As his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, goes into wider release this weekend, a look at the director's lesser-known films
Marco Polo Film
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which legendary German director Werner Herzog documents the oldest cave paintings known to man in stunning 3-D, opened last Friday in select cities, and expands further today. Despite the added dimension, the film is a typically Herzogian visit to a deceptively serene remote location (in this case, the South of France), replete with local-eccentric interviews, foreboding digressions, and ruminations on the scope of mankind's achievements, mostly delivered in voiceover by Herzog himself. In a somewhat more bewildering fashion than usual, though, he vacillates between awestruck reverence (he proposes that the movement-attuned drawings in the Chauvet cave are "a form of proto-cinema," and lingers over calcified cave-bear skulls) and deadpan flippancy (he likens the female form of a prehistoric Venus sculpture to those on display in Baywatch).
Ever since Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog has been perhaps too eager to impose a comic-mythic version of himself on his documentaries, to the possible detriment of his always-interesting material. But his filmography boasts many other worthwhile nonfiction films—both more straightforward documentaries and bold experiments with the form—that are available on home video.
Herzog's most underappreciated documentary of the aughts, The White Diamond (2004), preceded Grizzly Man, but its less sensational subject matter steers Herzog away from repetitive man-vs.-nature pronouncements. The movie concerns a small blimp-like aircraft that its designer, aeronautical engineer Graham Dorrington, hopes to float above a biodiverse forest canopy in Guyana. Dorrington remains haunted by the death of a colleague on an earlier mission, and he spars directly with Herzog at one point, but the supporting Guyanese steal the show: Marc Anthony "Redbeard" Yhap serenely marvels at a sunset from his inflatable-chair perch, and later wishes his rooster, Red, were there to take flight with him; another Menzies' Landing resident moonwalks—precariously, gloriously—near the edge of a cliff. As in most of his films, Herzog seems to approach these characters as kindred spirits, with a warmth that's always palpable, no matter how arch things get.
The White Diamond also happens to feature a mysterious cave: Swifts nest behind a nearby waterfall, in a place inaccessible to humans, and central to Guyanese lore. Dorrington wants to float his airship over the waterfall, but he determines the downward-pulling air currents would prove too treacherous. Humans continue to dream up new vessels with which to penetrate into the uncharted, the unseen; Herzog shows their efforts aren't always for naught, but gracefully reminds us that the natural world, at once wondrous and terrifying, remains fundamentally beyond our understanding.
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), Herzog's first feature documentary, looks surprisingly vérité compared to The White Diamond (it's shot in jumpy 16mm, and the voiceover is more strictly explanatory), but it concerns an even more mind-boggling unknown: that of how various members of Bavaria's deaf-blind community perceive the world. Herzog follows Fini Straubinger, a woman who lost her sight and her hearing in her teens, and who was subsequently bedridden for 30 years. In the film, she acts as an ambassadorial figure.
Fini presides over a birthday-party dinner before visiting a succession of fellow inhabitants of "the land of silence and darkness," eagerly tapping words into their palms, or otherwise making her friendly presence known to those who haven't had the opportunity to learn this tactile language. She's present as two deaf-blind-from-birth boys take speech lessons, and as a middle-aged man embraces a tree, apparently communing with its branches. What's going through their minds? Herzog has spoken about civilization's need for "adequate images," but Land of Silence and Darkness confronts head-on the inadequacies of film as a medium of communication.
Separating the fiction from the nonfiction can get quite complicated when it comes to Herzog's films—he even apparently "supplied Fini Straubinger . . . with scripted lines and fictitious childhood memories." But in Fata Morgana (1971), Lessons of Darkness (1992), and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), editing-room improvisations that use cold, hard (albeit weird) footage as the raw material for sci-fi mythmaking, he plays even faster and looser with the documentary form—and to fascinating effect.
Fata Morgana overlays footage of the Sahara Desert with readings from the Popol Vuh and occasional Leonard Cohen songs, and The Wild Blue Yonder casts Brad Dourif as an extraterrestrial who lectures on space travel and human history (mentioning at one point the cave paintings of the South of France) over repurposed NASA footage. But Lessons of Darkness, a 50-minute film composed almost exclusively of slo-mo aerial shots of Kuwaiti oil-field fires, is the unofficial trilogy's towering high point. Herzog breaks the film into chapters, and cues up the Wagner, restoring a mythic dimension to the images, heretofore the province of cable-news Gulf War dispatches, by relating a vague apocalyptic scenario via voiceover. Lessons of Darkness might not be a documentary in the same sense as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but both films are quintessential Herzog: thought experiments about perspective and the power of images.