Werner Herzog is known just as much for his documentaries as for his fiction films. In fact his voice is more iconic than any image of Klaus Kinski looking up all bedraggled and muddy. And yet I never think of his documentaries as required viewing. Don’t get me wrong, his documentaries are fascinating and every time I watch one, I am happy I watched it, it just doesn’t hit me in the gut the way his fiction films do. He seems more clinical in a documentary but his fiction films are where he can be emotional. Thus they are films that I have to see, that I need to see in order to be a film watcher.
But why do I think this? I have watched documentaries that have touched me emotionally. That have challenged the way I feel about the world, art and social issues. I have even defended documentaries that are more expressionistic than straight forward as being important artistic endeavors. But I think that fictional films require a sense of imagination that is somehow now present in any documentary, not in the least Herzog films. So when I happened to have watched two Herzog documentaries within only a day of each other, I thought it was something worth noting… and comparing. So that is what I am going to do.
The first film I watched was also the oldest of the two. Fata Morgana is a mostly silent film meditating on mirages and the Sahara desert. He also combines a Mayan creation myth, industrialization, human fascination with animals, local life, and dead carcasses in this film. To say there is too much going on in here is an understatement. And yet there is not enough to hold my attention. Scenes seemed to be stitched together fo no reason. Each element did not mesh well together. While the soundtrack was very well done, the pieces Herzog choses to go with each scene is strange. Also the creation myth reading seemed to have nothing to do what so ever with what we were seeing on the screen. I am being a little too harsh. I didn’t hate this film like I seemed to have made out a couple of sentences ago. I was just bored by it. The one thing I did take away from this film is the germ of the ideas that Herzog would continue to explore in his later films. The idea of death and life and exactly what that looks like.
What better way to illustrate that idea than with Into the Abyss? This film that was released late last year tells the story of the death penalty as seen through the crime of two men. He talks to one who is about to die eight days from now and the other that is serving a forty-year sentence for the same crime. He also interviews their victims’ families, the criminal’s parents, and ex police officers that are put in charge of someone else’s death. Herzog asks difficult questions, always searching for the answer beyond the stated one. But he combines this footage of interviews with images of stark beauty. These images seem to not only fit the story that is being told but fits in the evolution of Herzog as a documentarian. His sweeping images of small poor towns seem like an extension of Fata Morgana’s sweeping images of the Sahara Desert. Yet the images in Into the Abyss pull much more emotional weight than the ones in the depths of the Sahara. The images give a context, a mood to the story that is not seen in Fata Morgana. (or at least not seen very much)
Werner Herzog has made a career out of exploring the idea of death and how it affects the people who are so close to it. He compliments these expressionistic views of the world around him. It is interesting to see a filmmaker just beginning to explore every aspect of being a documentarian and his evolution to the master documentarian he is today. I should pay more attention to his documentaries….