In 2006, The New Yorker ran a profile of Werner Herzog . Since I'd already embarked months before on a self-imposed challenge to read every page of every issue of The New Yorker (more on that some other time) I read the Herzog piece.
Intrigued, I went out and rented “Aguirre," one of several benchmark films references in the article. I watched it, spellbound. When it was over, I watched it again, with the director’s commentary.
I was hooked.
What ensued was sustained immersion in Herzogland. Over the course of the next four or five months, I watched every one of his films available, chronologically...twice (the second time with the director’s commentary).
Friends know about my "completism" – when I become interested in a subject (author, series, what have you), I go to school on it. I start from the beginning and continue out from there, taking into account interviews, outtakes, commentary, everything available, in order.
(When I was growing up, this particular way of doing things led to countless hours at the public library, filling out little forms with stub pencils requesting archived materials on microfiche; say what you will about the Internet, it’s made some things easier.)
I watched every Herzog, right up to “The Wild Blue Yonder." I read “Herzog on Herzog .” I watched the Les Blank documentary about the making of “Fitzcaraldo.” I even watched the films that Herzog appeared in as an actor.
And as fate would have it, just as I was completing my own private Herzog festival, a real, live Herzog festival was about to commence at the Film Forum, featuring the man himself introducing several films.
I geeked out. I stood for hours near the front of the line to hear Herzog speak (befriending the couple next to me in the meanwhile; they've gone on to become dear friends), and spent the better part of the next three weeks going to Herzog school every day at the Forum. The guy has a lot of movies. Even after having watched dozens of them at home, I’d say there were half as many more at the festival that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. I filled in all my gaps.
It turned out to be an intersting moment to complete my survey of all things Herzog. Having now seen and thought about just about everything he'd done, I was well-prepared for the release of his first Hollywood feature, “Rescue Dawn” just a few months hence.
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The sustained excellence and singularity of vision that infuses Herzog’s oervre for the better part of four decades (beginning with “Signs of Life,” from 1967, a minor film that doesn’t even hint at the madness and ferocity of what immediately followed it: “Even Dwarfs Started Small”) leaves the completist like me who experiences Herzog’s films in chronological order entirely unprepared for “Rescue Dawn” from 2007 -- less a speed bump along the Herzog road than a tire-puncturing row of steel spikes.
Based on Herzog’s own briiliant “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), “Rescue Dawn” is all the things that “Little Dieter” is not -- boring, obvious, emotionally monohromatic...big and phony and dumb. What happened? Had a Hollywood studio finally tamed the wild beast of modern cinema? Were the temptations of a big movie budget too much for our Werner to resist? The film’s effect was a confounding, uneasy one. How, after 40 years of brilliance, had Herzog suddenly, dramatically, dropped this thudding bomb?
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“Encounters At The End of the World," a documentary about scientists in Antarctica, was next, slated for release later that same year. Good, I thought. A return to documentary, to small-scale film, to obscure subject matter -- all good signs.
But what was this? “Encounters” played almost like self-parody, the director's patented narration filled with what appeared to be pat Herzog-isms, his sense of wonder and exhiliration replaced with sarcasm and what sounded like jaded condescension. It wasn’t good. It seemed stale, bitter, uninspired.
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Nothing could prepare anyone for the blow that came next: 2008’s “Bad Lieutennent: Port of Call New Orleans,” a film so dreadful, so jaw-droppingly puerile, tasteless and misguided, it simply left one with a feeling of resentful embarrassment -- the moment at the party when the drunken relative gets up to deliver an inappropriate speech while everyone squirms and tries to pretend it’s not really happening. When will it be over? Jesus, get me out of here!
And in 2009, we got only marginally less bad (which is to say, still several notches below awful): “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” another feature, another disaster, and -- I said to myself -- time to write off latter-day Herzog. Four rotting turkeys in a row had convinced me that our man from Bavaria had completely lost his touch. Who knew the reason? Hollywood living? Old age? Personal problems? Whatever the matter, I, for one, was done with Werner Herzog. I gave him up. Or so I thought.
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Do artists simply get more perverse as they age? Okay, I said, I’ll take the bait. I went to see it.
I can safely report that the 3-D is indeed a gimmick, unnecessary, and -- at times -- laughable (Herzog actually has talking heads treated in 3-D, seated in their offices!), but “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is -- while not exactly a resounding return to form -- a good film, and good, minor Herzog (which, at this point, is both a relief and a surprise). Don’t be the chump that I was and fork over $17 to see it in a theater with those silly glasses that make everything look like you’re watching a computer screen that’s been dimmed to half-brightness. Wait for the DVD.
The new film is pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. Herzog taps into that sense of strangeness and wonder that had been the backbone of all of his films until 2007, when it went suddenly, inexplicably, missing. Here, his curiosity rises up again, and he brings to us a few of those fever-dream chills, some of that hypnosis, that mystery, that spellbound us in everything from “The Mystery of Kasper Hauser” to “The Dark Glow of the Mountains” to “The White Diamond.” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” may not be a great film, but it’s a comforting one in its strangeness and unity. It’s like having an old friend back.
Maybe it’s Herzog’s own dreams that he’s referencing in the title -- his forgotten dreams of ecstatic truth that he’s discovered once again in a French cave. “Nothing is certain,” he intones, near the end of the film. “Nothing is real.” And we agree.
Welcome back, Mr. Herzog.