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The case for and against Werner Herzog

18 August 2023

Werner Herzog’s voice is the first thing we hear as we step into the dark space of the Eye Filmmuseum’s impressive retrospective. Whatever the director is actually saying, he always sounds as if he is announcing an imminent catastrophe that none of us will survive. Herzog’s films are full of gloom and gravitas and so is this show. But that’s not all there is. ‘I shouldn’t make movies any more,’ Herzog says in his inimitable Bavarian-accented English in the first clip that greets us: ‘I should go to a lunatic asylum.’ The excerpt is taken from the documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) and Herzog is speaking to camera. He is sitting on a boat in the middle of the Peruvian jungle during the shoot of Fitzcarraldo in 1979, an early feature and among his most famous, out of some 70 documentaries and features. The tone and subject of the scene may be familiar, but the show in which it is playing is no mere homage. It is a prompt to see Herzog’s film-making in a new light.

Installation view of ‘Werner Herzog – The Ecstatic Truth’ at the Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, including a clip of Fata Morgana (1971). Photo: Studio Hans Wilschut; courtesy Eye Filmmuseum Amsterdam

The exhibition is spread out across a single vast room with a few alcoves. In the main space large screens hang down from the ceiling or are attached to the walls and show a selection of fragments from films including Nosferatu (1979), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Grizzly Man (2005), Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and The Fire Within (2022). Standing in the room, you can see all the scenes playing simultaneously, which is quite something. Herzog’s films are extremely beautiful, an aspect of the director’s work that is not always recognised because his subjects are so engrossing. The material is not organised around a specific set of themes beyond the overarching title of the show; ‘Ecstatic truth’ is Herzog’s term for the deeper verity that can be reached through cinema, but not via conventional forms of behaviour or investigation. There is a chronological element, but this comes in the form of archival material in glass display-cabinets: items from film shoots, private photographs, correspondence, notebooks and – a gem – Herzog’s diary from the troubled shoot of Fitzcarraldo, which he published as Conquest of the Useless in 2009. The original pages are extraordinary because although Herzog was writing to cope with the horrors of the shoot, he also wanted to conceal them from himself and so reduced his handwriting to microscopic size. When he picked up the pages years later, he needed special optician’s glasses to decipher what he had written, which we see him do in a comical moment from Radical Dreamer (2022), a documentary made by Thomas von Steinaecker, which is now screening in one of the cinemas at the museum.

Props by the set designer Henning von Gierke and a forged filming permit used for the shooting of Fitzcarraldo (1982). Photo: Studio Hans Wilschut; courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen

The concentration of sound is particularly notable here. The Eye’s director of exhibitions Jaap Guldemond has worked with Steve McQueen on his video installations, and the experience shows. Visitors can watch a fragment – on average each lasts between 15 and 25 minutes – without being distracted by the track from another nearby. This is a welcome contrast to the usual auditory chaos of exhibitions about cinema, in which the tracks from various screens tend to bleed into each other. Here the technical accuracy is impressive, with sound levels carefully set and speakers positioned in such a way as to ensure immersion in one clip but not to the extent that one loses the awareness of the wider Herzog universe all around.

The Eye selected the scenes in discussion with Herzog but not under his direction. It has also drawn from, but not replicated, the retrospective in 2022 at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, which is also the permanent home of the Werner Herzog Archive. The chosen material works very well together, even though each extract is so different: we go from penguins waddling on ice to exploding volcanoes to Nicholas Cage with blood across his face. There is much to enjoy, but there is also plenty to trouble us: take, for example, the excruciating 13-minute sequence of an adult dwarf forcing himself to laugh uncontrollably in the feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970).

Herzog, who will turn 81 in September, has always made films about extreme behaviours and characters. He has achieved a heroic status in cinema for making the near impossible happen – and demonstrated plenty of extreme behaviour himself. The exhibition certainly conveys the folly, determination and bravery that characterises both the man and his work. The excerpts from Fitzcarraldo really capture this, by reminding us just how outrageous the project was, but also how typical its apparent madness was of its maker. The plot of this film, after all, involves a European businessman who wants to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle and to do so orders a full-size ship to be hauled across a mountain. It is a wild story acted by a wild man, Klaus Kinski. Fitzcarraldo may be pure cinema, but the transportation of the enormous white boat in the film was very real, involving pulleys and trolleys and enormous human effort and suffering.

Man vs mountains deep and rivers high: Klaus Kinski contemplates the madness of hauling a ship through the jungle in Fitzcarraldo, filmed by Werner Herzog in 1979 and released in 1982.

While Herzog’s films have attracted great admiration they have also provoked a lot of criticism and the show boldly addresses this in a strand called ‘Controversies’. This consists of smaller screens showing either talking heads or relevant sections of the films under scrutiny accompanied by short wall texts discussing the problem at hand. The five charges against Herzog can be summed up as follows: exploiting people with disabilities, manipulating  material for dramatic effect, beautifying horrific acts or events, looking at the world through a colonial gaze and, finally, the collaboration with Kinski; a mentally disturbed man who, some would say, should never have been put in front of a camera in the first place. The show presents and illustrates all these arguments as well as their counter-arguments, but leaves us to reach our own verdicts. The result is a genuinely troubling, invigorating experience. When it comes to a director like Werner Herzog, it seems entirely appropriate to walk away from this exhibition both awed and disturbed.

‘Werner Herzog – The Ecstatic Truth’ is at the Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, until 1 October.