Werner Herzog: The Myth of the Man

20140905_072700“There are 50,000 spectators,” Werner Herzog explained to the rapt audience at BAM, the final image of his documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Stein on display.Screenshot (293) “But we see only the man alone against the snow.”

In his interview at BAM’s Harvey Theater in Brooklyn on Thursday night, Herzog admitted to creating myths in his documentaries; he has often stated that “all filmmakers are liars”.

Herzog does not believe in documenting facts, offering data to support a thesis, but instead creates a nebulous thing from which a greater truth may be derived.

He uses whatever he has – everything from archival images of starving people gazing longingly at a sausage (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) to an albino alligator (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) – to make his film work; it doesn’t matter if the material is factually accurate. He has gone so far (in Lessons of Darkness) as to write down his ideas and attribute them to Blaise Pascal, just for effect:

The collapse of the stellar universe will occur - like creation - in grandiose splendor.

The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor.                – –  Werner Herzog

At the end of the talk, Herzog read from his book, Conquest of the Useless, a journal he kept while filming Fitzcarraldo:

fitz02I did not even feel my bleeding foot. There was no pain, no joy, no excitement, no relief, no happiness, no sound, not even a deep breath. All I grasped was a profound uselessness, or to be more precise, I had merely penetrated deeper into its mysterious realm.

Still Reel: Herzog, Phoenix & Synecdoche

“Filmmakers are liars.”  So said Werner Herzog at the New York premiere of his 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 2011. He explained that  film is a constructed thing, made up in its framing, lighting, editing, acting and the arc of the story. No matter how Cinema Verite any film might claim to be, it will always be what it is: fabricated and artificial.

Joaquin Phoenix’s film, I’m Still Here, attempts to address this issue directly. As he explained on The David Letterman Show, the film looked to “explore the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves. We wanted something that would feel really authentic.” Indeed, the film makes a mockery of the Hollywood machine, the audience, even himself.

The thing is that film – as is writing – is just a synecdoche, a small part of something else. In other words, even though a narrative might strive to be more than it really is, with the characters staring back, time codes in the left hand corner, it remains just a story, a splinter, a rejoinder, a sigh, a whimper.

As Dee says in My Bad Side: “I mean, I know there is only death, just that. I know it is just about waking up and getting out of bed until I don’t. And then it isn’t. I know that dreams are chemical. I know I am stuck in this life. And I know that is it. I hate it or say that I hate it to myself, but it isn’t that bad a thing.