Plenty of notable filmmakers have crossed over from fiction to documentary, or vice versa. Some — Scorsese, Varda, Demme — could even make a legitimate claim of being bi, having moved back and forth between the two for their entire careers. Only Werner Herzog, however, has amassed a truly legendary filmography in both disciplines; you could eliminate either half of his output, and his place in the pantheon would remain secure.
“The Ecstatic Truths of Werner Herzog,” running April 1-8 at Cinefamily, focuses on his nonfiction work from the early '70s through the early '90s, a period when he was still primarily known for such narrative features as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Shot in practically every corner of the globe, all that these dozen movies have in common is Herzog's insatiable curiosity.
Well, that and his gloriously Teutonic narration, which often threatens to make him the central figure of his documentaries even though he makes only fleeting appearances on camera. In recent years, the Herzog voice-over has become an object of loving parody — one YouTube video offers an imitation of him reading Curious George — but in the rare instances when he clams up, the movies suffer for it. Echoes From a Somber Empire (1990), which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he talks to relatives and rivals of African dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, takes on its interlocutor's unfailingly polite reserve to the point where the film nearly flatlines; its final shot of a chimp smoking a cigarette feels like a random reminder of Herzog's penchant for the blandly bizarre. Likewise, Jag Mandir (1991), a proscenium-bound record of an Indian cultural festival, fascinates only by virtue of the performers' elaborate costumes and outré routines, coming across exactly like the work-for-hire that it apparently was.
But when Herzog really means it, nothing compares. “We were able to film without anxiety for several hours,” he intones in La Soufrière (1977), shot at life-threatening distance from a volcano due to erupt, “but as we turned back, our cameraman, Ed Lachman, discovered he had left his spectacles behind. We decided to pick them up the next day if the mountain still existed by then.” That dry acceptance of imminent doom exemplifies Herzog's unique sensibility, and La Soufrière is one of several films in the series, which finds him depicting Earth as if it were an entirely alien landscape. Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) barely contextualizes the titular nomadic tribe, simply observing with quiet awe their mating ritual, in which the men, not the women, paint their faces and go on display, their manic wide-eyed grins (Wodaabe gals are heavy into teeth and eyeballs) resembling the Joker's. And 1971's Fata Morgana, which consists largely of tracking shots depicting hovels and animal carcasses, set to early Leonard Cohen songs, is pure poetic desolation.
The culmination of this pseudo-sci-fi approach to the documentary form is Lessons of Darkness (1992), an appallingly beautiful portrait of burning Kuwaiti oil fields, which hardly mentions the Gulf War and looks with anthropological bemusement upon the Americans struggling to douse the flames. (“The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something with us,” says Herzog of a dude in a hard hat who's making ominous neck-slashing gestures at the lens.) Helicopter shots of billowing smoke, accompanied by Mahler, Verdi and Wagner, acknowledge the breathtaking majesty of destruction without tempering your sorrow or anger in the least. Oddly, Herzog's ironic detachment from the political import of his images only makes the film seem more passionately despondent.
Like all of his best work, both fiction and nonfiction, it's an arresting amalgam of exterior and interior, of the natural world and Herzog's own singular worldview. They're all testaments.
THE ECSTATIC TRUTHS OF WERNER HERZOG | April 1-8 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org