In Werner Herzog’s Words: The Origins of Cinema

“Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism.“

̶  Werner Herzog

Herzog’s understanding of the origins of cinema in the country fair and circus, not the academia, cannot be stressed enough. When he was making his Aguirre, the Wrath of God he did not read encyclopedias on imperialism, although it is the greatest film on imperialism ever made. In the opening shot of the film, a long line of men is walking down the path to the valley bellow, fully armed and carrying their women in enclosed sedan-chairs. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “they are dressed for the court pageant, not for the jungle”. The haunting music by Florian Fricke sets the tone for the scene, using the instrument ‘choir-organ’, which sounds like a human choir, but is something entirely different. If we observe the opening scene only, we can see that Herzog understands cinema not as an intellectual endeavor, but an ‘agitation of mind’, its goal is to stir emotions, provoke the senses to the point of ecstasy, and even harmony.

When he was filming his Heart of Glass, Herzog hypnotized most of the actors. This is an act more ‘appropriate’ to a country fair, or a circus, and not a film set, ordinarily set in a sterile environment of a film studio (Herzog always preferred to work outside, in the actual world). The contemporary example of this approach to cinema, is the filming of Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale; Bale was asked to devour live maggots (everything he asked of the actors, Herzog did himself first), he was hung upside-down during a scene in which his character was being tortured;  the men spinning him were urged to do it faster. Bale wrestled with a snake (not poisonous) for the sake of the filming. In Herzog’s films, the origins of cinema, as he himself understands them, are manifestly vivid.

In his book From Caligari to Hitler, Sigfried Kracauer writes the following about the inspiration of one of the authors behind the 1920 masterpiece of German expressionist cinema The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Interestingly, he got the inspiration for the script at a country fair:

THE Czech Hans Janowitz, one of the two authors of the film DAB CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI), was brought up in Prague–that city where reality fuses with dreams, and dreams turn into visions of horror. One evening in October 1913 this young poet was strolling through a fair at Hamburg, trying to find a girl whose beauty and manner had attracted him. The tents of the fair covered the Reeperbahn, known to any sailor as one of the world’s chief pleasure spots. Nearby, on the Holstenwall, Lederer’s gigantic Bismarck monument stood sentinel over the ships in the harbor. In search of the girl, Janowitz followed the fragile trail of a laugh which he thought hers into a dim park bordering the Holstenwall. The laugh, which apparently served to lure a young man, vanished somewhere in the shrubbery. When, a short time later, the young man departed, another shadow, hidden until then in the bushes, suddenly emerged and moved along-as if on the scent of that laugh. Passing this uncanny shadow, Janowitz caught a glimpse of him : he looked like an average bourgeois. Darkness reabsorbed the man, and made further pursuit impossible. The following day big headlines in the local press announced : “Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall ! Young Gertrude . . . murdered.” An obscure feeling that Gertrude might have been the girl of the fair impelled Janowitz to attend the victim’s funeral. During the ceremony he suddenly had the sensation of discovering the murderer, who had not yet been captured. The man he suspected seemed to recognize him, too. It was the bourgeois-the shadow in the bushes.

The Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky actually joined the circus, trained as a clown and formed his own troupe prior to his career as a film director, as it is shown in the autobiographical film Endless Poetry. One could say that every film made by Jodorowsky (in Santa Sangre, the circus setting is derived from the director’s life experiences), has the feel of a circus, its flamboyance, colorfulness and the aesthetics of ‘arranged chaos’. Jodorowsky’s films, although they strive for a political or a spiritual meaning, are not intellectualist endeavors, they are made specifically to stir up the soul, transcend the inner chaos into a mystical experience, so it can give way to balance.

On the other side of this coin is the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films are mostly intellectual exercises; even when, in his film L’Eclisse, Monica Vitti’s character joyfully dances imitating an African native, this scene has a purely intellectual quality, since it is designed to addres the themes of colonialism and the participation of the bourgeoisie in colonialist policies. His socialist standpoint is often elaborated when his characters speak of Adorno, and engage in intellectualist conversations; a socialist paper is shown on the table at the beginning of L’Eclisse. Antonioni ‘s films are ‘distanced from’ the origins of cinema; he made an alliance with the academic and intellectualist approach to cinema.

As it is well-known, so it will not be articulated here in depth, this cannot be said for his compatriot Federico Fellini. To conclude, there are directors who have stayed ‘true’ to the origins of cinema as Herzog understood them, but it can be argued that in every film, and that is true for Antonioni’s films as well, there are elements of country fair and a circus; the origins cannot be completely forgotten, and they reappear in cinema at all times, in all countries.

Editor’s Note:

If you enjoyed this article, I would like to recommend some great books and movies associated with it. You can purchase them on Amazon:

Werner Herzog, Aguirre, the Wrath of God [Blu-ray]

Brad Prager, The Cinema of Werner Herzog, Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

“Prager’s book is one of the few comprehensive, scholarly monographs that engages with Herzog’s entire body of work within an Anglo-American context. It provides the reader with an impressive examination of over thirty-five of the nearly fifty films written, directed, and largely produced by Herzog over the course of half a century.”

Claudia Pummer, Humanities and Social Sciences Online

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film

“What do the movies know that we don’t know? Siegfried Kracauer had some ideas when he published his seminal book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film in 1947. Written in New York in self-imposed exile, Kracauer’s book traces the birth of Nazism from the cinema of Weimar Germany (1919-1933), finding a connection between the themes and imagery of German silent movies and the totalitarianism that followed.”

Hamburg Review

Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography

“Beginning his unorthodox autobiography in Chile, where he grew up as the child of Russian Jews in exile, writer and filmmaker Jodorowsky sketches the squalor and desperation of his birthplace. It’s here that the foundations of his spiritual liberation are laid in opposition to the violent deaths and poverty that surround him, as well as the brutal sadism of his father. His artistic pursuits from poetry to dance to theater, are also the pursuit of mystical understanding.”

Publishers Weekly

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