GFF's Best Fiend: Werner Herzog

The CineSkinny profiles filmmaking genius Werner Herzog, whose new documentary, Into the Abyss, plays at the festival

Preview by Helen Wright | 23 Feb 2012

In Land of Silence and Darkness, Fini Straubinger makes her first ever journey on a plane, a birthday gift from Werner Herzog, who’s making a documentary about her life. She’s deaf and blind and the unfamiliar motion of flight causes her to break out smiling, a rare moment of genuine euphoria captured on camera. This might be what Herzog means when he says he’s searching in cinema for an ecstatic truth, something mysterious and elusive that can only be reached by an exacting mixture of imagination and technique.

Herzog was fourteen when he decided he was going to be a filmmaker. At nineteen, he travelled from Egypt to Sudan on foot, getting sick with fever and narrowly escaping death. A few years later, he worked smuggling goods across the Mexican border after having to leave the US for visa violation. Herzog’s fifty plus films seem to have a dissatisfaction with western civilisation at their centre, something mirrored in his life story. He’s filmed all over the world. The Saharan desert is the backdrop for his psychedelic images of mirages in Fata Morgana. In Wings of Hope, he brought Juliane Koepcke back to the Peruvian jungle where she’d survived a plane crash as a child. Rescue Dawn, based on a true story about a pilot shot down during the Vietnam War, saw Christian Bale tramping through Thai forests and eating raw snakes for authenticity.

Back home in Germany, the director’s work has focused on the marginalised, the outsider. He lifted Bruno S. off the streets to play Kaspar Hauser, about a man who’s grown up devoid of human contact. In Stroszek, the ill-fated actor returned as himself, a street performer who’s spent his life in and out of institutions, bullied and abused. Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu is eerily amoral, with vampire and victims equally sad and hopeless, culture and progress rolling over as soon as the monster bares his fangs.

It makes sense that the Bavarian should end up making films in America, probing the surfaces of Western grandeur from the inside. Into the Abyss comprises interviews with two men convicted of homicide in Texas. One of them, Michael Perry, is on death row. The film doesn’t focus on his guilt or innocence but simply allows him to talk. Just like when he recorded Straubinger, Herzog wants to show us people at the edges of society and find out what they can tell us about its core.

Into the Abyss screens 24 Feb as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2012 and opens nationwide 30 Mar