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Werner Herzog’s hall of mirrors

Werner Herzog turns 75 this September and remains as productive as ever. More than a filmmaker – he directs operas, instructs online courses, and occasionally makes cameo appearances on television shows including Parks & Recreation and The Simpsons. He has been directing films for nearly six decades, and he released three feature-length films within months of each other in 2016. One should, of course, avoid speaking in terms of Herzog’s “late” period insofar as one cannot predict the future. His most recent works may, in the end, come to be associated with a “middle period.” In trying to make sense of them, one might prefer to ask whether Herzog’s style has matured.

On the one hand, his nearly seventy films are astonishingly diverse. They are set in places as far removed from one another as Alaska, Antarctica, the Himalayas, and Peru. On the other hand, Herzog continues to devote himself to the same set of themes and concerns as he did in his earliest works. Apocalyptic thought, to take one example, remains a frequently recurring preoccupation. In many of his films, humans are identified as the temporary inhabitants of this planet—a sentiment indicated by the epigraph on screen at the beginning of his renowned Fitzcarraldo (1982): “The forest Indians call this land Cayahari Yacu, the land in which God was not finished with creation. Only after the disappearance of man, they believe, will God return to finish his work.” This epigraph repeats the folkloric beliefs attributed to native Peruvians in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and it can also be linked to the Mayan creation myths that are read into the voiceover narrations of one of his very first films, Fata Morgana (1969).

This same theme is no less evident in Herzog’s latest films, such as Salt and Fire (2016), which he wrote and directed, based on a short story by Tom Bissell. Set and filmed in Bolivia, Michael Shannon plays Matt Riley, an eccentric CEO who has a fascination with anamorphic works of art and a pet parrot capable of quoting aloud from Ecclesiastes. The film’s turning point comes as Riley brings a scientist named Laura Sommerfel, played by the popular German star Veronica Ferres, to Uturuncu, a dormant volcano, where he abandons her along with two partially blind boys. He explains to her that when Uturuncu erupts humankind will vanish as a species. Riley, like many of Herzog’s characters, envisions our disappearance from the Earth. Herzog’s mise-en-scène encourages us to envision it as well.

The film’s variations in tone and strangely stylized performances vexed its viewers, and more than one critic ranked it among the director’s worst films. Yet, the film is not all that different from those that preceded it: the vast salt flats that constitute Salt and Fire’s visual centerpiece resemble the Antarctica on display in Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007), and aerial shots of unpeopled landscapes resemble the footage of Kuwait Herzog included in Lessons of Darkness (1992). This feature film trades on viewers’ memories of Herzog’s other films, turning the body of work into a tapestry with themes that appear and reappear. Many auteurs rely on recurring motifs, but moments of self-citation are rarely so explicit.

The same is true of Herzog’s documentaries in which his style as an interviewer is readily identifiable. In Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Herzog’s familiar intonation seems to offer the viewer a contract: certain documentary conventions will be disregarded, and a special set of rules applies. The patterns in which cameras move down corridors or linger too long on scientists’ faces all are recognizable from films such as Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). At this point in his body of work, a number of these shots have been seen before, and, to those familiar with his filmmaking, aspects of Lo and Behold may feel a bit like, as the critic Nick Pinkerton in his review for Sight & Sound called it, “Herzog by the algorithm.”

The remains of the ship used in Fitzcarraldo. Dr. Eugen Lehle, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Apart from the fact that Lo and Behold and Salt and Fire were released in the same year, the two are also connected through the appearances of the scientist Lawrence Krauss. In Salt and Fire, Krauss plays a fictional role: he is Riley’s right-hand man, and he speaks in elliptical maxims such as, “The noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest.” In Lo and Behold, however, he appears as himself, a cosmologist from Arizona State University, who rhapsodizes apocalyptically about what would happen if the planet were subjected to a solar flare substantial enough to disable the internet. Krauss envisions modern civilization’s collapse, and says that he prefers to make predictions on the grandest scale possible—in eons rather than decades. It is no surprise that Herzog was drawn to Krauss. In terms of apocalyptic standpoints, the two of them are kindred spirits.

Herzog has had a career-long fascination with envisioning humanity’s end, and with a type of science fiction that looks back to an age before ours—a time prior to what we now call the anthropocene—in order to find clues about what is to come. But the real signature of the mature Herzog is his capacity to draw on, retool, and revisit his earlier work. He has built for himself and for us a hall of mirrors. The question remains whether all of this self-citation acts as an obstacle to new ideas.

Featured Image credit: Werner Herzon in Venice, 1991. Gorup de Basanez, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  

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