New Yorker Films // 1984 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 22nd, 2008
Werner Herzog's tremendous talent unites short films covering mountain climbing, child soldiers, and surreal comedy.
No one I can think of has treated obsession so successfully in the cinema as Werner Herzog. Hitchcock comes to mind, but he confined his obsessive portraits to fiction, whereas Herzog has documented this sort of behavior from both sides of the fiction divide. New Yorker Films has released another set of three short films by Herzog, and they show the lengths to which the director will go to gain footage of his subject while also showcasing his surreal sense of humor.
The disc opens with the strongest of the films, The Dark Glow of the Mountains. The film follows famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner and his companion as they free-climb two peaks more than eight thousand meters tall (the eleventh and thirteenth highest peaks in the world) in the Kashmir region without stopping. For those not familiar with mountain climbing, this is a tremendous feat. Both of the those mountains top out at over five miles high, and it's a significant achievement to climb one of them in a trip, let alone two without returning to base camp. Also, keep in mind that these two were alone, free-climbing without ropes to help them up these forbidding rock faces. This film was made as a documentary for TV, but unlike many television shows which would attempt to document the pair's journey through the mountains, Herzog uses the occasion to investigate what forces drive Messner and his colleague to endanger themselves simply to say that they've climbed both of these peaks. The answers Herzog receives are not the most enlightening, but the film still paints an effective portrait of Messner's obsession. Because of Herzog's focus, we don't see much of the actual climb. In fact, one of the most affecting scenes in the film features a stationary camera watching the pair (as small black dots) make their initial ascent up the first mountain. Although a 45-minute film about a mountain climber that doesn't feature much mountain climbing sounds like it might be boring, the film's running time almost seems too short by the end. My only complaint about the film is that instead of hearing Herzog and Messner's replies in German with English subtitles, we get English voice translation over all the speakers.
The next film, The Ballad of the Little Soldier, was also filmed for television. In this documentary, Herzog and crew travel to Nicaragua to see the effect of the Sandinista government on the Miskito Indians. Roughly the first half of the film documents the deprivation experience by the Miskito at the hands of the oppressive regime (note to the squeamish, part of this documentation includes footage of natives butchering turtles for food. It's a bit bloody and Herzog doesn't pull away from the gore), while the second half focuses on the young (10-12 years old) soldiers that make up some of their guerilla units. It's amazing as a camera crew follows a group of commandos on a raid to destroy some enemy supplies. The group is discovered and fired upon, but Herzog and crew remain surprisingly calm, going so far as to say they felt "safe" because no one would dare follow the troops into the jungle. This film doesn't succeed quite as well as The Dark Glow of the Mountains, primarily because it lacks a clear focus. The first half would make an excellent documentary on the Miskito, and the second half does a good job of documenting the child soldiers, but the two halves don't add up to a very effective whole. Unlike the previous film, Ballad of the Little Soldier features Herzog's own narration, in English for the film. There's something about his voice and the cadence of his speech that I find very comforting, so it was nice to have his voice instead of a translator.
Precautions Against Fanatics doesn't seem to fit with the previous films at all. But that's okay, because there aren't many films that Precautions Against Fanatics would fit in with. The film is a surreal little excursion into Herzog's sense of humor. The 11-minute film takes place primarily at a race track, while various people try to describe what they do to help the horses, which include everything from standing in front of the pens to walking around a tree to guarding a fence. Although I found it funny, I had the sense that I was missing something, and the DVD box mentions something about German celebrities, so I can only assume that some of the actors are famous people. In any event, the short is bizarre enough to stand on its own without cultural reference and would be appreciated by fans of strange comedy.
These films look good, but not great. Both Dark Glow and Ballad look pretty good, even though they are obviously constrained by their TV production budgets. Precautions looks to have been taken from a beat-up print, but the film is still watchable. There are no extras included, which is a little disappointing since I'd love to hear what Herzog has to say about these films now, but considering the small appeal of this collection the lack of extras isn't surprising.
As usual, Werner Herzog is not guilty, but this set is almost certainly better rented than purchased, even for Herzog fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: The Dark Glow of the Mountains
* IMDb: Ballad of the Little Soldier
* IMDb: Precautions Against Fanatics