Werner Herzog

The MRC’s Herzog program included The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Fata Morgana, Signs of Life, Even Dwarfs Started Small, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Heart of Glass, Stroszeck, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe Showing the World We’re Still Here.

The 50th Melbourne International Film Festival will also be presenting a selection of Herzog films under the title “Burden of Dreams: Werner Herzog”. They include: God’s Angry Man, Gasherbrum: the Dark Glow of the Mountains, Lessons of Darkness, Bells from the Deep, Hule’s Sermon, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? and La Soufrière.

For more details, visit the MIFF website

* * *

My insanity is a direct result of your imagination, without which I would be perfectly sane (yet somewhat more illusionary). (1)

I know I have the ability to articulate images that sit deeply inside us, that I can make them visible. (2)

The images and characters of Werner Herzog’s cinema have come to inhabit or possess me deeply, and yet their habitation or possession has occurred so fluidly that I suspect they were inside me all along, requiring only to be articulated in the inimitably concrete and idiosyncratic way they are in Herzog’s films. Few other filmmakers have so silently and gently explored the abysses of ecstasy and darkness; few have observed, from such an inscrutable, Olympian remove, the ludicrous and grotesque minutiae of life. For surely Herzog’s conception of the sublimity and ridiculousness of what is called the human condition brings him as close in spirit to the ancient Greeks as it does to that dark and satirical current of Germanic Romanticism represented by Kleist, Hölderlin, or Büchner, and which remains his indelible cultural heritage. Yet through the eye of Herzog’s lens the world is transfixed, rendered hopelessly, exquisitely weightless, ultimately diffusing beyond grasp the solid structures within which tragedy or satire can take root.

Instead, Herzog speaks of the thirst for remote, intangible worlds, empty landscapes of silence and darkness. His films bring to cinema another rhythm, a different time-pressure: an age excluded from history. People aren’t found in these places to seek each other. The intricate and convoluted dance of relationships, the delicate tragedies of unrequited love – the entire panorama of earthly passion that has always been the hallowed linchpin of cinema – all this is of no concern for Herzog; none of it touches the gelid, glassy surface of his celluloid. His cinema works always to isolate and dissolve humanity.

* * *

“You want to see the forest, and not people? I like you. You have a heart of glass.”

Heart of Glass (Herz aus Glas, 1976)

In the beginning was the landscape, only later do human beings appear. And rarely has landscape been used in cinema to such profound effect for articulating the subtle and ambiguous contours of the inmost dispositions of human beings. Only in music does Herzog find an equally ductile medium. Herzog’s presentation of landscape is more elusive than Antonioni’s “architecture of vision” or Tarkovsky’s “sculptures in time” and it stands in stark contrast to Kurosawa’s precise, geometrical structuring of space. Herzog’s landscapes appear bluntly, in a raw, almost brutal way, (3) always inclining towards a quality of stillness and silence.

A measure of the significance of landscapes for Herzog is the lengths to which he is prepared to go to find them: dropping everything to fly to an impending volcanic eruption on an evacuated island in La Soufrière (1976) and filming the last remaining inhabitant who refused to leave, the traffic lights still blinking from red to green in the empty streets of the island’s only town while dogs and cats slink through the streets, and enormous clouds of poisonous volcanic ash drift through the sky. Or the epic search for adequate landscapes in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes, 1972), not to mention the logistical feat of putting his cast on a remote, precipitous outcrop of the Skellig Rock islands off the coast of Ireland in Heart of Glass, pushing physicality to the extreme. (4) Perhaps Herzog does not exaggerate when he says that he “directs” landscapes as he does animals or people (5); what is certain is that his concern to find “a deeper stratum of truth” in filmmaking, (6) a “primordial innocence of vision,” (7) emerges nowhere more strikingly than in the continued importance he places in landscapes. He asks:

How can we regain innocence of vision . our vision that has been so badly contaminated? We have to find adequate images again. What have we done to our images? What have we done to our landscapes? We have embarrassed landscapes. (8)

The opening shot of Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen, 1967) confronts the viewer as though it were the first landscape ever to appear at the dawn of creation – at least the first to touch the screens of cinema. Nothing is given away by this vast, desolate mountainous vista, presented in an extreme long shot which defies all involvement from its colossal remove. From such a vantage point everything appears flattened out, wide, and perhaps infinite. The first principle of Herzog’s filmic approach to space is never to zoom in or out. In contrast to Antonioni or Tarkovsky, Herzog’s camera never attempts to penetrate and probe the space it sees. Rather, in a sovereign stylistic gesture it witnesses the world impassively and from a distance, without accent or remark. The first sign of life is a tiny vehicle, winding its way tortuously along the thin white thread of a dirt road snaking through the rocky terrain. No more than a speck within the all-consuming landscape, the truck finally rounds a bend and disappears, not even a trace of dust to show that movement was ever there. And thus time too is brought nearly to a standstill, divested of all urgency and intensity, just as space is flattened out and seemingly relieved of all perspectival depth. Under the austere and immutable decree from those gods – whoever they may be – that preside over Herzog’s cinema, nothing will from now on be able to instil his films with that gravity upon which depends the appalling weight of significance attributed to all human endeavour. But such an elision of humanity’s central place has nothing to do with a cold and surgical abstraction. For it is precisely within this idiosyncratic articulation of time and space that all the desperate epiphanies of Herzog’s characters are allowed room to blossom in their futility and glory.

And here is a landscape with even less meaning.

– Paraphrased from Fata Morgana (1968/70)

In Signs of Life the absence of gravity imbues every scene with the quality of the brilliant Mediterranean light in which it was filmed. There is the exquisite scene – interpolated for no apparent narrative purpose – in which the camera moves through the sun-drenched streets of a Greek island town, past lines of washing fluttering in the wind, through the definitions of light and shadow in the walls and doorways of houses. After turning a corner, it encounters two soldiers lying on the ground, perhaps only wounded, perhaps dead: are they tied to the narrative of the story? We don’t know for certain; there is no explanation. Then there are the shots of the garrison, the dry grass and flowers rustling in the wind, the sharply defined, dilapidated stone walls and statues; the cicadas grating all day long. And the extraordinary shot – the highpoint of the entire film – of an interminable pan across an endless vista of spinning windmills: the very scene that witnesses Stroszek’s (Peter Brogle) epiphany, driving him to undertake his furious rebellion.

Perhaps Stroszek discovered, in the image of those ceaselessly turning wheels, an inscrutable message revealing to him his destiny and the very fate of humanity; but we can’t be sure, nor does it matter. For it is certain that, whatever the precise message revealed by the image, a fusion has taken place between the external landscape and the character’s inner life. Stroszek’s rebellion is depicted henceforward from a great distance; impassive, panoramic long shots once more prevail as they did in the beginning. Stroszek is now only ever seen the size of an ant, capering deliriously over his fortress-anthill. The last image of Signs of Life, viewed from the back of a vehicle, of receding mountains and the endlessly unravelling road retreating into the distance beyond all grasp, signals with the utmost finality that the landscape has worked to isolate and dissolve the hero.

The mirages arrived, surrounding the bed of the infant. Mirrors no longer held their reflections, moments blurred, lost in halos of ghosts. And Saturn is a 747 jet with ridiculous featherless wings. (9)

Fata Morgana

In Fata Morgana gravity is lost forever as the “elusive, hallucinatory images coalesce into devastating dream tableaux”. (10) Like the interminable shifting sands of the desert, endless tracking shots pass across the landscapes of the Sahara. Yet within this continuously shifting sequence of abstract scenes, a “storyline” develops to a very carefully paced rhythm, far closer to a musical theme than to any literary device, built up through the layering of image, music and narration until it reaches an absurd and hilarious point. In this way, the apparently garish juxtapositions of image, music and text, such as the melancholy love songs of Leonard Cohen playing to interminable tracking sequences of prefabricated homes in the middle of the desert, acquire an extraordinary poetic logic. For indeed Fata Morgana is nothing if not a requiem of parting and distances, of the melancholy of unrequited love, but here transmuted into the aching thirst for perishing images, the ungraspable and shimmering nature of mirages, and the search for lost time. Although this film is “a sardonic, melancholic comment on mankind’s shaky position in the universe”, (11) this world of death and decay, animal corpses, shanty-towns, lost and haunted souls, smokestacks and corroding traces of machinery is paradise, just as the ironic narrator declares, a more perfect paradise than any picture-postcard dreamed up by advertising agencies. It is a paradise for gypsies and vagabonds where birth and death, creation and destruction stare one starkly in the face under the lacerating shadowless light. The “prodigious paradox” of art, in which “hideousness and beauty are contained within each other”, is nowhere more immanent than in Fata Morgana, for here:

the artistic image is always a metonym, where one thing is substituted for another, the smaller for the greater. To tell of what is living, the artist uses something dead; to speak of the infinite, he shows the finite . The idea of infinity cannot be expressed in words or even described, but it can be apprehended through art, which makes infinity tangible. (12)

Dreamlike transcendence of time and space is brought to its purest expression in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (Die grosse Ecstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner, 1973/4), which opens with a succession of failed ski jumps. Again and again, skiers crash into the snow, broken by the landscape they defiantly challenged. To watch this spectacle of failure, thousands of people gather like pilgrims to some religious festival. The ski fields, the milling crowds, the trees and busses all glimpsed in the background, suggest the village snow scenes of Breugel. Time and solidity are virtually melted away in Steiner’s ecstatic jumps – reabsorbed into eternity as his figure remains suspended weightless in a white void, moving to a rhythm twenty times slower than all earthly movement; slow motion brought to its metaphysical consummation. Here again, with the skill of a cinematic “Zen master”, (13) Herzog isolates and dissolves his character with the utmost gentleness, this time by reducing Steiner to a blurred silhouette in the middle of an empty voidness. Thus absorbed within this vast universe, Steiner finds his great ecstasy. His extraordinary jumps represent perhaps the purest aspiration for deliverance from gravity in all of Herzog’s films, and this discovery of the sublime antithesis to the human condition elevates Steiner’s jumps “from the materially competitive to the incalculably mystical”. (14)

* * *

My characters have no shadows. They come out of the darkness, and such people have no shadows, the light hurts them. They are there, and then gone, to their obscurity. (15)

One of the most ambiguous figures of the cinema emerged from the darkness in this way: Bruno S. is no less mysterious than Kaspar Hauser, the character he plays in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen Alle, 1974). Kaspar appears for a moment, bringing with him a fragile glimmer of life from that other, sombre universe from whence he came and to which, ineluctably, he must return. From the outset there can be no mistake about Kaspar’s destiny: the ambivalent figure of the warden who so brusquely shoved him into the world of human society will come back like some forsaken shadow when Kaspar’s time is up, and act as his executioner. And thus suddenly Kaspar vanishes from sight, dissolved without a trace into the landscape. Until that moment, however, he will know the pain of existence, the screaming all around him that people commonly call silence, and the dawning of awareness that he is “apart” from everything.

There is one small, fleeting image from this deeply complex and multi-layered film which seems to capture as well as any the melancholy of Kaspar’s fate. It occurs just after Kaspar suffers the second assassination attempt. Bleeding, he has brought Herr Daumer (Walter Ladengast) to the site of struggle, a grassy clearing on the outskirts of some woods. Daumer finds a small bag containing a message from Kaspar’s unknown assailant. He reads out the message, an ambiguous missal in a film replete with obscure utterances, innuendos tracing the vanity and inadequacy of words. His voice trails away into the silence of the image in which wind blusters through a glade in the forest, late afternoon sunlight filtering down through the trees; one of those images held until it “seeps into the stem of the senses and acquires an undefiled beauty”, (16) it remains somehow unbearably remote and elusive. These moments speak eloquently of the impotence of words in the face of the mystery of images, and the mystery of Kaspar Hauser’s origins, which must forever remain obscured in the darkness beyond images: the fate of all those who come out of the darkness for a moment with no shadows.

Linking nearly all of Herzog’s films is a thirst for death, but for death as a pure and transcendental force, a moment of fusion with a superior nature. (17)

That thirst spurs Herzog’s characters to “declare war in furious rebellion”, to ask friend and foe alike to fight them. All Herzog’s characters share the fate of Stroszek, who “glorified himself with a second fireworks display and was overpowered by his comrades . He had undertaken a Titanic revolt against an overwhelmingly strong opponent. And he had failed miserably, as had all before him”. (18) But it is precisely in their headlong pursuit of dissolution and death that Herzog’s characters reveal their strength and autonomy and declare to the world that they still function. The deranged grandeur of their struggles always leads to futile and pathetic ends, but in spite of their earthly failure their rebellions represent pure and euphoric signs of life.

“In Paradise, people are born dead”

Fata Morgana

So it is that Even Dwarves Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen, 1969/70) chronicles a tiny rebellion with titanic implications, unfolding stage by stage from the grotesquely hilarious to the horrifically ridiculous. “The film must scream at you and that is why it had to be so radical, scream so blatantly.” (19) The extreme tension of its “scream” is created and maintained relentlessly by the juxtaposition of dissonant elements and an unfailing eye for the incongruous. At the outset a 360 degree pan announces the central arena of action, an isolated compound in the middle of a strange, desolate landscape of bald hills and rocky lava outcrops (Lanzarote of the Canary Islands). The motif of circular movement will be recalled from the spinning windmills in Signs of Life, which heralded Stroszek’s madness. Here, in the place of a panning camera a van will be set up in the same location to go round and round in circles by Territory (Gerhard März), while the rest of the motley crew smash plates into it, dismember a typewriter and throw it under the van’s wheels, and nearby, set fire to pot plants by dousing them in petrol. This grotesque carnival of folly reaches its apotheosis in a bizarre and gothic procession through the smoking debris led by Territory, who holds aloft a wooden crucifix upon which a squirming monkey is tied. Again and again, as if to emphasise the senseless stupidity of the revolt, the camera takes time out to watch ubiquitous chickens pecking at one another, living or dead, with a kind of behaviouristic automation. No stable perspective, viewpoint, or character remains – everything is precipitated into an abyss of feverish motion sickness, of reeling vertigo.

Herzog presents his characters without comment, albeit “on a very specific stylistic level”, (20) stepping back and allowing them to articulate their own inimitable personalities. The dwarves are for Herzog “like an essence, a concentrated form of what men are”, (21) and in this film he takes them seriously, refusing to treat them with condescension. It is therefore impossible to see them and their extraordinary antics as “cute” or “endearing” in any way, quirky they may be, and however much complicity we might feel in their revolt. Never for a moment relenting in their thirst for destruction, the dwarves’ outbreak culminates in lunatic excess and delirium. But in its exuberance, and its willingness to go to such extremes, this carnival of folly is no less than a celebration of the absurd, a liberatory scream.

From a carnival of folly to a ship of fools – the pathos of grandiose failure in Aguirre, The Wrath of God revisits the fascination with madness, delirium, and isolation, but condensed in the malarial claustration of the jungle, the interminable stagnant lengths of the river. Many should be familiar by now with the story of the “only real authentic demon of contemporary cinema” (22) through Herzog’s documentary on Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend (Mein Liebstens Feind, 1999). It may be remembered how Kinski wanted a Hollywood-style opening to Aguirre, with the majestic picture-postcard ruins of Manchu Picchu serving as a backdrop to his own presence. Herzog, however, wanted

Aguirre, The Wrath of Goda specific detail on that landscape where all the drama, passion, and human pathos became visible . To film a landscape with almost human qualities . Kinski finally rose to the utmost platitude that the only fascinating landscape on this earth was the human face. After that, I removed him from this shot. I also had the feeling that this scene without any faces would stick in the spectators’ minds for a long time, and Kinski raved about my being a megalomaniac, and I answered back: That makes two of us. (from My Best Fiend)

The concern to find “a landscape with almost human qualities” recalls again the paradox in Herzog’s art of seeking external landscapes to draw ever closer to the inner life of human beings. The opening shot of Aguirre thus mirrors and refracts that of Signs of Life in its passive contemplation from afar of the barely visible procession of soldiers filing tortuously down the mountainside, shrouded in mist and dwarfed by their surroundings like the figures in a medieval Chinese landscape painting. Little can be said that has not already been well noted about Aguirre, perhaps Herzog’s most popular and well-known film; such as how, after interminable difficulties and on an impossibly low budget, Herzog finally almost had it completed and Kinski walked out, and Herzog was obliged to threaten to riddle Kinski with bullets if he didn’t come back. Kinski wasn’t shot, of course, and consequently he came to represent the acme of the thirst for death in Herzog’s films – spurred on by a grandiose conception of his own destiny, bent on a suicidal and total war against nature and God, driving his ship of fools ever deeper into the heart of darkness.

Deep within the heart of glass, people never emerge from the shadows. And so perhaps Herzog’s cinema completes a cycle, reaches a point of closure in Heart of Glass, which is uncompromisingly and exclusively concerned with states of being rather than dramatic action. In a gesture akin to restricting his cast entirely to dwarves, Herzog hypnotised all the actors in Heart of Glass to achieve “an air of the floating, fluid movements, the rigidity of a culture caught in decline and superstition, the atmosphere of prophesy”. (23) Surely this pensive fairytale of metaphysical obsession reaches the deepest abysses of ecstasy and darkness. The “anaesthetised rhythm” (24) of hypnosis creates an extremely dense, claustrophobic atmosphere of interiority. Faces hang as if suspended in the darkness, seemingly illumined by the light of a single candle. Characters stare abstractedly into the camera, filled with convulsive hysteria at the sight of a giant’s shadow, which is actually that of a midget at sunset. Or figures stagger through a mist-shrouded landscape, arms outstretched in a somnambulant procession anticipating the apocalypse. It is its irresponsibility towards the classical unities of time, place and action which makes this film such an exquisite delight for those who seek “landscapes not yet offended, planets that do not exist yet, dreamed landscapes”. (25)

* * *

No more has been attempted here than to take a glimpse (necessarily skewed and fragmentary) into the subtle riches of Herzog’s oeuvre, an extremely varied body of work in tonality and rhythm (and also, after the ’70s, in quality), but always vitally concerned with the dramatic play of such contraries as character and landscape, density and weightlessness, death and transcendence. But it would be unwise to push analysis further than it is able to go. For Herzog’s cinema works ultimately on that deep subliminal strata of dream and myth, and here especially “all efforts at reason and analysis are, in a word, like trying to slice through watermelon with sewing needles. They may leave marks on the outer rind, but the fruity pulp will remain perpetually out of reach”. (26)


  1. Heironymous Gleik, quoted in Unknown, “transmission 2119c: 001, 023, 113, 154, 318, life=chaos=death=infinity”, in The Chronicles of Flux, http://rorschach.test.at/mindflux/chron-x/t2119c.html (accessed 9 Nov. 2000)
  2. Werner Herzog, quoted in Gideon Bachmann, “The Man on the Volcano: A Portrait of Werner Herzog”, Film Quarterly, Fall 1977, p.7
  3. Geoffrey O’Brien, “Werner Herzog in Conversation with Geoffrey O’Brien”, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Spring-Summer 1997, p.44
  4. Bachmann, op. cit., p. 5
  5. O’Brien, op. cit
  6. Ibid., p. 42
  7. Lawrence O’Toole, “Werner Herzog Interviewed by Lawrence O’Toole,” Film Comment, November-December 1979, p. 48
  8. Ibid.
  9. David Baker, personal communication, 2001
  10. Amos Vogel, “On Seeing a Mirage”, Timothy Corrigan ed., The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, New York: Methuen, 1986, p.18
  11. Vogel, op.cit.
  12. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, Kitty Hunter-Blair, trans., London: Faber and Faber, 1989 [1986], pp.38-9
  13. I am indebted to Angela Ammer, personal communication, 2001, for this observation.
  14. Jan Dawson, “Herzog’s Magic Mountain”, Sight and Sound, Winter 1977-8, p.57
  15. Herzog, quoted in Bachmann, op.cit. p.5
  16. Lawrence O’Toole, “Midsection”, Film Comment, November-December 1979, p.34
  17. Dawson, op.cit.
  18. Signs of Life, subtitles © SBS 1991
  19. Herzog, quoted in Annette Mayhöfer, “Even Dwarves Started Small”, Inter Nationes – Film Catalogue: Description of Film, http://www3.internationes.de/in/MIval=fzfass_e.html&in_nr=110 (accessed 22 May 2001)
  20. Herzog, quoted in Bachmann, op.cit., p.9
  21. Ibid.
  22. Lawrence O’Toole, “Werner Herzog Interviewed by Lawrence O’Toole”, Film Comment, November-December 1979, p.48
  23. Herzog, quoted in Bachmann, op.cit., p.5
  24. O’Toole, “Midsection”, op.cit., p.37
  25. Herzog, quoted in Bachmann, op.cit., p.10
  26. Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Alfred Birnbaum, trans., New York: Vintage International, 1993 [1985], p.113

About The Author

Alkan Chipperfield curated "The Apocalypse according to Herzog", 7-28 June, Media Resource Centre (MRC), Adelaide.

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