Judge Kerry Birmingham has never ski-jumped, been a cattle auctioneer, or climbed an active volcano, but he did briefly work at a Starbucks. Bring on that volcano!
Three documentary shorts from willfully eccentric, suspiciously reckless filmmaker Werner Herzog cover horrors as diverse as an imminent volcanic eruption, gravity-defying ski-jumpers, and—gasp!—the Amish.
Generally speaking, one doesn't really picture film directors as an adventurous lot. If they were all that interested in getting out there in the world, they wouldn't orchestrate tiny tableaus from a little chair with their name on the back. It's hard to imagine George Lucas, on set, lurching out of his chair, grabbing a lightsaber prop, and showing 'em how it's done. One suspects that, say, Woody Allen, if ever more than a hundred feet outside of Manhattan, drops to the ground and rocks back and forth in the fetal position.
Truly adventurous filmmakers are hard to come by. Werner Herzog is a writer-director of such prestige among the serious film-goer that you forget he is still alive and making films (you too, Ingmar Bergman). Not only this, he makes them often and apparently at great risk to his physical person. And cameraman. And sound guy. This wildly diverse trio of late-70s documentary shorts from Herzog, aside from providing an outlet for Herzog's pathological desire to film…well, anything, proves that no subject is without interest, no hired actor more inscrutable than a common man, and nothing more dangerous than a director left to his own devices. And when said director has made five films with Klaus Kinksi, that's saying quite a lot.
The first feature, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, finds Herzog trailing Swiss ski-jumper and wood sculptor Walter Steiner who, over the course of several increasingly dangerous runs, shatters ski-jump records. Steiner, who seems to treat sculpture and ski-jumping with equal artistic reverence, is an awkward, curmudgeonly man who mumbles his way through most of Herzog's interviews with little charisma. But Herzog's interest in Steiner doesn't lie in his screen presence, but in his capabilities as a ski-jumper. Steiner begins the film as an also-ran athlete, of little consequence to the world of competitive ski-jumping; even Herzog, a vocal enthusiast of the sport, can't seem to get a handle on Steiner, either as a man or as an athlete. The film picks up enthusiasm and momentum once Steiner begins his leaps off of snow-covered ramps. Steiner, caught on film in super-slow motion by Herzog's crew, finally looks free—enrapt in his moment of "great ecstasy"—in mid-air. Mouth agape, his body nearly parallel to his skis, it becomes easier to see what Herzog sees in Steiner. Unlike most sports films, burdened by the pressures of servicing the myth of two outs-bottom of the ninth-bases loaded, this one shows Steiner as a man who does what he does not "for the love of the game," but for a love of what he can achieve through the game. It may lack the immediacy of more traditional sports films, but Steiner landing in the snow, limbs flailing, only to get back up and struggle back to the top of the ramp despite his obvious injuries, is a sight to see.
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, the second feature, is by far the weakest of the three. Herzog travels to the Pennsylvania's Amish country, site of the 1976 World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers, and it's not an altogether auspicious meeting: Herzog, with his heavily accented English, approaches the genial good ol' boys with a trepidation more suitable for first contact with life on Mars. His subjects, a collection of affable auctioneers and spectators, seem to regard him and his comical German accent as if they were being interviewed by Colonel Klink.
Whatever subtext of xenophobia there may or may not be, Herzog spends precious little time examining the whys and wherefores of the auctioneers, their linguistic illumination limited to a few tongue twisters and a few teary-eyed testimonials on how they dreamed of becoming champion cattle auctioneers. Instead, Herzog lets the camera roll on (presumably) every contestant as he takes the podium, rattling off prices on the presented cattle as quickly as bidders in the audience can discreetly bid on them. It's a fascinating process in and of itself, a skill of elocution mixed with a keen sense of observation. The problem comes when Herzog finds the subject more fascinating than does the viewer; indeed, he strings along each auctioneer's demonstration for nearly a half hour of film. The film's subtitle, "Observations on a New Language," implies a certain level of nuance to what we're hearing, but after the first few auctioneers that alleged language devolves into a drone that feels both beside the point and much too blunt about it. By the time the trophies are handed out, there's not a whole lot left to care about, and Herzog leaves his subject drained of all vicarious vigor. It is, however, worth viewing if only to see the parade of hideous '70s haircuts and clothing styles.
La Soufrière, subtitled "Waiting for an Inevitable Catastrophe," finds Herzog and his small crew on the tiny Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on the eve of a volcanic disaster that will destroy the little island in its entirety. Herzog, accompanied by his cameraman and sound man, wanders through the hastily evacuated town at the smoldering volcano's base, down deserted streets overrun with starving, abandoned dogs and past houses left so quickly that TVs are still on. There's something genuinely creepy about the scene, and it's not just the ominous jets of steam coming from the increasingly more volatile volcano. Herzog and company track down the island's last remaining holdout, a man who has stayed behind with his cat to accept the volcano's judgment as if it were God's. God, however, might have to wait: He loses his nerve towards the end and admits that he may want to see his family again if, you know, the filmmakers wanted to take him with them when they go. Inching ever closer to an end mandated by both geology and history (a nearby island met a similarly brutal fate years earlier), the film ends abruptly in a way both appropriate and absurd (it ruins nothing to say that the subtitle should be taken sarcastically).
Picture and sound are both surprisingly decent, given the time period of these films. Aside from the obvious sound and film stock limitations typical of the era, these films can be enjoyed with minimal complaint; the gaudy fashions are more distracting than any minor technical offenses. The sole film not in English is Steiner, which is in German with English subtitles. A booklet containing excerpted interviews with Herzog is the only thing that could be construed as an extra.
Interest in the films will vary depending on your investment in the subject matter. In a collection that includes sports, natural disaster, and, uh, cattle, there's a wide breadth of subjects that will either captivate or bore. As such, this collection is a must only for Herzog completists and fans of short subject documentary (I know you're out there). That New Yorker Films has put these out on the market at all is laudable, continuing its tradition of finding obscure gems in global cinema. Herzog, whatever his foibles as a filmmaker and probable crazy person, has put his distinct cinematic eye on three uncommon phenomena here, and it's always worth following him to see what he'll tackle next.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Booklet with Interview Excerpts
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