There are some artists who, when you are finally made aware of them, completely take over your imagination. They restructure everything about your experience of a medium, whether it is a newly discovered poet renovating your experience of poetry or a newly found painter revolutionizing your experience of canvas. In the world of film, I've had this experience three times now. The first time, three years ago, was when I devoured the films of Stanley Kubrick. For months, he took over my mind and I found my experience of film constantly evolving. Then it happened again two years ago when I finally discovered the brightest star in cinema, Akira Kurosawa. The experience was almost sublime and for months the images of Seven Samurai haunted me like no film has ever done before. Now, I find that it is happening again. It is not happening on as revolutionary a scale as with Kubrick or Kurosawa (there are only so many times your understanding of something can be destroyed and remade, after all), but it is happening in subtle ways that I appreciate just as much. I have discovered the films of Werner Herzog and I have fallen in love all over again.
I have now watched five of Herzog's films: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and his most recent film Rescue Dawn. All of them have been exercises in madness and nature, in reaching the limits of human endurance and sanity, and all of them have gently shaped my expectations for what film can do. For so long I have lived and breathed in a cinematic world of stylization, from the pure bravado and exhilaration of Sergio Leone's West to the hallucinations and nightmare of David Lynch's human interior and to the mutation and evolution of the human mind and body in David Cronenberg's world of medical horror. And I have enjoyed these worlds completely. The fantastic and the stylized throws reality into glaring relief; we understand the shape of humanity by charting its outer limits, tracing it's boundaries and by occasionally stepping out further than ordinary human experience demands. Herzog does this too but from an entirely different vantage point, one from which artifice itself nearly disappears and we are left only with the human, naked and exposed, the subject of intense and unblinking scrutiny.
Anyone who has seen a Herzog film has probably, or at the least should have been, struck by his documentarian sensibility. It would be a lie to say that artifice disappears in a Herzog film but it would not be a lie to say that he often manages to make us forget about the artifice, forget that we are looking at something essentially unreal. He gives us images so tactile, so visceral and grueling, so candid and almost voyeuristic, that we are tempted to believe he has stolen away into the jungle with only a camera and managed to capture an event as it unfolds before him. There are moments when this documentary style is almost distracting, as when the camera lingers on little accidents or unscripted events, which ironically draw attention to the artifice of the film exactly by highlighting its lack of cinematic polish, but these moments are rare and forgivable, if one even notices them. While the rigor and clarity of vision of a Stanley Kubrick produces some of the greatest and strongest works of cinema, Herzog's steady and unflinching gaze penetrates deeper into the tissues of humanity and nature and makes us feel like we are watching ourselves, watching a real human drama full of obsessions and madness.
And the world of Herzog is a world of madness, of men stretched to the limits of experience either by insanity or obsession. These are the extremes, these are the myths of man that define us. Here on the edge, here in the jungle, here on the very brink of murder, here is where Herzog defines the human. Herzog's examination of humanity can be startlingly bleak, as in the haunting Aguirre, and it can also be triumphant even in the midst of despair, as in Fitzcarraldo or Rescue Dawn. The human spirit has a great capacity for insanity, it seems, but only because it has a great capacity for strength and power. The films of Werner Herzog explore these two extremes, both of which he suggests are often far more closely related than we'd like to think or admit.
Once a revolution has occurred, it is almost impossible to return to the way things used to be. After Kubrick, I saw movies differently. I had experienced the medium's true potential in the hand's of a true artist. I feel the same way, now, with Herzog.