Werner Herzog and the ineffable

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The purpose of criticism is to attempt to articulate ideas about art: to describe, evaluate, explicate, and interpret. Obviously I’m a believer in the value of criticism; otherwise I wouldn’t write reviews or make posts to this blog. All the same, the moments in art that I love best tend to defy my ability to approach them in a rational and articulate manner. As a critic, I very much enjoy delving into a thorny and complicated work and sorting out its ideas and themes. But as a reader, viewer, or listener, I tend to be most profoundly moved by works that elude the grasp of neat and clean critical interpretation. For me the greatest moments in art are those that ask questions instead of offering answers; that open up in awe at the limits of human knowledge and the mysteries of the unknown; that revel in those parts of human experience that resist our comprehension.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the work of the German director Werner Herzog on the whole, but his films Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo both contain moments like this, when intellectual understanding gives way to experiential wonder. Both films star Klaus Kinski, whose performances are at once magnificent and also limited by his idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable presence. Much like Jack Nicholson, Kinski’s considerable gifts as an actor sometimes become a handicap; his technique is so fascinating and exquisite that while watching his films, it’s often impossible not to be extremely self-conscious of Kinski as a performer. But at the end of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Kinski transcends his limitations and becomes the center of a scene of indelible power. When Kinski, as the doomed conquistador Aguirre, stalks around a raft overrun with small monkeys, stepping past his delusional and dying companions, it’s possible to understand the scene as being about the absurdity of human pride, and about the foolish vanity of human attempts at greatness in the face of the ultimate reality of death. But what’s great about the scene isn’t its thematic heft; instead, it’s something ineffable in the crazed look on Kinski’s face, in the way he moves and holds himself in his armor, in the scrambling, chattering monkeys, and in the great and indifferent river flowing on underneath the dying men. The scene’s experiential impact is far greater than its thematic content; the whole is much greater than its parts.

While filming Fitzcarraldo (1982), Herzog and his crew actually hauled a steamboat over a mountain. This is a staggering act—an insane thing to attempt to pull off on camera, and an astonishing one in the context of the film’s storyline, as well. The moment when the boat hits the water on the other side is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on screen: it conveys a sense of wonder at the strength of the human will, and the joy of a great, improbable accomplishment. At the same time, the scale of Fitzcarraldo’s achievement seems outsized when compared to his motivations; the awesomeness of the act of hauling the boat over the mountain seems infinitely grander and more important than his prosaic goal of making some money by opening up a new route for shipping. The real reason Fitzcarraldo (or for that matter, Herzog) brings the boat over the mountain has nothing to do with money or any rational, understandable objective: instead, it comes from the same ineffable, inexplicable impulse that makes human beings want to climb a mountain or land on the moon. All powers of critical reasoning and explication fail when faced with a moment like this: there aren’t any answers in it, but instead only wonder at the awesome incomprehensibility of human experience.

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