Herzog's Docymentary Art

A German director Werner Herzog is one of the most prominent and imaginative film directors of last decades. Apart from being a great director of feature films that has become a cult figure in the industry, he is also a creator of dozens of documentaries which constitute his distinct creative side. Since the director is a very original cinematographer, Herzog’s documentaries shock and inspire not less than his feature films do. Herzog follows tradition and movement of Direct Cinema that appeared in the 1950s and progressed through the 1960s. In addition, he continues to use Cinema Verite tendencies that were embedded in documentary filmmaking in the 1920s by such figures as Dziga Vertov and Jean Rouch. These two aspects of documentary filmmaking as observational and direct, or participatory, modes compose and affect the central message that Herzog tries to convey to his viewer in such films as Grizzly Man or Fata Morgana which are among his best creations. The director says that Cinema Verite “reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants” (Herzog & Cronin 2003). The essay provides a philosophical commentary to Herzog’s creative work and discusses his vision of a documentary and mechanisms that keep his films in motion. In light of a philosophical approach, the paper analyzes how Herzog achieves the effect he calls “ecstatic truth”.

Before proceeding to Herzog’s ideas directly, styles and techniques, the essay offers a brief overview of Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite as genres. Cinema Verite could be called a starting point of documentary filmmaking in general. DzigaVertov, a legendary Russian film director, is among the pioneers of this movement and, therefore, documentary filmmaking as a whole. Cinema Verite is closely connected to Direct Cinema movement that appeared in the North America between 1958 and 1962. However, there is one significant difference. Direct Cinema emphasized the importance of capturing reality through interaction with subjects of filming ranging from a simple interview to real provocation. On the other hand, Cinema Verite filmed reality as it is without an emphasis on the participatory mode. In other words, documentary filmmaking started from Cinema Verite that has used mainly the observational mode, for example, Vertov’s groundbreaking Man with a Camera, but later developed into Direct Cinema in which author’s role has been as important as the role of what one films (Prager 2012).

As a result, the discussed film movements used the observational and participatory modes, while Herzog has combined these modes in order to create an effect that he names ecstatic truth. For instance, this technique is traceable in his Fata Morgana as one of the most spiritually touching and philosophically deep documentaries ever created. Without a mythological narrative and brilliant music, this movie is an observational panorama of a wasteland, desert and nature. However, a unique combination of musical score and mythological narrative creates a story from nothing. Such a story may be an illusion, but it comes of a higher reality of imagination (Thompson 2011). Herzog brings massive philosophical involvement into the basic ideas behind cinema.

Albert and David Maysles are popular for their work Gimme Shelter. In this magnificent feature about the last days of rock and roll, hippie, peace and love, there is one moment that stands for documentary as a genre. A murder of one fan by another with a knife during the concert and in front of hundreds of people shocked the audience. Hence, documentaries can be involved in reality, and they can not only much document the events but really change the situation affecting its course of actions (Barnouw 1986). Undoubtedly, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” (Herzog & Cronin 2015).

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What lies behind metaphors and symbols of Herzog’s magical craft is fabrication, imagination, and stylization as factors that make documentary a movie rather than reality. Nonetheless, the question arises how one can differentiate reality on TV or in a movie. The answer is concerned with observation in contrast to participation, and a difference between seeing a performance and taking part in existence of reality. Documentary movies are one of the attempts to answer this question.

In Fata Morgana, Herzog explores metaphysical and existential sides of existence. A viewer sees symbolical interaction of a landscape and story that happens through an imaginative use of various creative approaches. Any of Herzog’s movies are stories about humanity, about God, about an existential side of reality but not material or physical that observational mode can present us with (Cronin 2014). In Grizzly Man, we see deep casualties of the man’s participation with nature. In an era of war conflicts, leaving deserts full of abandoned war machinery, humanity’s connection to nature does not stay same. The director considers such topics as global warming, huge climate changes, rainforest’s extinction, overpopulation, and AIDS, to name a few. For instance, in Gimme Shelter’s, one may refer to a big moment when actual killing took place and was filmed on camera as a part of action documentary.

Ecstatic truth, truth of accountants, and deeper truth are the elements of human side of the story. They all constitute principles of Direct Cinema with a background of Cinema Verite. Interviews, provocative questions, the way material is interpreted can create two entirely different films with same basic components. Visual poetry is deeper than reality. Herzog claims that film is a work of art, while reality is not (Corrigan 2014). Some may remember Aristotle’s “art is an imitation of nature” (Aristotle 2015), but issues can become even more complicated. What the audience can see in documentary is a theatre of life where all characters play themselves, meaning that there is only one real role, with rare exceptions, of course, considering further developing of the pseudo-documentary, and this role is ultimate.

Herzog makes documentaries because he is a cinematographer. At the same time, the cinematographer makes unique and fascinating documentaries because he is a philosopher. His movies question reality. Almost all his projects deal with the problem of human existence, an existential problem. In general, Herzog is also concerned with the role of an artist in reality. Public praises the filmmaker as a pioneer who moves further than others. In Grizzly Man, an ex-girlfriend receives Timothy’s watch which makes her cry though it happens during a rehearsal scene. Herzog pays sufficient attention to such moments: he was there and successfully captured it, though there was no intention to make the girlfriend cry. The event just happened, and Herzog used it to achieve the effect of ecstatic truth (Barnouw 1986). He could not know predict that the girlfriend will cry, though the whole scene happens to be very and very in place. In Grey Gardens, this ecstatic truth appears in comparison and contrast between Edith’s rich life as a young, successful woman and her present condition as an anchoret. Ecstatic truth is manifested through the presentation of Grey Gardens as something that can symbolically mean decay in contrast to Edith’s former prosperous position, her relation to Jackie Kennedy, and her artistic explorations.

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In conclusion, Werner Herzog successfully uses documentary techniques to achieve a grand effect projected on his viewer. Using the documentary style, techniques, and principles, the director widens the perception of reality. In his hands, the real becomes unreal, unreal become surreal, and everything becomes impressive, truthful and touching. There was not a word about Herzog’s magnificent personal journey, his talent as a filmmaker of fiction feature films was also not touched. However, even describing only this particular side of his talent, Herzog’s genius is undoubted. In other words, magnificent talent of Herzog makes reality more interesting, deeper, comprehendible and clearer to a viewer. The director’s personal worldview is original and this fact enables him to transform reality into something bigger and better. Surprisingly, critics blamed Herzog’s fiction movies for being too documental and, at the same time, criticized his documentaries for being too fictive. In any case, even how paradoxically it is, Herzog’s works cannot be seen without admiration.

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