DVD Review Of Fata Morgana

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/14/08


  Fata Morgana, the 1971 documentary-like film by German filmmaker extraordinaire Werner Herzog, filmed over several years in the late 1960s, is one of those rare DVDs that should be listened to with the commentary turned on. It is a visual feast of North African (mostly Saharan) imagery that is timeless. You simply could not tell that it was made over thirty-five years ago. The soundtrack to the film, including German classical music (Mozart and Handel), and rock music by Blind Faith and Leonard Cohen, also lends its timeless quality. The narration by three different German narrators (German film historian Lotte Eisner, Eugen Des Montagnes, and Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) is solid, and Herzog goes on and on of Eisner’s import to this project, himself, and film history, but the English speaker of the translation, James William Gledhill, has a voice that seems downright deific, which lends itself far more perfectly to this project, even though much of the text- in either language, is rather superfluous. Yes, the faux Biblical sounds of the Popul Vuh Mayan creation myth in the film’s first part, Creation, is interesting, but the text Herzog wrote for the remaining two parts (Paradise and The Golden Age), along with quotes from a German poet Herzog names as Manfred Eigendorf, almost seems a satire of the first part’s somber tone.

  Yet, it is in the commentary track, by interviewer Norman Hill (of the Anchor Bay DVD company which released the DVD) in much of the story of the eerie images that sweep over a viewr. Hill is rather a stolid interviewer, and Glover adds little, but Herzog is the sort of raconteur that can entertain one by talking of anything. In this manner, one can see the affinity he had for a subject like Dieter Dengler, the former Vietnamese POW who was at the center of Herzog’s great 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Herzog explains that the title, literally Morgan Le Fay- the queen of fairies from Arthurian romances, but also meaning mirages cause by temperature inversions, symbolizes many of the images filmed- usually of vehicles moving in the desert that were not there, but reflections from miles away.

  As in the companion film to this, on the flip side of this DVD, Lessons Of Darkness, this film feels almost as if taken from an extraterrestrial’s point of view. Again, like the later film, Fata Morgan is not science fiction, although Herzog tells us that a sci fi screenplay provided the genesis and impetus for this film’s making. Each of the three sections of the film zeroes in closer and closer on the human- from brief scenes to weird scenes of a blind African World War Two French veteran, to an Arab child and his white fennec, to the absurd human structures built hundreds of miles from civilization, that are left to rust in the nothingness, to the remains from the French atomic testing fields of the 1940s. This contrasts sharply with a Dogon village carved into a cliffside, which Herzog rhapsodizes on. By the final section, the absurdity of the human condition is shown when a madam and pimp perform a horrid vaudeville piano and song act as other equally bizarre humans (mostly expatriate Germans) strut by for their moment onstage: a retarded German man; a bizarre turtle lover in the Canary Islands, whose idea of fun is capturing and releasing turtles that swim in his pool; and a man who loves and loathes Saharan monitor lizards.

  The film, it seems was pieced together during the shooting of several other Herzog projects concurrently- the fictive Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the documentaries The Land Of Silence And Darkness and The Flying Doctors Of East Africa, but these projects’ rejected material only add to the beauty of this film, such as aerial scenes of a flamingo mating lake from afar that give one an eerie unearthly sense, one which Herzog crows about in his commentary. This unearthly feel is present right from the film’s start of several airplanes landing on a desert runway, with their images getting successively blurrier as the heat from the ground rises, and increases the distorting waves that mar the images. That this film was influential in the –Quatsi films of Godfrey Reggio is an understatement. But, whereas Reggio is content to just toss images at you, Herzog has an ability that only American filmmaker Terrence Malick also has: to make a wholly self-contained vocabulary out of the juxtaposition of images and words, and one dependent upon an emotion-first thrust. Analysis can fail when brought to such endeavors. Herzog often does not understand even why his art is great. The best he does often is wholly unconscious and mesmeric. This is why his contempt for the Lowest Common Denominator pap of Hollywood is openly stated on the commentary.

  Perhaps the best illustration of this comes in a scene that, on the commentary, Herzog tells us followed a severe drought in Cameroon. It shows the jerkied carcasses of cattle, and Herzog describes the unbearable stench. Yet, the viewer can sense this all from the images, the blackness of the sun dried portions of animals, and the blanched bones. Yet, even in that commentary, Herzog focuses on the stench, not any deeper meaning. He is content to let you imbue and interpret what you will into and of his work, such as the almost erotically feminized shapes of sand dunes, which recalls a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf, where Max Von Sydow, runs his hand over Ingrid Thulin’s beautiful nude body’s curves. But, the archetypal image in this film, which symbolizes much of Herzog’s career, is of a mirage of a faraway car driving back and forth on the surface of what appears to be a lake. It is deep, hypnotic, illusive, elusive, supernatural, yet real, just as Herzog, the believer who came from a family of militant atheists, is. But, then, like everything else, it ends.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]


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