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Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog

by Eric Ames
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012
336 pp., illus. 50 b/w.  Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN 978-0-8166-7763-4; ISBN: 978-0-8166-7764-1.

Reviewed by Nameera Ahmed


For those familiar with the documentary films of Werner Herzog, the title of Eric Ames’ book, Ferocious Reality, may point towards Herzog’s vision of a merciless nature, but at the same time as the author informs us, it comes from an essay by Amos Vogel on the taboo of showing death on film. The book addresses Herzog’s ‘anti-romantic vision of nature’ and its cruelty, which ultimately culminates in inescapable death.

This view of Herzog is emphasized in his autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog (1986). Describing a painting from the German Romantic period, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, Herzog says, “… man is alone, small, insignificant in the vast landscape. The landscape isn’t just a backdrop, it is like an inner landscape representing the soul’s condition.” Man against landscape also becomes symbolic of the physical scale of their relationship to each other; and behind the vision of nature’s vast glorious landscapes lies the hidden truth of man’s insignificance against them. Through his films, Herzog wants to leave his mark on the landscape and proof of his struggle with it.

Thus, rather than observing reality from a distance as it plays itself out, Herzog jumps right into it, wrestling, wrangling, and as he himself professes, maneuvering it. This manipulation of reality by Herzog is an inherent part of the cinematic forms he experiments with and deliberately seeks to invent. Thus, he blatantly speaks against Cinema Verité, as he does in his manifesto The Minnesota Declaration. Cinema Verité according to him is “…devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” According to Herzog “there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth”. As Eric Ames points out, Herzog’s aversion to Cinema Verité may be one of the reasons he has not been given much deliberation in the discourse on the documentary form (except for a few recent publications) by its scholars.

Thus the book opens with the Minnesota Declaration, Herzog’s manifesto that he first presented in front of an audience in the form of a performance in 1999. The performative and participatory nature of Herzog’s documentary films has put Herzog in another league of documentarians where the filmmaker himself poses as performer. His signature voiceover narrations have a ‘vocal presence,’ as Ames puts it, and become another tool for performing his documentaries.

Besides performance, Ames talks about recurring themes in Herzog’s films and life: moving landscapes, sensational bodies and ecstatic journeys. When Herzog refers to film as “physical”, he refers to both the physically daunting task of making his own films as a traveling filmmaker and also the subjects of his films, which usually have a physical element, of ‘moving landscapes’. These, as Ames points out, have at the same time ‘an insistently inward movement’.

The reflexive nature of Herzog’s films always questions the divide between fiction and non-fiction, by bringing in the ‘inauthentic’ and ‘put-on’ elements of fiction into non-fiction, just as his fiction films have elements of non-fiction. His films dilute the divide between the two with much dexterity. Ames mentions Herzog’s comparison of an animal documentary playing on television one night and the hardcore porno film that he switched to out of boredom; he found the latter had “real naked truth” as compared to the former, which inspired him to write his manifesto. His films also prioritize forms of embodied knowledge, of the self and other, the ‘sensational bodies’, and the questions they raise about the body of the viewer, the viewed and the ‘merciless gaze’ of the camera. This interest in bodies and the physical culminates again in an inevitable encounter with death. The experience of the chill of returning from the jaws of death is what excites Herzog, an interest in the representation of actual death, as also seen in his film Grizzly Man (2005), a film the book’s title makes a direct reference to.

Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog gives quite an in-depth analysis of a wide range of the documentary films of Werner Herzog, and through them discusses his approach to documentary cinema. Ultimately, it is about a documentary rebel, Werner Herzog, who never confines himself to the established norms of the documentary tradition. Rather, he has challenged it with each of his films for more than four decades of his career. Eric Ames addresses the need to understand documentary through Werner Herzog, and through him, opens up new platforms and doors for the continually evolving journey of documentary cinema.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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