Tag Archives: Werner Herzog

TIFF20 Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds

What would TIFF be without a documentary from Werner Herzog (and in this case, Clive Oppenheimer)? Luckily, the man’s output is such that I may never have to know.

Part of why his documentaries are so compelling is that he seems genuinely passionate and fascinated by his subjects. His films are an indulgence of his curiosities, he’s scratching his own itch, but he generous to take us along with him, unearthing the coolest little-known facts and seeking out experts buried deeply in their fields, often at the ends of the earth. In Fireball: Visitors From Darker Places, Herzog has become obsessed with meteors and comets. Indeed, for as long as humans have been alive, we have observed these wonders and searched for their meaning. They have influenced ancient religions and global landscapes, cultures and philosophies, even the life and death of dominant species.

Comets and meteors are natural beauties, the origin of dreams, and a mostly unseen threat that stalks our skies and could easily wipe us out, defenseless as we are.

Who but Herzog could so poetically refer to dust as the “currency of the cosmos.” If nothing else, his enthusiasm sparks our own imaginations, and space of course is a near infinite supply of awe and mystery and possibility.

While Herzog and Oppenheimer mine plenty of zest in this most recent documentary (their third collaboration, after Into the Inferno and Encounters at the End of the World), they lack in structure and narrative. Their approach is more pinball, racing from one area of interest to another, seemingly as it occurs to them, assembled rather loosely. If you’re looking for a more academic approach perhaps this is not for you, but it will slake your inquisitiveness, arm you with some impressive conversation starters, and be the flint to your fascination.

TIFF: Salt and Fire

Pain and suffering. No, those aren’t themes in the movie, it’s just what I felt while watching Werner Herzog’s narrative feature film at TIFF this year. The man is a legend, an icon, a talented film maker. A talented documentary film maker. His stab at narrative cinema was an atrocity worse than the one detailed in the film.

Salt and Fire’s premise: Some corporation is wreaking havoc in South America. saltandfire_03The landscape has significantly changed, the salt flats growing exponentially. A volcano that runs underneath shows signs of erupting as a result, which would mean a global disaster. Like a wiping out of humanity disaster. So, in a strange bid to fix things, a misguided man (Michael Shannon) kidnaps a scientist (Veronica Ferres) and abandons her on the salt flats along with two blind boys.

It’s such a flimsy excuse of a story it’s hard to take it seriously. Gael Garcia Bernal plays another scientist in the delegation, but his character is given massive diarrhea and written out of the script 5 minutes in. Yes, you read that right. We were flabbergasted too.

The film has worse symptoms than just an unbelievable premise and a bad case of the runs. It’s also got the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in my entire life. At first I wanted to chalk it up to Herzog not being an Anglophone (still, I believe there are things you can do about that, such as hire writers). The “dialogue” (I loathe to even call it that) sounds suspiciously like the narration of a documentary. It’s textbook and stilted and has no business coming out of a person’s mouth.

Salt and Fire was billed by TIFF as an “ecological thriller” but we got it straight from the horse’s mouth that this was not the case. Boy was it not the case. To salt-and-fire-1-620x413suggest that there is a thrill to be had here (other than the panicked state of Bernal’s panties) is laughable. Most of the film is just unending shots of salt. There’s a good 10 minutes just watching the kids play Trouble (the board game) for the blind.

I wondered why in the hell Michael Shannon, celebrated and usually reliable actor, would sign on to such an abortion. I have a sneaking suspicion it might for the same reason I attended the screening – to get close to Werner Herzog. And the truth is, seeing him in person was everything I hoped it would be. He was very Herzogian. He’s a man full of fire and passion. He is animated and dynamic and tireless. And as it turns out, he claims that the things I hated most about the movie are things he did on purpose.

He called the dialogue “highly stylized” (check out the comments for segments from his Q&A). Highly stylized! My highly stylized ass. He also called the film “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema.” Which is admittedly a nice way of saying “I have no idea what I’m doing.” The story is so passive that it fails to engage its main theme. We never feel ignited. We never really even understand what’s going on. Does the movie have a purpose? Do the characters?

Werner Herzog is unapologetic, and I like him that way. But in the future, he and I should both stick to his documentaries.

German Language Films



First, we’d like to send our weekly Thank You to Wandering Through the Shelves for encouraging us to broaden our horizons. Because one can’t survive on a diet of Office Space and superhero movies alone, this week we tried to catch up on the German-language movies that we’ve missed. I for one had some serious catching up to do. If not, I would have been stuck picking Das Boot or something.

I re-watched Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) to keep its complex themes and Funny Gamesnarratives fresh enough in my mind to be able to write about it. As I struggled once again to read the subtitles camoufalged by the black and white background, I thought about the impact that Haneke’s sadistic Funny Games (1997) had on me. A few months ago, I blasted Haneke’s rationale for his brutal and twisted home invasion story. While at first I resented being shamed for sitting through torture porn, I now appreciate the film for what it made me think about and the discussions it inspired with some of you. Also, while at first I was struck by the film’s sadism, now in retrospect I find myself admiring its restraint.

counterfeitersI’m only just now getting around to 2007’s Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters. Stefan Ruzowitsky’s film tells the true story of a counterfeiting operation within within a concentration camp manned by Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to make loads of fake currency. The counterfeiters face a dilemma. Helping the Nazis complete their mission could help them win the war bu failing to meet their deadline could get them executed. Not all the prisoners agree on how to proceed and the tensions between them separate this from other Holocaust movies by focusing on the characters and their complex thoughts and feelings.

Finally, Revanche (2008) tells the story of a cop who kills an accompliceto a bank robbery in the revancheline of duty and the dead girl’s bank robber boyfriend who has sworn revenge. The cop’s wife gets caught in the middle Departed-style. There’s nothing sexy about being either a cop or a crook in this movie and nothing exciting about using your gun. The weight of a single act of violence is felt by everyone involved throughout the movie as both men carry a crushing feeling of guilt with them everywhere they go. Revanche means both revenge and new beginning. This movie’s about both.



Screw you, German language films. I waded my way through Metropolis (a 1927, 2.5 hour black and white non-talkie monstrosity about “the future”) and A Coffee in Berlin (a greasy, effeminate James McAvoy lookalike whines his way around cafes), and bits and pieces of The Blue Angel (Marlene Dietrich failed to inspire) and Christiane F. (mostly a David Bowie tribute) and I decided, fuck this, I’m just gonna talk about Werner Herzog instead.

wernerHerzog is a German film director, producer, screenwriter, author, actor, and (apparently) opera director, considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights in New German Cinema. Roger Ebert once said that Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

At age 14, he was inspired by an encyclopedia entry about filmmaking, which he claims gave him “everything I needed to get myself started” as a filmmaker – well, that plus the 35mm camera he stole from the Munich Film School. Oh, sorry, Werner, “I don’t consider it theft—it was just a necessity—I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.” Artist, thief, sometimes both.

I know him and love him especially for his documentaries. In fact, Grizzly Man might be the grizzlymanweirdest and most spectacular documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s about this grizzly bear “enthusiast” Timothy Treadwell who loved them so much he decided to live among them. He believed himself to be to be the Jane Goodall to bears, spending something like 13 summers with them, but he was also kind of an idiot, shooting Steve Irwin-like footage that no one asked for while ignoring the number one rule that even children know about bears. You need to watch this film. Ebert, delighted and appalled by the film, said that Treadwell “deserved” Herzog.

Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris finally finished a film project he’d been working on for years. In 1978, when Morris’ film Gates of Heaven premiered, Werner publicly cooked then ate his shoe, an event capture and made into a documentary by Les Blank (called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe). Herzog hoped to encourage others to tackle incomplete work, but he could never be mistaken for a slouch himself.

IntoTheAbyssIn Into The Abyss, Herzog changes direction a bit. There’s not much narration, and he doesn’t appear on-screen. Instead, he lets a convicted murderer on death row tell about the crimes he says he didn’t commit just 8 days shy of his impeding execution. The film doesn’t dwell on guilt or innocence. Although Herzog is upfront about being anti-capital punishment, the movie is mostly apolitical but seeks simply to contribute to the conversation.

Werner Herzog always picks interesting subjects to study, but he himself is nothing short of a fascinating one himself.


From One Second to the Next

From legendary documentary film maker Werner Herzog comes Frome One Second to the Next, an unflinching look at the consequences of texting and driving.

This documentary is really about content. Herzog tries to jazz it up with some stylized shots of people kneeling thoughtfully beside crash sites, or the empty hand of someone who was once holding on to a child for safety, but these shots are glaringly unnecessary in a film that already has an impactful message.

Of course we hear from victims, or victims’ families, but these accounts are as predictable as they are tragic. It sounds like testimony, like victim impact statements. We find more connection in other moments, like a police officer choking up over an infant’s fatal injuries, or the blank stare of a woman so traumatized she registers no emotion hearing her sister list the extensive damages incurred to her both physically and financially, but suddenly engages when recalling her dog, also a victim in the acciddent, who flew violently threw the air before landing where he would ultimately die, but not before seeing his owner into an ambulance.

I was glad to hear from a couple of the perpetrators (and angry to not hear from all). Their regret is palpable even if their sentences are underwhelming. For the most part, the film keeps its focus appropriately on the victims, always with the distinct undercurrent of the complete preventability of their deaths.



This film is available on Netflix.

What Dreams May Come

What a fucking movie, eh?

Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) dies in a car accident and wakes up in an afterlife of his own making. The world he constructs is based on his wife Annie’s painting; everything is made of gobs of paint that squish beneath his feet as he walks and explode with colour when he grabs them. An old friend, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), appears as his spirit guide, though he looks much younger than Chris remembers. It takes a little getting used to, but it starts to feel like home, especially when he reconnects with his children, who died years previously. The only thing missing is his precious Annie, but Chris finds out that the two will never be reunited. Annie committed suicide – she’s in hell, and there’s no coming back from hell. But Chris tries anyway, because heaven isn’t heaven without her.

What Dreams May Come is preachy even if you believe in this stuff, and if you don’t, well, it’s a hard message to swallow. We never get a glimpse of God yet we’re left wondering what kind of deity would kill all of Annie’s loved ones – her husband and both her children, in two separate accidents – and then judge her when the pain is just too much. It seems monstrous and unfair and is even harder to watch in light of Robin Williams’ own suicide.

PIX-1-WhatDreamsMayCome_1But visually – well, even now, 20 years on, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen. While the heaven-scapes are vivid and sometimes downright magical, it may be the visions of hell that haunt you. Robin Williams tiptoes through a carpet of faces – anguished people buried up to their necks, barely more than the holes necessary for breathing left exposed. The faces are pale and full of yearning. It’s awful – and it’s really awful when there’s nowhere for him to walk but over them.

Colours can be quite dominant – a blue tree a sad link to Chris’s past, the bright yellow of an eternal sunset, the red flames of hell. What Dreams May Come was one of only a few films shot on Fuji Velvia (RVM) film stock. Velvia is a type of film used most frequently for still photography of landscapes and other subjects because of its very high color saturation. It is only rarely employed for cinematography, usually when special effects are required – and boy were they! But these shocks of colour always mean something, whether in the afterlife, of simply through a flashback.

The “painted world” sequence is glorious. By building upon computer software developed by technical advisor Pierre Jasmin, a team devised a method of applying paint strokes to moving images captured on film so portions of the movie look like a three-dimensional moving painting. There are brush strokes that looks like you could reach out and touch them – and your hands would come away wet if you did. Live-action scenes were turned into living paintings with the optical flow technique, by which you track every single pixel in a moving image – in the end, it amounts to a layering of perhaps 10 different depths onto one image. See below for a comparison, before and after the effect is added to a scene:



This film was both breath-taking and ground-breaking; many of the programs used had to be written specifically for the film. One of the most moving images is of a particular tree that almost serves as a connection between the soul mates, though one is living and the other dead.


Rendered using L-System software, a program for defining the algorithmic development of plants and branching structures, the tree was designed with thousands of branches and 500,000 leaves, all of which are blown off and scattered in the wind. It is spectacular and heart breaking to see.


What Dreams May Come won the 1999 Oscar for Best Visual Effects.