After watching this film, Judge Jesse Ataide has been forced to reevaluate his desire to visit the Greek isles.
"You may think that music is not fitting for this place. It's different—malicious."—the Pianist (Florian Fricke)
By all indications, Signs of Life is a war film. It's set during WWII, the action revolves around three Nazi soldiers, and most of the film involves them carrying out their military duties on the remote Greek island of Kos.
Yet somehow, the debut film of master German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) defies easy categorization. In Signs of Life Herzog has crafted a unique film about the spaces that we inhabit, the way they shape who we are, and perhaps more importantly, the way they define how we perceive ourselves as human beings.
Facts of the Case
Stroszak (Peter Brogle), has been sent to Kos to recover from war wounds he has received, and is later joined by two comrades, Meinhard and Becker, as well as Nora, the beautiful Greek woman who served as his nurse and is now his wife. Together they are employed to guard an ancient Greek fortress perched on the island, despite the fact there is nothing to protect it from. As a result, the four are forced to indulge in menial tasks to pass the time, though they end up sitting around most of the time, doing nothing in particular.
Stroszak's physical recovery ends up being a quick one. But soon Meinhard, Becker and Nora begin to realize that the blinding Greek sun and the endless solitude may be having an unwanted affect on Stoszak's mental health…
Though it is often compared with Kubrick's The Shining, Werner Herzog's debut film actually reminded me more of the first feature-length film of another Eastern European director: Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water. Both films are preoccupied with the environment their characters inhabit, and in both cases the enormity and bleakness of the spaces they interact in become overwhelming and oppressive to the point it subverts the character's behavior beyond recognition.
While Polanski primarily explores this in his film through endless expanses of water and sky, Herzog makes his examination even more abstract, attempting to analyze his characters through the ancient, arid spaces they live and interact in. Most of the film is constructed by sequences that bear very little connection to each other in a chronological sense. Rather, they are a series of individual scenes that reveal the characters' complex relationship with their environment. Herzog is very deliberate in this sense: many of the shots display human bodies dwarfed or engulfed by massive walls of crumbling white stones. This transforms Kos's ancient fortress into another character in the film—a subtle, unseen force that isolates Stroszak to the point where it threatens to overwhelm him both mentally and emotionally.
Herzog is so obsessed with the environment that there is a point where it completely replaces the characters (a tactic Michelangelo Antonioni had previously employed earlier in the decade in his masterpiece L'Eclisse), with only a monotone voice-over remaining to reference them and wrap up the story's explosive, highly-charged conclusion. It's a disorienting, almost frightening displacement—a reminder of how insignificant humans really are, even within the context of their own stories.
New Yorker Video presents Signs of Life in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and according to other sources, this DVD presents a transfer that is dramatically superior to the VHS version that has previously been available. The image isn't perfect—there are occasional blurs, blemishes and other defects—but overall the black and white image is sharp and clear, which thankfully does the film's spare cinematography justice. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is likewise fine, and English subtitles are provided as well.
Several extras are included on this disc, the most important one being the feature-length commentary by Herzog and Norman Hill. Herzog's analysis is insightful and illuminating in both a general and specific sense: he comments upon individual scenes as much as does filling in background and biographical details, often with a warm, witty sense of humor. My favorite moment occurs towards the end of the film when Hill tries to compare Signs of Life with Peter Bogdanovich's similarly-themed Targets, to which Herzog wryly replies "it's a very stupid film, I don't like to compare [Signs of Life] to that one," effectively halting that line of conversation. The only other extra is the requisite theatrical trailer.
Signs of Life is a beautifully austere little film, almost intoxicating in its simplicity—it really gets to you by the end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Commentary with Werner Herzog and Norman Hill
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