Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Werner Herzog and the Deeper Truth

Compared to the newer technological advances that enable us to experience, and participate in, art and culture (television on cell phones, MP3 players, blogging websites), the DVD format appears almost antique. The first DVD players appeared in Japan in 1996, and in the U.S.A. the following year. Since then, DVD has usurped the VHS tape to become the dominant domestic format for watching movies and filmed entertainment.

Yet contained within DVDs is a technical feature that enhances our enjoyment and understanding of film to an unprecedented degree: these are the spare audio tracks that allow optional audio commentaries to be added. For hardcore cineastes — and bug-eyed amateur movie buffs like me — this is an invention of Guttenburgian proportions. Few technological advances in the realm of art and culture can equal the joy afforded by an articulate and perceptive commentary specially prepared to accompany a movie.

At its best, DVD commentary amounts to a new artform. I was alerted to this during a recent weekend spent enraptured by a DVD-boxed-set of the films of Werner Herzog. The film writer Mark Cousins, in his book The Story of Film, said this about the maverick German director: "After John Ford he is the most important landscape film maker to appear in this history of film." I've loved Herzog's movies since seeing "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" in the 1970s. Kasper Hauser is an archetypal Herzog tale: it tells the true story of a teenage foundling in 19th-century rural Germany. The real Kasper Hauser was locked in a dungeon at birth and deprived of all human contact until late adolescence, when he was dumped in a small Bavarian town and left to fend for himself. The film is an emotionally supercharged retelling of this famous tale.

As cinematic experiences, Herzog films are ravishing . The mundane plays no part in his fables: Herzog only has eyes for what he calls ecstatic truth — moments of visionary reality that defy the rational mind. To make his films, Herzog repeatedly pushed himself to the limits of human endurance. If you're new to Herzog, watch "Aguirre Wrath of God" and you'll be struck by many things, none more so than the realisation that filming this tale of doomed ambition took courage and endurance of barely imaginable proportions.

Yet Herzog's films are not easy. They have plot elisions and moments of logic-defying cinematic sleight-of-hand. Even when making films with historical antecedents, Herzog invents huge chunks of the story. His may be a cinema of landscape, but it is predominantly a cinema of the imagination. He has said: "I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative."

Even with a close reading of Herzog's films you can't hope to understand or grasp every nuance; many of his narrative gestures are so deeply personal and so rooted in childhood experience that only Herzog himself could explain them: this is, as it turns out, precisely what his audio commentaries do. As a lucid and revelatory commentator, he is able to illuminate both the creative process of filmmaking and the labyrinthine business of bringing movies to the screen. The making of films involves a complexity that few art forms can rival, and the conceiving, writing, funding, casting and shooting of even a modest film can often generate its own mythology — a mythology that is sometimes as interesting as the film itself. "Apocalypse Now" is perhaps the most celebrated example of this phenomenon: a film whose gestational process was as interesting as the actual movie.

Much of the material we get from DVD audio commentaries is also available in books and articles. Reading the great film writers — Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, David Thomson — is one of life's great joys. But with this joy comes a small ache: reading about films makes you want to watch them there and then. No matter how good the writing, you want to see the art being described.

But the fusing of words and pictures in DVD audio commentaries creates a potent magic that is rarely achievable in books and articles about cinema. Something special happens when insightful filmmakers talk about their work while we are simultaneously able to view their movies. In a recent Herzog film, the documentary "Grizzly Man," the director provides a commentary — not as an optional extra, but, as is customary in documentaries, as an integral part of the film. He does this in typically Herzogian style: no cool detachment for him. In fact, he does it in the style of a DVD audio commentary, clearly influenced by the commentaries he has made for his other films: art imitating art, you might say. And technology allowing us to appreciate the deeper truths of art.

Posted in: Media

Comments [11]

This crazy man inspires me every time I think about him. Thanks for the reminder. He has invented a new form of cinema akin to the non-ficiton novel that Capote promised with In Cold Blood. And in case anyone missed these recent events they make it clear that he lives in a similar kind of operatic reality.

Herzog Rescues Joaquin Phoenix

Herzog gets shot during interview
dmitri siegel

Equally astounding is his film "The White Diamond" about a somewhat frighteningly optimistic airship engineer named Graham Dorrington who Herzog follows on his way to Guyana on a scientific expedition to study the tree canopies there. Any fan of "Grizzly Man" should check it out.

And any fan of documentary films in general should check out Herzog's "Minnesota Declaration," made at the Walker Art Center in 1999. You can find it here or in Dot Dot Dot 11.
Rob Giampietro

I also have appreciated Herzog's films since first seeing "Signs of Life" in the 70s. One excellent book worth reading interviewing this director is Herzog on Herzog by Paul Cronin.

I agree that the additional commentaries on many DVDs add a whole new dimension to watching films. Some commentaries can be better than others, but with the some better ones, its like going back to film school.
Mark Eastman

I've been interested in Herzog's work and especially his statements on "the beancounter's truth" and his questioning of the documentary approach since I saw him present his film on extinguishing of the fires in Iraq after the (first) Gulf War, Lessons of Darkness. The screening was in Houston, which is the base of operations for "Boots & Coots" (I kid you not) the company that specializes in extinguishing oil well fires, and employees of the company that he had filmed were in the audience.

In the post-screening discussion I expected quite an argument as the film presents the firemen as borderline pyromaniacs suggesting (among other things) that they re-ignited well fires in a desire for an endless orgy of flames. (It was a beautiful story, eroticized as only Herzog can.)

Yet, there weren't harsh words, much less fisticuffs, between director and subject in the theatre. Despite Herzog's prompting, none of the firemen disagreed with his projection or re-alignment of the situation. Though they were mostly thrilled to see themselves on film, they seemed to be genuinely engaged with Herzog's idea that the situation was not as simple as it appeared.

An appreciation for ambiguity was not something I expected from this audience. Thinking back on this, it reminds me of how much we can process, and want to process ideas that challenge orthodoxy. But still, I also hear a bit of Herzogian logic in the "truthiness" idea Stephen Colbert has popularized of late. Though they are definitely working towards different ends, (hey, it's just comedy) and I trust Herzog to take and extend a situation to present 'ecstatic truth', I am not sure what happens to those ideas when they are used in a context outside of the cinema where transcendence is anticipated or even expected.
Luke Bulman

one of my favorite dvd audio commentaries is henry hill's for martin scorcese's mafia film (and henry hill's biopic), goodfellas. its a bit of a strange experience to watch someone comment on the fictionalization of his own life as though the cinematic portrayal of it were the real thing.

id guess too that at least half of all comments under 'trivia' on the IMDB come from people who watch the audio commentaries and input the information on line.

but not all writers and directors understand the magic adrian shaughnessy refers to in his post. i remember watching the audio comments to episode 25 of six feet under, and the writer on that episode started
off her commentary with something along the lines of 'to the three losers in the world who are actually listening to this audio commentary..." i suppose wanting too much information and trivia still has its social stigma.
manuel miranda

Nothing to say about Herzog (except he's a genius), but here's a commentary about DVD commentaries:

A classic DVD commentary is the one between Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs on the film The Limey. Dobbs starts taking Soderbergh to task for his emotional shortcomings as a filmmaker, and they nearly get into a fistfight.

Some directors haven't seen the film they are commenting on in years (especially in the case of classic re-issues), and the directors will often go blank and just watch the film without saying anything for minutes at a stretch.

Some fimmakers choose the 'here's how I did this scene' route, which often gets really tedious, like John Frankenheimer's commentary on the film Ronin, in which he begins virtually every sentence with "Now here was a tricky scene..."

The commentary for Project Grizzly, not to be confused with Herzog's similarly focused Grizzly Man, is excellent. Peter Lynch really digs into the psychology of his main character rather than a production re-cap. John Waters commentaries are really high up on my list as well. Thanks for appreciating how important DVD commentaries are. Big fan.

Herzog's is the most audacious career in all of cinema, as far as I'm concerned. And in addition to his lengendary ventures named here (Aguirre, and Kaspar Hauser which stars an actual schizophrenic), he's made some wonderful short films: La Soufriére and The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. For what it's worth, my favorite of his works is Stroszek, and you may find our feature on the man here.
Rumsey Taylor

I've never even heard of Mr. Herzog before. I like David Lynch though -- and Mr. Herzog sounds like he's in that vein, so I'll definitely check him out. Especially Aguirre.

(... Unless someone has a suggested opinion on the first Herzog film you should see to appropriately "initiate" yourself to his cinematic style.)

Thanks fellow observers!

Joe Moran

The New Yorker recently published an article about Herzog. One thing I found interesting was how a lot of his crew members often get frustrated with him, claiming that he basically ignores the basic tenets of good filmmaking. Probably the very reason he's so celebrated.

In the original essay: Guttenburgian proportions?
One invention was printing from moveable type, while the DVD is just a form of distributing digital media. I know, a bit of harmless exaggeration...
anonymous grammarian

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