Though he has long been admired for his rigorous and almost ritualistic approach to filmmaking, and while he has created a number of unforgettable narrative films, it is likely that Herzog will be remembered for his unique approach to documentary. In fact, in hindsight, what appeals most about his narrative films is the documentary elements -- where reality interjects itself. Consider Heart of Glass, for example: the narrative is interesting but obscure, but what is stunning is the document of an entire crew of non-actors, ordinary villagers, who have submitted to be filmed under hypnosis. Or take Stroszek. It's a very interesting story about the dream that America represents for some Europeans, about violence and about loneliness and relationships, but what makes it unforgettable is the scene towards the end of live chickens who have been trained to take part in a very bizarre set of performances in a roadside attraction, and the way that this real element comments on the narrative. This is even more true of Fitzcarraldo (whose making is documented in this film), where the insane ambition of the main character -- to bring opera to the natives -- and the manner of realizing this -- by dragging a massive boat over a mountain in order to make a fortune by accessing remote rubber trees -- where the portrayal of this insane ambition of the character is made much more powerful by the realization that it actually had to be done by the filmmakers.
Given that, it is fitting that Herzog himself should be documented, since his is as large a life as the lives he captures in his films. Here he is documented in the process of making a film about a man who has monumental but bizarre dreams and achieves them; and of course the process of making the film mirrors its subject. One of my favorite scenes from the film has Herzog rejecting vigorously the idea that "nature is beautiful" and yet insisting that its ugliness, the fecund horror of nature, is precisely what he loves about it (in spite of his better judgment). Hier ist ein autentischer Mensch!
Another reviewer compared this film unfavorably with Hearts of Darkness. It's true that there aren't as many "oh my God I can't believe that ..." type moments in this film -- but in part that is because Coppola was in it over his head and just barely made it through alive and sane (and of course with two stunning films to show for it: Apocalypse Now and his wife's document of his own descent). What we see in this film is that in just such an insane scenario Herzog is not in over his head because he is precisely in his element. (Still, I wish somebody would give a Criterion type treatment to "Hearts of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now": imagine a dvd set with both versions of Apocalypse now and "Hearts of Darkness" as a special feature!)
Some great extras come with the Criterion set, including a wonderful and fitting little documentary (especially for Errol Morris fans) called "Werner Herzog eats his shoe" in which Herzog fulfills a promise to Errol Morris by, well, eating his shoe.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen (nateandersen)
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
For nearly five years, acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog desperately tried to complete the most ambitious and difficult film of his career-Fitzcarraldo, the story of one man's attempt to build an opera house deep in the Amazon jungle. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank captured the unfolding of this production, made all the more perilous by Herzog's determination to shoot the most daunting scenes without models or special effects, including a sequence requiring hundreds of natives to pull a full-sized, 320-ton steamship over a small mountain. The result is an extraordinary document of the filmmaking process and a unique look into the single-minded passion of one of cinema#s most fearless directors.