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Insanity at the Edge of the World: Werner Herzog’s Ecstatic Truth

By Sunil Raj

We at SCAJ had the distinct honor of being invited to the EYE Film Museum for the press opening of the new Werner Herzog exhibit: The Ecstatic Truth. We were invited because of the connections between Herzog’s work and anthropology. He has made it his mission to understand and chronicle the human experience. Furthermore his works skirt the boundaries between fiction and documentary, meaning that the question of how to authentically represent or rather render reality is a constant concern of his films, as it is for most anthropologists in their work. First of all, it must be said that just being able to visit the EYE is an experience in and of itself. It stands distinct from the skyline directly across the water from Amsterdam central station, and is a testament to the futuristic promise of ultramodern design. The inner contents of the building are a cinephile’s dream and it is a must visit for film lovers from around the world.

The EYE Filmmuseum. © Marcus Koppen

The morning began with a talk that included the organizers of the exhibit and Herzog’s brother and longtime co-producer Lucki Stipetić. It was enlightening to hear personal anecdotes surrounding some of Herzog’s most iconic works, as well as the inner workings of how such a huge endeavor is undertaken. The minds behind the exhibit watched all of the over 70 films that make up Werner’s oeuvre, before settling on the design for the flow of the exhibit.

For anthropologists, Herzog’s work has always been interesting, because it focuses on people and places that exist on the fringes of reality. Moreover, in his work he uses real (indigenous) peoples, yet in the extract from Burden of Dreams (1982), he states that although they are real people, ‘this is not ethnography’. They are executing a performance for the film; a performance that he is directing. In Heart of Glass (1976) Herzog had actors hypnotized so that it really appeared as though they were sleepwalking. It reminded me of Chloe Zhao’s recent Oscar Winning drama Nomadland (2020), in which real life nomads from the rural United States perform fictionalized versions of themselves. This raises questions of authenticity and representation that surround both Werner’s work as well as several debates within anthropology. What does authenticity mean? What is truth? And ultimately as a filmmaker or anthropologist, is it even possible to represent truth authentically?

It was a thrill to be able to see the reality behind Herzog’s work, or rather the constructed reality behind it. The stills and excerpts of the landscape and people from Fata Morgana (1971) look otherworldly, alien even, conjuring ideas of science fiction films such as Dune or Star Wars. However, the images that most immediately captivated my attention were those from Werner’s volcano films, such as The Fire Within (2022). It was totally surreal to see that such a landscape exists here on Earth, and even more so to see real human beings standing next to these bellowing rivers of lava. I was transfixed by these primordial images, which are at the heart of the truth Herzog is searching for - the truth of how the world came to be. Then came the somber reality that one of the couples that Werner had followed in the filming of these images, Katia and Maurice Krafft, had tragically been killed on one of their expeditions. It was a reminder that both Werner and his films are intimately connected to very real and immediate danger.

Inside the exhibition. © studiohanswilschut

Some days later, as part of the exhibition on Werner, I went to see a screening of Fitzcarraldo (1982) at the Kino theater in Rotterdam. To me this is the quintessential Herzog work because of the themes that it explores, such as Man vs Nature, and because it parallels Werner’s own singular desire to bring his art to light. Put simply, Fitzcarraldo is the story of one man’s love for the opera and his desire to do whatever it takes to bring the opera to the Peruvian jungle. Fitzcarraldo’s overwhelming passion to bring the opera to the jungle perhaps mirrors Herzog’s desire to bring his truth to light in the form of a constructed yet real cinema experience.

And of course, Werner’s relationship with Klaus Kinski, the star of this and several of his films, exemplifies this idea of violent dedication to one’s craft. The film parallels this relationship in the sense of a fierce passion for art driving a man to madness. In an interesting audio excerpt at the EYE, Werner states that even though he had a difficult time with Kinski, he believed that he was the only one who could materialize and deliver the massive talent he considered Kinski to possess. Kinski’s performance is immense: without him I wonder if the film would have even been possible - he IS Fitzcarraldo. Walking out of the film I was left with one final thought: sometimes what is difficult to comprehend as anthropologist or social scientist is that there does not always have to be a “why” to what people do. Sometimes they just embark on a path they are irrationally committed to for no discernible reason other than it is in their character. And perhaps that is a part of the ecstatic truth that Herzog is after.

Still from Herzog's (1990) "Echos aus einem düsteren Reich"

Reference list

Blank, Les, director. Burden of Dreams. 1982. Flower Films. 1h, 35 min.

Herzog, Werner, director. Fata Morgana. 1971. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. 1h, 19 min.

Herzog, Werner, director. Heart of Glass. 1976. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1h, 34 min.

Herzog, Werner, director. Fitzcarraldo. 1982. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. 2h, 37 min.

Herzog, Werner, director. The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. 2022. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. 1h, 21 min.

Zhao, Chloe, director. Nomadland. 2020. Searchlight Pictures. 1h, 48 min.


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