Today I received the BFI Werner Herzog Collection in the mail. I bought it on sale on Amazon UK about a month ago and have been anxiously awaiting its arrival ever since. I was super excited when it got here, so I immediately cracked it open and started devouring it. The very first disc had two feature films on it, one of them being Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, dir. Werner Herzog), and three short films which I had never seen before. I decided to start with new material, so I watched the three short films first. It is those three short films which we will be discussing today.
Also, just a side note for those of you keeping up (all two of you): I’ve not abandoned the Christopher Nolan watch through by any means and intend to get back on it ASAP. School started last week and in addition to being a full-time student I’m also the librarian, so I’ve been pretty busy getting everything ready. Anyway, onto the Herzog.
The Unprecedented Defense of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967, dir. Werner Herzog)
This was not Herzog’s first foray into filmmaking, but was his third. His first film was Herakles (1962), which can be watched here. I’ve not viewed that film as of this moment. Fortress Deutschkreuz is very much an early film and has the rough markings as such, but shows the hand of a developing master who was already beginning to understand the incredible power cinema has as an art form. The film puts to use incredible black and white photography (just stunning!), wisely chosen music, and tack-sharp editing. The camera is ever peering and proving, as if it wants a closer look but is hesitant to move any closer for fear of upsetting its subjects. Those subjects, by the way, are four young men who break into a large, abandoned fort in the middle of nowhere. Apparently the fort had at one time housed Nazi forces and then later Russians, and some of those military men left behind their gear. The four men find this gear buried in a store room, put on the uniforms, pile up sandbags, and play soldier for the afternoon defending the fort from an imaginary enemy. All the while a narrator tells us about the fort, the activities of the soldiers who were once housed there, and the woes of war in general.
It’s not the most riveting piece of cinema, no, but the technical prowess on display in this film is magnetic for anyone willing to give the film more than a glancing, cursory look. The editing and photography are, in particular, of interest to anyone who wishes to study the work of Herzog in depth. Here his camera is tack sharp, ever focusing in on specific details, and highlights the imaginary action playing out on screen. It is funny how the narrator is speaking of the real soldiers which once inhabited the hall, meanwhile we see silly, schoolboy-like reenactments playing out before our eyes, and to be fair it always looks so serious until we remember its all make believe. I wonder if Herzog’s intention was to point out the pretense and falsity of the cinematic process in displaying events and actions to an audience. Everything we see is fake, and everything about the film seems to want the “fake-ness” to be front and center in our minds. Everything on the screen is artificial and Herzog wants you to know it.
Last Words (1968, dir. Werner Herzog)
This film is an enigma to me. No matter how I try to slice it I just cannot figure it out. It concerns a man (in the left on the picture, I think? More on that later) who is apparently famous for playing the lyra, and, previous to moving to the small village he resides in, lived on an island which at one time served as a leper colony. The one clear thing about this film is this: here we find another example of Herzog seeking fringe members of society (just very odd stories) and putting them on the screen in very odd ways. Here’s where we get to the part I find enigmatic: the presentation. The film is main a series of interviews with three or four people who talk about the lyra-player, but they simply repeat the same phrases over an over again. One interview is with two police officers who tell of the day they rescued the man out of a boat “We rescued him,” they say, pointing to themselves. “When we found him in the boat,” they say, pointing out into the bay. But the peculiar thing is that they simply restate this phrase ad nauseam. The other interviews, which talk about everything ranging from the love lives lepers who once inhabited the island to the legend of how the lyra-player escaped the island, are all the same: just a few simple phrases repeated again and again.
Finally comes the man himself, Antonis Papadakis, and we expect some answers, right? Nope. He waves his hands at the camera and expresses his complete and total disinterest in saying anything. Perhaps it is from this we can draw some conclusions: the film isight be trying to tell us something about oral history accounts, and how ultimately unless the man himself tells what happened we will never know the truth. Perhaps the repetition of the other interviews is somehow related to how people love to repeat gossip and stories even if they don’t have the facts straight? Possibly even Herzog went to Crete thinking he had a story to film but ended up with nothing (because the subject refused to talk) and so he cobbled together this very peculiar film? Whatever the point is, the most interesting scenes are of Paradakis playing the lyra at a bar at night. The photography is stunning black and white, with beautiful shadows and carefully chosen compositions used to highlight the subjects. It’s a beautiful film, even if it does leave one scratching the head a bit.
Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, dir. Werner Herzog)
This film kind of flies in the face of my interpretation of the previous film, as it also constantly uses the repetition of dialogue. The purpose here, however, seems far less clear but yet feels more digestible. This film is about horse racing (kind of?), but is really about the people who care for the horses. In this film Herzog interviews jockeys, fans, a random old guy, and a young kid that doesn’t work for the track but stands outside of the stables so he can protect the horses. The interesting part is the old man: he insists he knows better about horses than everyone else (by the way, it is totally unclear who the man is) and always shows up and tells them to leave while they are repeating their lines. The show eventually escalates to such a high level of absurdity that we eventually realize the whole thing is clearly staged and is in fact quite funny. I wish there was footage of the horses running, as I find the creatures simply beautiful, but Herzog’s attention seems more focused on the annoying old man (pictured above) and his know-it-all status.
Like I said, the film is very funny, but if interpreting Last Words was problematic then interpreting this film is down right impossible. At best I can assume it is meant almost as an anti-documentary: it has the appearance and setup of the real thing, but is so clearly staged and faked as to be absurd. Perhaps Herzog is trying to teach the audience something, just like in Fortress Deutschkreuz, about how we cannot always trust cinema. Maybe all three of these films are really about the unreliable nature of the cinematic technique. The by-line for this website is “Cinema: 24 Lies a Second” and I highly doubt that Herzog, a man somewhat infamous for his “stretching of facts” in documentaries, would disagree with such a statement. Ultimately everything you see on screen is a lie: it’s fake. That may go double for anything parading as a documentary.
Remember, ultimately someone decided to put a camera there and show the scene from that particular angle, even if it isn’t scripted they did direct the interviewee, and ultimately, when you get right down to it, cinema is a lie in its very mechanics: nothing movies, it only appears to move. It’s interesting, because this whole discussion makes me think of another film I greatly admire that is about forgery, F For Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles).