Filming at the edge of Earth

Werner Herzog is relentless. Once during an interview he was shot with an air rifle, paused, told the reporter “it was not a significant bullet,” and continued the interview while blood oozed from his stomach.

Werner Herzog is relentless.

Once during an interview he was shot with an air rifle, paused, told the reporter “it was not a significant bullet,” and continued the interview while blood oozed from his stomach.

For those uninitiated with the German auteur’s films, this might be the best anecdotal introduction to his endless and impressive filmography. Herzog is an unyielding artist who makes films in difficult situations and on his own terms. His work is like no other. His name belongs among the greats: Kar-wai, Lynch, Scorsese and anyone else on the short list for the best living director.

Sometimes his films are thought-provoking, tragic documentaries like Grizzly Man (a man’s quest to be accepted into the world of bears) or they are unbelievably great features like Stroszek (an Austrian’s quest for the American dream). Herzog offers something for everyone. For the next few weeks the Northwest Film Center will be playing 15 of Herzog’s films–just a small sample of Herzog’s significant body of work.

Lessons in Darkness

In interviews, Herzog has spoken of his concept “the ecstatic truth.” His theory is cinema verite (the cinema of truth)–a type of filmmaking that employs naturalistic techniques. He also insists that pure documentaries are not necessarily a path to truth.

“Facts do not create truth. They create norms, but they do not create illumination,” he said. And so his “documentaries” take a different approach to his subjects.

Lessons in Darkness is an example of eschewing standard methods.

The 1992 film is set in post-Gulf War Kuwait. On the verge of defeat, the armies of Iraq set fire to their enemy’s oil fields during their retreat. These fires burned for seven months after the war ended, and Herzog and cinematographer Paul Berriff arrived a month before the fires were extinguished to capture images of the war-wrecked desert terrain. They captured helicopter-height scenes of oil lakes, blown-up cargo and a vast, empty desert.

But the footage isn’t employed like in a standard documentary.

The film begins with a shot of an oil well spewing a fountain of fire. Between the camera and the flames stand two men in fire suits. One beckons the cameraman to come toward him. Herzog’s soothing voice (he acts as the narrator for most of his documentaries) begins, explaining that these people are mysterious creatures. Obviously, we have left the arena of documentary and into a fish-out-of-water observatory narrative that points out the absurdity of man’s love for fire.

What most directors would assemble into a standard antiwar chronicle, Herzog morphs into a cautionary science-fiction tale. And it’s hard to argue with Herzog’s truth.

Encounters at the End of the World

Penguins have been getting a lot of press lately.

Herzog, sent to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation, isn’t too interested in the cute little birds. In the movie’s narration, he orates the different questions he has about nature. For instance: Why do people wear masks and feathers? Why do ants keep flocks of plant lice as slaves? And (most importantly?) why do monkeys not ride goats as we do horses?

Although none of these questions are answered in Encounters, Herzog does take us on a stream-of-consciousness journey through life on the planet’s southern-most continent.

Encounters is less a standard nature documentary and more about the people who choose to live near the South Pole.

Among them are geologists, plumbers and, despite Herzog’s supposed disinterest in them, a solitary penguin expert who tells the camera that sometimes a female penguin will prostitute herself out for a rock. Herzog uses these disparate interviews to go on philosophical whims.

Other penguins leave their flock and go on a lonely sojourn toward the rising mountains for no reason in particular. Even if someone captures the penguin and brings it back to the sea, it will just go back toward the mountain to its certain death.

This sentiment perfectly encapsulates Werner Herzog.

A Quest for the Sublime: The films of Werner Herzog

All screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium (1219 S.W. Park Ave.)

Encounters at the End of the World 7 p.m., tonight

Fitzcarraldo 7 p.m., Saturday, May 3

Lessons in DarknessThe Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner 7 p.m., Sunday, May 4