A genuine democracy must be open to dissent, the different and the useless. Only through this “conquest of the useless” can we get closer to the truth.
Kristoffer Hegnsvad’s book about the German filmmaker Werner Herzog is not a journalistic examination of cinema, but a philosophical journey into the creative workshop of a remarkable artist. Through conversational partners like Benjamin, Adorno, Nietzsche and Deleuze, the book deals with questions like: What is cinema? What is the relationship between imagery and truth? Different concepts of the movie director–as philosopher, ethnologist, explorer and scientist–are also discussed. It’s a study about what it requires to be curious about the world, about life, and about pushing the limits when it comes to how this curiosity is pursued.
Getting to the Image
Herzog doesn’t make movies in order to entertain, but rather to teach something, explore something, to pursue the truth. It seems as if the camera is merely his medium. But before becoming a director you must first learn something about life; what in Herzog’s terminology is known as “lessons of darkness”. Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School teaches “an approach to life.” Learning in the classroom isn’t enough–you must have life experience as your foundation. To be able to stand alone is its most central tenet: If you want to be a creative artist, you must first learn to be lonely. To discover the stories that are worth telling requires solitude, courage and persistence.
In the school, Herzog stresses the necessity of standing on your own feet and doing things yourself (provided, of course, you want to avoid mainstream cinema). But above all you have to want it. To a Viennese woman who wanted to become part of his film crew, he said: “Walk from Vienna to Munich, that will tell me how much you want it.” Eleven days later she showed up in Munich, her feet covered in blisters, and was given the job as a scriptwriter. Instead of the normal application processes used by other film schools, Herzog prefers a notebook from a pilgrimage. It’s when you’re wandering alone and can feel the thoughts rushing through your head that you find out what’s important. In his book “Of Walking in Ice”, Herzog describes his own 1974 trek from Munich to Paris, where his mentor Lotte Eisner was lying on her deathbed. Says Herzog: “We’re filmmakers, not rubbish collectors!”, meaning: With the digital camera it’s become too easy to simply shoot away. What matters is to get there, to the image; the effort, the art of living life in a way that enables you to film what is worth filming. At the film school, Hegnsvad meets the man Herzog, who radiates an air of total commitment and passion, the very qualities that have made him who he is. To create something of value, something must also be at stake.
Herzog has spent his whole life looking for unseen images. In Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985), he says, “We have a desperate need for images that correspond to our civilisation and ourselves.” The comment can be interpreted in the light of another of Herzog’s remarks, namely that “civilisation exists as a thin veneer over a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” In Hegnsvad’s description, Herzog’s movies capture the unseen image as “an artistic experience–understood as the moment where I feel that I’m witnessing something new. An insight into a new part of the world or a new part of man. A new realization, or a new feeling of understanding and interconnectedness.” It could be the opening scene from Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), where hundreds of soldiers, pigs, lamas and indigenous people in chains are seen moving down a narrow path in the Andean Mountains near Machu Picchu while the fog is clearing; it could be the rats invading the city in the vampire movie Nosferatu (1979), which points at German cultural heritage while at the same time exploring the limits of civilisation.
«HERZOG never wants to illustrate the truth, but to think and experience it. »
The Truth of Accountants
In his 1999 Minnesota Declaration, Herzog declared a holy war against the global impoverishment of imagery. He attacked both the journalistic worship of facts and cinéma vérité for its worship of honesty. Neither comes close to approaching the truth of the art of cinema, he claimed. In an excellent chapter, Hegnsvad describes Herzog’s break with the “truth of accountants” as a break with clear-cut models of explanation. With Rancière in mind, he points to a connection between this type of truth and a dazed culture of consensus in which society, because it no longer rethinks its fundamental values–democracy, equality, freedom of speech–but merely takes them for granted, starts heading in an undemocratic direction. The truth of the accountant only notices “the useful”, whereas a genuine democracy must be open to dissent, to the different, the useless. And it’s this “conquest of the useless” that constitutes Herzog’s path to the truth.
When Herzog succeeds in creating a different truth, it’s because of his method: the story is written from the contemporary viewpoint overlooked by the truth of accountants, and which neither new wave nor high-brow cinema succeeds in capturing. And this is precisely what is so difficult–to be contemporary. You can only really see your own age if you look into its darkness. That is why Herzog’s method is so important; his way of approaching his material, his ability to connect with the physically tangible, like the twisted bodies and physical experiences in Heart of Glass (1976). To courageously make yourself open and vulnerable, to sense the great in the banal–this is what produces cracks in the “seen”. Even if Herzog’s movies are sometimes peopled by incompetent, useless types, like the dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Stroszek (1977) and Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005), he never wants to illustrate the truth but rather to think and experience it.
The poetic, ecstatic truth identifies fellow states of mind. From philosopher Walter Benjamin both Herzog and Hegnsvad have learnt that most cultural documentaries are written from the point of view of the winners and masters and therefore document barbarism. If you want to expand the scope of history you have to call attention to the nameless, the forgotten, the overlooked. You have to tell history starting from a unique snapshot that will strike the audience like a bolt of lightning; something palpable or concrete that requires thinking: a dead infant; a civilian victim of war; childbirth. The crucial point that lies at the heart of Herzog’s method is that real thinking is a stoppage of time.
«Cinema’s aesthetical and political task is to produce new perspectives.»
Lessons of Darkness (1992), in which Herzog captures the blazing oil fields at the end of the First Gulf War, was an attempt at creating an unseen image in the middle of the flood of news; a symphonic opera set in hell. Hegnsvad thereby makes it clear that while Herzog considers a direct revolution impossible, an indirect revolution is not. It’s about the use of thinking to force ourselves away from the questions we’ve become accustomed to. Cinema’s aesthetical and political task is to produce new perspectives.
With a reference to the painter Francis Bacon, Hegnsvad sees Lessons of Darkness as Herzog’s attempt to “film the scream rather than the fear”. Whereas fear points to the concrete war and the abuses committed by its participants, the scream is indefinite, reminding us of just how thin the veneer of civilisation is.
Hegnsvad also engages in dialogue with Deleuze, who in his philosophy of film uses Herzog to describe the famous crystal image. Along with filmmakers like Ozu, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Wenders, Herzog breaks with the template of action-oriented films, preferring instead long sequences that dwell on themselves. In most films we know what will happen, or we see and contemplate a world within a given horizon guided by the film’s unity. Noteworthy cinema creates “a freer space for thought, where thinking is done in potentials…where thought isn’t subjected to force but can move whichever way it wants. A space of whichever-way-it-wants thus corresponds to ecstatic truth…”
To Herzog, there’s never a real story just waiting to be discovered. Instead he practices the documentary art of “the and”, a nomadic enterprise that doesn’t look back towards a nostalgic world but explores the space between words and objects. The goal is to find new roads, new thoughts, and thereby “a principle for less marginalised communities.”
“The crystal image” is the name of the pure optical force of images that discard their own signs and symbols, as seen for example in Herzog’s use of “whiteness” in the aviation film The White Diamond (2004), the white sea that is taken over by pilgrims in Bells from the Deep (1993), the white desert fox in Fata Morgana (1971), the whiteness in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) or the white and blue waterfall in Heart of Glass (1976). Rather than illustrating something specific, the whiteness represents a stopping of time, of that which gives birth to a new idea or vision.
«You can only really see your own age if you look into its darkness.»
The term ecstatic truth balances on a knife’s edge. “An unromantic romantic”, Hegnsvad calls him. Whereas to the romantics the experience of the sublime hints at something bigger than man–God–the characters in Herzog’s films seem doomed to lose the struggle for nature, for the universe–not as a result of a greater divine connection, but because of nature’s indifference. Herzog’s characters do not leave the world, but return to it, writes Hegnsvad. But we may then ask if they actually return to civilisation, and if so, how? We can learn something from these characters precisely because they keep pushing the boundaries, because they remain strangers, because they never quite settle for the bourgeois way of life.
A Little Penguin
Werner Herzog: An Ecstatic Truth and Other Useless Conquests is an excellent book–the best on Werner Herzog to have appeared in a Scandinavian language. One of the book’s strengths is that it never becomes entirely clear whether Herzog should be seen primarily as a filmmaker, or rather as a Chatwinian globetrotter and connoisseur of the art of living (the dying Bruce Chatwin bestowed his rucksack to Herzog). The two life forms cannot be separated, thereby creating this particular interference in Herzog’s universe–his free university–that makes it possible to become something different from what we are.
The reader is recommended to watch this little scene from Encounters at the End of the World: