The Short Films of Werner Herzog

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The Short Films of Werner Herzog Movie Review


The late Klaus Kinski often said that German filmmaker Werner Herzog was a raving lunatic. In his audacious and salacious autobiography Kinski filled pages with bitter rants about Herzog's supposed "talent" and his egomaniacal despotism behind a camera. And yet, Kinski's finest performances were for Herzog. Herzog has often said that there was something important that he and Kinski shared: a relationship that straddled the slender line between sanity and lunacy - the two pushing each other closer and closer to the brink. It was there, in the darkest, most disturbed regions of the human psyche that Herzog and Kinski found their art, their raison d'etre.

Herzog has always been attracted to that edge, that boundary between the high-culture of reason and the lowbrow art of madness. In these three short films (all available on one DVD) he captures the essence of this struggle in both the profound and the banal.

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner is Herzog's 1975 45-minute film about Walter Steiner, a Swiss champion ski flyer. Steiner truly flew on his skis; surpassing existing records and gliding into the record books as the greatest ski jumper to ever live. As Herzog presents him, all goofy grins and unkempt hair, he was an enigma wrapped in human skin. Like Herzog, Steiner is an odd bird, he waxes philosophic, makes woodcarvings that he leaves on mountainsides for hikers to stumble upon and generally fails to fit into a neat mold.

This is for many critics Herzog's most breathtaking film. The sequences of Steiner gliding through the air in slow motion are surreally beautiful and achingly exhilarating. Unlike most sports documentaries, Herzog is not interested in the actual sport. He does not fill the viewer in on the details and history of ski jumping. He cares more, and makes us care more in the process, about Steiner, the awkward and gangly kid who stunned the world by flying as no man has done before. And he captures the limits of human endurance in ways that have never been equaled.

In Herzog's 1977 short feature, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, the state of the human condition is found in a different sort of human agility. Filmed in Pennsylvania's Amish country, the film documents the 1976 World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers. Here the best and brightest fast talkers compete and the results are as mind boggling as they are humbling. Herzog dallies around the countryside, speaking with Amish men in archaic German before settling into the arena to train his cameras on the men with the elastic tongues. For 30 minutes we watch the competition and rise and fall with the high-speed loquaciousness.

Herzog is obviously fascinated by the talent; his camera zooms in on the men's rough faces and their whipping tongues. What Herzog is after is the spectacle of the auctioneer's job and the implicit enjoyment of the whole thing. It is, as Herzog would like us to see, a shining, and beguiling, example of our love for life.

La Soufrière is, as Herzog explains, a documentary of an unavoidable catastrophe that didn't happen. When Herzog learned in 1977 that the volcano, La Soufrière, on the small Caribbean island of Guadaloupe was about to explode and that one man had decided to stay behind, he assembled a small and daring crew and went to interview the man. Once on the evacuated island, Herzog wanders though the empty streets of Guadaloupe's capital overrun by donkeys and starving dogs. He eventually makes his way, in a feat of either glaring stupidity or daring bravado, to the crater, but is forced to turn back by a plume of toxic fumes. When he does locate the "last man remaining" he finds that there are in fact several men, all homeless and all unafraid of the looming danger.

What makes La Soufrière a particularly beguiling film is Herzog's banal tone. As is clear, almost from the outset, the volcano didn't erupt. Yet Herzog insists that during his entire time of the island, the ground shook and the volcano may have been minutes from exploding. In hindsight, he realizes the idiocy of his traveling there and attempting to capture the explosion, the idiocy of sacrificing himself and his crew for apocalyptic footage and some insight into the meaning of life and death. What he comes away with is a striking rumination on absurdity.

While Herzog insists that there is no difference between his fictional and his non-fictional films, it is evident that in the real world, the world that has boundaries, the foolishness, the audacity and the madness that Herzog seeks at the heart of human existence is much closer to the surface than any of us truly realize.

Akas: Die Große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner, La Soufrière - Warten auf eine unausweichliche Katastrophe.


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