Werner Herzog makes insane movies about insane people. That's the only conclusion I can come to after watching his latest Hollywood-backed release, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. This is a movie so insane that it makes everything else Nic Cage has ever done look understated. A movie so insane you can actually see Val Kilmer cracking up on screen. A movie so insane it randomly pauses to give an extended close-up on a lizard!
So I thought I'd take a look back at Herzog's earlier work, which I'm ashamed to say that I have never viewed before, to see how early this insanity set in. First in the DVD queue was his 1971 film FATA MORGANA. Shot on hand-held cameras on location in Africa, the film has seemingly no narrative structure. The POV is of a person randomly wandering through a barren landscape strewn with old car parts and machinery. Local people, kids, drift in front of the camera's gaze and are photographed in a peculiarly objectified manner. Occasionally they wear stylised round goggles. The whole thing is just plain bizarre - a feeling heightened by the eclectic soundtrack featuring a number of Leonard Cohen tracks. Notionally split into three parts: The Creation, The Paradise and The Golden Age, and pretentiously introduced by narrators (including Lotte Eisner) reading from mystical texts, the movie resists explanation. I came through the other end wondering why anyone would actually want to watch such a bizarre flick except as part of a Herzog retrospective.
So then I watched it again with Herzog's commentary. Apparently, the effect he is going for is "political science fiction", in which you imagine what it would be like for a bunch of aliens to land on earth and survey the people. Hence the strange, alien landscape and the curiously objectified presentation of the people in the film. I guess what Herzog was trying to for was some sort of abstract, strangely compelling picture of a planet ravaged by human brutality? Or am I reading too much onto this from his later work? Fans may speak of "beguiling poetry" but I found the movie rather tedious after the first fifteen minutes of interest in the landscape. I tend to think that a movie in which the director's commentary is the only point of access can never be more than an oddity.
FATA MORGANA played Cannes in 1971 and is available on DVD.
Additional tags: lotte eisner, blind faith, the third ear band, jorg schmdt reitwein