04 February 2009

Surmount all obstacles

I watched Werner Herzog’s Signs of life the other day. It’s his first feature film, made when he was 24 from a screenplay he wrote when 15 or 16. Herzog claimed that at 15 he’d had a vision of what he wanted to do, and that that vision sustained him still.

As the film started, I realised that the opening shot was very much like that of Aguirre. In Signs of life, a fixed camera follows an army truck winding its way down a mountain road. In Aguirre, a fixed camera follows the Spanish army winding its way down a track in the Andes.

The similarities don’t end there. Signs of life is set during World War II and is about a soldier named Stroszek (not to be confused with another Herzog film of the same name) who has been wounded and is recuperating on Crete, and who descends into madness.

Like Aguirre, Stroszek stages a grand rebellion. He declares war on everyone (always a good start) and wants to vanquish the sun by firing fireworks at it. Similarly, towards the end of his grand rebellion, Aguirre declares that if he commands the birds to drop dead from the trees they will drop dead from the trees. Both rebels end as failures, as the narrator in Signs of life says ‘like all of their kind’.

One of the enjoyable things about looking at someone’s early works is seeing the echoes of their future work in it. There’re the themes of course, but also the documentary-style realism contrasted with stylisation, the incidental cut-aways that don’t advance the story but contribute to the psychological effect of the film, the importance of music. The scene where Stroszek fires off his fireworks at dawn is amazing, and the music is a crucial part of it.

Another commonality with later films is the production difficulties and Herzog’s dedication to surmounting them. There’d been a military coup in Greece just before the film was shot, and the authorities wouldn’t allow Herzog to fire off his fireworks in the historic fort where a lot of the film was shot. It’s a crucial scene. Herzog reckoned that it was the image around which the screenplay was built. He told them he was going to do it anyway and that he’d shoot and kill anyone who tried to stop him. No-one tried to stop him.

In the commentary, the interviewer asked Herzog what it was that made him want to make films. He told of how as a teenager he’d gone to see a Fu Manchu film with some friends. An extra on a cliff gets shot and falls. As he falls, he gives a distinctive kick. Later in the film, the same thing happens, and Herzog recognised the kick and realised they’ve simply used the same shot again. Talking with his friends afterwards, none of them had noticed and wouldn’t believe him. They all (including Herzog up till then) had thought what they were watching was real. After that, Herzog started paying attention to how a film was put together.

Addendum: I should also probably mention the setting for Signs of life. It's on a Greek island untouched by the war. They leave their lights on at night. The soldiers (Stroszek and two others) live in an old fort where their only duties are to guard an ammunuition dump, even though the ammunition doesn't fit anyone's weapons. They're living in unreality and engaged in an absurd task.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not sure about his latest project..a 'remake' of Bad Lieutenant with Nick Cage and the dangerously talented Val Kilmer

David Cauchi said...

He's assured us it's not a remake, and that he's never heard of Abel Ferrara!

Got to love that ecstatic truth.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's true....and it's not NYC...so no more Harvey Keitel jacking off on Broadway!

Herzog reminds me somewhat of Uli Edel in combining a docu-approach with stylisation (eg Christiane F.) I hope he doesn't go the same way though ie good first film with Last Exit to Brooklyn followed by a bovine howler with Body of Evidence.

stephen said...

I don't really understand any of these comments. But no matter, David can I please borrow your copy of "Signs of Life"?

David Cauchi said...

You can, but I reckon you should come round and watch it here. We're going to have a Herzog season.

Anonymous said...

A comedy?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/may/28/werner-herzog-bad-lieutenant-nicolas-cage

visitors since 29 March 2004.