Herzog’s Furious Reality

Nov. 13, 2012
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Many film buffs consider Werner Herzog as a ‘70s art house director who moved into documentaries during the past 15 years, but as Eric Ames reminds us, Herzog made documentaries from the start. Ames’ book, Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog (University of Minnesota Press), analyzes the aesthetic of the German director, who has often denounced the assumptions behind documentary filmmaking in colorful terms. For Herzog, pointing a camera at reality and observing it is naïve and superficial. “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema,” he insists, “and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”


Herzog’s implication is that a documentary’s claim to truth comes down to whose truth. Herzog has been accused of manipulating objective reality in his documentaries, but of course, even the most committed exponent of “cinema verite” must make choices and inevitably edits and composes the reality they seek. Herzog is forthright in grappling for larger truths, including those that refuse to conform to a rationalist perspective. The dull tyranny of rationalism may well be the object of Herzog’s fury, as he tries to topple its rule to make way for extreme states of feeling.


In one of his sharpest insights, Ames, a cinema studies professor at the University of Washington, situates Herzog as a Baroque artist. Citing the director’s “blatant theatricality, visual luxury, technological extravagance” and “stylistic excess,” Ames explores Herzog’s quest to represent the unrepresentable, his sense of religion as physical not scriptural and embrace of the culture of spectacle.


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