Tuesday, 13 December 2016

On Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth" in his films "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (1974), "Stroszek" (1977), "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982)

Werner Herzog’s career spans from the early 1960s to the present day, and consists of nineteen feature films, seven short films and thirty-seven documentaries; he has also published a number of books and staged opera and theatre productions. Arguably his most influential films, however, remain those from earlier in his career, specifically the decade spanning 1972 to 1982; concentrating on no more than five films from this vital creative period allows a tautness of focus which a broader retrospective of his entire body of work would not permit. The five films in question - Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972), Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) - are in some respects dramatically different (the first and last take place in the Amazon jungle, the third is predominantly set in the USA, and the second and fourth are the only ones that embrace Germanic/European landscapes, while no two are set in the same time period), but in other respects they share common threads running through them. Herzog is a filmmaker who is in the habit of identifying his own themes and dissecting them, whether that is in his prose writings, his commentary tracks, his behind-the-scenes documentaries, any one of the copious interviews he has given, or even in one instance, his commentary track reflecting on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of one of his own films; while he would seem to enjoy discussing the inspiration or thematic richness of his films, he is not much given to scholarly analysis of them, or more accurately rarely lets himself be pigeonholed into lending credence to one interpretation over another. Nonetheless, examining what these five films have in common is rewarding in so far as it helps us understand what Herzog means when he talks of his attempts at pursuing “ecstatic truth”[1].