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
So, Mr. Werner Herzog will be the focus of my next spotlight, and has enough films that he will probably take up the rest of the year. Below is the list of films I’ll be watching, in order:
Signs of Life
Even Dwarfs Started Small
Land of Silence and Darkness
Aguirre, Wrath of God
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Heart of Glass
Scream of Stone
Lessons of Darkness
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
My Best Fiend
Wheel of Time
The White Diamond
The Wild Blue Yonder
Encounters at the End of the World
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon
At one point in this film, I swear Nicolas Cage was attempting to channel Tony Clifton, the obnoxious lounge singer persona adopted by Andy Kaufman on occasion. This unofficial sequel to the 1992 Bad Lieutenant film is such a bizarre piece of cinema that lives somewhere between classic film noir and surrealist Lynch land. And there really is no other actor who could bring the right level of insanity to this role other than Cage. Even when its impossible for the audience not to react with laughter, Cage is going to keep pushing the boundaries of what we will tolerate.
The film begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Terence McDonagh and his partner, Stevie Pruit find a prisoner in the jail with water up to his neck. Instead of rushing to help they place bets on how long it will take the man to drown. Eventually, McDonagh decides to jump in and help, however the water is to shallow and he injures his back. McDonagh is a scumbag. He has the officer running the evidence room sneaking a cocktail of drugs out for him, he stalks college aged kids leaving nightclubs to confiscate their drugs, he has a prostitute girlfriend he seems in no rush to help get out of the business, and he’s just an all around asshole. A crime scene is discovered where an entire family has been killed execution style. McDonagh begins to uncover that the father was dealing drugs on another man’s territory and attempts to solve the case using methods that pretty much violate every law on the books.
Director Herzog employs some awfully strange choices in making this film. McDonagh’s drug use causes him to have hallucinations that the audience gets to see. During surveillance on a suspect’s house he swears there are two iguanas on the table while the other officers simply give each other confused looks. Later, after a mobster is killed Cage tells the killer to shoot again because “his soul is still dancing”, reflected by a break dancer spinning in the middle of the room. There are other pieces of scenery that keep that wacked out feeling continuing through the film. Actors like Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon, and Fairuza Balk add that twisted atmosphere to every scene they are in.
McDonagh is constantly on the go. There isn’t a single scene where we see him in his home, ready to fall asleep for the night. Instead he is always wheeling and dealing, playing one party against the other in incredibly flimsy ways that you know are going to catch up to him sooner or later. He owes thousands to bookie Dourif and tries dealing drugs out of the evidence room to pay it off, while trying to avoid the suspicion of his superiors. There really isn’t a film comparable to the insanity of this one and if you are a film lover like me, whom finds a sick enjoyment in Nicolas Cage’s frantic nature then you desperately need to pick this up.