Between the full-length movies that have made him one of Europe's most celebrated directors, West German filmmaker Werner Herzog likes to dash off short documentaries. On their own terms, these can be as rich and adventurous as many of his feature productions. And their concentrated format lends a consistency that his more ambitious projects often lack. The latest arrivals are a case in point. ``Ballad of the Little Soldier,'' about the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, and ``The Dark Glow of the Mountains,'' about a veteran mountain climber, have more to offer on all counts than Herzog's current fiction movie about Australian aborigines, ``Where the Green Ants Dream.'' Shot in Nicaragua about a year ago, ``Ballad of the Little Soldier'' is a poignant look at a grim situation. After years of persecution by the Somoza regime and now the Sandinista government, according to Herzog, the Miskito tribe has started fighting back, using guerrilla tactics against heavy odds.
Typically for him, Herzog cares more about the human face of this struggle than about its politics or its slogans (``CIA tool'' and ``freedom fighter'') of left and right. Going to the heart of the conflict, he focuses on the waste and misery brought on by the fighting itself -- with special attention to the children, many under 10 years old, who make up a significant part of the impoverished tribe's armed force. The result (co-directed by Denis Reichle) is a sad, bitterly ironic film that transcends partisan ideology by fixing its gaze directly on the vulnerability of innocence.
``The Dark Glow of the Mountains'' looks at vulnerability in a different form. It's a portrait of mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who shares his thoughts before and after an unprecedented achievement: climbing two of Pakistan's most formidable peaks in a single trek with no oxygen or elaborate equipment.
This sort of topic fascinates Herzog, whose own love of danger has resulted in such feats as carting a ship over a Peruvian mountain (for scenes in ``Fitzcarraldo'') and poking his camera into an active volcano. His rapport with Messner is strong, and the mountaineer shares his thoughts freely and articulately. These cover everything from climbing technique to the death of Messner's brother, which took place on an expedition they shared and still moves him deeply.
At its best moments, ``The Dark Glow of the Mountains'' is an improvisatory dance between two artists -- one who captures his visions on film, and one who inscribes them into mountainsides with the invisible lines of his lonely journeys.