In celebration of Werner Herzog’s body of work exploring environmental themes, EFFA is screening the preeminent filmmaker’s 2007 Academy Award-nominated Encounters at the End of the World, followed by his new film, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.
But why Werner?
Here we chat with RMIT’s Dr Tyson Wils, whose thesis was on depictions of the natural world in the films of Werner Herzog. Dr Wils is co-editor of the book Activist Film Festivals: Towards a Political Subject and has worked as a film programmer at the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.
What makes Herzog an environmental thinker?
There are a number of ways this question can be answered.
One way is to say that nature and the physical world have been central to Herzog's work since his first feature length film Signs of Life (1968). In the context of Herzog's cinema, nature not only pertains to the external, objective world, which includes both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial domains of physical existence (such as the world of space explored in The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)). Nature also relates to human experiences of the world, to what Herzog has described as 'inner landscapes' of the mind. It should also be said that Herzog does not represent nature in one particular way - his films tend to incorporate and blend various kinds of representation - and there can be tensions in the different ways he explores the natural world on-screen.
There are at least three themes related to the environment that Herzog has explored throughout his career.
The first one is that there are boundaries between humans and the natural world and nature is, ultimately, indifferent to human affairs i.e. it is not possible for humans to truly bond with animals (see Grizzly Man (2005), for instance) and there are limits to what humans can do in the external world (humans are bound by mental and physical constraints) - in The Wild Blue Yonder, for example, Herzog presents the universe as too vast a place for us to colonise; in other words, Herzog does not believe we ever going to find another planet to inhabit.
Second, and in some ways potentially contradictory to the first theme, nature can function as a metaphor for human experience. It can give expression to the individual soul of characters on screen (fictional or non-fictional, Herzog does not necessarily discriminate) or to the collective dreams of the human species; throughout his career - in his films as well as in his writings and in interviews - Herzog has consistently expressed the belief that nature can reveal the inner world of characters and members of the audience (and Herzog has for decades relentlessly tried to break down the wall between the diegetic and extra-diegetic (in other words, between what occurs within and outside the screen).
The third theme is that the cosmos is characterised by absurdity and circularity (Dracula's rumination on time in Herzog's version of Nosferatu the Vamprye (1979) offers a succinct statement on this state of endless repetition and futility). Within this universal framework Herzog speculates that the human species is, probably, destined to die out (endlessly repeat its failings, for example), and this is often expressed through imaginative, apocalyptic imagery and language (perhaps best captured by his film on the burning oil fields in Kuwait - Lessons of Darkness (1992)). At the same time, the filmmaker is open to the possibility that cinema and other forms of culture (particularly forms of culture that Herzog believes are 'authentic', which includes non-Western forms of indigenous culture) can help humans reimagine the world they live in and offer opportunities for them to affirm existence despite the absurd state of affairs.
It should also be mentioned that the physical world is, for Herzog, not only a place of nature, but also a place humans inhabit and physically exist in. As such, his cinema has placed emphasis on human action and gesture (Klaus Kinski, for instance, exemplified the importance of physical movement to characterisation in the respective films he worked on with Herzog - Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) illustrates this well). Herzog cinema is also a cinema of athleticism and feats of physical endurance (see the ski-jumping film The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) and the mountain films The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985) and Scream of Stone (1991), for example). Finally, Herzog aims to represent what can be described as the actuality of filmic production as events are recorded by the camera; the world as it unfolds on a film set or location, including moments of non- or under-rehearsed performance, is something Herzog has often tried to capture and incorporate into the story world of his films.
At least some aspects of the physical and actual as they appear in Herzog's films have, arguably, important implications for the concept of environmentalism. This is because they can remind spectators of the reality of embodied experience i.e. that humans exist as beings with bodies in the physical world. Although, it should be remembered that Herzog's films also often point towards a sublime experience of transcendence that moves beyond embodied experience to emphasise higher order concepts of human life. It is these sorts of tensions that make Herzog an interesting and enduring figure of European and American cinema as well as a complex representative of environmental thinking.
Hear more from Dr Wils, and see Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin at Cinema Nova at 2.15pm, Sunday 27 October.
This film will be preceded by Herzog’s new film, Encounters at the End of the World at Cinema Nova, at 12pm.
These sessions are $15 each plus booking fee.