DVD Review Of Signs Of Life

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/6/07


  No filmmaker’s career has been more defined and structured by the musical choices he has made than German film director Werner Herzog; and this claim is evident from his first full length feature, 1968’s Signs Of Life (Lebenszeichen), which he made when he was twenty-four and released when he was twenty-five, after writing the script when he was twenty-one, but getting the idea for it, he claims, when he was fifteen or sixteen. Oddly, the film also gives a story credit to someone named Achim Von Arnim. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary film, not because it is so technically brilliant, but because it espouses such a mature artistic touch. A good counterpoint to this film would be Martin Scorsese’s debut film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Scorsese’s film shows much talent, but it is the art of a young man, whose protagonist is suffering the angsts that all young men go through. By contrast, the hero of Herzog’s debut film is suffering from something far deeper and more profound, the sort of psychospiritual ravages that beset one in a midlife crisis. Yet, it’s not merely the crisis that the film’s protagonist suffers through, but how it is represented that show why Herzog would become the most daring, if not also the greatest, filmmaker of the last forty years.

  The film is very spare, in its dialogue, its visuals, its music, but like a Beckett play gone straight, this only heightens the attention needed to the smallest of details. And this is where the emotive brilliance of the Greek string music, as evocative as the zither used in The Third Man, comes in, even as it counterpoints against the images the film unleashes. The film starts with a voiceover narration which runs through the whole film. A wounded Wehrmacht soldier and parachutist named Stroszek (Peter Brogle)- with no connection to the lead character of Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek, is wounded in a Nazi attack on Greece during the Second World War, and is recovering on the remote Aegean Island of Kos, where the horrors of World War Two have yet to reach, and only sixty German soldiers are needed to keep the sedentary locals in line. There, he is given light duty guarding an ancient fortress and ammunition dump with two other soldiers: thin intellectual Becker (Wolfgang Von Ungern-Sternberg) and older, heavy and balding Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann). He is also given permission to marry one of the local Greek girls, Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou)- who is trying to learn German. Together, the quartet’s greatest battle is against boredom in the enervating dry, hot, and craggy landscape. Becker is obsessed with decoding the ancient tablets with Greek writing on them, while the dimmer Meinhard obsesses over the vermin, specifically cockroaches, he is disgusted by. He tries devising elaborate Rube Goldbergian traps for the insects.

  The married couple cavort and show affection in assorted ways, but Stroszek is clearly not all there. In modern terms, he would be described as suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, for the first two thirds of the film he is able to keep his ills in check, despite the mounting ennui. Meinhard, on the other hand, is clearly not all there, but on a much more obvious plane. He distrusts a claimed Gypsy King (Julio Pinheiro) from Portugal that they encounter, but is fascinated by the man’s life and tricks, including a small wooden owl whose ears and eyes move. Meinhard cannot figure out how such a small device works until he opens it up and sees the Gypsy has trapped several flies within, and it is their movement which powers the toy. This discovery sickens Meinhard. Herzog balances the humans’ dull routines by focusing on little synchronicities, such as fish that swim in circles, or the patterns of humans in the small island town. This is a very important aspect of the film for most artists are incapable of depicting boredom without making boring art. Herzog shows that boredom can be captured in very intriguing and riveting ways.

  All of the islanders- German and Greek, it turns out, are in one way or another, touched by Stroszek, so that when he goes mad- not long after an encounter with a pianist (longtime Herzog musical collaborator Florian Fricke) who tells him of Chopin’s madness, locks himself in the garrison, and threatens to explode it, the Nazi commanders do not simply overwhelm him. Stroszek feels his buddies have betrayed him by snitching on the fact that he shot wantonly at some of the local windmills- which seemed endless and almost oneiric, in a valley, whilst bored on an assignment guarding some mountain ridges. For several days, Stroszek holds the rest of the soldiers off, merely ranting from afar (the camera never gets another close up of him after his insanity, as the real star and antagonist of the film- the barren island- moves to the fore of the film) and setting off fireworks, a bit of absurdity which only kills a local donkey. Eventually, he is subdued, and the film’s narrator tells us that Stroszek was carted off and treated. We do not see this, only the image, from the back of a vehicle driving down a dusty road on the island, as mournful Greek music plays. Stroszek, in his insanity, seems to be the only person on the island who still values beauty and the richer aspects of life, even as the narrator tells us that, ‘like all others before him he has totally failed.’

  The DVD, put out by New Yorker Video, comes with the original German theatrical trailer and a film commentary by Herzog, and moderated by Norman Hill, from Anchor Bay DVDs. The 86 minute long film is not dubbed into English, and only has subtitles, in white, which occasionally wash out against the harsh whitened black and white landscapes the film presents. The original film also has German subtitles over some of the spoken Greek, and is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is good, nut there are occasional blemishes. The spare cinematography by Herzog’s cinematographer Thomas Mauch, is terrific, and manifestly influenced by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially L’Avventura, also filmed in the Mediterranean. The commentary by Herzog, one of the best DVD commenters around, is one of his very best, as he not only expounds on the provenance of the film and its images, but on many of his artistic views. In it, he mentions his childhood, his legendary pre-filmic past, and two of the short films he made before this one: Last Words and The Unprecedented Defense Of The Fortress Deutschkreuz- which was sort of a prequel to Signs Of Life. He also claims this film was made with only a $20,000 budget, after winning a German screenwriting award, and that he did it with a stolen 35mm film camera. Herzog also claims the reason he gave this film’s lead character, as well his later film’s lead, the name Stroszek was because that was the name of a classmate in college who did some assignments for him, and naming the characters after him was payback.

  The reasons why Signs Of Life succeeds are manifold, but chief among them is that, even at an early age, Herzog presents the German soldiers as men, not rabid Nazi ideologues. All three were likely conscripted against their will, and seem to long for nothing more than the end of the war. Also, the black and white film captures many of the moments of reality that happen, which later films would capitalize on, and make a Herzogian trademark, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small. Yet, the film is still relevant because it blends music and imagery in ways very few films ever had, and backs up the later claim that Herzog made, that he’s never made an error in musical selection for a film. Signs Of Life is the first proof of that claim, but thankfully not the last. Here’s hoping that is one note whose resonance does not fade for a very long time.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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