The Short Films of Werner Herzog

"Essential"

The Short Films of Werner Herzog 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.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Also starring:

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

This may not be the cheeriest movie of the season, but it's so skilfully written,...

Live By Night Movie Review

Live By Night Movie Review

Ben Affleck launched his directing career 10 years ago with his film of Dennis Lehane's...

La La Land Movie Review

La La Land Movie Review

After storming awards season with Whiplash two years ago, writer-director Damien Chazelle returns with something...

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Hopes were high that this film might finally crack the curse of movies based on...

Silence Movie Review

Silence Movie Review

Faith is a topic Martin Scorsese can't quite shake, courting controversy with complex films like...

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A difficult movie to market, this isn't actually the BFG-style fantasy adventure it looks like....

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Word has it that a 4-year-old came up with the idea for this unapologetically silly...

Advertisement
Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Dramas exploring the nature of death and the true meaning of life are always in...

Paterson Movie Review

Paterson Movie Review

Unpredictable filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ricochets from his artful vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive into...

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

At 80 years old, British filmmaker Ken Loach won his second Cannes Film Festival with...

Why Him? Movie Review

Why Him? Movie Review

Writer-director John Hamburg continues to recycle the formula that made his first hit Meet the...

Passengers Movie Review

Passengers Movie Review

Anchored by the almost ridiculously engaging Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, this sci-fi movie travels...

Neruda Movie Review

Neruda Movie Review

Clever Chilean director Pablo Larrain (who also directed Natalie Portman's Jackie) takes on the Nobel-winning...

The Eagle Huntress Movie Review

The Eagle Huntress Movie Review

Narrated by Daisy Ridley (The Force Awakens), this documentary is one of the most gripping...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.