The opening of Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire (2016) feels a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s a kidnapped female protagonist fighting to understand the world where she has been forcibly interned. There are silent men in black outfits holding automatic weapons outside every door and all around, paranoia reigns.
It soon emerges, however, that scientist Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) is on a UN mission to research a Bolivian environmental disaster and has been kidnapped by the philosophical eco-terrorist Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) who quotes Nostradamus, Ecclesiastes and Alexander The Great. He also says incomprehensible things like “Truth is the only daughter of time”; or odd things such as “Having children invites tragedy” or just plain weird riffs on quantum mechanics: “Is it possible there’s something all-pervading around us that your data can’t analyze, that only prophets and birds can express?”
Her two companions (played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Michalowski) are also hostages and they literally disappear half way through the movie with horrendous diarrhea, never to be seen again. It’s fitting somehow, as worse is to come.
After a hectic four-wheel drive trip across Bolivia and a quick tourist stop at a famous Train Cemetery, Riley tells Laura as they pass the Uturuncu volcano that it has enough magma intrusion under its base to develop into a super- volcano and destroy the Earth. If that’s not enough to shatter your self-confidence, they reach the even more famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats, where she learns from Riley the gigantic salt flats are rapidly expanding with disaster imminent – something to do with the diversion of two rivers several decades ago. Laura, an environmental scientist, seems to know nothing of this.
She is finally dumped on one of the “islands” that exist on the salt flats with a pair of blind twin boys.
Even by Herzog standards, it really is quite bonkers.
It would be easy to blame his move to Hollywood in 1996 as the reason for the declining quality of his feature films these past 20 years.
His recent work, like Salt and Fire, remains in stark contrast to his initial run of 9 consecutive art house features, a run to rival any auteur in film history – Signs of Life (1968), Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974), Heart of Glass (1976), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982).
His documentaries at this time were of the same standard including Fata Morgana (1971), Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974).
Oddly, Wim Wenders, Herzog’s contemporary from the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had 9 consecutive art house hits as well – The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick (1972), The Scarlet Letter (1973), Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Movement (1975), Kings of the Road (1976), The American Friend (1987), Hammett (1982), Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987).
His documentaries included Lightning Over Water (1980), Tokyo-Ga (1985) and Notes on Cities and Clothes (1989).
Anyone who has watched Werner Herzog’s 10 fiction films from the past 30 years knows they are a far distance from his early work. Before the misfire of Salt and Fire in 2016, Nicole Kidman struggled to save the lifeless Queen of the Desert (2015), a film seemingly directed by a TV movie specialist, not one of the world’s most renowned auteurs.
Before that, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) was an uncomfortable philosophical deadpan-comedy-art movie, the sort of thing far better achieved by the likes of Michael Haneke. Then there was the vile violence of Bad Lieutenant (2009), the wacky The Wild Blue Yonder (2007), the forgettable Apocalypse Now effort with Rescue Dawn (2006) and the obscurantism of Invincible (2001). Outside of Hollywood he made Scream of Stone (1991), Cobre Verde (1987) and his Australian film Where The Green Ants Dream (1984).
By contrast, Herzog’s often-remarkable documentaries during this period have been another story; the best of them are On Death Row (2012), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Grizzly Man (2005), The White Diamond (2004), Wheel of Time (2003) and My Best Fiend (1999)
Wim Wenders’ last 9 fiction films follow a similar trajectory to Herzog and it’s hard finding much to admire in Everything Will Be Fine (2015), Palermo Shooting (2008), Don’t Come Knocking (2005), Land of Plenty (2004), The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), The End of Violence (1997), Lisbon Story (1994), Far Away, So Close (1993) and a film largely shot in Australia, Until the End of the World (1991).
Like Herzog, Wenders produced some outstanding documentaries during this period: The Salt of the Earth (2014), Pina (2011), The Soul of a Man (2003) and Buena Vista Social Club (1999).
In the sports world, it’s often said when teams or individuals are underperforming, the skills these men and women possess haven’t magically disappeared. They are still there, waiting to be revived, waiting for the player to return to form. The cause of any downturn in performance is thought to be “between the ears”.
Certainly, Wenders and Herzog have never lost their skills in documentary. But what’s happened to their feature film competence? Their lack of form has been gone a long time now.
It might be argued the turning point for both came with their Australian films Where The Green Ants Dream and Until The End of the World. It’s not a serious explanation of course, but after those films the quality of their work went into undeniable decline. Both filmmakers journeyed into the Outback to grapple with country and Indigenous culture.
Another German, the romantic explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (aka Patrick White’s “Voss”) also grappled with the country and Indigenous culture. He disappeared in the Outback in 1848 with his party of four Europeans, two Indigenous guides, seven horses, 20 mules and 50 bullocks.
Nicolas Rothwell describes him as “a man of science, by turns botanizer, geographer and geologist…a collector, a linguist and an ethnographer…Australia’s first far-seeing ecologist”.
Perhaps he is still out there on the far horizon, an eerie ghost or a mirage.
Herzog, at least, would probably like the idea.