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The Unfathomable in the Cinema of Werner Herzog

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            If there is one word that can describe Werner Herzog’s entire cinematic work, it would be the word ‘madness.’ Indeed, the legendary filmmaker has become known not only for exploring disturbing topics and characters but also by articulating these stories using his unique way of storytelling. Gandy, for instance, believes that Herzog gives us “a possibility to go beyond our own existence in our collective dreams, in our nightmares (Gandu 1).” But where exactly does these markedly ‘Herzogian’ traits come from? It comes from the presence of an indescribable element in the films which the primary characters face although they do not fully understand it. In this paper, we will explore this concept of the unfathomable in three of Herzog’s works, namely, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Grizzly Man (2005). We will discuss how the unfathomable, which take on different forms in each of the films, is the central interest in most of Herzog’s film. More importantly, we will look at how most of the characters of his films attempt and fail to grasp the unfathomable aspect of reality or natural world, leading to their demise or insanity.

The unfathomable

            In many of Herzog’s film, we have interesting characters who have unique delusions and ambitions. Although most of these characters are flawed, it is these flaws themselves that make them interesting, because they provide an insight into the relationship between humans and the world around them. This is apparent in Fitzcarraldo where we have an ambitious rubber baron, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald as the primary character.

            As already said, Fitzgerald is an ambitious man, but he is living in a place where he is considered an outsider. An Irishman who wants to be rich, he saw that the Amazon Basin has enormous rubber resources that could potentially make him rich. In the film, Fitzgerald is portrayed to be resourceful and enthusiastic, but he knows nothing about the Amazon rainforest. He simply sees the Amazon as a place to be conquered and exploited, and he sees the natives of the forest simply as tools to actualize his plan. For Fitzgerald, the Amazon is unfathomable, and his failure to understand the insignificance of his ambition to the world he wants to claim as his own led to his failure.

            However, this concept of the unfathomable is best portrayed in Aguirre, Wrath of God, where we have a group of conquistadors wanting to conquer the continent. Indeed, the unfathomable becomes very apparent right at the very start of the movie. In the movie’s first scene, we have a long shot of the Amazon mountains shrouded in fog. The camera slowly zooms in into the mountain, revealing small outlines of people. Eventually, we begin to see that this line of people is made up of the conquistadors together with local guides, pigs, cattle, and some noble-looking ladies. In this long shot, it is obvious that Herzog wanted to emphasize how small and odd these group of foreigners are. They are just like awkward ants going down in a mountain of green, rocks, and mosquito-filled waters. Like in Fitzcarraldo, the Amazon forest here is the unfathomable. But in the very first scene the audience is already aware that whatever this strange forest has in store for the conquistadors, it will never be good.

            Gandy argues that nature is represented in Herzog’s film as something difficult to grasp, much less to conquer (Gandy 3). Nature represents the universe and all of its indescribable complexity. The main flaw in most of the characters in Herzog’s films is that they wish to find a place within or to conquer something that they cannot understand. In the case of Fitzcarraldo, he thought that simply making his ship go over a hill is enough proof that he can conquer the Amazon. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, the delusion is worse, as the titular character believes that he is a God, and everything in the Amazon rainforest should bow down to him. He believed in this delusion even to the very end. The genius of Herzog lies in his ability to juxtapose the unfathomable nature of reality with these narcissistic delusions. For instance, in the final film of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Aguirre finds himself alone, with all of his companions dead. He is making his megalomaniac speech with monkeys as his audience. This is a form of mockery from Herzog, but Aguirre nonetheless maintains his delusion until the very end, unable to understand his own insignificance.

Facing the non-human

            The unfathomable is impossible to describe, and it is precisely this inability to understand what you are facing against that makes it dangerous. However, what is also interesting about Herzog’s films is that his characters are not afraid of what they cannot understand. In fact, because most of his characters are, in one way or another, flawed, they faced the unfathomable with remarkable ignorance and bravery. This is another trait of Herzog’s cinema that sets him apart from the others.

            This is best seen in Grizzly Man where we see another hero, Timothy Treadwell, coming face to face with a force that he is not able to fully fathom. But what makes Grizzly Man different is that we, the audience, understand the dangers of bears. Unlike the Amazon forest, the bears in Grizzly Man are familiar to most people. Only Timothy Treadwell seems to be the one unconcerned for his safety. He shares this blinded optimism with Fitzgerald and Aguirre in Herzog’s other films.

            Nonetheless, Herzog did not present the story as a horror or a thriller documentary. In fact, he didn’t even tackle the inherent danger that living with bears pose. Interestingly, Herzog presented Treadwell as some sort of kind outdoorsman who has a pure, albeit misguided, love for bears and nature. Throughout the film, using various footages taken by Treadwell himself, we are shown an endearing portrait of life in that national park.

            Lulka notes that this approach allowed Herzog to present nonhuman agency (nature, animals, etc)  as something that has the potential to either become a source of endearment or real danger (Lulka 3). Herzog doesn’t want to portray the bears as cute but he also doesn’t want to portray them as simply dangerous. It is this vagueness that allows us to feel like we should just let Treadwell be. We know deep in our ourselves that messing with bears is not a good idea, but Herzog wants us to suspend our beliefs and try to see these ‘nonhuman’, unfathomable beings the way that Treadwell saw them. Thus, the fact that Treadwell died due to a bear attack is not a result of his ignorance or stupidity. Herzog portrayed it as something that Treadwell understood as part of the choice he made. It is an unfortunate tragedy, but like Aguirre and Fitzgerald, Treadwell faced the unfathomable and paid the price for it without any regrets.

In conclusion, Werner Herzog’s films tackle the unfathomable. Their characters were not able to fully understand the reality that they chose to face, and this led to their demise and insanity. Nonetheless, these flawed characters showed a brave ignorance that typical people don’t have, and that makes them interesting to watch. If fact, it is through these encounters that Herzog was able to fully explore the relationship between humanity and the reality around us, particularly the things that we fail to understand. It is these interesting explorations that mark Herzog’s films.

Works Cited

Gandy, Matthew. “Visions of Darkness: The Representation of Nature in the Films of Werner Herzog.” Ecumene, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan. 1996, pp. 1–21, doi:10.1177/147447409600300101.

Herzog, Werner. Aguirre, Wrath of God. Werner Herzog, 1972.    

—. Fitzcarraldo. Werner Herzog, 1982.

—. Grizzly Man. Lions Gate, 2005.

Lulka, David. “Consuming Timothy Treadwell: Redefining Nonhuman Agency In Light Of Herzogs Grizzly Man”. Animals and Agency. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004175808.i-382.12 Web.