“It does not matter what political content there is when you have a nine-year-old fighting in a war,” Werner Herzog said of his 16mm film Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984). “Child soldiers are such a tragedy that you do not need every single detail of the conflict.” As with so many of the filmmaker’s declarations, this one shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. At first blush Ballad of the Little Soldier does seem a rather conventional documentary for Herzog, but the ostensibly straightforward presentation is itself a provocation precisely because of its fraught political context. The film concerns the Miskito people, an indigenous group in Nicaragua then fighting the Sandinistas. Then as now the Sandinistas were a major cause celebré for the international left, making the Miskitos’ charges of atrocities pointedly impolitic for Ballad of the Little Soldier’s likely viewers. Herzog can hardly have been surprised that critics accused him of playing into the hands of the Reagan-backed Contras, no matter the films’ rather more measured view of such alliances: “The Indians have no illusions,” he says in voiceover, “They know they will always have to defend themselves regardless of who succeeds the Sandinista.”
Herzog’s decision to swat at this political hornets’ nest can be seen as a characteristically incautious response to the controversy surrounding his treatment of the Aguarana Indians during the Fitzcarraldo (1982) production (see Brad Pager’s essay for more on this subject). As Eric Ames writes in his invaluable survey, Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog, “In this case, and in stark contrast to the situation he had encountered in Peru, the defense of Indian rights was construed by his detractors as a counter-revolutionary position.” The film’s early scenes offers up plenty of material to goad these detractors: there is Herzog as de-facto colonialist, introducing the film as if an expedition (“The area is at present a combat zone, and it took us three weeks on foot, through jungle and swamps, constantly behind enemy lines, to reach a little settlement with our cameras”); Herzog as guerrilla filmmaker, trailing a Miskito troupe past whizzing bullets; and Herzog as “committed” documentarian, providing a platform for several Miskitos to recount their suffering.
Does Herzog play these roles in earnest? Or are they false lures, designed to come apart once the abject reality of the child soldier sets in? The film knocks us off balance because of the myriad outrages described, certainly, but also because the familiar pieces of the “committed documentary” (Ames points to a mix of “interviews, camp scenes, jungle marches, combat sequences, and atrocity testimonials”) do not add up to a cogent political argument—far from it. By the time we reach the training sequences, Herzog’s overreaching voiceover has been reined in. As we watch the boys marching in place and handle absurdly outsized artillery, the filmmaker quickly explains that many of the commanders were drawn from Anastasio Somoza’s military—that is, the forces formerly responsible for the Miskitos’ misery—without underlining the bitter irony. The guerrilla raid proves a wasted effort, its futility replayed in a darker key when a commander justifies the young soldiers with a grotesque appeal to their valor in combat. Finally, and most troublingly, the very real sympathy evinced for the Miskitos’ suffering and solidarity is shattered by its eventual expression in the child soldiers. Hardly a valedictory portrait of anti-Sandinista militarism, Ballad of the Little Soldier is finally a report from deep inside a moral vacuum, never a comfortable place for one’s political alignments.
Herzog translates all of the film’s spoken dialogue in his voiceover, an unusual decision that may at first strike us as betraying his solipsism but which in the end seems instead to reflect certain basic epistemological limitations. We think how the voiceover was recorded in post-production, perhaps only months or weeks later but surely too late for many of the boys being profiled. This essential division becomes especially stark in the film’s final denouement, when co-director and longtime combat photojournalist Denis Reichle addresses the camera directly in English:
It reminds me of a very sad story, when I was myself fourteen and was involved in Berlin and in Germany…in the last weeks of fights against the Russians. And we also believed we got to save the country, and many of us stayed there, died. At the age of thirteen, fourteen, if somebody tells you, ‘You’re a man and you’ve got to fight for this country,’ you automatically believe it and you go. And that’s what I see here again.
There is wisdom in the historical parallel, but the framing of the shot reminds us that this insight is no help to the ones suffering this same fate: Reichle stands immediately behind a line of the boys, but their blank facial expressions make it clear that they may as well be occupying a different world. There’s always a line between documentarians and subjects, but here it’s as sharp as life and death. The tragedy is not that the boys cannot understand Reichle’s lessons, but that they never will.