Impersonating Werner Herzog

This article is as introspective as it is retrospective. It seems only natural to, when approaching another birthday, look back at what you’ve done and to take stock of it. Recently I have been revisiting Werner Herzog’s early films, primarily Signs Of Life, Fata Morgana and Even Dwarfs Started Small. And it has struck me how significant an influence Herzog has been. This is primarily evident in my first 16mm films, Lot, Babypool, and Dancer. Dancer has the clearest connection to Herzog’s films, so that is the film I have chosen to highlight when discussing in depth Herzog’s influence on my work.

Werner Herzog’s 1969 feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small has had a profound influence on the style of my films. A favorite for many years, I am sure there are numerous ways that this film factors into my subconscious when in production. But it is more recently that I have re-addressed this film as the work of a genius, and something to be stolen from. In this instance, I have, when working on the assigned “dream sequence”, returned to this film.

I would like to admit that Herzog’s camera set-ups and motions have been the basis for my own in this project’s conception. The opening sequence in which Hombre is interrogated is an excellent example. Herzog’s camera sets a static shot of considerable distance from his subject. This shot lasts about 90 seconds, and then the camera re-positions itself. In it’s new perspective, the camera is over looking Hombre’s right shoulder. After the shot is established, the camera rolls forward following the axis of Hombre’s tilted head. I have constructed my sequences very similarly. My shots are long, and each set-up is only allowed 2 or three angles, of which, each last some time. While Herzog employed his technique to some pseudo documentary end, I wished only to create a surreal sense of time; slowing time down. However, I am sure Herzog was aware of this techniques possibilities as I have employed them. For instance, the Camel sequence celebrates an overtly exaggerated sense of time. Once again Herzog uses his wide shot, whose duration is well over 90 seconds, and features, after such a length of time, cutaways to other long shots of Hombre [long that is, for cut-aways].

I mentioned just now Herzog’s wide-angle shots. He frames his little characters against vast expanses of landscape, to exaggerate scale [the dwarfs on the boulders]. I employ the wide shots the same way for the same reason, to exaggerate the scale of a subject. My subject, unlike Herzog, is not a character, but the landscape of a forest clearing. The intention here is too allow the audience to engage in the morbid scenery of a winter forest clearing so atmosphere may be conveyed. The characters then seem to be smaller parts of a grander “conclusion” as autumn becomes winter.

In Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog also employs his knowledge of cultural heritage. I was intentionally thinking of the monkey crucifixion in his film when I developed my dream sequence. Herzog’s careful staging of the “Truck Sequence”, with its ritualistic action, became the basis for the entire motion in my film. He created a distance from the physical action as well as an emotional closeness to the turmoil that I tried desperately to achieve. I theorized that by design, in the rehearsed mechanical quality of the dwarfs’ actions, that the audience found a safe distance, but in the “acting” of the dwarfs intimacy was achieved. Hence, I endeavored to design a “ritual” that in its unnatural transitional action could never have been improvised, so that like Herzog, my audience would feel detached. But in my “Herzogian” close-ups, my characters would appear human and maybe even believable.

I must now also admit that the themes for my “ritual” were intentionally lifted from Even Dwarfs Started Small. Besides the before mentioned Monkey Crucifixion, the use of animal bones in my film is inspired by the murder of the mother pig, as well as the tying down of the camel. In motive, Herzog and I divide down separate paths. His religious iconography and animal abuses steam from political allegory, mine must be taken at face value as the enacted guilt perpetrated on those who adhere to Catholic scripture. Herzog’s film delves more into the idea of human upheaval and atrocity under political oppression, such as fascism.

Herzog includes a number of character close ups in his film, to allow the dwarfs to show some sort of inner character in their more conceptual environment. I employed this idea deliberately, with the hope of lending some sort of associable humanity to my characters. Thus, like Herzog’s close ups of Hombre and the female dwarf in the bedroom, I include close ups of my actresses. I also tried to frame my characters in medium shots the way Herzog did. Herzog used both an awkward camera distance from subject as well as a down ward angle of the camera. This gives both the characters and the audience a sense of disassociation.

In the completely improved Bolex version of my film, I once again thought of Herzog. Not only in his philosophy of extremes and fairness, but in context of Even Dwarfs Started Small. Myself lifted Herzog’s circular motion in the handling of his handheld camera for the photography of my “ritual” short. The technique I saw him use in his film allowed him, like Cassavetes does, to capture all the major action, as well as get really close to the characters in moments of emotional truth. This all encompassing method makes it possible for a filmmaker to shoot a lot of action quickly and without the expectation of a conditioned audience in shot coverage.

Werner Herzog deserves a well over do thank you from myself, and I hope that my film may do just that.

-Robert Curry

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