It’s strange to see space alien Bruno S. playing someone besides Kaspar Hauser. Here he’s playing a version of himself, as are many of the actors, who autobiographically collaborated with Herzog on his hastily-written Germany-to-USA adventure. Reformed criminal/music lover Bruno helps Eva Mattes (Petra von Kant‘s daughter) while she’s on the run from her thug pimps (one of whom would later play Vigo in Ghostbusters II). The thugs barge in, assault Bruno and break his accordion. The neighbor who looks after Bruno (Kaspar Hauser fan-favorite Clemens) is leaving for Wisconsin, so Bruno and Eva join him.
Bad luck right off the bat as customs confiscates Bruno’s mynah bird (using its real voice, which is a big deal for birds in cinema). Werner discovers Weird Wisconsin immediately, filming two neighboring farmers on tractors with rifles. Bruno’s house is taken away for non-payment… not making enough cash as a waitress, Eva returns to prostitution and runs off with some truckers… and Clemens is arrested for robbery (the bank was closed so he robs the barber next door). Everything around him going to hell, poor Bruno wanders a live-bird amusement park then kills himself on a ski lift.
The credits thank Errol Morris, Les Blank and the documentarian who discovered Bruno in West Berlin. Supposedly Ian Curtis killed himself right after watching this movie, and yeah it’s a downer, but one night earlier I’d coincidentally watched New Order’s live set from Coachella 2013, and after seeing what a crank Bernard Sumner can be, I wouldn’t be so quick to blame the film.
A doc begun by meteorite enthusiast Clive Oppenheimer, who has previously appeared in Herzog’s volcano and Antarctica movies, so these guys are kindred explorers. Herzog helps make sure we don’t end up with a bland doc about space rocks (a rock doc), in fact he takes a moment towards the end to inexplicably yell about “the stupid doctrine of film schools.” Another time he films some men standing very still (does this a few times, reminded me of that frozen time moment in My Son) and instead of asking them questions, he adds his own voiceover: “What are they thinking? What if the human race went extinct?” The strings-and-choirs music by Cave of Forgotten Dreams composer Ernst Reijseger is gorgeous, as are the visuals. The parade of scientists, priests (and scientist-priests), artists and explorers gives the rare impression of an engaged, intelligent and optimistic global community. Extremely delightful movie.
Picturesque and moody, which is to say it’s slow in that 1980’s arthouse sort of way, with drone music which put Katy briefly to sleep. This is a mixed blessing, since she missed the siamese twins separation surgery scene.
Abena (Tania Rogers of a Dr. Who two-parter) is a journalist returning to Ghana after having fled for decades. She’s here to track down the film set of Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde and shame them for misrepresenting Africa, and also incidentally to reconnect with her former communist revolutionary friends, who remained in country and seem withdrawn and broken and not especially glad to see her. In end Abena seems to have taken responsibility for her part in the communist experiment failure – I’m not sure this was the intention, but it’s what I thought was happening. Either way, this makes a good follow-up to In The Intense Now. And she does track down the Cobra Verde set in the end, lingering on all the skull imagery and saying that Europeans have always been better at leaving testaments.
Daniel Kasman on Mubi, from where I also stole the above image:
The soundtrack, flush with ambient synths, simmering orchestrations, and local songs of lament and longing, as well as the brilliantly and variously interpolated archival footage from across Ghana’s post-independence history, is unique to the collective. The result is an elegantly mournful story where this specific woman becomes something more grand, a conduit not only for a personal history of exile and political dismay, but a national and perhaps even continental one.
In the 1960s, they’d all, in different parts of Africa, effectively lost a war of independence, one which had started with them as radicals, Marxists and socialists who wanted to take their countries in a certain direction. As the decade ground on, one by one those countries had been turned around, overthrown, or coups had been planned. Many of these people had left Britain or Europe to go back to Africa to plan these new anti-colonial moves, and, irony of ironies, had to run back to the countries they’d left. They were now back in the so-called mother countries begging for refuge … If you were from one of those exile families, like me, that melancholy was the overwhelming feeling that your childhood seemed to be suffused by. I knew I wanted to do something around that feeling of exile as a sort of space of emotional stasis.
Some months you just don’t feel like writing about movies, and then you get behind and start forgetting things, and the whole point of the movie blog was to write those things down soonish so you didn’t forget them. I watched this after Heart of Glass, then kept putting off writing anything because I wanted to watch again with the Herzog commentary, but never got around to that…
1828, a languageless man with no knowledge of the world is released from his cellar by some shady dude and abandoned in town. They take him to the stables and interrogate him, reluctantly decide he’s not a criminal and take to educating him, lending him out to a family. After a while Kaspar is “beginning to be a burden on the community coffers,” so he’s handed to a circus freak exhibit, sharing a tent with The Little King (the camel-laugher of Even Dwarfs Started Small), a Brazilian bear tamer, an “untamed Indian” from Spain and The Young Mozart.
With rouge-cheeked circus leader Willy Semmelrogge:
Once Kaspar is able to hold conversations, the townspeople introduce him to music, religion, agriculture, government and take in Kaspar’s naive, Chauncey Gardener-like responses, until Kaspar is unexpectedly stabbed (two separate times!) by (I’m pretty sure) the shady dude from the beginning.
Stork eating frog:
Lead actor Bruno S. was reportedly a huge pain in the ass, but I loved his Kaspar. Little Clemens Scheitz (hypnotically hobbled as the Master’s assistant in Heart of Glass) steals every scene he’s in, as a bureaucracy-loving scribe. I liked Heart of Glass better, but what do I know – this won numerous prizes at Cannes, where it played alongside A Touch of Zen and The Passenger.
The little one starts a war, and the big one across the ocean extinguishes it … Then a strict master comes who takes people’s shirts and their skin with them. After the war, you think there’ll be peace, but there won’t be.
A Bavarian mountain town of somnambulist glassmakers is torn apart after the man with the secret of their famed ruby glass dies unexpectedly. The first couple of scenes establish that this movie will be more concerned with natural beauty, poetry, prophesy, and irrational human behavior than with story, and that’s just fine with me.
Prophet Hias is Josef Bierbichler (the man Woyzeck‘s wife is cheating with, later of Code Unknown). The rest are mostly non-actors who agreed to be hypnotized by the director, asked to behave strangely for the movie, and behaving strangely in different, unexpected ways due to the hypnosis. It’s a slow-moving, heavily stylized movie with bizarre music
Two neighbors have a slow-motion bar fight and later one dies. The Master of the glassworks has his people tear apart the head glassmaker’s house to search for the secret, later kills a girl to get blood for the ruby glass. The factory is burned down and the people throw Hias in jail with the Master. Either he escapes and fights an invisible bear or the ending is one of his visions, during which he tells of a boatload of men heading out from a remote island to find the end of the world.
“Everyone is walking into a foreseen disaster.” The commentary with Herzog is good. It was shot in Bavaria, reminiscent of the small village where he grew up, and the hypnosis was used to show the town’s “collective trance.”
“The oil is trying to disguise itself”
Impressionistic doc shot in aftermath of Kuwait war.
Divided into sections:
– A Capital City (pre-war helicopter shot)
– The War (bombing footage)
– After the Battle (post-war helicopter shot, big horns on soundtrack)
– Torture Chambers (implements and stories)
– Satan’s National Park (oil-drenched landscape)
– Childhood (traumatized survivors)
– And a smoke arose, like the smoke from a furnace (burning oil wells)
– A Pilgrimage (firefighting)
– A Dinosaur’s Feast (vehicles, opera music)
– Protuberances (boiling oil)
– The Drying Up of the Wells (capping wells with new hardware)
– Life Without Fire (some of the fires are re-lit, great narration here)
– I am so weary of sighing, oh lord, grant that the night cometh (finale)
Minimal narration, lots of slow motion. Great music selections from Mahler, Arvo Part, Prokofiev, Wagner, others. I know little about the Kuwait war apparently – why were the Iraqis torturing people to death? But these details are beyond the scope of the film.
Great point by Noel Murray:
Herzog was booed at the Berlin film festival after a screening of Lessons Of Darkness, and accused by the audience of being more interested in pretty pictures and philosophizing than in the human toll of the Gulf War. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Throughout his career, Herzog has shown less engagement with any one particular political conflict or social issue than with the bigger picture of how humans continue to fight with each other and with their environment. But then that’s why Lessons Of Darkness is still so beguiling, decades after the war that inspired it.
The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better… With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.
Emotionally similar to Grand Budapest Hotel, romance and work-obsession interrupted by WWII, with a sense of loss that doesn’t really hit until the movie’s final scenes, or a couple hours afterward.
Good movie, except when I am 100% distracted by the voice of Werner Herzog!
Herzog, whose voice is too rarely heard, listens to the stories of people affected by a stupid double murder in Texas, mostly the victims’ families but also a few unenlightening minutes with the killers themselves. There’s little attempt to question whether these two (one of whom is on death row; the other avoided execution because his dad cried in front of the jury) actually committed the crimes. And there’s little attempt to make polarizing statement regarding the death penalty, until the end when the movie tries to land hard on the anti- side. But I’ve been on the anti side for years, and the movie almost has me convinced that the death penalty is a great thing, because these kids are horrible and have learned nothing, so they might as well be dead. One of the highlights is a long interview with a former death row prison guard, who walks us through the whole procedure before saying he had to quit after too many executions messed with his head. No mercy from Texas. Music by Soul Coughing’s Mark De Gli Antoni.
“the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film”
Cave drawings from 25k to 40k years ago, during the last ice age, including drawings of extinct animals. The earliest recorded human artworks. Somewhat ecstatic movie, between the cave camerawork and the string/choral music, with notes of Herzogian strangeness (a master perfumer speaks of trying to sniff out hidden caves). The first half suffers from having to use a subpar camera, without the time or equipment needed to set up perfect shots, but the crew gets to return with better stuff later, slowly moving a light source while the camera remains still to expose the rock’s textures. Herzog faithfully edits their two journeys separately instead of just using images from the second trip and pretending like they got it perfect the first time.
Sidetrack interviews with cave explorers, engineers plotting the cave with laser imagery, a historian who demonstrates statuettes, ornaments and musical instruments from the ice age, carved from mammoth tusks. Then an unexpected poetic epilogue about albino alligators in a steamy greenhouse warmed by runoff waters from a nuclear plant.
Herzog in Cinema Scope:
There’s not much room for intentionality. You have one week. You have four hours a day to shoot. You have to build your cameras and then reconfigure your cameras on a 60 centimetre-wide walkway. You’re allowed only three people with you. You’re allowed only three small panels of light. So intentionality is reduced to having to film like crazy and deliver.
Of course there was a very clear idea about why 3-D was necessary, and clear ideas about music. There was a clear idea about not trying to define what things represent… because we do not know. There are a number of hypotheses made by scientists, but what’s construed to be a ceremonial site could just as easily have been the traces of children playing. I think we have to keep possibilities open if we want to understand what can look to us like the sudden awakening of the modern human soul.
DEC 2021: Watched again with Katy, who liked it enough that she’s taking an interest in other Herzog movies – this could be good.
Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011, Werner Herzog)
Also on the DVD, Herzog takes a camera to the recording of the film’s score by really amazing cellist Ernst Reijseger. I could watch this a bunch more times. Probably I should just buy the soundtrack.