Werner Herzog at BAM

Werner Herzog has been a busy man lately. He released two feature documentaries last year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which made my Top 10 Films of the year, and Into the Abyss. He’s also expanding the latter film into a new TV series, “On Death Row,” which premieres March 9th on Investigation Documentary. In addition to his normal film work, Herzog is also a featured artist at this year’s Whitney Biennial, offering a multimedia installation curiously titled “Ode to the Dawn of Man.” That piece reexamines the work of the largely-unknown Dutch artist Hercules Segers, setting projections of his drawings and etching to music. It’s not surprising, then, that this nexus between images and music should be on the mind of this great filmmaker. How does the use of music change the perception of the images of a film? How can we explain the huge emotional impact that a successful matching of sound to image makes? Is there such a thing as the wrong music for a film? Herzog visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week to discuss these and other questions surrounding the use of music and film, and, as always with this inimitable persona, the results were equally illuminating, maddening and hilarious.

The night began with a screening of Herzog’s 2004 documentary The White Diamond, about the indefatigable efforts of British engineer Dr. Dorrington to design and fly a balloon above the unexplored South American canopy. The film features music from a frequent collaborator of Herzog’s, Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, music that Herzog says was “influenced by images I didn’t have yet.” He was able to direct the musicians to improvise sections based on moods that he would later attempt to recapture, to translate into images once he began shooting. The film itself is very strong, showcasing Herzog’s continuing interest in personalities driven by dreams. Dr. Dorrington is deeply motivated, even obsessed, by the dream of flight, and while Herzog may not share that particular obsession, he is captivated by any dreamer who works to realize his dream at all costs. Slowly, though, the film begins to shift focus when a chance encounter with one of the Guyanese locals hired to assist the expedition draws the filmmaker’s interest. Marc Antony’s reserved introspection is a perfect counterpoint to Dr. Dorrington’s impulsiveness and over-intellectualizing. The switch that the film undergoes is beautifully calibrated, and represents the skill, present in all great documentarians, that I admire most: the courage to allow a documentary to evolve beyond one’s intent, and the eye to know when it’s appropriate to do so.

After the film, Herzog shared some observations on its use of music, and of the use of music in all his films. While he arrived at no real conclusions, and seemed most interested in simply recounting amusing stories about his legendary shoots, the audience at BAM was more than happy to go wherever Herzog wanted to take them. He began by describing his process of coaching musicians to produce the correct tone of music. For example, in Grizzly Man Herzog was very specific about using the music to emphasize the wide open space of the Alaskan wilderness. The right music, he says, can open up a landscape and create a true sense of space on film. Herzog continued by showing clips of other successful marriages of image and sound throughout his career, and the results were amazingly varied yet uniformly excellent. Wild, whooping blues vocals over images of dancing chickens; an old Edison recording of “Ave Maria” over tribal herdsmen in Africa; the pop music of Popol Vuh over a skier flying slow-motion; and operatic Wagner over burning oil fields of Kuwait—each pairing shows a remarkable ability to focus on the correct effect of the music, not the most obvious matching of image and sound. For example, the blues song Herzog uses in Stroszek isn’t chosen to match the tone of the images, nor the time and place in which they’re set. Rather, the combination of that particular music with those particular images emphasizes the tragicomic descent into madness that makes the end of the film so memorable. Why these combinations work as well as they do, Herzog cannot say. They each feature “a foreign element that all of a sudden fits. Why it fits, I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Still, mystery or not, Herzog does believe he’s figured it out. “I do music better than anyone else,” he proudly declared.