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New Yorker Video's Short Films by Werner Herzog widens our knowledge of and respect for the German filmmaker who gave us Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and the remake of Nosferatu. Herzog didn't stop making short films even during his busiest period of feature production. Two of the three titles in this selection come from the early 1980s, when Herzog must have been putting serious mileage on his passport -- Australia, South America, Central America, the Himalayas.
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (Gasherbrum - Der leuchtende berg) is from 1984, and like all of Herzog's documentaries, it's a highly subjective experience. It's a simple assembly of interviews with two mountain climbers, interspersed with shots of their expedition to climb two forbidding Pakistani peaks in one go. The two climbers are Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner; Messner is the more famous of the two and does most of the talking.
Porters get the two men as far as is reasonable, and then they go out alone (seen only in telephoto shots, Herzog did not accompany them, of course). Messner explains that they do not establish a series of base camps or carry oxygen with them. They simply climb as a team, taking their chances with the weather -- if anything goes wrong, rescue is out of the question. When Messner bathes in a mountain stream surrounded by snow, we truly realize that we're talking about extraordinary men.
The Dark Glow does point up an aspect of the director's documentary style. Herzog injects his own personality and philosophy into Messner's speeches, getting him to expand on the harshness of the mountains. Messner seems coached when he comes out with biting words about the horrible conditions, saying a man would have to be crazy to do what he does. The speeches sound a lot like Herzog's pessimistic tirades in other movies. In Burden of Dreams Herzog launches into an almost deranged speech about the obscene horror of the Amazon jungle. In Encounters at the End of the World he encourages his interviewees to rhapsodize on the spiritual component of scientific endeavor, adding his own dark comments where needed.
All of these films express Herzog's personal take on his subject matter, which is what makes them such unique experiences. No National Geographic tempered opinions here.
Ballad of the Little Soldier (Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten) was filmed in Nicaragua in 1984 and co-directed with Denis Reichle. Herzog's camera records the filmmakers' visit to an armed encampment of anti-Sandinista Contra insurgents. It interestingly does not take the leftist tack seen in Alex Cox's Walker; the tone is more in tune with John Sayles' Men With Guns. Herzog's narration explains that the Miskito Indians, horribly mistreated by units of the Sandinista army, have sought revenge by joining the insurgency in a neighboring country (Honduras?). Nicaragua has simply become a political slaughterhouse.
The focus is on a training regiment of child-soldiers, boys and teenagers as young as twelve. Most have been recruited because their families have been wiped out. Every visit with civilians yields tearful stories of atrocious killing of women and children. The boys pose in uniform holding automatic weapons, and answer Herzog's questions with words that might have been suggested by their training officers. But we can see through the brave faces to the children underneath, with a generalized fear in their eyes.
Herzog explains that the kids are considered excellent soldier material, too young to have developed a moral commitment against inhuman behavior. As most are orphans, their only family is the army, which makes them easy to lead. Thirteen years old, and already committed to warfare -- Herzog's movie plays like a preview of the future of humanity.
The eleven-minute Precautions Against Fanatics (Massnahmen gegen Fanatiker) (1969) is described in the box text as a practical joke. It seems to be an elaborate gag, which for lack of context or explanation will soar over the heads of most audiences. We see various men at a horse track, either handling animals or talking about them. All claim that they are there to protect the horses against "fanatics", yet most seem like fanatics themselves. Several harangue the camera with incoherent speeches; one older man interrupts, shouting that he's the only one with the experience to save the horses. Among the actors are Mario Adorf and a film director, Peter Schamoni.
Unfortunately, Precautions remains an inside joke. We can't tell if Herzog is making fun of a specific kind of moviemaking, or ribbing politicians, or what. To know, perhaps one just had to be there. Here's one Savant review that ends with a big Question Mark; perhaps some Herzog "fanatic" can illuminate my ignorance.
New Yorker's disc Short Films by Werner Herzog is licensed directly from the filmmaker. The good but not terrific transfers are sourced from 16mm elements in reasonable condition but not restored or cleaned up -- color is mostly very good. The audio tracks are clear; subtitles are added where needed. The intense subject matter of The Dark Glow of the Mountains and Ballad of the Little Soldier is the important issue here -- they're two of the best short independent documentaries I've seen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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