FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, 1969)

Made on a frayed shoestring, during and in between the making of other films of his, Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana is an early entry in New German Cinema or German New Wave, the movement begun in the 1960s by Leftists wishing to establish a West German culture in repudiation of the nation’s Nazi past and the culture that attached itself to Hitler’s policies. It’s a non-narrative work, filmed in a number of different places in Africa, including the Sahara Desert and Kenya, its mesmerizing (often traveling) shots pieced together into a visual poem of an alien visit, by Herzog and the three members of his crew, to scenes of (to them and likely to us) a mysterious, heretofore unknown world. Many of the shots include, on the distant horizon, “fata morgana,” that is, one or more mirages: visible things—water, islands, vegetation, moving objects such as, perhaps, motor vehicles—that, although capable of being photographed, aren’t really there: phantasms originating in reflections and refractions of light transporting images of actual things to the eye over vast intervening space. On a commentary track included in the DVD of the film, Herzog explains his use of the Italian term (derived from the Italian name of the Arthurian sorceress Morgan Le Fay): German has no words for the phenomenon. The implication that German culture and experience often don’t distinguish between reality and illusion is a theme that haunts the film.

The film comprises three increasingly sardonic sections: “Creation,” “Paradise” and “The Golden Age.” In his commentary, Herzog explains that he did not set out to shoot material for any of these sections; rather, the section titles came later, during the editing process, as a guide to selecting and organizing the material. The entire film seems spontaneous; it’s a journey of discovery for the filmmaker and for us.

Herzog describes it as a “science-fiction film” with the story—for, originally, a story had been planned—removed. He says it’s “a science-fiction film with windows into a different world . . . and all the buildings are taken away and only . . . the vision is left, and that’s what you see here: a mirage.” British film critic Tony Raynes has said that Fata Morgana is “the nearest thing to a genuine political science-fiction movie”—although surely Raynes was overlooking Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

The images composing the first section, “Creation,” are accompanied on the soundtrack, in addition to exalted and spiritual classical music by Mozart and Händel, film historian Lotte Eisner reading from the Popol Vuh, the sacred text that includes the Mayan myth of creation. The images suggest a primordial wasteland, a vast region of hills and sand dunes at some dead-end of civilization; strewn across the landscapes are the carcasses of vehicles and other abandoned things left by European soldiers in World War II. Thus the scene of ‘creation’ is marked and marred by Western incursion, that is, Western use. For instance, tracking shots disclose empty gasoline drums in the dunes. Commenting (again on a DVD track, not in the film per se, where the images speak for themselves), Herzog explains that the French did atomic tests at this central Sahara location. We see Ground Zero, where a bomb was exploded. The juxtaposition of the pure creation myth and these sullied images hinting invasion and appropriation accumulates an aura of sadness, resignation, defeat. Africa is thus realistically portrayed as “Europe’s back yard,” the scene of the West’s colonialist and neocolonialist presumption. This theme is in fact set into motion at the very outset of the film, which consists of one airplane after another, in increasingly exhaust-polluted images, landing: outsiders—aliens—descending on Africa.

What we see in the foreground is unmistakably there, testifying to this Western presumption and arrogance. The “fata morgana” so often distant in shots, the far background in conjunction with the things visible in the foreground, become a reflection of the delusionary mindset from which this presumption and arrogance emanate. Part of the visionary aspect of Herzog’s film is that his images permit us to glimpse not only the African landscape but the European mind that has imposed itself on this landscape and its people. We seem to peer into the Western mind itself, which feels compelled to make the world over in its own image. The signs of Western decadence—all the abandoned things—testify at least to the intellectual bankruptcy of Western influence.

It is not for nothing that Herzog has Lotte Eisner read the Mayan creation myth. Eisner, the author of The Haunted Screen (1952), the seminal work on classic German cinema, is a Jew who, outspoken against Hitler from the start, fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933 but eventually spent a few months in a Nazi death camp. To Herzog, European colonialism and Hitler’s anti-Semitism are of a piece. (In his DVD commentary, Herzog speaks movingly of his admiration for Eisner and of their friendship. He speaks of all that she meant to his whole young generation of German filmmakers. Eisner was born in 1896 and died in Paris in 1983. Herzog was born in 1942.) Moreover, Eisner’s voice, because it is disembodied and female, supports the Mayan myth that includes a ‘creatress’ as well as a ‘creator.’ Subtly, the suggestion arises that part of the bankruptcy of the Western mindset derives from its exclusion of feminine feelings and considerations. Germany, for instance, idolized the ‘fatherland,’ not the ‘motherland,’ and Western European appropriation of Africa unsettlingly inflates and advances boyhood soldiering during play. The abandoned vehicles in particular exude a masculine intrusion on the landscape, while a bravura passage of tracking shots surveying Sahara dunes finds these rolling configurations of sand assuming forms and shapes suggesting the female torso in its softness and curves, and women’s breasts. Herzog himself notes this dimension of the imagery in his DVD commentary, although he doesn’t state, given the signs of incursion and appropriation, the Western rape of Africa. Again, in the film, the images speak for themselves.

It is a commonplace about films in the desert that the sense arises of loosened and lost moorings. The landscape we attempt to take in is as often vacant as it is perpetually endless; markers, such as a Muslim cemetery that seems to our eyes to belong in outer space, do not help at all. All this contributes to the sense that Fata Morgana is a voyage of discovery—for Herzog and for us. Persons both very old and very young are eventually introduced, but they are slow in coming. We ourselves are mostly ‘the people’ involved in the first section, “Creation”; we look to the film for moorings, but it’s the film that transports us from our seats and casts us, at least mentally, adrift. Herzog’s abundant use of traveling shots, whether from trucks or airplanes, covers a distance, but the movement of the camera, by constantly erasing or shifting the limits of the frame, excludes boundaries. The area covered is, realistically, finite; but the impression that emerges is of the infinite, and we as viewers lack a reliable compass. Moreover, Herzog cuts between trackings to the left and trackings to the right so that the combined result implies the stasis of our own situation, where we can never quite tell where we are. (The shooting in different parts of Africa also contributes to this result.) Surely this unfamiliarity is compounded by the gap between, as Westerners, our overall uncertainty and the overall presumptive arrogance of the Westerners who preceded us, whose abandoned trucks and oil drums our eyes stumble over. We know we are lost in Africa; others before us, representing Western civilization, presumed to control Africa, to make it their own. In effect, Herzog by this discrepancy is able to imply that Western presumption regarding Africa at least partly derives from Western denial that the West is “lost” in Africa. In other words, we as Westerners somehow unite with those who earlier came to Africa, and our very different response becomes a guide to understanding their response. We experience our “lack of control” in Africa, and this provides insight into a Western need for control in Africa, for control of Africa. We come to see the measure of mastery that the West feels compelled to insist on.

As the film proceeds through “Paradise” and “The Golden Age,” the tone, to use Herzog’s own word, becomes increasingly “bitter.” (The “spiritual” classical music and Mayan creation myth used in “Creation” is exchanged for contemporary music, by Blind Faith and Leonard Cohen, and contemporary poetry in “Paradise.”) Europe came and used Africa but did little or nothing to alleviate its poverty. The pianoed parlor of a Western-style brothel provides an odious example of what Europe did leave behind, the fixed camera observing perhaps the film’s only indoor scene, providing an enormous sense of constriction in an outdoors film employing so many traveling shots. But there is beauty besides in the film, not only of the terrain that tends to majesterial abstraction, but also of the native people Herzog and his crew encounter, who, he notes in his DVD commentary, often arranged themselves spontaneously, as we ourselves see, into the most stunning compositions imaginable. Herzog fell in love with Africa. His two earliest masterpieces, this film and the fictional Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), both were shot on that continent, and Herzog returned several times to film other nonfictional works, including the astonishing Hersdmen of the Sun (1988) and the sister-film to Fata Morgana, the very disappointing Oscar-nominated Lessons of Darkness (1992), which surveys in too selfconsciously apocalyptic terms the inferno of oil fields that Iraqi soldiers ignited before their withdrawal from Kuwait during the Gulf War. (Both Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness are included in the States in the same DVD package.)

Herzog now concentrates on nonfictional cinema. “This quest for images,” Herzog explains in his DVD commentary for Fata Morgana, “ . . . hasn’t left me till this very day. . . . I have not stopped moving, I have not stopped searching . . . and it’s hard to imagine I can ever abandon this quest.” To be frank, I see no such openness to Lessons of Darkness, whose one positive aspect, it seems to me, is that it utterly transcends any harsh feelings for the Iraqis in order to convey instead the horrible destructiveness of war.

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