The first annual Herzogathon, hosted at Studio Six in Bristol, PA on January 1st, was a modest success. Although the turnout was small the response was emphatic. It’s no easy task to sit still and in one place for twelve consecutive hours of anything, let alone the work of a director whose cinematic preoccupations can politely be described as idiosyncratic. But the films of Werner Herzog are unique. Special. His is a cinematic language that transforms a world once familiar and renders it new, alien, bizarre but often awe-inspiring, populated by people better suited for a back-alley slum, traveling circus or asylum than the big screen; a world observed with such a level gaze and reverent sincerity it’s impossible to turn away from once under the director’s peculiar spell. Even those who dislike him never forget having seen (or endured) one of his films.
This sense of the spellbinding is no coincidence. Herzog once hypnotized an entire cast for Heart of Glass (1976), the story about a small Bavarian village whose economy relies largely on the work provided by a local glassmaker and the production of a precious and one-of-a-kind “ruby” red glass. When the secret method to the glassmaking is lost with the death of its inventor the town slowly falls into despair, despite the warnings of a prophet who lives in the hills and implores the townspeople that they must seek a pragmatic solution to their crisis or face the destruction of the community. Herzog believed that by having the cast perform under hypnosis he could accurately convey the sense of mysticism surrounding the reclusive glassmaker and his unique creation, the power of an esoteric craft when introduced to a society unable to understand it and the cult that it can create as a result. He also expressed a desire to have himself appear onscreen before the start of the film to perform the same process of hypnosis used on the actors on the audience. But this, Herzog ultimately reasoned, was perhaps taking the idea a bit too far, even for him.
If there is a unifying theme to the program that was exhibited (other than that the six films shown are personal favorites) it’s the idea of the individual or group driven so completely by the single-minded pursuit of something so unattainable that the mere attempt to attain it leads to madness and extinction. This certain “something” can be a physical object but in Herzog’s universe it’s often ideological; he has little use for the materialistic. Now this is a very general description of a large body of work that is both adventurous and prolific, and Herzog finds elements of his fascination with the megalomaniacal, the outcast and the mad, in many different places. In Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), the first and perhaps most challenging film of the series, a group of dwarfs detained in some kind of institution or forced-labor camp (it’s never specified) rebels against their captors and sets about wreaking havoc and destroying everything within the confines of their prison; the individuals formally in control of this unidentified place presumably have been forcefully overthrown, detained or killed.
Herzog seems less interested in the causes of the revolt in the film than the specific details of the characters run amok. There are virtually no scenes involving the directors of the institution or the display of force and repression that might justify and help us better understand the reasons for the dwarfs’ campaign of carnage. Instead there are extended scenes of stone throwing, plant burning, animal cannibalism and a crucified monkey marched in a makeshift procession around a littered and torched courtyard that make up most of the film’s ninety-six minutes. A passengerless truck endlessly drives in circles and seems to be the film’s central metaphor, an image Herzog repeatedly refers to. Not knowing what the characters are fighting for we’re not quite sure what they achieve, if anything. But perhaps chaos and destruction are what liberate the eponymous dwarfs from a life of oppression and limitation (their final crazed and desperate stand for independence), even if not forcefully imposed by some external authority but inherent in their condition simply by nature of their own debilitatingly small statures. This is a world that has no place for them so they set about making it uninhabitable for anyone (or anything) ever again. The film ends with the main character Hombre, the smallest of the small people, laughing maniacally at a camel unable to stand on its own four legs. Whether paralyzed because of a physical injury or paralyzed by fear we’re not sure, but it’s a painfully sad impairment that Hombre can’t seem to get enough of as the beast towers over him and he very nearly cackles himself to death.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) can be seen (in a way) picking up where Dwarfs leaves off, as a group of displaced people wander aimlessly through a foreign and hostile country in which they are ill-equipped to survive. It is the 16th century and an army of one thousand Spanish conquistadors descends from the mountains (with armor, canons and sedan chairs in tow) into the wilds of the South American jungle. This is one of Herzog’s most striking and memorable images. He opens his film on a cloud of fog, faint and indistinct, and slowly as the camera pans down to reveal the jagged contours of the mountainside, out of the mists walk single-file the members of this doomed expedition, dotted like ants against the extraordinary grandeur of the surrounding landscape. If the dwarfs started small then these adventurers are at an even greater disadvantage: lost in an inhospitable world, they desperately try to gain control of a situation that was hopeless from the outset.
Bruno drives on. With no clear destination he winds up at a bizarre roadside American Indian-themed tourist park. He sets his truck ablaze and to driving in circles (just like the dwarfs did in the earlier film). Bruno hops onto a ski lift and rides it around and around, alone. The movie ends with an image of a dancing chicken, started by Bruno through a coin-activated machine that forces the chicken to hop in place because of a vibrating metal plate at the bottom of its cage. Supposedly the film’s crew was so repulsed by this contraption they refused to participate in shooting it. So Herzog had to film it alone (or so he claims) believing that the dancing chicken was a “grand metaphor” and the perfect image with which to end his film. A metaphor for what you might ask? He’s still not sure.
To be continued…
Editor’s note: Every once in a while, it happens to all of us. We’re sailing along through life, happily pointing out how people can be very rude, selfish and downright dickish when: BAM! We find ourselves acting like dicks. Well, I’m pretty embarrassed to note that, in regard to this piece, I acted like a dick by continuously allowing it to fester on the backburner while its author, the very well-spoken and insightful Mr. Chris, waited patiently and silently for me to post it. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is quite good. I hope that our readers enjoy it as much as I did and that we will see some more of Chris’s writing in the future.