BELLS FROM THE DEEP: FAITH AND SUPERSTITION IN RUSSIA (Werner Herzog, 1993)

Werner Herzog has made brilliant, beautiful documentaries (Fata Morgana, 1969; Land of Silence and Darkness, 1971; Herdsmen of the Sun, 1988), incompetent, worthless ones (Lessons of Darkness, 1992; The Wheel of Time, 2003), and ones of intermediate quality. Glocken aus der Tiefe—Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland, from Germany and the U.S., belongs in the exalted first group. It is also, perhaps, Herzog’s most insane film since the fictional Heart of Glass (1976), for which Herzog had his cast members hypnotized. It is, also also, insanely funny.
     This poker-faced “documentary,” accompanied by Herzog’s own poker-voiced voiceover narration, opens with two men on all fours on a frozen-over river—presumably pilgrims in search of a lost holy city or otherwise involved in some prayerful ritual. In reality, they are a couple of drunks whom Herzog hired to crawl about on the ice. “Poker” Werner, justifying his method, has explained: “I think the scene explains the fate and soul of Russia more than anything else.” The film includes the following: the Messiah, whose Second Coming has “quietly” arrived in Siberia, and who preaches against the superiority of any nation to any other (a notion with which Jesus-Werner likely agrees); a mass exorcism inside an auditorium; choral singing that is, in fact, profane rather than sacred; and all sorts of other bogus testimonies. I have long insisted that each and every film exists somewhere betwixt the poles of documentary and fiction, but this particular film tugs the line the hardest away from its documentary label and category.
     Oh, did I forget to mention the born-again bellringer who used to be a movie projectionist?
     In one gorgeous transition, the frozen river comes to life as Werner-as-camera subjectively moves into humble, peopled abodes.

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