The key to understanding Werner Herzog, and this film in particular, is the DVD commentary track. Although I rarely listen to commentaries anymore, I always listen to a Herzog commentary because the man is brilliant, entertaining and nuts. Plus, he doesn’t shy away from tackling his own material in a very direct way. On the commentary for Fata Morgana, as well as the one for Even Dwarves Started Small, Werner talks with actor Crispen Glover, who time and again offers interpretations of the films, only to be told very bluntly that he is wrong. I found this is very entertaining. The aforementioned “key” to Herzog comes when he and Glover are discussing a scene in which two people are playing music that is at least tied for the most soulless ever produced by man. Or machine. The man sits behind a drum kit, barely tapping a cymbal without any variation. He sings into a PA that distorts his voice so badly, that you can’t tell what language he’s singing in. The woman stiffly bangs on an out of tune piano. Glover suggests that this is the most ironic moment in the film. Herzog says he’s never understood the concept of irony. He put the music in the film because it is the saddest he’s ever heard.
Right there, I had a flashback to the book, Lords of Chaos, about the Scandinavian Black Metal scene. The “inner circle” responsible for creating Black Metal took a huge part of their inspiration from a campy, British, Satanic band called Venom. An interviewer presents one of the founders of the Black Metal movement, with a quote in which a member of Venom says that his band was mostly a joke. The satanic stuff was all tongue in cheek. The Black Metal guy pauses and says, “the people of Norway choose to believe otherwise.”
Both of these exchanges, and many others, suggest a breech in earnestness between Germanic and Anglo cultures. We approach everything with a bit of detachment. There’s an element of self-aware humor in most of our great works from Shakespeare to The Simpsons. We tend to regard members of our own culture who are 100% earnest as fools, be they religious zealots, or starry eyed, idealists. Our Teutonic cousins, however, are perfectly capable of total seriousness and perhaps incapable of anything else. Who’s your favorite German comedian?
So when Herzog says he’s on a quest to produce the “adequate images” lacking in our society and that he wants to declare war on bad TV shows, he is not kidding at all. All of those weird images in his films are meant to capture something real and pure. The cackling midgets. The lizard men with goggles. The soulless musicians. Herzog doesn’t present these images so that we can go, “ha ha, look at that midget.” [Ed Note: Like Lynch.] He’s trying to create something new and compelling. He succeeds. Fata Morgana might be the purest example of such success. Herzog went to the Sahara, filmed a bunch of stuff, filmed some other stuff while shooting Even Dwarves Started Small and then threw it together in a way that made intuitive sense to him. He invites us to impose our own narratives and ideas on the film, if we choose to. An alternative is to simply take in the foreign landscapes, and the images of decay, neglect, absurdity, hopelessness and incredible beauty. Either way, you are stepping outside of the norm of rote communication, recycled jokes and cliché so extreme that it’s almost Pavlovian. Herzog has created the exact opposite of a Hollywood film.
The irony is that you can bring your sense of irony. You can laugh at the film. You can laugh at Herzog. I do both, which is a large part of the reason I enjoy Herzog’s work so much. But none of it detracts for the film’s achievement on its own terms or prevents me from appreciating that achievement on its own terms.
Just another word about the commentary. It adds more to the film than any commentary I’ve ever listened to. Herzog explains what most of the mysterious images in the film are and tells a string of crazy stories. If I had to choose between the film’s original soundtrack and the commentary track, I’d choose the commentary.