Director in Focus: Werner Herzog – Signs of Life

Signs of Life (1968)

Before we jump into this first film, some background on Werner Herzog. Werner Stipetic was born in Munich in 1942 in a house that was destroyed by Allied bombing a couple years later. The family migrated to the Alps, where the father left the family, causing 12 year old Werner to take his grandmother’s last name, Herzog. Herzog showed a rebellious streak early on, when asked to sing in front of his class and refused. Till he was 18, as an act of defiance, he never sang, listened to music, or learned to play a single instrument. At the age of 14, Herzog encountered a simple encyclopedia entry on film making that infused the desire in him to create. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School in act he defends as a necessity for him to continue living. Herzog has been married three times, something you would expect based on his volatile personality. One more interesting note about the director, during a 2006 interview with BBC critic Mark Kermode, Herzog was shot by an unknown person with an air rifle. He seemed to brush it off and attempted to continue with the interview, despite Kermode freaking out over the incident.

Signs of Life is a war film without war, instead the soldiers are driven to madness through sheer boredom. Set on Crete during World War II, the film finds Strosek and two fellow German officers put in charge of a munitions depot nestled in ancient ruins. The main character here is the most blank canvas, while his compatriots, Becker and Maynard have more fully fleshed personalities. Strosek has ended up engaged to local Greek girl, Nora in a relationship that seems founded in their mutual lack of anything interesting to do. The film is narrated in a stoic, travelogue style that tempers the picture up until its last twenty minutes when Strosek becomes completely unhinged.

Signs of Life is cited as an inspiration for Kubrick’s The Shining, however I saw a lot of similarities with Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. Both films are of the same era and place their characters in a lifeless, desolate landscape where they are psychologically pushed to extremes. As we’ll see with the majority of Herzog’s work, he is incredibly interested in the psyche of men who have a break with reality and the role nature plays in that. Strosek is positioned against his desert setting as minuscule, he is insignificant, hence his position defending a post that is no danger of being attacked. Signs of Life is about humanity’s innate need to believe they are useful. When we feel that our society has no use for us it will inevitable cause a break from the social expectations and mores.

Up next: Even Dwarfs Started Small

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