Facts, per se, do not constitute truth.
Werner Herzog’s films have often been rigidly categorized either as documentary or as fiction, when nearly every film that he has ever released has overtly blended the two forms. The Munich-born artist has melded scripted scenes and staged encounters between untrained actors in atypical locations, with the mixtures showing how the natural world can make human beings look demented and vice-versa. The films move between outside and inside views. Sometimes they observe characters at a distance; at other points, Herzog seems to delve into live beings and then point his camera outwards, as though seeing his surroundings through their eyes.
Herzog has made such movements since the start of his filmmaking, and the shock and awe that run through well-known landmarks like Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grizzly Man (2005) are already on full display in two key early feature-length films, both of which premiered the year before the release of perhaps his best-known work, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The first film, Fata Morgana (1971), is an ostensible fiction; the second, Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), seems like a documentary; and both films blur such boundaries as they record people creating the world in their own images.
Fata Morgana begins with distant views of a series of planes descending, with each shot cutting out before the runway is hit. The film’s title translates to “mirage,” and these images of travel hazily vibrate such that they give promise of entering an illusory land. Indeed, that is where we have landed; at the same time, however, the desert through which the film will travel will be full of clear, strong, almost hyper-real images. Myth and matter will cohabitate in this space as calmly as do sand and stones.
The film’s camera (held by frequent Herzog cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein) will travel throughout this place over the course of three narrative sections, the first of which is called “Creation.” The camera-eye (situated atop a VW bus) moves steadily across windswept dunes while an older female narrator speaks flatly about how this environment came to be. “There was only the nothingness” in the beginning, we are told, until a creator and a creatress came together to deliberate the conception of man “in darkness and night.” The things that we see in front of us, though, more often than not emerge illuminated by bright sunlight, even if their images tremble and threaten to dissolve. Palm trees, bodies of water, and abandoned outposts all appear, eventually leading to the sight of nomadically roaming human beings.
These robe-wearing black people seem to be natives, and we are told that their creators taught them “to speak coherently” and not “clamor without order or sense.” The film’s second section, “Paradise,” features several scenes of them at work, including one of a group of children gathered near a white German woman who instructs them to repeat her feelings about blitzkrieg. We meet other mad-seeming whites that have also come to tame the area, including a man obsessed with understanding its lizards; after all—as this section’s different, male narrator tells us—“The gates of Paradise are open to everybody.”
Paradise is continually described throughout this second section with images as well as with voiceover. It is where we see one native man gleefully crushing rocks with a pickaxe and another running while waving for the camera to follow him, and where we regularly hear about what being in Paradise means. It is where you cross the sand without seeing your shadow, we are told, where roasted pigeons fly into your mouth, where you can call “hello” without seeing anyone, and where man is born dead.
Different musical strains have been heard during this time, accompanying the camera’s tours to form a crew of phantom emissaries. Many of them have been from pop and rock songs by musicians such as Leonard Cohen and Blind Faith. Fata Morgana’s third section, “The Golden Age,” opens with what initially seems to be a demented pop parody, with a middle-aged male-female musician duo on a stage playing the same basic tune, over and over, and the man singing inaudible words. The music grows sadder with each repetition, however, gaining weight with the sense of the couple trapped in an eternal routine.
Traces of Paradise continue to linger throughout subsequent scenes, including a man delightedly showing what human beings can learn from turtles and the camera touring across long stretches of flat, cracked earth. We sense that Paradise has been outlived by the Golden Age, which has arrived at a time when “War is proclaimed dead by peace.”
In Fata Morgana, living creatures roam terrain alternately as objects of spectacles and as spectacle-surveyors. Once they perish, their corpses stay on display for others to view as though the world were a giant museum. In real life, Herzog and his crew had initially come to Cameroon for their filming, a few weeks after a failed military coup had taken place, with the intention of making a more straightforward science fiction film that took place in the future on another planet. He changed his mind, though, after discovering the extent to which the country’s natural life flowed amidst dead relics of European colonialism.
Herzog felt the reality he saw to be striking enough to merit its own register; the fiction that he laid over his setting (which includes excerpts, read aloud in voiceover, from the centuries-old Quiché Mayan myth collection called the Popol Vuh) fits so awkwardly as to highlight the locale’s natural strangeness. Every object and entity in the film seems to vibrate with mysterious agency, until one of Fata Morgana’s many possible mirages becomes the belief that humanity can impose itself on its surroundings.
Fata Morgana’s making occurred in close proximity to the creations of other Herzog films that influenced it, as has often been the case in the director’s prolific career. The developments of Fata Morgana, Herzog’s brutal 1970 allegory Even Dwarfs Started Small (a rendering of human life as ugly, chaotic and short), and his standard documentary reportage piece The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) all fed off of each other, each coloring the other films’ tenors and tones.
Land of Silence and Darkness, shot after the making of this trio of films, emerged in a more direct line from a documentary film also made prior to it called Handicapped Future (1971), what Herzog has since called a “dangerously conventional” work about the troubles facing modern-day Germany’s population of physically handicapped children. Handicapped Future in fact deals less with the struggles of the children, whose maladies variously include motor deficiencies and missing limbs, than it does with parents and teachers earnestly working towards integrating the young people into German society.
The film conveys a sense of ordinary moralism from a comfortable distance. However, during its shoot Herzog met an older deaf-blind woman named Fini Straubinger whose perspective he found so compelling that he chose to enter it for another film. Land of Silence and Darkness begins with her describing what she sees. As she evokes “a path spanning the bare fields and clouds passing over me,” clouds appear briefly over what was previously a black screen; when she recalls a ski-jumping competition that she once saw and wishes that “you” could too, a silent image appears of a male ski-jumper in flight.
By reaching out to Fini to illustrate her inner world, Herzog helps heal what she considers to be her greatest sicknesses—loneliness and isolation, both of which she says have hurt her more than the losses of two of her senses have. Fini appears seated before the camera, her open eyes looking around her, as she calmly tells of how she crippled herself by accidentally falling down a flight of steps at age nine, and of how she prayed that her mother would not punish her for doing so. She says that as her vision and hearing vanished, her sense of solitude increased. People spoke to her mother about her, but “I remained in my silent world.”
Fini spent over thirty years in bed until she grew strong enough to venture outside. As with Herzog’s soon-to-come feature The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Land of Silence and Darkness records a person finding ways to leave his or her bodily prison and share sensations of the world with others. Fini does this with Herzog by explaining her condition to him in detail, while leaving room both for him and for us to imagine it. “People think that deafness means silence, but they are wrong,” she says at one point. “It is a constant noise that ranges from a gentle whisper going through some cracks to a constant buzz, which is worse.”
Fini further shares sensations with other people around her, many of them also deaf-blind, primarily through physical touch. We see her sitting on a park bench with other women as they rub each other’s hands softly while recalling childhood memories of animals, and we understand from this that Fini and those close to her are capable of passing among themselves sensations of what they have each heard and seen. The same holds true a few scenes later, when Fini’s deaf-blind friends come to her birthday party and they squeeze each others’ hands at a table while a female member of their ranks recites a poem; and it holds true again later at a concert as a companion squeezes Fini’s hand in accompaniment with musical notes.
From a distance, we might believe that Fini simply relies upon others, but the film’s intimate view reveals her also giving the gift of herself to them. Land of Silence and Darkness’s second half shows Fini taking an annual trip to Bavaria to help people who, unlike her, were born into deafness and blindness. With cases such as that of the woman that “locked herself inside herself” and has not spoken since, it is a matter of creating a new kind of dialogue in order to draw her out. In other cases, including many with children and teenagers, Fini seeks ways to touch people so that they will know that she is with them. From there, she will help them discover how to explore their surroundings on their own.
All of Fini’s work builds up to Land’s last scene, in which she meets a fifty-one-year-old man named Heinrich Fleischmann who has lived in a nursing home since age five and has long forgotten how to read or speak. He has also shunned human company, we are told, and now prefers to be among animals. Fini tries to engage him in his mother’s presence, but he wanders away from them, and all hope seems lost. Then suddenly, as we continue to hear Fini’s voice speaking with the older woman, Herzog zooms in upon Heinrich, now feeling his way across a tree’s branches. He stands alone, exploring the world around the trunk before him, until his guardians come to take him away.
Herzog watches them go, and then the camera tilts upward, as though for a lyrical end. But something else is happening that deserves attention, and he can’t leave yet. We return to Earth to see Fini touching Heinrich’s tree. The film closes with her creating for herself the sense of another person’s private space, and with us standing outside of her, watching her among the leaves.
Fata Morgana is Fandor’s featured Herzog release June 3. Land of Silence and Darkness will appear on the site June 17.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.