Thursday, January 29, 2009

Werner Herzog Documentaries and Shorts Vol. 1

As strange as Werner Herzog's feature-length films are, his shorts are often weirder. Freed of the necessity of at least some narrative, Herzog often sort of bounds around for 15-20 minutes focusing on a single, abstract theme. Not that this makes them bad of course; if anything, I miss the mash-up of all sorts of weirdness instead of a lingering gaze on one object. However, the first volume of Herzog's short films (available for instant watch on Netflix) contains two of his more interesting documentaries. Unfortunately, it also contains perhaps his worst.

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner

At only 45 minutes, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner seems an unlikely choice for one of Herzog's best films, but it sparks such rare and audible awe in the director I must include it. His previous films (among them Aguirre, Fata Morgana, and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) were considered masterpieces--and they are--, but they lacked that spark of wild passion, though at the time few knew of the laborious toll of Aguirre's shooting and the drive it took to make it. But this elegant, beautifully shot - how did he get some the angles he did?- documentary on ski-jumping, a sport Herzog loved, for a TV station turns out to be one of his most personal works.

He starts out barely covering an also-ran named Walter Steiner, some no-name who's probably just happy to be there. Then he jumps and, as Herzog so rightly dubs it, he is no longer watching jumping but flying. Steiner is so far out of everyone's league that he has to shorten his run and even start lower than the other contestants, just so he won't fly into the very bottom of the slope and kill himself.

In his spare time Steiner is a woodcarver; he's a gentle soul who usually responds to Herzog's queries with some mumbled nonsense. The only time he gets really passionate is when he pleads with the ski judges to shorten the run so he can land "responsibly." For him ski-flying is life, but he knows that landing too far down could kill him or injure him permanently. When you get right down to it, Steiner is an Icarus who knows his limitations.

Herzog's films, be they fictional or documented, generally deal with people whose boundless dreams are either dashed or cruelly perverted by the harsh wave of reality. But Steiner is a man whose can literally soar over what we would think impossible; for once someone's dream beat the real world, and the world looks pettier for it. If people in the early 70s believed that Herzog was an arty, self-absorbed intellectual (as one review from the Times suggested), the pure joy of this film showed just how much he loved his craft. It's short, but it's oh so sweet.

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck

This, sadly, is not one of his best films. Woodchuck focuses on the world of cattle auctioneering by traveling to New Holland, Pennsylvania to cover the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship. Now, I was surprised at the apparent abundance of deaf-blind people populating Germany and nearby areas in Land of Silence of Darkness, but this takes the cake. Not only is there an auctioneering championship, but they subdivide into chapters? Is there a World Real Estate Auctioneer Championship? Frankly that concept alone is more interesting and terrifying than anything Herzog might bring up in the film.

I suppose that the message (and I'm stretching here), is that people don't just aspire to be doctors and spacemen. I can attest to that: when I was two years old I thought the most fascinating thing in the world was that tank that drove up every day to take the garbage. In fact, up until I was five I wanted to be a garbage man when I grew up. Look, I was a toddler, all right? Stop laughing. These men have wanted to be auctioneers since they were children, and for them this is the highlight of their lives. In that way it's an interesting commentary on what motivates different people, and how people can fill any job with spirit and vigor, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can't tell the difference between the speed-talkers and it gets boring and repetitive. In the end this is far and away the weakest thing I've ever seen with Herzog's name on it. It's one of only two (the other being Even Dwarves Started Small) that I have no desire to watch again, though I might at least gives Dwarves another go to try to get it.

La Soufrière

At 30 minutes, this is the shortest of the three documentaries, but it's incredibly interesting and (unintentionally) hilarious. In 1977 Herzog learned that the island of Guadeloupe had been evacuated because a volcano was about to erupt. Everyone left, except for one man. Well of course that tripped a flag in Herzog's head, so he gathered a crew and flew to Ground Zero to ask the man about his philosophy on death.

Herzog arrives to a strange land; people literally ran from their homes to get off the island, and they've left behind eerie remains. Doors swing open, revealing uneaten meals and still playing televisions. Pets remain tethered or pinned in their owners' homes or roam the streets. One can't help but look at the village as a sort of living Pompeii, uncovered ruins that somehow still work and breathe.

Herzog came to island to find one man, but discovered three. In interviews with these people, Herzog peers into man's acceptance of death and his belief in God. One man in particular looks at Herzog like an alien when the director asks him why he stayed. None of the men has a death wish, but they welcome their deaths and, like the best of Herzog's subjects, they make you stop and think. However, one man does relent when he thinks of his family and asks to return with Herzog.

But the documentary gives way to hilarity at the end when the volcano doesn't erupt at all. Even Herzog admits to some embarrassment over the matter, but quite rightly rallies around the subjects he observed. In them he found fascinating ruminations on the philosophy of death, voiced in rather direct terms in opposition to Herzog's usually cryptic prose. This is the only documentary of the bunch where time worked against it. Ecstasy was perfectly paced, while Woodchuck tested patience even at 40 minutes, but this one spends half its time letting Herzog ruminate over volcanoes and death and such, and it only gets to the people themselves in the last 10 or 12 minutes. Though they still get their points across, I would have liked to see a bit more of them.

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