Book/Film Review: Director Werner Herzog Captures Ferocious Reality

In his book Ferocious Reality, Eric Ames offers an insightful, well organized, and readable study of Werner Herzog’s documentary work that explores the director’s earliest films as well as his most recent.

Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog by Eric Ames. University of Minnesota Press, 336 pages, $25 paperback.

By Tim Jackson

Werner Herzog is the rare filmmaker who works successfully in fiction and non-fiction, blazing controversial trails in both genres. Battles during the production of his early narrative successes Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God have been well documented. While shooting Fitzcarraldo, he demanded that his crew and actors pull a huge steamship over a steep hill between two tributaries in the Amazon for the sake of verisimilitude. Les Blanc’s film Burden of Dreams documents this feat. The director’s frenzied relationship with his friend, the eccentric Klaus Kinski (lead actor in both films) was chronicled in Herzog’s film My Best Fiend. He continues to direct features such as Rescue Dawn, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Herzoz has also recently created three critically praised documentaries: Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

His renaissance of non-fiction work began in 2005 with a film many critics consider one of greatest of all documentaries, Grizzly Man. This profile of Timothy Treadwell transcended its subject and became a subjective and poetic meditation on hubris, mortality, nature, and madness. While Herzog’s narrative films move towards extremes in a search for authenticity, his non-fiction work, driven by his own quixotic and quirkily reflective narration, seeks to transform the real world into poetry.

In his book Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog, Eric Ames offers an insightful, well organized, and readable study of Herzog’s documentary work that explores the director’s earliest films as well as his most recent. Ames, an associate professor of Germanics at the University of Washington, organizes 25 films into categories that help to make sense of Herzog’s obsessions and his unconventional non-fiction style.

For anyone interested in the ways documentary has evolved since Cinéma Vérité, Ames offers a informed perspective while raising significant questions about the nature of non-fiction film. As the borders among truth, fiction, objectivity, opinion, and interpretation become increasingly blurred across all media—film, television, journalism, and the internet—Herzog’s challenging documentary work becomes particularly relevant. The director seeks to pursue what he calls the “ecstatic truth,” adventuring beyond facts and mere observation, moving to where stylization, even staged events, lead to greater revelations. Ames explores how Herzog strategically employs “statuary oppositions” of “fact vs. truth, observation vs. stylization, science vs. art” to arrive at his distinctive illuminations. Ames argues that Herzog “is anxious to be treated as a poet, not a documentarian.”

A scene from Werner Herzog’s controversial documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY. Photo: Szenenfoto

In 2005, at the SilverDocs Fesitival where he had premiered Grizzly Man, Herzog raged against Cinéma Vérité, the “fly-on the-wall” style practiced by the Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, and others, which he claimed “confused the distinction between fact and truth” in ways that resulted merely in “an accountant’s truth.” How Herzog has strived to achieve a “deeper truth” is complex, instinctive, and beautifully delineated in Ames’s book.

The volume begins with Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration, which is set of abstract principles for documentary cinema. These include

• Fact creates norms, and truth illumination;
• Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue;
• We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

Ferocious Reality proceeds to survey 40 years of Herzog’s non-fiction work through a series of categories. Ames’s analysis of the director’s methodology is clear and convincing, broad enough for the writer to supply a compelling historical perspective on the treatment and design of non-fiction film. He begins with the physicality of Herzog’s style and the ethnographic tradition. Films examining other cultures and places, rituals, and customs have long centered on the physical details of ethnicity and behavior. By placing films such as Land of Silence and Darkness in that tradition, Ames shows how Herzog expands the staid conventions of non-fiction through his innovative narration, use of music, creative treatment of his subjects, and tinkering with the relationship between film and spectator.

Chapters two and three address the importance Herzog places on travel, the ways he engages with and learns to know the landscape he will explore. Ames places him in the “German aesthetic tradition and into the legacy of romanticism in particular.” Landscape becomes a potential canvas for allegory, ambiguity, and the search for transcendence. According to Herzog, “the starting point for many of my films is landscape whether . . . a real place, or an imaginary or hallucinatory one from a dream . . . I often describe landscapes that I have never seen. I know that somewhere they do exist and I have never failed to find them.”

The principle that “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue” is essential to this process. Probing the physicality of Herzog’s style, Ames explains the following:

“It is obviously an extension of his concern with interiority and with the visionary quality of images. There is what he calls ‘a physical curiosity,’ a type of interest (even desire) that emanates from the body and involves the process of learning and knowing.”

The book goes on to survey the extravagant and highly stylized elements of Herzog’s films, which the author compares to the Baroque visual tradition, given the director’s obsession with spirituality, spectacle, dream, illusion, and “the madness of the world; and last but not least, ‘the end of the world.’” Herzog’s spirituality is secular; his faith atheistic. Paradoxically, the director believes that “truth is found by faith, not reason.”

Director Werner Herzog — in search of the ecstatic truth. Photo: Bill Zelman.

In his quest for “ecstatic truth,” Herzog’s use of music, narration/commentary, imagery, and reenactment push the documentary form in ways that conform to no set tradition. So it should be no surprise that the director’s relationship with some of the people and cultures he films have provoked controversy and outspoken resentment. His tactics can be intrusive and manipulative. Ames compares the bitter battle to make Fitzcarraldo with the controversial politics posed by Herzog’s 1984 film Ballad of the Little Soldier about Miskito Indians in northeastern Nicaragua who, while formerly allies of the Sandinistas in the revolution against the Somoza regime, are now battling for their lives against them with teams of child soldiers.

Ames concludes his book with chapters on the director’s use of reenactment and biography. The book focuses on a defense of Little Dieter Needs to Fly: when he made this film, Herzog was accused of overstepping the bounds of documentary by scripting and rehearsing his subject, Dieter Dengler. Regarding biography, Ames calls Herzog’s approach a form of “self-inscription.” I recall Herzog, who abhors self reflection, telling NPR interviewer Terry Gross—“If I shave in the mirror, I evade my own gaze. I would sooner jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than undergo any kind of therapy.” The irony underpinning this confession is clear: Herzog discovers who he is through his films. They also serve as his means to know the world; the author becomes the art. Herzog has said that “the people in my films—particularly the real life ones—are for me not just mere characters; they are a vitally important part of my life. The more I have progressed as a filmmaker, the more I find it is real life that I have been filming, my life.”

Ferocious Reality should trigger fruitful discussions about the practices of contemporary, non-fiction film. As for appreciating Herzog’s impressive achievement, the volume proffers a lucid guide for understanding the themes, ideas, obsessions, and complexities in the lesser-known work from one of our finest modern directors. Many of these movies, rarely shown in theaters or on cable, can be searched for and viewed online. Ames makes the case that they are a vital part of the “reality” Herzog is creating on film.

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