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The conqueror of the useless

Werner Herzog. Ecstatic truth and other useless conquests
Forfatter: Kristoffer Hegnsvad
Forlag: Jensen & Dalgaard (Danmark)
A true democracy must be open to dissent, difference and the useless. And only through this "conquest of the useless" can we approach the truth.


Kristoffer Hegnsvad's book about the German filmmaker Werner Herzog is not a journalistic review of film, but a philosophical journey into a remarkable artist's creative workshop. Through conversation partners such as Benjamin, Adorno, Nietzsche and Deleuze, the book addresses issues such as: What is film? What is the relationship between image and truth? But also the film director as a philosopher, ethnologist, discoverer and scientist. An account of what it means to be curious about the world and life and to go to the limit to pursue this curiosity.

Getting to the picture. Herzog does not make movies to entertain, but to learn something, explore something, pursue a truth. It seems like the camera is just his media. But before becoming an instructor, one has to learn something about life, referred to by Herzog as "lessons in darkness." Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School ("Herzog's Villain's Film School") is the school "for a setting for life." Learning in the classroom is not enough – it is about life experience as a foundation. Being able to stand alone is the most important thing: If you want to be a creative artist, you must learn to be lonely. Finding the stories worth telling requires solitude, courage and persistence.

At school, he stresses the need to stand on one's own and do it yourself if one wants something other than mainstream. But above all, you have to. About a woman from Vienna who wanted to be part of his film team, he said: "Go from Vienna to Munich, it will tell me how much you want the job." 11 days later she stood with her feet full of blisters in Munich – where she got the job as a scripter. Herzog prefers a notebook from a pilgrimage to film school's normal application forms. It is when you walk alone and thoughts rage through one that you find out what is essential. In his book About going ice cream Herzog himself described his journey on foot in 1974 when he traveled from Munich to Paris where his mentor Lotte Eisner was dead. Herzog: "We are filmmakers, not garbage men!" What it is about is to get there – for the image; the effort, the art of living and experiencing to be able to film what is worth filming. At film school, Hegnsvad meets the man Herzog, who exudes an accomplished seriousness and passion – what has made Herzog who he is. In order to create something of value, something has to be at stake.

Unseen pictures. Herzog has been hunting for unseen pictures all his life. IN Tokyo Ga (Wim Wenders) he says: "We desperately need images that match our civilization and ourselves." The statement must be seen in the context of another such that "civilization is like a thin layer of ice over a deep sea of ​​chaos and darkness". With Herzog's film, Hegnsvad describes the unseen image as "an artistic experience – understood as the moment when I feel I am witnessing something new. An insight into a new part of the world or a new part of man. A new realization or a new sense of understanding and cohesion ». It can be the opening scene from Aguirre – God's wrath (1972), where hundreds of soldiers, pigs, llamas and chained Indians move down a narrow path in the Andes near Machu Picchu as the fog eases; it could be the rats invading the city in the vampire movie Nosferatu (1979) pointing to the German cultural heritage and exploration of the boundaries of civilization.

Herzog never wants to illustrate the truth, but wants to think and experience it. 

Accounting Truth. In 1999, with his Minnesota Declaration, Herzog declares holy war on the impoverished imagery of the world. He attacks both journalistic fact worship and Cinéma Verité for its exaltation of honesty. Neither of them comes close to the truth of filmmaking, he claims. In a fine chapter, Hegnsvad describes Herzog's account of the "bookkeeper's truth" as a statement with clear explanatory models. With Rancière, he points to a link between this type of truth and a stunned consensus culture where society, because it no longer rethinks its fundamental values ​​- democracy, equality, freedom of expression – but simply takes them for granted, evolves in an undemocratic direction. The bookkeeping truth only sees "the useful", but a true democracy must be open to dissent, differences, the useless. And it is this "conquest of the useless" which, for Herzog, is the way to the truth.

When Herzog succeeds in producing another truth, it is because of the method: that the story is printed from a contemporary gaze that the bookkeeper's truth overlooks, and which neither the new wave nor the fine culture films get caught. And this is precisely what is so difficult : to be at the same time. For one can only see one's contemporaries if one looks into its darkness. That is why Herzog's method is so important, his way of going to his material, his ability to connect with physically sensible forces; the crooked bodies and physical experiences in Heart made of glass (1976). Bravely making themselves open and vulnerable, the feeling of the great in the banal – this is what produces cracks in the seat. Although Herzog's films are populated by societal and useless types, such as the dwarves Also, dwarves start out as little ones (1970) Kaspar Hauser (1974) Strosczek (1977) og Treadwell i Grizzly Man (2005), he never wants to illustrate the truth, but to think and experience it.

Ecstatic truth. The truth is poetic and ecstatic, and denotes common states of mind. From Benjamin, both Herzog and Hegnsvad have learned that most cultural documents are written from the victors' eyes, from the rulers, and therefore at the same time document a barbarism. If you want to expand the story, one must draw attention to the nameless, the forgotten, the overlooked. One must tell the story from a unique snapshot that strikes as a lightning bolt, something sensually concrete that requires thinking. A dead infant, a civilian victim in a war. A birth. The important point at the heart of Herzog's grasp is that real thinking is a cessation of time.

Lessons of Darkness (1992) where Herzog filmed the oil fields on fire at the end of the first Gulf War was an attempt to create an unseen image in the midst of the news stream, a symphonic opera in the middle of hell. Hegnsvad also makes it clear that for Herzog the direct revolution is not possible, only the indirect. It is about, through thinking, to force ourselves away from the questions we have become accustomed to – and the cinematic, at once aesthetic and political task is to force new perspectives.

The aesthetic and political task of film art is to force new perspectives.

With reference to the painter Francis Bacon, Hegnsvad looks Lessons of Darkness such as Herzog's attempt to "film the scream rather than the horror." While the horror points to the actual war and the assaults of its parties, the screams are indeterminate and remind us of the thin varnish of civilization.

Ecstatic pictures. Hegnsvad also engages in dialogue with Deleuze, who in his film philosophy uses Herzog to describe the famous crystal image. Along with filmmakers like Ozu, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Wenders, Herzog breaks with the action-oriented film's template in favor of image sequences dwelling on themselves. In most films' normal course logic, we know what will happen, or we see and consider the world within an already given horizon, guided by the unity of the film. The important cinematic art creates "a more free space for thought, where potentials are thought ... that thought is not subject to coercion, but can move anywhere. a which-as time-rum is thus equivalent to ecstatic truth... »

For Herzog, there is not one really history to be excavated; he practices "and" documentary art, "a nomadic work that does not look back on a nostalgic world, but the spaces between words and things, to find new paths, new thoughts, and thus" a principle for less-defined communities ".

The "crystal image" is the name of the pure optical imagery that casts its own signs and thoughts, such as Herzog's use of whiteness in the aviation film The White Diamond (2004); the white lake occupied by pilgrims in Bells from the depths (1993); the white desert fox i Fata Morgana (1969); the whiteness of Encounters at the End of the World (2007) or the white-blue waterfall in Herz aus Glas (1976). Rather than illustrating anything, whiteness is a cessation of time, that which gives birth to a new thought, a new vision.

One only sees one's contemporaries if one looks into its darkness.

Concepts ecstatic truth balancing on a knife egg. "An unromantic romantic," Hegnsvad calls him. Where the experience of the sublime of the Romans points to something greater than man – God – the characters in Herzog's film seem doomed to lose the battle for the great nature, the world universe – not because of a greater divine context, but the indifference of nature. Herzog's characters do not leave the world, but return to it, Hegnsvad writes. One can then ask if they are indeed returning, that is, to civilization, and if they do, in what way do they do it? For me to see, we can learn some of these characters, precisely because they remain border-seeking existences, because they remain strangers, because they never fully fall into a civilian way of life.

A little penguin. Werner Herzog. Ecstatic truth and other useless conquests an excellent book – and the best about Werner Herzog in a Scandinavian language. It is a strength of the book that it is in fact never clear whether Herzog is primarily a film director or a bruce-chatwinian hiker and life artist (Chatwin gave his backpack to Herzog when he was ill and was dying). The two life forms cannot be separated and create this particular interference in Herzog's universe – his free university – that makes it possible to become something other than what we are.

The reader is advised to bring the following small clips from the recordings to Encounters at the End of the World:

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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