The legend of director Werner Herzog goes something like this: Raised in a remote mountain village in the Black Forest of Germany, the young director-to-be lived with no television or telephone and had few lines of communication to the world outside. At age fourteen he began traveling long distances by foot. He made his first phone call (perhaps his first contact with the modern society) at age seventeen.
It could be said that Herzog was steeped, in the earliest parts of his life, in his own unfathomable netherworld of isolation, making him familiar with existential solitude and its boundaries, comfortable with its weird textures and languages.
It's good to know this about the mad genius while watching two of his early documentaries, Fata Morgana and Land of Silence and Darkness (both 1971). Both films screen at Miami-Dade's main library on Sunday. While each is vastly different in style, both address the painful ordeal of making contact with the outside world after being confined to a remote and mysterious place. Herzog explores this theme in the roving, steady, and almost breezy manner of a traveler seeking the unknown -- or someone who is used to walking long distances.
In Fata Morgana, Herzog's camera rarely stops moving through stark and desolate landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa. It wanders through dusty Bedouin villages as if mounted on the back of a pickup truck, rarely slowing down for a closeup. And when it does, there's an uncomfortably long, timed shot of a laborer, rotting cow carcass, or European traveler.
Herzog explains the film as a science-fiction tale set on the planet Uxmal, filmed by creatures from the Andromeda Nebula. And while the opening sequence of dozens of jets landing on a solitary runway hints at that concept, there is little else apparent of Herzog's premise in the end product. Instead Fata Morgana is a hypnotic and hallucinatory allegory that loosely follows the ancient Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh. Set in three segments (The Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age), the film interweaves the dreamy images with passages of the Popol Vuh and Herzog's poetic narration. Also threaded throughout is the music of Leonard Cohen, Handel, Mozart, and Blind Faith.
The result is a dreamy hybrid that seems a cross between Koyaanisqatsi, National Geographic, and Monty Python's Flying Circus: Shots of a German duo are spliced in, repeating a mumbling bolero on a proscenium stage with awkward silences in between, as are aliens, Leonard Cohen, goggle-eyed Europeans holding sea turtles. A group of African boys may be trying to explain the meaning of Fata Morgana when they repeat in the film the phrase, "The Blitzkrieg is insanity" in German.
Now for something completely different.
Herzog shifts gears from the esoteric to the traditional, at least cinematically, with Land of Silence and Darkness. This film is a solemn, slice-of-life study of Fini Straubinger, a courageous deaf and blind woman who travels through Germany teaching others with the same affliction how to communicate.
Straubinger describes her inner world not as a vacuum, all dark and silent, but as one of interminable noise -- a never-ending drone of buzzing and pulsing, and of nondescript colors. Still she manages to speak articulately before groups of people and move gracefully through luncheons, train rides, and symphonies. As the protagonist of the film, Straubinger in a sense is telling part of Herzog's tale -- a child of the darkness mastering the task of transmitting ideas in the light. Straubinger communicates in part as Helen Keller did, with a language of touched signals on the hands.
Meanwhile another subject of the film, Vladimir, a deaf and blind young man who was raised in the woods by his father, expresses another, more primal part of the director. Effectively shut off from the outside world, Vladimir remains out of contact. He is filmed murmuring to himself and lolling around animal-like in trousers and a V-neck sweater. This wild child lost in the wilderness could also, of course, be seen as another strain of the young Herzog.
Mostly the camera follows Straubinger through her everyday life, shooting scenes as if her assertive and polite personality has rubbed off on the filmmaker. Like the heroine, the film delves into deep, dark corners of experience, but does so in the tidy and efficient manner of a well-groomed, matronly German frau. Straubinger, too, reflects some of Herzog's breezy absurdist qualities as she opens herself up to the camera, talking in an offhand way about her journey in bleakness. She says liltingly and without self-pity, "If a world war would break out now, I wouldn't notice it."
Chances are Herzog would be well aware of a war breaking out, but it would be difficult to gauge just how he would express his ideas about it. Perhaps it would be somber and funny and oddly mystical like this take from Fata Morgana: "Paradise is available to everybody. In Paradise only God is looking on. There you cross the sand without seeing your face. In Paradise there is landscape even without meaning."
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.