Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Return of Herzog

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

So that’s the end of my seven film festival articles, and a return to normal moviegoing. The festival, of course, is a good news/bad news proposition. You’re handed a chance to see some of the best work of the year – but you have to get it all done in ten days. With viewings lined up like dominos, even a masterpiece fails to fill you as it should.

My life with Herzog

If one watched only a few movies a year, I suppose each would stay in the memory on its own sculptured podium. But I watch three or four a week (and two or three more at home) and there isn’t room for that many podiums. My biggest regret is that I often feel the sheer pace of this activity pulls everything – the mainstream and the esoteric alike – toward a uniform intellectual and emotional response. My main exceptions come at the Cinematheque, which occasionally shows something so weird and unexpected that it demands, and gets, a wholly unprecedented reaction.

It must be to the credit of Werner Herzog’ Invincible, which came and went at the Carlton a few weeks ago, that as I was watching it I felt different. It’s not just that I’d been looking forward to the movie, although I had been. I feel I grew up with Herzog in a way. When I first became seriously interested in foreign films, around 1981, he was just about at the peak of his success. He’d just made Fitzcarraldo, a famous folly for which he hauled a river-boat over a mountain. I went to see it, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a film of his in a commercial theater since then. I’ve seen them just about everywhere else though – many at the Cinematheque, also on video, at the film festival, and so on. I have two of them on DVD, which is a lot given my frugal habits in that area.

As I write this, I looked back at my notes on various Herzog films, and realized to my extreme surprise that over the past few years, I’ve frequently written his name as a reference in responding to other people’s films. These include The Lord of the Rings (in which a scene of a boat going down the river brought him to mind), Jacques Rivette’s Joan of Arc, and even Bo Widerberg’s Elvia Madigan (which was actually made pre-Herzog). But I find it much easier to recognize something as “Herzog-like” than to actually summarize the man’s career. At his most superficial, he’s an adventurer – making films all over the world, insisting on a feeling of authenticity. He’s drawn to characters on the edge of society, whether because of mad ambition (like the conqueror in Aguirre: Wrath of God) or inherent “difference.” For example, in the 70s he cast former mental patient Bruno S in several films, and his movies feature a disproportionate number of dwarfs and eccentrics.

How Much Wood…

He made a version of Nosferatu, and filmed documentaries about an island on which a volcano is about to explode (La Soufriere) and the world championship for cattle auctioneers (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck). But his anthropological zest has always coexisted with a certain laconic quality. Because both ends of human extremity – both the epic over-achievement and the epic under-achievement – equally fascinate him, it’s easy to see him as an opportunist. His reputation hasn’t held up particularly well since Fitzcarraldo. He made a few strained variations on previous themes, and Scream of Stone, a confused Canadian co-production about mountain climbers (featuring Donald Sutherland and Al Waxman). Other than that, it’s been all documentaries – one of which, My Best Fiend, looked back on his long collaboration with Klaus Kinski and seemed to explicitly acknowledge that his best days were behind him.

A recent New York Times profile found him living in Los Angeles, apparently content enough but seeming (to me anyway) simply in the wrong place. But now, as if out of nowhere, comes Invincible, a film that begins with a studiedly authentic recreation of a street market in a 1930’s Polish shetl, and within its first ten minutes features a spookily gifted child, a dog dressed in a crocodile suit, and a circus strongman trailed into the ring by a dwarf. It feels as though Herzog is indeed back. Of course, I’m being deliberately superficial about these indicators. Anyway, they turn out to be misleading, because the movie settles into quite a different register altogether.

A local blacksmith takes on and beats the circus strongman in the ring, and then finds himself courted by a Berlin talent impresario. The blacksmith treks to the city, and finds himself working in an establishment called Hanussen’s Palace of the Occult – basically a burlesque cabaret whose owner has pretensions of greatness, casting himself as a seer who foresees Hitler’s greatness looming, and thus becomes a hero to the burgeoning Nazi party. Clad in a blond wig, the blacksmith is initially sold to the audience as Siegfried, an Aryan hero, but one night he tires of the deceit and reveals himself as a Jew. This makes him a hero to the Jews who now flock to the cabaret, and in a certain way increases the fascination he holds for the Nazis. The cabaret becomes a twisted microcosm of the horribly confused society outside. The arrangement inevitably shatters.

Caged Beast

This is obviously serious, overtly metaphorical material. The film has evoked extremely mixed responses. Both Eye and Now gave it one star, with Eye calling it a “choked off little turd” (a line one can’t help being jealous of in some perverse way) and “The Conformist as a circus pantomime” (would this necessarily be a bad thing?) On the other hand, Roger Ebert sees it as one of the best films of the year. He wrote: “Watching Invincible was a singular experience for me, because it reminded me of the fundamental power that the cinema had for us when we were children. The film exercises the power that fable has for the believing. Herzog has gotten outside the constraints and conventions of ordinary narrative, and addresses us where our credibility keeps its secrets.”

The truth I think lies somewhere in between. Herzog hardly seems well suited for such claustrophobic material. His “getting outside the constraints of ordinary narrative” seems to me like no more than restlessness here, like a beast pacing back and forth in its cage. The movie is frequently meandering, rather dour and monotonous. The metaphysical dimension is interesting, but contrived. The film’s closing sequence returns to the shetl, as the blacksmith tries to act on what he learned in Berlin, but takes on an earnestness that’s far from Herzog’s best quality. The material is inherently interesting, and Herzog is attuned to its perverse elements, but given the underlying seriousness, it looks as though he felt obliged to be more stately about it than he really wanted to be.

Despite all this, Ebert is right that there’s something “singular” about the film. It’s just that it should have been even more singular, if that makes any sense. But Herzog is in his sixties now, and not likely to be allowed to pull too many more boats over mountains.

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