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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light Review–Werner Herzog


I saw Nostalgia for the Light yesterday – a film about astronomy, memory, the ‘disappeared’ in Chile, and the Atacama desert. While some of the connections seemed a bit contrived (the desert was the place where the bodies of the disappeared were buried and where the 30 year search for remains was continuing; where giant radio telescopes were located because of the transparent air; and where archeologists were searching for their own remains of the past), each of the pieces was extraordinary in their own right.

The astronomical color images, recreated from the digital imagery of the radio telescopes were fantastic; the images of the vast and completely dry Atacama desert (it is the only place on earth when seen from space that it completely brown because it has not even 1 degree of humidity) were stunning; and the interviews with the Women of the Disappeared were moving.  The women who have been combing the desert – this vast, empty, and featureless place – with sand pail and shovel, picking up shards of bone, told their story of commitment, memory, and longing with great empathy.  All in all, it was an excellent movie.

I was struck by similarities to the films of Werner Herzog.  His Lessons of Darkness has the same reverence for man-made objects, without regard to meaning.  The opening shot in Nostalgia is of an old German 19th Century telescope, the first placed in the desert.  It takes many minutes before you can know what the object is as the camera slowly pans over dollies, wheels, gears, and finally the long, black shaft pointing out to the open sky.  Subsequent shots of the modern radio telescopes opening and closing are similar.  Herzog in Lessons does the same thing.  He flies slowly over the Iraqi desert just after the first Gulf War filming the wrecks of tanks, armaments, and vehicles, seeing them as works of art – the twisted and scorched metal, chemical pools of brilliant green and blue, detritus of armed columns, littered in the vast desert was a respectful of history and of the beauty of the objects themselves.   Herzog’s shots of the oil wells still spewing oil or on fire, were unforgettable, especially those of men working to control them – a ballet within a hellish scene.

Herzog and Director Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia) both have an appreciation of the importance of nature as an integral part of the story – any story.  Nature is never just background or setting for Herzog; but an actor or character in the films. Encounters at the End of the World is probably the closest example, for his shots of Antarctic ice and water are very much like Guzman’s shots of the desert.   Another film where nature is even more an active character is Nosferatu.  The brooding scenes of the Transylvanian forests and mountains as Harter makes his way up to Dracula’s castle have a frightening life to them, and a dark beauty.  Herzog lingers for far more time on a scene of nature than any director – in interviews he talks about this idiosyncracy.  There are other scenes from Nosferatu where this is noted, especially the scene where Harter is walking with Isabelle Adjani on the beach before he leaves for the Castle.  Perhaps the best example are the opening shots of Heart of Glass where the rolling fog in off the mountains are supposed to have a hypnotic effect on the viewer and a theme for the entire movie (he hypnotized all but one actor in the movie – the visionary).

Another similarity between Nostalgia and the work of Herzog is both directors’ use of prolonged close-ups of people.  Herzog made it a point of staying with a close-up longer than any other directors (especially in his documentaries), but Guzman more.  In the shot of one young Chilean survivor’s grandparents, the camera stays on them for at least two full minutes where the narration goes on.

Another similarity between the two directors is their interest in eccentric people.  Herzog in White Diamond and Grizzly Man shows to obsessive, eccentric, but attractive people.  The first is about an inventor who wants to build lighter-than-air ships, and to fly them over Iguassu Falls.  The second, more well known, is about a man who wants to live with grizzlies.  Guzman in Nostalgia shows Chilean women who after almost forty years have not given up their search for the remains of the disappeared.  The way they do this – sifting with beach pail, shovel, and rake makes in the vastness of the desert – and the impossibility of finding remains, shows their obsession; but also shows something noble about them, and the director captures this.

In any case, Nostalgia is worth seeing, and even more is anything by Werner Herzog (with the last five years excepted.  He has a new film out which I will see, but I no longer go with great anticipation  His film with Christian Bale as a POW was derivative and predictable).  At least in his early films, I  don’t know of a director who puts more of himself in his work.  His visions and obsession with completion of it are legendary.  He actually hauled a steamer over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo.

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