SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Fata Morgana

Film: Fata Morgana
Running time: 79 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Lotte Eisner
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Country: West Germany

This film is available as part of the Werner Herzog Box Set 2, but has also been released as a bonus DVD with Herzog’s Lessons Of Darkness.

Existing in cinematic terms somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Koyaanisqatsi, Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana is an ontologically metaphysical trek through the Sahara. Armed with only a camera, Herzog utilises his pitifully shoestring budget to capture a series of short thematically linked sequences in unashamedly surreal fashion as he blurs the line between documentary and science fiction in a typically cynical manner.

Fata Morgana opens with a lengthy vignette: a montage of planes coming into land at an unidentified airport in North Africa. The cycle of aircraft landing continues for roughly ten minutes, as the fumes emitted from these lumbering craft is seemingly layered one on top of the other in a pollution collage.

After the cessation of the landing segment, the viewer is catapulted into the crux of Herzog’s creation. Bracketed into three separate subsections - creation, paradise and the golden age, respectively - the director journeys through the Sahara desert collecting a variety of visual compositions, from widescreen landscaping through to hand-held footage of human existence.

The scenes interchange between panoramic vistas of the desert to snippets of the creatures, humans, debris and isolated vastness that the Sahara has to offer. As the film progresses through the three chapters and reveals its ethereal nature, German historian Lotte Eisner recites passages from the ancient Mayan creational text the Popol Vuh…

Derived etymologically from the supernatural Athurian sorceress Morgan Le Fay, Fata Morgana is one of the most complex forms of mirage, as it contorts and distorts the horizon in a rapidly changing manner to confuse and bewitch the onlooker. Herzog’s attempts at making his visuals synonymous with his film's beguiling title are nothing short of successful, as we venture through a bizarre and bewildering sequence of esoteric imagery that will have the art house aficionado salivating with the sheer scope for interpretation and discussion.

The opening segment is warning enough for those not usually disposed to Herzog’s occasional penchant for layering his philosophy under layer upon layer of cryptic imagery to disregard immediately. The ten minutes of aircraft landing on the same landing strip, and from the same point of view, is an exercise in stamina, and can be ponderous to say the least. Herzog is making it abundantly clear to the viewer that he has no interest in raising our heart rates, as not a single one even threatens an uncomfortable landing, and uses the introduction as a means of sifting out those brave enough to switch on their minds and comprehend his thought process. As the plane tally ratchets further upwards, the distinction between them and the surrounding area seems to lessen, the imagery dissolving into one hazy vision; a fusion of the natural landscape and the man-made creations blurring into the film's first notable mirage.

In a style resembling that of a Greek epic, Herzog introduces us to 'Creation', the first of his chapters, and the hauntingly poetic narrative of the Popol Vuh, which resonates over pictures that have no linking narrative, themselves. As the Mayan text describes an ordination of man by God(s) as the rightful inhabitants of the planet, Herzog unleashes his sardonic opinion as counterpoint. We are presented with images of burnt out planes and vehicles, broken shells and the carcasses of rotting animals. Desolate villages provide minimal shelter to disheveled and disheartened families, imprisoned in the desert that surrounds them. As the religious text recalls a more pure time in human history, a young boy is filmed holding a desert fox by the throat, posing nonchalantly for the camera - an iconographic representation of man’s imposing will on nature.

'Paradise', the second segment, leads to more of the same hallucinatory imagery, the hallmark of which is the most bizarre interview of a goggle-wearing biologist describing the difficulty a monitor lizard has in catching prey in the scorched landscape, while also stating the difficulty he has in catching the lizard for his own purposes. Difficulty in coping with the desert is a recurring theme in paradise, the name ironically noted, as the sun beats down relentlessly on the creatures that have dared to survive in this harsh habitat, punishing them, while extracts from Mozart’s masses provide further mockery: its beauty counterbalancing the beastly terrain.

The final installment, 'The Golden Age', is the most reminiscent of any previous or subsequent Herzog work. Being presented with a collection of the deserts most bewildering eccentrics and loonies would normally instill a feeling of insecurity, yet because of the stark and foreboding messages of the earlier chapters, 'The Golden Age' is homely and comforting. Allowing his camera to roll those extra minutes beyond the traditional call of "cut," Herzog captures moments that others wouldn’t, as participants blur the line between acting and sincerity. The most apt description of this being an oddball couple who, interchanged with extracts from Leonard Cohen, make up the soundtrack for the latter stages with a perplexing polka-number, and who end their performance in discomfort and unease at their obvious lack of enjoyment.

It is unsurprising Herzog feels more comfortable behind the camera when surrounded by the humorous madness of what he is accustomed to. While arguably the opening two segments are the most engaging intellectually, making the third seem almost puerile in comparison, they possess a distinct lack of consciousness. It is as if the director ventured into the desert aiming to capture everything in sight and edit a sequence at a later date, to fit with the Mayan text.

For all the discussion of Fata Morgana’s original incarnation as an idea for a science-fiction film, it works better when aimlessly lilting from thought to thought rather than lingering on one. When Herzog loiters on the man-altered landscape in the opening airplane montage, or the less apocalyptic scenes of redemption in 'The Golden Age', Fata Morgana loses its impetus. Fata Morgana is not a documentary, and never could be, so when the contemplative nature, that comprises the heart of this film, goes absent, it suffers for it.

Definitely not a documentary, and only debatably science fiction, Fata Morgana is cinematic Zen-Dadaism – a desire to rectify the perceived wrongs using film as the tool.

While there is a lot of obvious negativity directed towards humanities’ impact on the environment, the message is not entirely misanthropic. Its twisted sense of humour, in the climactic passages, hints at ability for new life to spring forth from the ashes of the old. However, the recurring mirage of a lonely car driving across the landscape seems to represent Herzog’s underlying bitterness, as he is resigned to undertaking this revival single-handedly. BL

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