Werner Herzog's first film, Signs Of Life was made fast and cheap – brought in at roughly $20,000.00 total in 1967, it's an obviously low budget film and it's far from his most polished worth, but it's still very much a Herzog movie and you can see the seeds of brilliance taking root and sprouting up.
This film, like some of the director's better known works, moves at a rather unusual pace (I'm not going to call it slow, because things are happening in the movie even when you don't really recognize it as it happens). The story follows a soldier named Stroszek (Peter Brogle) who becomes injured and, along with his wife, ends up working as a caretaker at a German occupied fortress on a Greek island.
The more time that Stroszek spends on the island, the more bored with his day to day routine he becomes and soon enough he starts to slowly but surely go quite insane. The results? He tries to kill his poor wife and the few injured soldiers left on the base.
Shot in glorious black and white, the film is full of contrasting imagery that really suits the light and dark tones of the cinematography and lighting. The Greek Island, initially a paradise of sorts, soon becomes a very different place at least in the mind of Stroszek and those he is interacting with at the base. The landscape becomes a very large part of the drama that unfolds, in that much time is spent getting into Stroszek's head as his sanity slowly departs. The land around Stroszek is foreign to him, as are many of the actions he knows have been committed in the name of his country. All of this starts to build and build and build inside of him until he finally caves and attempts to commit the ultimate sin.
While the camerawork is quite good in this film, especially for a debut, it isn't quite as good as what would come from Herzog. Part of this is inexperience, part of this is low budget, and part of this is probably due to the fact that he shot it on a stolen camera but the look of the film is still pretty remarkable - the cinematography does pull you into the strange little island world.
While it would have been very easy for Brogle to go way over the top in his performance, he's actually very believable in the lead role and does an exceptional job of understating what his character is experiencing in the film. His facial expressions and his eyes tell us just as much as his actions and his words do. Watching his character's unwitting evolution throughout the film is a fascinating character study of a man who is completely out of his element and who isn't entirely sure what to do with himself in his current situation.
While the languid pace of the movie will definitely put less attentive viewers off – much of the film is spent demonstrating how damned bored the lead character is, itself an exercise in tediousness – Herzog's technique does an amazing job of clearly and concisely capturing the anguish he ultimately goes through. It's not exactly a happy film, but it is quite a poignant one and one that was obviously a foreshadow of the great things to come from one of the greatest directors to come out of Germany in the last fifty years.
New Yorker presents Signs Of Life in it's original fullframe aspect ratio of 1.37.1. The image isn't flagged for playback on progressive scan equipment and so there is some minor motion blurring but thankfully it is minor and doesn't prove to be too annoying. If you remove that one sore spot from the equation, the transfer on this DVD is pretty solid. The black levels are nice and strong and the image has very nice contrast. There's a fairly high level of detail present in both the foreground and the background of the image and print damage and grain, while present, are never more than minutes distractions.
The German language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack is perfectly serviceable. The accompanying English subtitles are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any noticeable typographical errors. While the audio mix isn't going to be on you'll reach for when trying to show off your new THX certified home theater system, you can follow the dialogue easily enough and there are no issues with serious hiss or distortion.
The biggest and best of the extra features on this DVD comes in the form of an all new audio commentary with director Werner Herzog, moderated by Norm Hill of Subversive Cinema and formerly of Anchor Bay Entertainment. Hill is a lifelong Herzog fan and it shows as he asks the enigmatic filmmaker all the right questions to keep things moving and on topic. Herzog has no shortage of things to talk about in relation to his first feature film and how his career grew from his experiences behind the camera for this early entry in his filmography. His odd sense of humor and his penchant for storytelling are just as strong on this track as they are for any of the other commentary tracks that he's done and if you're at all a fan of the man's work you should try and find the time to listen to this one, as it's quite interesting and always entertaining.
Rounding out the extra features are a trailer for Signs Of Life and trailers for a few other, unrelated DVD releases from New Yorker.
While the video could have been better it still looks decent on this DVD and the commentary track alone makes this disc worth the purchase. Signs Of Life isn't Herzog's masterpiece but it's still very much a worthwhile film in its own right and it's always interesting to see a master filmmaker's early work. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.