Werner Herzog is one of the great masters of cinema. Through work in both his native Germany and his work here in the US, he’s always given us uncompromising genius. His movies are like no others, and his documentary work has actually made him my favorite documentary filmmaker. I recently watched his 2010 doc The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his 2011 Into the Abyss, and re-watched his 2005 doc Grizzly Man.
Much of Herzog’s work centers on obsession of some kind, perhaps none more obviously than Grizzly Man. Timothy Treadwell spent his last 13 summers in the Alaskan Katmai National Park and Preserve “protecting” the grizzly bears that lived there. Treadwell was a moderately successful amateur diver and failed actor who for unknown reasons felt drawn to nature and to this National Park, where he became obsessed with the wildlife there, the bears in particular. Treadwell filmed his last 5 trips into the wild, and Herzog’s film is made from that footage. Herzog provides the narration in that calming voice of his (the only case in which a German accent has ever been comforting), and guides us through interviews with both friends and family, as well as the park service that repeatedly told Treadwell he was doing the bears more harm than good.
Herzog has always had an ability to, to me, seem to evoke the most human emotions in us, while also acknowledging the ambivalence of the universe to our existence. He never makes fun of Treadwell, though it would’ve been immensely easy to do so. He doesn’t share Treadwell’s affection for the bears, instead only seeing murderous hunger in their eyes. However, he lets Treadwell speak for himself, show his own misguidedness, and receive no judgement from Herzog. Instead, Herzog imbues the film with almost the sad resignation of the fact that Treadwell would eventually be eaten by the bears he wanted to “protect.” That footage, rightly, isn’t in the movie. We only get a scene of Herzog listening to the audio tape (the lens cap had been on the camera) of the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend. He tells the owner of the tape not to listen to it, and that it should be destroyed.
It’s not Herzog’s greatest work, but it fits perfectly into the boundless depths of obsession that he has plunged into throughout his career.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an odd movie. It’s about the discovery of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. In this cave were found paintings made somewhere around 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as the oldest previously discovered human paintings. The area is so tightly controlled that Herzog had only a few days, of only a few hours at a time, in which to film. The crew could only be 4 people, with Herzog himself working the lights, which had to give off no heat and run on battery packs the crew wore around their belts. All of this while only being able to walk on a two foot wide platform, because the cave is so delicate that nothing can be risked to be destroyed in any way.
It’s certainly fascinating to see these paintings, almost all of animals ranging from rhinos and bison, to horses and deer. Some were even drawn with 8 legs, as a way to convey movement, “almost a form of proto-cinema” Herzog says. And at only 89 minutes, it’s the shortest Herzog film I’ve seen, but the only one that’s ever had me checking my watch. Sure, it’s awesome seeing things created by humans 32,000 years ago, but there’s not much more to the movie after that. I didn’t feel like Herzog really had an hour and a half of things to say about this subject. It got almost universal critical approval, and it was the highest grossing independent doc of 2011, but it didn’t grab me like the next movie did.
Into the Abyss is the most thought provoking movie I’ve seen from Herzog. He uses the Texas triple murders committed by teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both of whom are in prison (Perry on death row), to study life choices and the ripple effect of how it impacts the people around you. One of the deepest emotionally affecting movies he’s ever made, Herzog interviews victim’s families, officers who worked the cases, Burkett’s father (also in prison, as is his brother, whom we don’t see), and those involved in the prison system. The interview with Michael Perry was 8 days before the then 28-year-old was to be executed, in July of 2010. Herzog makes clear from the start that he’s against capital punishment, but says it only once. He’s not the type of filmmaker to harp on a subject, he lets the film and its subjects speak for themselves.
In the opening scenes, filmed among the unmarked graves of some of those executed by the state of Texas, Herzog talks to the prison minister. When he asks why God would allow the death penalty, the minister doesn’t have an answer. Later, Herzog talks about the execution process with Fred Allen, a former Captain on death row. Allen talks about leading prisoners the ten or so steps from the holding cell, into the execution room, and the protocal for strapping them onto the gurney to be executed. After doing more than 120, by his count, Allen one day couldn’t do it anymore, and at the risk of losing his pension, quit. In my favorite sequence, Allen tells the story of “your dash”, the hyphen on your tombstone between your birth and death, and asks “how do you live your dash? What are you doing with your dash?” It’s the perfect ending note for Herzog’s meditation on life and what we’re all doing with our dashes. Into the Abyss easily fits alongside Herzog’s other masterpieces as a profound work of art from one of the greatest filmmakers in all of cinema.