Curiosity and Refusal: Werner Herzog's Late Documentaries

By Dominic O'Key

Into the Inferno (Herzog, 2016)

Into the Inferno (Herzog, 2016)

Werner Herzog has always been a curious director. Puzzled by the world and eager to encounter its mysteries, Herzog’s inquisitive eye routinely pits the enigmas and harsh realities of the outside world against the human psyche and material body. From German deaf-blind communities to Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimages, and from the Kuwait oil fires to Alaska’s grizzly bears, Herzog’s documentaries in particular revolve around curious case studies that aim to unsettle our grip on the world. When at their best, these documentaries foreground the question of life itself: if the outside is quite so unlivable and so obscene then how do humans continue to live in it? As Herzog puts it early on in his career, miming Martin Heidegger’s fundamental question of metaphysics, “why is there Being at all, rather than Nothing?” The power of Herzog’s work often derives from the ways in which it intensifies this uncanny experience of human life, an effect that Gilles Deleuze once described as Herzog’s obsession with opposing the small and the large, the human against the sublime.

Werner Herzog is also curious as a director. A routinely self-mythologising figure, his signature brand of dour, Bavarian-inflected English has taken on a bizarre resonance in the internet age. Recent celebrity voice-over turns and cameos in Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons have provoked critics to either become protective of his supposed “genius” or lament his turn towards superficial self-aggrandising. But to chastise Herzog’s memeification is to forget that self-mythologisation has always been part of the director’s modus operandi. From Of Walking in Ice (1978) to his conversations with Paul Cronin – republished in 2015 as A Guide for the Perplexed – Herzog has long cultivated an image of himself as a semi-fictional character. It is odd then, that critics of his recent films have tended to focus quite so sharply on the director’s apparently newfound celebrity, when it has been so much a part of the director’s deliberately constructed mystique.

Herzog in The Simpsons

Herzog in The Simpsons

One problem with curiosity, though, is that it often leaves politics behind. For if the world is thought of as merely a curiosity – a thing to be looked at, admired or probed – then it also becomes a static object, a museum artefact rather than something that is constantly being reshaped. This might explain why there is a darkly comic nihilism that pervades Herzog’s documentaries; curiosities do not often demand political or ethical responsibility from their viewers. But just as Herzog treats the world as a curiosity, the same relation holds for Herzog’s critics. It has become something of a commonplace to treat Herzog as a curiosity, as a masculine adventurer expounding comic faux-philosophy, always more important than the films themselves. Reviews of his later work, tinged as they are with sardonic laziness, have become a rather predictable affair: begin by talking about the director’s obsessive cinematic vision, provide a few sentences on the “ecstatic truth” of Herzog’s infamous Minnesota Declaration, and don’t forget to mention he once ate his shoe.

If Herzog’s documentaries tend to leave politics behind then what do they interrogate in its place? This is where Deleuze’s notion of the small and the large enters the frame. What the French philosopher identified some thirty years ago is the way that Herzog’s films capture a sublime natural-historical struggle between the individual human and the overwhelming scale of the world. This is why Herzog’s 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness is quite so controversial: here the aftermath of the Gulf War is abstracted from its particular geopolitical reality into an apocalyptic narrative of the end of the world itself. Herzog thus transforms the specific event into a metaphor: the oil fires are no longer just oil fires, they are also a grand battle between life and death. On the one hand then, Lessons of Darkness depoliticises and indeed forgets the Gulf War entirely; but on the other hand, the film might be saved from itself if we were to say that the Gulf War was quite literally the end of the world for the thousands of Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians who died. Such interplay between the curious and the sublime are in evidence throughout Herzog’s work.

Lessons of Darkness (Herzog, 1992)

Lessons of Darkness (Herzog, 1992)

A critique of his late period documentaries might suggest that the sublime scale of the large overwhelms his attention to the detail of the small. However, traces of Herzog’s magnetic, naïve curiosity take on new shape in what I suggest are pointed moments of refusal, specifically, Herzog’s refusal to indulge the audience’s curiosity. This idea animates one of the most famous scenes in Grizzly Man (2005), a film which focuses on the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. In the film Herzog interviews Jewel Palovak, a close friend of Treadwell’s, who owns his VCR and with it the hundreds of hours of audiovisual footage that Treadwell recorded when in Alaska. The recordings culminate in Treadwell’s death itself: with the lens-cap left on, though, all that is captured is the horrifying audio of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amy Huguenard being mauled to death by a grizzly bear.

Herzog makes a crucial decision here not to include this audio in his film. Instead, the director films himself listening to the audio alone, headphones on. But this is not quite an accurate description. To put it more precisely, the scene begins with the director filming himself, but then the camera slowly starts to zoom over Herzog’s shoulder, leaving him behind and focusing instead on Palovak’s body language as she watches Herzog listening. Grizzly Man therefore reaches its crescendo at precisely its quietest moment: silence becomes more powerful than spectacle. What begins as merely another scene in which Herzog indulges his own curiosity transforms into one of the most complicated, enigmatic and perhaps even ethically attuned of Herzog’s oeuvre. Here Herzog’s refusal to feed the audience’s desire for spectacle, in fact, provokes a more intense mode of captivation.

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

2016 saw the release of two new Herzog documentaries: first, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a film about the birth and development of the Internet; and second, Into the Inferno, a globetrotting study of active volcanoes, co-directed with the University of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. Both of these films redeploy a number of typical “Herzogian” motifs – quotable monologues, rehearsed but nevertheless naturalistic interviews, unexpected thematic and geographical detours – as well as a tendency to depoliticise and abstract their subject matter into mere curiosity. In Lo and Behold, for instance, Herzog is not at all interested in the numerous political critiques of Elon Musk’s techno-utopian plans to colonise Mars. Instead he puts himself first in line for the mission: “I would come along. I wouldn’t have a problem. One way ticket. I’ll be your candidate.”

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

A subtle moment of refusal, however, is at the centre of Lo and Behold. One of the film’s numerous case studies features the Catsouras family, whose daughter Nikki died in a car accident in 2006. The family’s grief is riven with anger at the onlookers, dispatchers, and internet trolls who shared horrifying images of their daughter’s disfigured body. Despite the strange rigidity of the scene – filmed with oppressive lighting, and with the family awkwardly positioned like a row of mannequins – Herzog cultivates and then cuts off our curiosity: “Hoping to avoid a new wave of sick curiosity, we are here not even showing a picture of Nikki alive, only a place in the house she liked.” As if to deliberately counteract the dark desire to see, Herzog instead leaves the camera lingering on an empty room.

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

Lo and Behold (Herzog, 2016)

Despite his concerns with an altogether different geographical and conceptual terrain, the Herzog of Into the Inferno also refuses to let his curiosity get the better of him. When asked by his co-director Clive Oppenheimer whether he wants to descend into a volcano, to get as close as possible to the lava below, Herzog replies with an unequivocal no. It would be entirely stupid, he says, to risk his life for an image: “I am the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane.” The irony is very much intended. It is strange to think of Herzog as a precautionary filmmaker, not least because the aura that has been manufactured over the years – by both Herzog himself and by his critics – always tends to emphasise the danger and risk of his cinematic exploits. But what Herzog’s late documentaries show us is that, despite his longstanding penchant for curiosity, there is an overriding sense in which his films are never quite reducible to their excessive and adventurous motifs. Rather, the most gripping moments of Herzog’s later films are those in which curiosity is obscured, withheld, or completely refused, in a move that uses the sharpness of the small to pierce the depth of the large.

Dominic O'Key is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Leeds. He wrote his my MA dissertation on Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and has a chapter on Herzog and crocodiles coming out later this year in a book on animals and biography. He can be contacted via email: dominic.okeys@gmail.com. Follow Dominic on Twitter: @oquays.

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