Tony Rayns

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

Werner Herzog's [Fata Morgana] takes the reductio ad absurdum narrative patterns of his other films to their logical conclusion by dispensing with narrative altogether…. Individually, many of the shots have a great formal beauty; and the visual juxtaposition of elements from both Western and indigenous cultures (huge aircraft touching down and cadavers of animals decaying where they dropped; distant oil flares and decrepit shanty housing) yields frequent surrealist shocks in line with André Breton's most polemic requirements. Herzog makes no attempt to structure this material through montage; the film has no visual rhythm, and no cut infers any direct meaning. Rather, he adopts a mock-heroic form that divides the film into three sections: The Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age. Each is accompanied by an occasional voice-over narration, which alters its stance as the film proceeds from aloof omnipotence to bitter engagement. Just as Stroszek in Lebenszeichen [Signs of Life] disappears from the film at the midpoint, his paroxysm visible only through its effects, so here the entire film is 'effects', visual evidence to the aftermath of some previous action. The first section, composed chiefly of mirage-like stares into the desert void and racing aerial shots of the landscape slipping past, is accompanied by an account of the Creation (supposedly drawn from ancient Persian myth, but probably as spurious as the narrator's log in Aguirre, Wrath of God); the described actions of the ancient gods find a bathetic analogue in the telephoto shots through extreme heat-haze of jets coming to earth. In the second section, introducing the tourists along with the natives eking out their horrifyingly deprived lives, another narrator offers bizarre, nihilistic axioms: "In Paradise, you call hello without ever seeing anyone … you quarrel to avoid having friends … man is born dead". And in the final section, where Herzog's surrealist sensibility blooms full in images of an ageing duo performing antique popular songs on piano and drums while other humans lapse into mania, obsession or simple oblivion, a third narrator turns to outright gallows sarcasm: "In the Golden Age, man and wife live in harmony … now, for example, they appear before the camera lens, death in their eyes, a smile on their lips". Herzog concludes his film where he began, facing the desert squarely. His mirage, the fata morgana, is a vision entirely consistent with his other work but seen in extremis because abstracted from conventional perception. The desert becomes a terminal beach, littered with civilisation's debris, its vestigial signs of life rapidly fading. The few survivors are those who were always outcasts, left clinging to the debris to make their mark on the desert, and those who once produced the debris, now reduced to self-conscious aberrations and the most vacuous of rituals. They, of course are the only gods in the film, and though fleeting moments suggest that they were once savage or dark gods, Herzog really sees them only as failures, fascinating for their ludicrousness and the precariousness of their existence. His vision, as ever, is clear and true, free of compassion, regret and dogma alike; his recourse in the face of the horror and enormity is again to humour, neither cruel nor indulgent, but merely sane.

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Tony Rayns, "Feature Films: 'Fata Morgana'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 480, January, 1974, p. 6.

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