I WISH to be the gravedigger of cinema verite," said German director Werner Herzog in a published statement. "I am the staunch enemy of that form of filmmaking."
That's quite a remark, given the great popularity and influence of cinema verit an approach to documentary that blossomed in the 1960s, emphasizing on-the-spot footage with no commentary or narration to interpret events for the spectator.
Arguments against cinema verite are often motivated by a conviction that no film can deliver objective truth or verite, since all works of art are artificial constructions molded by the personalities, biases, and ideologies of their makers. It's more honest and productive, critics like Mr. Herzog say, to foster an openly personal kind of nonfiction cinema in which those biases are undisguised elements of the final product.
Herzog has followed this anti-verite path in the many documentaries he has made (along with numerous fiction films) during his 30-year career. His choice of subject matter has reflected his adventurous and far-traveling spirit, from "The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner," about a ski-jumping woodcarver, to "God's Angry Man," about an American television preacher. His approach has been frankly subjective, with his own face and voice making frequent appearances alongside the people, places, and events
he chronicles with his camera.
"Echoes From a Somber Empire," the latest Herzog documentary to reach American screens, deals with a somber subject indeed: the bizarre life and infamous career of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former emperor of the Central African Republic (1977-79; he was president from 1966-77) and current inmate of a military prison in that country, where he is serving a life sentence for an awesome number of crimes.
According to citizens interviewed in the film, whose testimony agrees with material printed in the American press during Bokassa's reign, he was a repulsive autocrat whose tastes ran from polygamy and sadism to murder and cannibalism. Yet he had the ability to appear charming before people he feared or respected - a talent he shared with the terrifying Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, the subject of a memorable film by Barbet Schroeder a few years ago.
Herzog's interest in Bokassa is apparently related to his longtime fascination with the Nazi phenomenon, and with the profound question of how Germany, a nation "of philosophers, composers, writers, and mathematicians," managed to "commit the most horrible cruelties in the history of mankind in only 10 years," as Herzog put it in a 1990 interview with a Spanish newspaper. A number of Herzog's fiction films, including the unforgettable "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," can also be read as attempts to fathom th e existence of obsessive evil on both personal and political levels.
"Echoes From a Somber Empire" has a broader perspective than some Herzog documentaries, partly because it was made in collaboration with Michael Goldsmith, an Associated Press journalist. His approach is no less personal than Herzog's own - and for good reason, since Mr. Goldsmith was once arrested, beaten, and almost executed by Bokassa when a scrambled news transmission was mistaken by the emperor's goons for a coded espionage message.
To make their documentary, the journalist and director interviewed members of Bokassa's family, victims of his brutality, and certain political figures, including his successor as national leader. Not surprisingly, nobody has a good word to say about the tyrant; but the various accounts cast a revealing light on the nature of his horrific reign and, more importantly, on the way colonialism aided his rise, enhanced his charisma, and facilitated his retention of power.
There are times when "Echoes From a Somber Empire" operates as a straightforward inquiry into its subject, assembling hard facts and first-hand recollections into a useful historical record. At other times, Herzog picks up his shovel and works aggressively to bury cinema verite six feet under, as when he uses a series of startlingly dreamlike shots to evoke Goldsmith's delirious state of mind while suffering in Bokassa's clutches.
Such overtly artistic touches provide the film's most visually exciting passages. But they also raise the most serious questions about Herzog's ability to mix prose and poetry into a unified and coherent whole, a feat he doesn't always accomplish.
Also questionable is Herzog's understanding of a fundamental problem built into all filmmaking with an anthropological aim: How equal is the relationship between the observer and the observed, and by what right does one person interrogate and comment on another? Colonialism and imperialism have left their imprint on documentary film as well as more directly political enterprises. At moments, Herzog's blend of realism and surrealism has a self-indulgent, self-important air that suggests he hasn't thought hard enough about the baggage of elitism that often accompanies first-world cinema on its excursions into the third world. It's a topic he ought to consider in the future.
"Echoes From a Somber Empire" had its American theatrical premiere recently at New York's enterprising Film Forum. Its expert cinematography is by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and Martin Manz, and Michael Kreihsl composed the score. The German-French coproduction is distributed in the United States by New Yorker Films, which remains one of the most valuable American resources for thoughtful and provocative international cinema.