Friday, June 4, 2010

Fata Morgana: a film by Werner Herzog

Fata Morgana is my nominee for the strangest film I've viewed this year. It came out in 1971, but I just recently noticed it and decided to give it a viewing. Werner Herzog is the director, and this is one of his earliest films: the third to be exact. In the commentary included on the DVD, Herzog said that this film contains many of the themes that he explored in greater detail in his later films. I watched the film twice; the second time with the commentary by Herzog. If you do watch the film, I highly recommend watching the commentary version at some point. It helps.

The title, Fata Morgana, is an Italian term that refers to an unusual and very complex type of mirage. It refers to Morgan le Fay, from the Arthurian cycle, and suggests the belief that the mirage is produced by witchcraft. Several mirages are presented throughout the film, some of which I didn't realize were mirages until it was pointed out during the viewing with the commentary turned on.

The film has no plot, at least not in the accepted sense of the term. In addition, Herzog states that this is not a documentary. I agree with him--at least, again, not a documentary in the usual sense. Herzog also insists that "there is a coherence there which is inexplicable but somehow there." Ultimately, I consider it unclassifiable. For the most part it is a series of short scenes and images shot in the northern Sahara Desert. The dialogue is almost non-existent, consisting of short voice-overs: readings from the Popol Vuh, which is the Mayan creation myth, and music ranging from classical ecclesiastical works to songs by Leonard Cohen.

Herzog says that initially it was to be an SF film. Aliens land on a planet and film what they see. This was to be a photojournal of their visit. However, he quickly dropped the idea and decided that he would just present the film images without the story.

The film has three parts: "Creation," "Paradise," and "The Golden Age." One commentary I read stated that on the surface, the titles appear ironic in contrast to the film images, but are not ironic at a deeper level. Unfortunately I am unable so far to get to that deeper level.

The film opens with an airport scene: we see a number of planes landing, each one getting more and more blurred and distorted as the day warms up.

Part I: Creation

As we hear a woman's voice reading the Mayan creation myth in German (English subtitles) we see images of the desert with buildings off in the distance, sand dunes, an oasis with palm trees, and huge storage tanks. Other scenes include a wrecked plane, an oil field perhaps burning off natural gas, and a flat landscape with sand and brush. One might almost call it a collage of images.

People occasionally appear in brief glimpses, but with no discernible purpose. Herzog commented that he couldn't communicate with them, so they were free to do what they wanted. Some just glanced at the camera and walked on. Others stood there and stared back. One man gestured with his hands, first pointing in one direction, then another, and then shrugged his shoulder and walked off.

I was startled when lush vegetation and once a beautiful waterfall appeared. These were not from the Sahara but scenes shot later in the Canary Islands. Again, the commentary was helpful here. However, there seemed to be no attempt to draw any conclusion from the juxtaposition of the barren scenery and the waterfall. It was up to the viewers, I guess, to make of it what they would or could.

Part II: Paradise

Again, a series of images that contrast with the usual concept of a Paradise. There are people again engaged in inexplicable, to me anyway, activity. A man and a woman approach the camera, both taking very short steps. He wears a coat that has many medals and begins speaking. There is no translation, and Herzog commented that they had no idea of what he was saying. During this segment Leonard Cohen sings two songs, one of which is "Suzanne." One scene is of a German researcher who is holding a monitor lizard that obviously fascinates him. He wears what appears to be swim or diving goggles. At one point a man appears holding a very worn and creased letter that is falling apart. He says, in German, that he is going back to rejoin his people in Germany. He got the letter over 25 years ago. Other images are of a Moslem cemetery, a military camp, and the site of a French test of a nuclear weapon.

Part III: The Golden Age

The most striking image in this section consists of a man and a woman on a small stage: she plays the piano and he sings and plays the drums and cymbals. He is singing in Spanish, but the sound quality is so bad I couldn't tell what language it is. The music and the movement of the two are so repetitive that I wonder if it is just one short clip of ten or fifteen seconds that has been repeatedly copied and spliced together. But, in spite of the repetition and monotonous tone, it is strangely compelling. Even now, almost a week after I watched the film, I can still recall that scene.

At one point, a voice intones that there "the landscape was as God commanded it to be." The scene was of a military camp. Another scene is of a huge unfinished factory building, only the structural girders have been installed. It is surrounded by desert; there is nothing, absolutely nothing to be seen for miles. Who built it? Why was it built there, in the middle of nowhere? Who was supposed to work there? Nobody knew anything about it.

Fata Morgana reminds me of a type of psychological test called a projective test: the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test, for example. They consist of ambiguous images which the individual is supposed to interpret and say something about. What the person says about the images is supposed to reveal some aspects of that individual's personality.

Overall Rating: It's one that I put back in the queue for another viewing, perhaps next year. I'll leave it sit and percolate in my subconscious for awhile.

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