Werner Herzog Season – Fata Morgana (1971)
Well this has been a while coming but we’re finally taken our first hesitant steps on a long and strange journey. I announced my Herzog season an almost a month ago but have been distracted with the twin impulses of seeing as much Oscar nominated material before the ceremony whilst balancing the glut of new releases, with 11 screenings under my belt already I think you can forgive me for something of a tardy beginning. For new attendees my intention to work through the wonderful BFI Box Set from last year and cover as much as I can of the great man’s work, while catching what I can on the big screen alongside any side material that might crop up – a new film has just screened at Berlin for example. I’m not going to dwell on the shorts included on the first disk which I mostly dismiss as a budding filmmaker finding his craft, I’m sure true Werner acolytes can find more to say about Last Words or Precautions Against Fanatics than I can possibly muster other than noting the usual presence of eccentrics, a nebulous nature, and a curious eye for exotica. No, let us turn our attention to the first film Fata Morgana which was shot in the Sahara desert in 1968, one of Herzog’s mood piece which burns with a solar, hungry intensity;
I’ll be keeping this short and sweet as I don’t have a huge amount to divulge on these travelogue pieces, their beauty firmly rests in the eye of the beholder as they are cinematic ‘atmospheres’ (if I can put it that way), carvings in time where the imagery and music provide the infrastructure for an audience to bring any personal ‘meaning’ to the tale. As with many of his non-fiction films the footage of our planet through Herzog’s viewfinder appears as an alien world, mysterious, implacable and seemingly bereft of human intervention, with just the mildest traces of our fragile civilization gnawing at the edges. It has a strange 1:33 aspect ratio as I’d expect as widescreen a frame as possible to capture the seething veldt, I guess given ultra low-budget restrictions its remarkable he finished and got it released two years after shooting concluded. The slow horizontal pans across the Serengeti to the strains of Leonard Cohen are quite something, some of the match cuts display a continuity and genuine intellect behind the compositions and arrangements, with Herzog’s usual fascination with indigenous people’s cultures and practices away from the comfortable First World receiving an early appreciation. The great German film critic Lotte Eisner recites text written by Herzog that was in turn inspired by the Mayan creation myth, Fata Morgana is a mirage of mystery, with the images of those endless undulating golden sands stretching on to eternity left lingering in the mind.
One of the real cinephile curios is the commentary track for this featuring not just Herzog but none other than Crispin Glover in attendance, I haven’t listened to that yet but I imagine that is quite a combination. So next up we’ll move hesitantly into the jungle of the 1970’s with an early masterpiece that is incidentally screening at the BFI, a fine opportunity to add a 35mm screening to the roster. Hopefully I’ll find more time to devote to this strand once the Oscar project is out-of-the-way at the end of the month.