Jan Dawson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065

Herzog's power as a film-maker has always been primarily a visionary one. Nature, untamed and sometimes even uncharted, has provided the cosmic hot-house in which his awesome visions have best flowered; 'civilisation', where he has treated it, has appeared as an arrogant illusion, a Babel-tower of foolish human ambition; and his heroes, victims of and outcasts from that civilised social norm, have lived their deformed and misshaped lives in some pale, Platonic shadow of the State of Nature. Which state, though awesomely aspiring, is hardly a cheering one. It proclaims the transience, the nothingness of human endeavours, and the greater glory of a universe which yields its secrets only to those who submit to the attraction of its fatal, all-engulfing embrace.

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Linking nearly all Herzog's films is a thirst for death, but for death as a pure and transcendental force, a moment of fusion with a superior nature. It is this thirst, and this purity, which elevate the woodcarver Steiner's death-defying ski jumps from the materially competitive to the incalculably mystical. But where the self-sought death is the apotheosis to which all his films advance, Herzog treats as the ultimate irony and indignity death at human hands. Feeling away the foggy layers of intellectual confusion, one finds, at the glassy heart of all his films, gratuitousness as the single value he consistently celebrates: in his state of nature, motivation is the one cardinal sin.

At any rate, it seems an act of perfect consequence that Herzog, on learning that the volcano La Soufrière was about to erupt and that one local inhabitant had refused to join in the evacuation from the island of Guadeloupe, should promptly have set off to film the eruption…. [In La Soufrière, death] is, literally, in the air, and the message of the sulphurous exhalations drifting in beautiful, lethal clouds across the mountainside is modulated in Herzog's distinctively unaccented commentary, whose litanical chant is further echoed in the film's more overtly religious music.

In the event, La Soufrière proves, in Herzog's own words, to be a record of 'an inevitable catastrophe which didn't happen.' His disappointment, balancing his fear, contributes to the film's air of other-worldiness, ultimately reinforcing its strength, its sheer gratuitousness. The deserted town, its streets patrolled by dogs too hungry to bark, serves as a mute monument to the folly of human ambition; the unapproachable crevice on the mountain-top becomes a magnetic force, drawing the film crew towards its noxious embrace; the last inhabitant proves to be not one man but three, all of them blacks, all of them so exploited by a greedy civilisation that they have nothing to live for and hence no fear of dying.

It is here that the disquieting moral ambivalence of all Herzog's work comes most sharply into focus: the old man, stretched out with his cat to die on the grassy mountainside, is offered at once as an object for emulation and for indignation. By staying gratuitously, he becomes not a martyr but a hero; but for the earlier generation (on the neighbouring island of Martinique) which stayed for something, namely an election, Herzog reserves his finest irony. The moral is labyrinthine and confused, but the vision is hypnotic, powerful and persuasive. Even the presence of the film crew, honestly recorded, proves barely intrusive, since they attempt, not to modify the situation, but rather to succumb to its inevitable force.

Stroszek …, on the other hand, attempts to leap from the sublime to the ridiculous. Of all Herzog's films it appears the one most calculated to please. It places humanity rather than nature in the centre of the screen, and sets its humans down in mean city streets and arid wastelands whose muddy monotony is relieved only by mobile homes (perhaps the ultimate metaphor for the transience of human constructions) and pre-fabricated out-buildings. The closest the film comes to a moment of exaltation is when its three naive misfits contemplate the view from the Empire State. Some thousand miles of flat lands later, after acres of junk food, jerry-building and clapped out automobiles, one of the three reaches another high point, a mountain on an Indian reservation in Wisconsin—the mountainside is cluttered, not only by a funicular railway that takes the sightseer in pointless circles, but also by an amusement arcade filled with dancing chickens and musical ducks, and by craft shops where the natives sell the mass-produced versions of their traditional wares. In the parking lot at the base, a lone Cherokee stands watch in full warrior costume.

Stroszek is, both literally and figuratively, a film about prostitution; and in its recourse to facile irony and no less facile sentimentality it comes perilously close to partaking of what it denounces (Henry James—of course—had a phrase for it: 'the age of trash triumphant'). The film begins in Berlin, where Bruno S. …, on his release from prison, forms an unlikely alliance with a streetwalker called Eva who is being brutalised by her pimp. The opening scenes might belong in a Fassbinder melodrama, were it not for Herzog's determination to compel us into an affection for his characters that is inevitably patronising. For these bighearted victims (Bruno, the girl and an elderly neighbour) are set up to represent the little people, and their colourful eccentricity is that of the Gallic courtyard comedy. If Bruno's speech and appearance are as startling as they were in Kaspar Hauser, Herzog has none the less diminished the credibility of his victim hero by giving him a girlfriend, companions, a concerned neighbour; and by having him uncynical enough about man's inhumanity to believe that America may still be the promised land.

Yet although the film's ideas might best be described as elementary, and although it frequently treats its characters with a condescending cuteness, Stroszek works as powerful argument on the level of its images. The 60-foot trailer, the lone Indian, the dancing chicken, the funicular, provide an effective emblematic critique of our trashy society. They also have a persuasiveness that the fictional characters lack. The metaphysical, this time, takes a back seat to the social and the ephemeral. Herzog's transatlantic fable proves a worldly divertissement, after which one can only hope he will, like Moses, go back up the mountain. (pp. 57-8)

Jan Dawson, "Herzog's Magic Mountain," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 57-8.

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