Richard Combs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

Where [Herzog's] later films have located the history of man in a terrain and on a time scale all their own (the terminal ward of Even Dwarfs Started Small, the desert myths of Fata Morgana), Lebenszeichen … extracts a similar meditation from a specific historical situation and a not unfamiliar plot format. Wounded in Crete during the Second World War, good soldier Stroszek is removed from the fighting and left to heal in the sultry, dulling climate of a non-combat zone. In the 'time out of war' situation, his physical wound becomes an opening on the frightening illogic of his situation, the absurdity of not just the war but of all the artefacts of human existence which stand petrified around him. Herzog gives peculiar weight to the initial 'accident' of the wounding of Stroszek: "It occurred during a lull in the fighting, in a village held by the Germans", the narrator comments, and a long, swooping camera track through deserted, sun-baked streets makes an abrupt turn and comes upon two uniformed bodies, flicking away instantly to stare idly down another empty street, before returning briefly to the evidence of this glancing intrusion of death. Having been brought so close, and so inappropriately, to extinction, Stroszek's convalescence is clouded by a growing, oppressive sense that existence itself may be no more than an absurd accident; the signs of life are drenched with associations—all the family possessions which Stroszek finds so touching in the house where he and Nora have been billeted; the pieces of ancient statuary used by later generations to patch up the walls of the fortress—but like the inscriptions over which Becker patiently toils, they are now devoid of meaning. In the brief histories it gives of the three guardians of a useless treasure, Lebenszeichen provides a catalogue of casual dislocations: all three are peculiarly unsuited to their present profession, and to most of the activities they have engaged in all their lives…. Eventually collapsing in terror in the face of the tiny circlings of existence (the routine of the pointless duty; the colony of flies that are bottled within the gypsy's tiny wooden owl in order to produce its minute, puzzling movements; the forest of windmills that finally provoke a breakdown), Stroszek struggles to launch a grandly romantic rebellion, which Herzog films lyrically as if it were the last gasp of an individual no longer able to live as a man and unable to become a god. In a lushly mesmerising atmosphere of suffocating heat and chattering insects, where all history might be drying up at the roots, Herzog's first film is a limpidly clear meditation on life shrivelling under a self-imposed oppression; and in its championing of a failed rebellion, an anticipation of the darker scenes of Aguirre, Wrath of God. (pp. 9-10)

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Richard Combs, "Feature Films: 'Signs of Life'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 480, January, 1974, pp. 9-10.

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Tony Rayns


Tony Rayns