Werner Herzog Tony Rayns - Essay

Tony Rayns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All Werner Herzog's fictions evince a fascination with the mechanisms of human madness—especially those engendered by the will to power—and yet the uniquely disturbing quality of his movies seems to spring less from this consistent theme than from a central ambivalence. Like one who at once observes and participates, Herzog balances between two positions, offering both lucid analyses of chaotic situations (undertaken in a spirit not unlike that of scientific research) and hallucinatory, seductive visions that plunge his audience into active experience of the irrational.

The analytic strain is, of course, a modernist trait; it yields the entomological metaphors of Signs of Life, the dislocations of physical scale in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the entirety of Fata Morgana as a catalogue of the debris left in the wake of a 'drama' already played out, the latter establishing an improbable rapport between Herzog and certain contemporary avant-garde film-makers. The strain of irrationality, though, draws on a very much older tradition; it conjures the dark undertow of the German Romantics, immanent in many of Casper David Friedrich's landscapes and explicit in a novella like Eichendorff's archetypal Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, where the 'hero' is forever on the point of succumbing to mysterious forces that he senses in the forests and lakes around him. In Herzog's case, the point is the balance itself; it might alternatively be characterised as the ability to infect 'realism' with expressionism and vice versa, without any overriding commitment to either mode….

[Aguirre, Wrath of God] is something of a departure for Herzog…. Herzog has used it to engage—for the first time—in a specific historical reconstruction, although the action, like the diary on which it purports to be based, is his own invention. (p. 56)


(The entire section is 794 words.)