furthermore, that when Beethoven broke with Mozart, and when Berlioz and Wagner indulged every orchestral whim and excess, Romanticism was marching rationally away from the heartless, aristocratic calculations of dead, 18th century conventions. Of course, Kaspar Hauser stumbles through the inhuman logic of Mozart… but how might he have fared with Schumann or Scriabin?


Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

Revisiting the bulk of the works on which Herzog’s reputation is based, one film does stand out for its rational, unmuddied, unglorified humanity. The importance of Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) was recognized four decades ago by Amos Vogel, whose estimation of the film is worth quoting at length: “If Signs of Life [1968] and Even Dwarfs Started Small are secret works, hiding [Herzog’s] true intentions, and if the brutally sardonic, metaphysical Fata Morgana reveals them, this unbearably moving account of the lives of the deaf-and-blind confirms Herzog as a mysterious new humanist of the 1970s, light-years removed from the sentimentality of the Italian neo-realists and the simplistic propaganda of untalented documentary film radicals.” (Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, New York: Random House, 1974, 185).

Eavesdropping on moments in the life of blind and deaf Fini Straubinger, Herzog begins by coaxing from her stories evocative of typical Herzogian freedoms: she remembers the boundless joy of ski-jumpers (a foreshadow of 1974’s The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner), while her friend Julie, also deaf and blind, recounts stories of a sighted childhood littered with colorful pheasants and crocodiles. The misty landscapes that in Fata Morgana, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Heart of Glass signify the earthy (and earthly) roots of transcendence are here interiorized: watching these two elderly women communicate through touch alone, grasping and stroking one another’s hands, not only hints at an intimate world closed to the fully-sensed viewer, but also repudiates the visually-centered ordering of cinema.

The loud silences of poor Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek signify incomprehension, but for these women silence is an alterity, a divergent comprehension. Their senses are bound, but their minds freely roam. The metaphor is realized when Fini and Julie go on their first flight together. The stratosphere and ether, so ineffably symbolic throughout Herzog, are now meaningless, as are the Wagner and Popul Vuh that elsewhere upholster the director’s canon. Fini and Julie experience the world tactilely, feeling only the turbulence and each other’s enraptured grasp. While the contexts of “subversive cinema” usually dwell superficially on displays of tabooed sex and violence, Land of Silence and Darkness offers a true subversion of the medium itself, presenting heroines blind to cinema’s routine spectacles. In these subjects, Herzog truly finds a redemptive, uncorrupted way of being, discovered not in fabulist landscapes or a primeval Jungian animism, but in a rarer humanity whose very tactility paradoxically proposes transcendence.