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Back to the Jungle with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982)

Through August 3, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles is presenting a twenty-film retrospective, The Twilight Worlds of Werner Herzog. The series naturally includes Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), two oeuvre-defining features for which Herzog took his casts and crews deep into the jungles of South America. Missing, though, is Wings of Hope, his 1998 documentary recounting the story of Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of LANSA Flight 508, which set out from Lima for Pucallpa, Peru on Christmas Eve, 1971.

Struck by lightning, the Lockheed L-188A Electra turboprop disintegrated in midair, and Koepcke fell from the sky, crashing through the jungle canopy to the ground. She spent ten days walking before she stumbled into a small village. Herzog, location scouting for Aguirre at the time, was scheduled to be on that plane, but a last-minute change in his itinerary probably saved his life.

The retrospective includes Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), in which Herzog tells the story of Dieter Dengler, who was flying on a Navy mission over Laos in 1966 when he was shot down, captured, and tortured before he eventually escaped—into the jungle. Rescue Dawn, the 2006 drama based on Dengler’s experiences and starring Christian Bale, is not part of the program, and neither is Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s 1982 documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo that features the monologue that is to a considerable degree responsible for the memeification of Herzog.

Running out of money and fully aware of the despair rumbling through his cast and crew, Herzog pauses for a moment in the thick of tangled vines and verdant ferns, turns to Blank’s camera, and cuts loose: “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain . . . There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

The American Cinematheque has taken the title for its retrospective from Herzog’s first novel, The Twilight World, a retelling of the story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese lieutenant charged during the Second World War with the defense of Lubang Island in the Philippines. Refusing to believe reports that Japan had surrendered in 1945 and dismissing all evidence that it had as enemy propaganda, Onoda—first with three men, and eventually, alone—carried on fighting for twenty-nine years until his commander was flown in to formerly relieve him of his duties.

The Twilight World is one of two books Herzog wrote during lockdown, the other being a memoir which will be published in Germany next month as Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle: Erinnerungen. An English translation is in the works, but a publication date hasn’t yet been announced. Michael Hofmann’s “resonant translation” of The Twilight World “conveys the portentous shimmer of Herzog’s voice,” writes Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times, where she calls the book “a meditation on truth, lie, illusion, and time that floats like an aromatic haze through Herzog’s vivid reconstruction of Onoda’s war.”

A good number of reviewers of the novel and profilers of Herzog seem particularly drawn to this passage: “Onoda’s war is of no meaning for the cosmos, for history, for the course of the war. Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imaginary nothing and a dream, but Onoda’s war, sired by nothing, is nevertheless overwhelming, an event extorted from eternity.”

“Whatever that last phrase might mean in this context—can three decades really be said to constitute a single event?—it could describe most of Herzog’s films,” writes A. O. Scott in the Atlantic. “Any movie might be said to represent a radical distillation and reshaping of time, an episode extracted, at significant cost in labor, money, and endurance, from the infinite flow of experience. Watching Herzog’s films, you somehow feel the weight of the infinite, the metaphysical shadows that bring the physical world into relief.”

Overall, reviews of The Twilight World have been positive, though some writers have their reservations. Kristen Millares Young, writing for the Washington Post, points out that Onoda reportedly killed thirty residents of Lubang Island in nearly as many years and wounded many more. And “where is the honor in ambushing farmers who, recovering from an imposed war, harvest rice?” In the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth finds “nothing uplifting or romantic about the story of a man who was brainwashed to believe that his life would reach its fruition by serving as cannon fodder in an imperial war . . . Would Herzog have written a similarly sympathetic book about an unreconstituted Nazi who had spent thirty years living in an underground bunker, awaiting the victory of the Reich?”

But in the New Yorker, Dan Piepenbring suggests that The Twilight World is “a funny novel in the same way that Herzog’s film Grizzly Man—about an environmentalist who loved bears, and was eaten by them—is a funny movie. To call it dark, dry, or deadpan is an understatement; it’s more like cosmic farce, or field recordings of the hiccups of fate.

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