Thursday, November 26, 2009

Herzog on Herzog

I must admit that I thoroughly liked reading Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews that chronologically traces the life and career of Werner Herzog. I was also amused at some of the things that Herzog is so passionate about and the way he articulates himself. The answers are long, some run over two pages but that has been modified by the editor to do away with the pauses, which to some extent feels as if Herzog has written his answers down.

Herzog talks about ecstatic truth in contradiction to facts or plain truth. In his funny The Minnesota Declaration, he speaks about cinema verite and how that leads to norms, not illumination. To those who have seen Herzog's movies,they will understand the importance of space, of landscapes in his oeuvre. However, to the director himself, these landscapes, this physicality is just a reflection of the more important internal landscape, a state of mind. The terrain is just a visible symptom, a screen metaphor so to say, of that inner agitation or turmoil that lead to the creation of ecstatic truth, that illumination.

Herzog is a great film maker and his fame rests as much on his movies as it does on his so called documentaries. But no mention of him will be complete without Kinski, his best fiend. The five movies with Kinski are more representative of that ecstatic truth or vision that Herzog reminds us on every page. Be it Fitzcarraldo and the ship moving over a mountain or be it the wrath of God himself, Aguirre, surrounded by demons and monkeys, his collaboration with Kinski is the sublimation of what Herzog calls the cinema of athletics over aesthetics. Herzog is at pains to remind us that this is no cinema of poetry or reality per se; this is the vision of a far deeper visualization of a deeper truth, a vision of ecstatic illumination. Herzog denies that any of his movies like Cobra Verde has a political message; far from it, he wants us to realize, if not understand the mechanism of a state of mind that can lead to bravery, desperation, a holocaust, slavery, ambition, suicidality and so on.

Most, if not all of the protagonists of Herzog are loners, desperate, raving, ambitious, emotionally unstable, bound for missions of a suicidal grandeur, leading others to such suicidal extremes that any association with such men is fraught with danger. Only men figure in Herzog's world, women are secondary in this vision of truth. The cinematic truth of Herzog is never internal; what I mean to say is that his characters inhabit the edges of an external landscape that is driven by an inner exigency. Contrast this with Fassbinder, where say in Petra Von kant, the entire two hours are spent in her boudoir; this is what Herzog perhaps means by his athletics over aesthetics. And the flavour we get is that of Herzog himself, a loner, desperate to scale a mountain, desperate to produce his movies, walking, walking, through forest and desert, in search of that inner landscape.

Some anecdotes that Herzog mentions are incredible, some humorous, some funny, some dark and yet all carry with them his own whiff of truth, his vision of ecstatic illumination. It is true, he says, that he was planning to fire bomb Kinski once, also true that he would have shot him with his Winchester rifle if Kinski had carried out his threat of leaving the sets in Peru. All this sounds a step too far but his cinema is really one step further from many. The examples are so many, like Kaspar Hauser, like the entire cast of Heart of Glass being hypnotized, his encounter with Reinhold Messner in the Himalayas and so on. Herzog comes across as too confident at times, too opinionated, too aware of everything. And yet, none of it sounds too dull, too over valued, for it sits nicely with his creations, his concept, his visually stunning landscapes, his charting of those frontiers that only a self-annihilating vision can lead to.

Travel on foot, says Herzog, it is a virtue. The movies he has carefully crafted are are as much flights of fancy and vision as much as of a certain kind of mental and physical travel, a mental and physical truth. And this book of interviews goes a step further in allowing us to have a glimpse of that vision, of that ecstatic truth, that illumination.

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