Werner Herzog: The Power of Observation

How do we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes without intruding? Films are meant to actively participate, invading someone’s privacy, getting closer to the action, to the reality of someone’s life, their struggles, beliefs, and so on. It is undoubtedly a challenge that cinema has faced since birth. How to present a lifestyle in its full complexity without being offensive? How can we learn from merely observing? Even the best filmmakers have had difficulties answering these questions. Werner Herzog is known for intrusive, often manipulative style of documentary filmmaking. In numerous documentaries he openly staged various scenarios to fit his narrative (most notably in Bells from the Deep and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and he often appears on screen as an intrusive stranger, almost like a detective sniffing around a crime scene (in Into the Abyss he literally questions witnesses to a murder and in The Grizzly Man he compulsively inspects Timothy Treadwell’s posthumous belongings).
However, I found interesting how different and yet just as revolutionary his approach was in one of his earliest documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness from 1971, a film that I believe shifted the focus of documentaries from the filmmaker – the explorer, the conqueror, the protagonist who, like an anthropologist, immerses himself in another world, another culture, another lifestyle – to the subject(s).

vlcsnap-2020-04-12-23h29m55s040
Fini, our protagonist, with her translator, before flying for the first time.

One of Herzog’s earliest adventures behind the camera is the study of Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman and her work on behalf other deaf-blind people. Fini is an old woman – she suffered what would become a life-long impediment when she was a teenager and as a result was bed ridden for 30 long years, isolated from the outside world. Her mission is to relate with others who are in a similar situation, break the barrier of sound and vision and help them understand that there is a whole community of people just like them. That they’re not alone. The documentary follows Fini and her translator as they travel around Germany meeting and relating with those who have been institutionalized or abandoned by their families or who simply don’t have anyone to share their pain with. The camera witnesses as Fini embarks on her first airplane flight, visits a zoo, explores a botanic garden, organizes a poetry reading with fellow deaf-blind people and attends a learning session for deaf-blind children.

vlcsnap-2020-04-12-23h26m04s824
Fini shows others that they’re not alone in this silence and darkness.

The secret in this film lies in its simplicity. This simplicity stems from the full belief in the power of observation. Herzog observes. He does not act. Does not try to intervene or modify the narrative. He stands behind the camera and follows along as Fini and other deaf-blind people make sense of this terrifying world. It is terrifying indeed. We may not realize it, but Fini and others do. Speeding cars that cannot be seen, thunderstorms that cannot be heard… the world these people live in is truly the land of silence and darkness, filled with angst, uncertainty and terror.
But instead of going in this direction, Herzog perseveres, showing us how these victims of cruel fate go through life by embracing the unknown and painting their own canvas their own way.  In the botanic garden, the group of deaf-blind visitors touch and feel rows of cactus plants. Their palms caress the spikes and as they do so, we see them react in awe. Tall, lean plants with spikes? How marvelous. How unsettling and marvelous at the same time. In the zoo, the playfulness of a baby chimpanzee overwhelms them. So does the curious and kind touch of the elephant’s trunk.

vlcsnap-2020-04-12-23h29m21s938
The soft, kind breathing of an animal.

But perhaps, the most moving scene of all is the scene where Fini meets with a deaf-blind boy, Vladimir, aged 22, abandoned by his guardians and left in an institution. The boy has never been looked after properly. He can hardly chew food. His movements are uncoordinated. His body deformed by abuse suffered in the past. Fini places his hand in her hand and begins to communicate with him by stroking his head. The boy initially is wary of this strange and unusual soft and warm thing touching the top of his head. But as the scene goes on, he grows fond of it and insists on keeping Fini’s hand in his. Then, a radio is brought into the room. A radio? I asked myself, but he cannot hear. How is he going to enjoy it?
The camera keeps still as the boy’s hands begin to recreate the shape of the object. They move across and feel the antenna, and finally land on top of the speakers, from which a pop tune is playing. All of a sudden, he takes the radio and clutches it in his arms like his life depended on it. Then, as if in a state of pure bliss, Vladimir produces a faint but generous smile. A smile that can only inspire us to imagine what it must feel like to be Vladimir at that very moment.
It is in this particular scene that I thought myself in amazement, This is the power of observation. Had Herzog tried to cut away from the scene or shift his attention to something else, Vladimir’s smile would have been lost forever. Instead, whatever he was feeling at that particular moment in time, as he held on to that magnificent invention we call radio, was expressed through that smile and recorded in this movie for us, people like me, to see and experience, each one of us their own, personal way. Vladimir may not be alive anymore, as the fate of the people presented in this movie has not been clarified since, but his smile, through Herzog’s camera, is alive and well.

vlcsnap-2020-04-12-23h09m43s055
Fini and Vladimir meet for the first time.

Film, like any other art form and generally man’s quest for meaning (just grab the first history book off your shelf), has always been mostly about intervention, transgression and manipulation. And Herzog, the man responsible for dragging a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, releasing thousands of live rats in the streets of Delft to film a scene in Nosferatu, and manipulating his entire cast and crew into almost killing each other like the characters in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is the prime example of this notion.
However, what he did in Land of Silence and Darkness, a delicately told story about a community of disadvantaged individuals, is show us that choosing the other path, remaining invisible and steering clear of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed, can sometimes be much more insightful and rewarding. By purely observing the struggle Fini and her friends have to face each time they wake up we see beyond it. We see a struggle that if approached with the right mindset, like Fini does, can turn into the most beautiful of adventures. The adventure of discovering the world, bit by bit. Whether by touching  the spikes of a cactus plant, or feeling every branch of a cherry tree, or caressing the hairy back of a baby chimpanzee, the life these people live and the way they experience it opens for us a new way of looking at things. The details that we take for granted, through Herzog’s observing eye, become the subjects of so many feelings these people experience. Their lives, despite the silence and darkness, are rich. Richer than most.

vlcsnap-2020-04-12-23h22m31s191
To truly make sense of this world, you have to feel it first.

What we Talk About When we Talk About Lynch

David Lynch: the mysterious mind-fucker behind such films as EraserheadLost HighwayBlue Velvet and Mulholland Drive has been the subject of countless debates, Q&A panels and interviews, which all aimed at one thing: try to access his mind and the process the director goes through to create the unique films he’s created over the last 40 years.
Lynch to most movie buffs is the Mt. Rushmore of arthouse filmmaking. A man who’s never answered the question WHY? Why is a dead man with a clear wound to the head standing in the middle of a living room in Blue Velvet? Why is Lost Highway’s creepy Mystery Man living in an empty shed in the desert? WHY? Well, for once someone decided to make a documentary on Lynch without asking him that question. Without asking him any questions really. The film I want to talk about today is probably one of my recent favorites due to its impeccable and stylish slow-burning discovery of a man who willingly hides in the shadows.  The film is David Lynch: The Art Life.

vlcsnap-2017-10-02-22h52m26s348
Lynch’s silent playground.

What makes The Art Life so special is precisely the absence of any sort of questions. The documentary in fact works pretty much like a hidden camera in Lynch’s barricaded Beverly Hills mansion, amidst all the cigarette smoke and Lynch’s short bursts of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’. The truth of the matter is, that the objective of this film is to present the unknown side of Lynch to his beloved viewers – the artistic side. Do not expect a biography. Lynch, left sitting alone in front of a hanging microphone, briefly mentions his childhood, a couple of girlfriends and then speeds all the way to the time he began painting. And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when we get to meet the man himself.

vlcsnap-2017-10-02-22h53m58s310
It is pointless to try and understand.

It is a fact that Lynch’s main source of inspiration for his movies as well as his hit TV series Twin Peaks are the nightmares he’s had since he was a child. But unlike most people, Lynch talks about his nightmares almost as if they were the most delicate dreams one could ever hope to have. His nightmares are what drive him, what motivate him to get up from his bed and pick up a paint brush. They are his bread and butter and the reason for as to why he decided to become an artist. His life was casual, at times boring and uneventful, and that’s why since he was a child he allowed nightmares to take over reality. That’s how a sixth sense was born inside his mind.

vlcsnap-2017-10-02-23h00m19s776
Lynch and his daughter, to whom this film was dedicated.

As viewers of his work, we are certainly unable to pinpoint what Lynch is all about. Damn it, if we ever had an answer for that, half of the beauty of his movies would be gone. Who else could make us question not only the movie we’re watching but ourselves if not Lynch? The Art Life is special because it finds the right balance between personal and professional. It invites the viewer to ask more questions and to be more attentive without revealing too much. It also urges the viewer to fight through the discomfort of everyday life. Through Lynch, one can come to the conclusion that in order to become an artist, one not only needs to push through all the boundaries and invisible walls life sets up for each individual, but also learn to embrace them, to embrace the difficulties, the filth, the sadness. In Lynch’s mind they become valuable elements of his work. And as the man with the glorious white hair sits down to reminisce over the time of the making of Eraserhead, he sighs and says: ”The art life. It was beautiful. Everything about it.”

And perhaps that really is the key to Lynch’s lock: the endless wonder and thirst for more life. More of THE life.

vlcsnap-2017-10-02-22h41m07s739
At the end of it, you’ll be amazed.