No filmmaker has bound his narrative aesthetic quite so tightly to the theme of obsession as Werner Herzog. Obsession is the primary motivation of the majority of his characters from Aguirre The Wrath Of God to Heart Of Glass; obsessed with some wholly unobtainable goal, and driven to overcome the most difficult of obstacles. To achieve the effect of obsession in his work, Herzog has developed a signature mechanism.
The above-mentioned mechanism is as simple and compositionally classical as the stories of his films. Herzog laboriously will photograph the most dynamic and poet landscapes, letting them grace the screen in a montage of equal scope, but which slowly interjects his characters who appear dwarfed by the environment which surrounds them. The opening of Aguirre The Wrath Of God and Heart Of Glass are the most obvious examples. The audience is treated to cinematic landscape painting of mountainsides. Fog drifts over the peaks, and the sky is grey. In the case of Aguirre The Wrath Of God, a long line of conquistadors weaves across the forested slope. The line disappears, reemerging closer in frame on a slope closer to the camera. In Heart Of Glass, the camera slowly descends from the mountain peaks into the forest, revealing the figure of a man seated on a stone in the distance. Immediately, these characters juxtaposed to the opening montage seem insignificant and hopeless, which endows their efforts and obsessions with a tragic sense of failure and doom for the start (which Herzog always seems to deliver with a strange compassion for his characters). Herzog employs this tactic to great success in all of his films from Aguirre The Wrath of God to Cobra Verde.
Yet, one must remember Herzog is a filmmaker who thrives on challenge (as evidenced in Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams and Herzog’s own My Best Fiend). He makes this mechanic applicable to his non-narrative works as well, though perhaps never so effectively as in Fata Morgana or its pseudo follow up Lessons In Darkness. Both films are essentially slow contemplative montages divided into sections according to image content and the story projected onto them by Herzog’s voice which turns the images into a science fiction document akin to the opening of Solaris, but lasting ten times as long. These two films feature exclusively landscapes, and are formally constructed as portraits of these locales. In Fata Morgana, the desert is the subject, and so are its inhabitants who slowly compete to hijack the film from the landscape as Herzog allows them to invade the frame and shift his focus. The focus does not then neglect the desert, but incorporates the two as symbiotic to his image. The same can be said for Lessons Of Darkness, which was shot twenty odd years later as the oil fields burned in the wake of the first gulf war.
In the Herzog cannon, there is no rival for films that speak to the filmmaker’s own obsessions. Devoid of narrative and character, these films become so obviously subjective of the filmmaker’s poetics that his own obsession with the cinema and the world as a natural organism of chaos are exposed and become the primary thesis of these two films.