Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the 18th-century Hasidic master, once told the following story: A king one day summoned his counselor. “I have read in the stars,” he said, “that all who eat of the next harvest will be driven mad. What shall we do?” To which the counselor advised that he and the king should eat the previous year’s dwindling reserves and let the populace eat the tainted food. “I don’t wish to remain lucid in the midst of a people gone mad,” replied the king, “so we shall all enter madness together. When the world is in a state of delirium it is senseless to watch from the outside: the mad will think that we, too, are mad.” Yet the king also desired to keep alive the memory of his decision and of his former state. Putting his arm around his friend’s shoulder, he said: “You and I shall therefore mark each other’s forehead with a seal, and every time we look at one another, we shall know that we are mad.”
“Make my tales into prayers,” was one of Rabbi Nachman’s last wishes. And perhaps no contemporary filmmaker has so devotedly and rapturously made these kinds of tales into movies than the 34-year-old German director Werner Herzog, whose cinematic depiction of the autistic, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, ski jumpers, dwarfs and midgets, and inspired and deranged prophets remind us of the deeply longed for and remembered state of cosmic sanity and unity betokened and embodied by those who, living on the brink of experience, reveal to us the seals of our own madness.
Throughout Europe, Herzog’s films are considered to be visionary masterpieces (Aguirre, The Wrath of God played in Paris for 18 months). But in the United States his movies — in spite of the support of a director like Francis Ford Coppola, an actor like Jack Nicholson, film critics like Amos Vogel, Manny Farber and Jack Kroll, and admirers like the New York Film Festival’s Richard Roud and Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley — either show up infrequently or else open and close almost as quickly as it takes moviegoers to wait in line for the latest addled Hollywood flummery. (San Francisco is the one city in this country where it appears that Kaspar Hauser has developed a considerable theatrical following.)
Herzog, of course, is not the only young German filmmaker whose works remain relatively unknown in this country. And it is interesting to point out that after a creative void in German cinema for 30 years, the most vital and innovative areas of contemporary moviemaking are currently being explored and developed by a remarkable group of directors including Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondroff, Werner Schroeter, Jean-Marie Straub, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder who, along with Herzog, is one of the most fascinating filmmakers in the world today. But just as the techniques, styles and concerns of older German masters such as Pabst, Murnau and Lang differed from each other, so too those of the practitioners of the new German cinema.
Unlike the other important members of this multifaceted group, Werner Herzog shares less of an affinity with the political aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht and the German New Left than with the mystical tradition of Master Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, as well as of the Märchen, or supernatural fairy tale, tradition of the German Romantic poet Novalis. Like Herzog, Novalis was especially interested in the idea of the artist as magical synthesizer whose “eye stirs with the desire to become a true eye, a creative instrument,” and whose ultimate aim—like the Gnostic-influenced Boehme—is that of perceiving and reaching out for our true home. As Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser says: “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a terrible fall.”
Signs of life, Herzog’s first feature made when he was 24, is about a wounded German officer stationed on Crete during World War II who goes mad in a valley of windmills; Fata Morgana, the director’s most abstract film, was shot almost entirely in the Sahara Desert and is divided into three sections (“The Creation,” “Paradise,” “The Golden Age”), presenting a few isolated human beings surrounded by sand and sky and the mirages created by their union; Even Dwarfs Started Small features a cast of both midgets and dwarfs (Herzog uses the word “dwarf” to include both midgets and dwarfs) in an isolated Borstal-type prison at Lanzarote, one of the volcanic Canary Islands, who riot and run amok as if out of a Wilhelm Busch cartoon book: starting cockfights, burning a palm tree, pouring gasoline in flowerpots and setting them aflame (“When we’re well behaved, nobody cares; but when we’re trouble, nobody forgets”); Land of Silence and Darkness is a magnificent documentary about the deaf, dumb and blind, smelling and feeling flowers and trees, “hearing” poems through the hand signals of others, feeling the vibrations of radios through their chests, describing the imagined “real” world as if it were paradise; Aguirre, The Wrath of God, filmed mostly in the Peruvian Amazon, opens with indescribably beautiful shots of insurrectionary conquistadors and Indian slaves coming down a mist-enshrouded mountain, follows the adventures of the deranged Aguirre’s small band of followers floating down the river in search of the lost city of Eldorado and ends with what seems to be hundreds of chattering monkeys dancing wildly over dead bodies and the remains of the drunken raft; The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner is a documentary about Walter Steiner, whom Herzog considers the world’s greatest ski jumper (“ski flyer” is what the director calls him), whose glorious trajectories, seen in a succession of slow-motion zooms, reveal the impassioned relationship between camera and flyer; Kaspar Hauser (the original title is Every Man for Himself and God Against All), Herzog’s best-known film in America, is the director’s romantic and meditative adaptation and interpretation of the famous story of the young man who, brought up chained in a dungeon without ever seeing a human being, was discovered in 1828 standing in the Nuremberg town square holding an anonymous note. Knowing only one sentence (“I want to be a gallant rider like my father before me”), Kaspar Hauser is taught to speak, is exhibited as an example of “natural” man and is then mysteriously murdered.