German director blurs real and fake
It's one of the most amazing nature shots ever: a single drop of water clinging to a leaf, refracting the upside-down image of a nearby waterfall. It's also one of the most bogus nature shots ever. The drop isn't water, it's glycerin (which refracts light better) and the image was painstakingly concocted, not spontaneously caught. Its creator was a cinematographer working with filmmaker Werner Herzog in Guyana on "The White Diamond," one of three documentaries by Mr. Herzog being released in the United States this summer.
It's obvious that Herzog loved the shot, fabricated or not, or he wouldn't have included it in his documentary. Right? Wrong. "I hated it," Herzog said after showing the clip at the Sundance Film Festival in January, in a panel on the subject of truth in documentaries.
"It just looked like kitsch," Herzog continued, "and I knew I didn't want it in my film. And yet I knew it had to be in the film. I knew if I created the proper context, that would [override] the kitsch and make [the shot] great."
To create that context, Herzog indulged in one of his longtime habits: inventing, scripting, and staging a scene. In the finished film, Herzog asks a local resident whether he ever sees "a whole universe in one single drop of water," and the man replies with a non sequitur (also from Herzog's script) that indicates he doesn't understand what Herzog is talking about.
Herzog's question, he cheerfully admits, is a "stupid new-age" query. But the overall result, in his view, is a moment of pure storytelling that turns documentary realism on its head while serving a larger purpose - reaching an "ecstatic" and "illuminating" truth that conveys deeper meanings than a motion-picture camera can capture.
Herzog's other documentaries this summer are "Wheel of Time," about Buddhist initiation conclaves in India and Austria, and "Grizzly Man," about a man who loved bears so much that he spent much of his adult life with them in the wild - until he and his girlfriend were killed by one of the creatures they cherished.
In all three pictures, Herzog blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction until you wonder if those boundaries truly exist. He did the same in "fiction" movies like "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," which made him a superstar director of West Germany's great New Cinema movement in the 1970s.
He sees every fiction film as a sort of documentary, recording how performers look, sound, and move. On the flip side, documentaries are carefully shaped constructs that present "facts" selected by the filmmakers.
"Grizzly Man" vividly illustrates this notion. The main "character" is Timothy Treadwell, who lived among bears every summer for 13 years, videotaping his encounters. It appears he thought of animals as his friends in the same way we think of neighbors as our friends. Knowing the animals might not share this perspective, he took precautions against attack, but not enough to prevent his untimely demise.
"Grizzly Man" is Herzog's guided tour through selected moments from Mr. Treadwell's videos.
Since everything we see and hear is "real," the movie can be called a "documentary."
We slowly realize that Treadwell's videos aren't spontaneous chronicles, however, but crafty presentations. Sometimes he shot multiple takes until he got the moods and implications he was after. And sometimes he continued talking after the "official" shot was over, revealing himself as a profoundly troubled man whose affection for animal society may have reflected fear and loathing of human society. Added to these ambiguities are Herzog's own manipulations of the materials at hand.
Also due this year are DVD editions of two early Herzog films: "Signs of Life," his first feature, and "Land of Silence and Darkness," a 1971 documentary about people who are deaf and blind. "This film is somehow capable of showing an inner world that is otherwise invisible," the filmmaker said in a recent phone conversation. "That's what my profession is. I am a director of movies, and I can show these things.... At least I try my best, and sometimes I kind of succeed."