It may be a mildly controversial proposition to assert but, apart from clear-cut cases from fairly early in his career (pre-eminently Aguirre, the Wrath of God  and Every Man for Himself and God Against All/The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser ), Werner Herzog’s documentaries are far better, on the whole, than his fiction films. This assertion comes with necessary caveats: some of his fictions, including the even earlier Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and Fata Morgana (1972), come freighted with a bracing dose of “pure” documentary observation; and, inversely, some of his documentaries are enlivened by a large dose of fictional techniques, such as in the spooky Lessons of Darkness (1992).
But can there really be much doubt that Herzog’s stature in world cinema today derives more from Grizzly Man (2005) or My Best Fiend (1999) than from clunkers like Cobra Verde (1987), Scream of Stone (1991), or The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)? Herzog has never seemed very comfortable having to respect even the basic rules or conventions involved in the elaborate “machinery” of film narrative—which covers everything from continuity editing to coherent, psychological characterization. Like fellow filmmakers with whom he has an evident kinship (and has sometimes worked with), such as Harmony Korine or Australia’s Paul Cox, Herzog has tenaciously retained and even cultivated his position as a kind of “naïve artist” of cinema, in the sense that we speak of naïve painters as a particular, special category: when things go well, their ‘visionary’ productions outweigh the need for conventional craft and control. And things go very well in Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998), which is my favorite among Herzog’s movies.
In this particular case, Herzog has even given us the materials for a scholarly comparison. Rescue Dawn (2007), starring Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, the subject of his documentary, is among his worst “staged” films; part of the reason for this is that much of what makes Dieter’s account of his own life so absorbing—namely, what happened to him both before and after his famous experience as a Prisoner of War—is omitted from Herzog’s recreation of it.
Herzog’s documentaries are invariably constructed in a quite simple way. There is footage he shoots, footage he assembles from other sources, and an overlay of voice (usually his own, unmistakably grave and solemn tones, endlessly parodied in YouTube videos) to offer information and reflection. The montage is straightforward, with music (composed or borrowed) often playing a dramatic or heavily ironic role. Herzog is not a film “essayist” in the line of Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, or even Agnès Varda: he is not particularly interested in reflexively questioning his audiovisual medium or testing its limits; and he places strict limits on any digression from the main matter at hand.
In Herzog’s documentaries, the narrative line of a particular person’s life is always front and center, with few deviations from natural chronology. In the case of Dieter Dengler (1938-2001), this life-narrative is completely compelling: his youthful desire to become a pilot led him to the trauma of being brought down to earth by anti-aircraft fire in Laos in 1966, imprisoned with other U.S. soldiers, and tortured. Dengler managed to escape with one other prisoner, Duane Martin, but their ordeal was, at that point, far from over: some of Dieter’s most harrowing tales involve the twenty-three days he spent evading death in the jungle, wracked by illness and malnutrition, hallucinating wildly. Martin did not manage to make it to the point of being rescued: he was decapitated by a villager wielding a machete, a traumatic sight that Dieter had no time to process before desperately fighting back to save himself.
When a US helicopter did finally notice Dieter’s signals some days later, it hauled him up, but still regarded his skeletal frame with suspicion: he had to be overpowered and held down on the chopper floor before his status as POW could be verified. Herzog films, for our reassurance, the happy reunion of Dieter, over thirty years later, with the pilot, Eugene Peyton Deatrick, who kept circling back, despite everything and on a hunch, to the spot where the escapee was eventually found.
Herzog has long cultivated his taste for making a certain kind of immersive “adventure” cinema: over mountains, down rivers, into forests he plunges with his chosen collaborators and crew, seeking an experience that is true, raw and intense—and which can be captured by his camera, on the spot. In his documentaries, this necessarily creates an element of psychodrama: the more that Herzog can make Dengler somehow “relive” his terrifying months of imprisonment, torture and desperate flight in the jungles of Laos during the Vietnam War, the more immediate and real his film becomes as a ‘document’ of remembering.
We can sometimes feel, across the entire span of his work, that Herzog sometimes “goes too far,” a little blindly, in his pursuit of the Real and the True: in My Best Fiend, for instance, he voices many criticisms of Klaus Kinski’s obnoxious (indeed, dangerous) behavior toward others, but never thinks to question his own responsibility, as director and ringmaster, in exposing those others to Kinski and making it hard for them to opt out of the situation.
Herzog’s self-justification, when push comes to shove, is always one of artistic necessity: this madman’s energy (as in Kinski’s case) had to be used and the film had to be made! I shall never forget, in this regard, a piece of performance art once staged at a Surrealist Festival in Melbourne in the early 1980s. At a certain, unannounced point of the show, a huddled group of hooded players broke apart and plunged into the unsuspecting audience, jabbing big, real knives. When I questioned one of these performers later, she simply asserted: ‘It had to be done!’—to waken the spectators from their passive, alienated slumber. Herzog, to this day, shares some of that quasi-Situationist conviction concerning the need to confront the spectator.
In Herzog’s non-fiction work—and Little Dieter offers a prime example—remembering is always a direct, physical act: it is a matter of looking, hearing, witnessing and experiencing at least the trace of an original agony or ecstasy. In this, there is in intriguing continuity between Herzog and Claude Lanzmann of Shoah (1985) fame—and very few other contemporary filmmakers. In Little Dieter, Herzog continually stages a scene that is both expressive and a bit disconcerting: he places Dieter in the places where he once suffered and surrounds him with Vietnamese citizens who ‘stand in’—literally, hardly making a single movement—for his guards and torturers. Dieter visibly shudders, on occasion, at the frisson of live recall this prompts in him; but it also leads him, at one immortal moment, to reassure the poor, innocent guy beside him: “Don’t worry, it’s only a movie!”
Herzog is not, like so many of today’s artists, a big fan of archives: he uses archival materials (most documentary filmmakers looking into past events find themselves obliged to do so), but strictly as a surrealist would, finding in the “official” reels of the past only the record of society’s po-faced madness—such as the “jungle safety” instructional film for soldiers incredulously unveiled in Little Dieter. Likewise, TV footage that he employs (like the press conference held by Dieter on his return to the U.S. in 1966) always insistently sticks out like a sore thumb in its weirdness as part of a Herzog film: although the filmmaker today benefits from a portion of TV funding on many of his documentaries, his blunt, no-frills style remains opposed to the slickness of the typical television documentary formats.
As a general rule, documentaries stand or fall on the charisma of their human subjects—and Herzog has an almost unfailing radar for intriguing, unique and charismatic people to follow and film. The picture is never altogether rosy: the experience of pain, torment and inner conflict comes with the territory of heroism, in Herzog’s eyes; indeed, everything that may be objectionable, contradictory or at least questionable in his central characters (documentary or fictive, but almost always male) is tied, indissociably, into their ‘visionary’ tendencies toward insanity and narcissistic egoism. It is hard to avoid the evidence of Herzog’s own identification with these driven heroes.
Dieter, while thankfully being no Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, fits the Herzog template in this important detail: the childhood sensation of seeing a plane fly so close to his home (which he breathlessly recalls) is something Dieter absorbs as an inspiring, ecstatic vision, not as a fearful moment of life-threatening danger. His whole life, henceforth, is predicated on the fantasy of taking flight—and Herzog rewards him with a final scene in which he revels in the infinite sights of hundreds of planes, at the ready in a vast field that the camera rises above in order to contemplate the scene’s magnitude.
Herzog’s cinema, as many commentators have explored, has numerous connections, both intuitive and studied, with various strains and traditions of European Romanticism. In particular, the tradition of the Sublime in art—with its dual sense of beauty and terror—looms large in his films. It is amusing to hear, in My Best Fiend, Herzog sharply criticizing Kinski for regarding nature, romantically, as “erotical;” his point is well made (and also perfectly illustrated by the absurd photos that Kinski had taken of himself posing suggestively on a tree trunk), but Herzog’s immediate riposte—that nature is, instead, “monstrous,” putrid and devouring—is just the B-side of the same, old, Sublime record.
War itself is drawn into this familiar, Herzogian sensibility. It is curious, but characteristic of this auteur, that there is not a trace of political background, inquiry, or critique in Little Dieter—even in the face of the Vietnam War. War, more thoroughly than in even a Terrence Malick movie, is portrayed by Herzog as a “limit experience” of humanity at its extreme point of chaotic barbarity; it is the stage on which the human soul fully reveals itself and touches the extremes of both evil and self-transcendence—the latter expressed in almost miraculous feats of endurance and survival, as in Dieter’s case. But, beyond what we can sense to be the understandable cooling of Dieter’s youthful, gung ho patriotism after his war experience, there is nothing in Herzog’s account that even begins to ask the question of and for America immortalized in Norman Mailer’s 1967 book title: Why Are We in Vietnam?. This renders Little Dieter, on the political plane, both open and ambiguous: spectators of starkly different political persuasions can take it either as an ethical denunciation of all wars, or a vivid reinforcement of the nightmarish stereotypes circulating in that era of the unearthly and cruel powers of the Viet Cong.
There is sometimes a strange and inscrutable two-step between gruesome sensationalism and excessive tact in Herzog’s documentaries—emblematized, for all time, by the way Herzog both offers (to the person before his camera) and withdraws (from his spectators’ hearing) the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell’s death in Grizzly Man. After immersing himself in the jungle with Dieter and evoking the ghosts of his past trauma, Herzog is oddly silent about probing into or revealing certain details of his personal life about which viewers may well be curious. (Like: does he have a partner?) Similarly, although Herzog added, in 2001, an epilogue containing images of Dieter’s funeral (including an unidentified Yukiko, the woman he married in 1998), he is too polite to inform us that Dieter shot himself after being diagnosed with an incurable neurological disorder.
Herzog, clearly, likes to preserve the memory of his chosen heroes at their best and brightest. But, in the case of Dieter Dengler, who can blame him? Little Dieter Needs to Fly does what Rescue Dawn does not: it sketches an entire, varied life, across several countries and myriad experiences, scaling the highs and lows of Heaven and Hell. For me, the film expresses the same insight that the great avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs once stated at the Croatian Filmske mutacije festival in 2007: why is it that, when a group of people are subjected to exactly the same external conditions, one survives gloriously while another falls miserably? This is what Jacobs called the mystery of personality. It is a mystery to which Werner Herzog remains extremely alive.