Fata Morgana (1971)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
I think that Fata Morgana has to be one of the most unique films that I’ve screened thus far for this project. I don’t have a great deal of experience in writing about documentary or non-narrative experimental films, both in this project, and in general, so it should be an interesting process trying to find the verbiage to record my thoughts on what was a truly different film viewing experience. Fata Morgana has its predecessors, particularly in experimental science-fiction films like La Jetee, and I can certainly see the influence that this film has had on a generation of experimental filmmakers, but I don’t know that I have ever seen a movie that was quite like Fata Morgana. Leave it to an outsider and a visionary like Werner Herzog to have created a film that is unlike any other, and to have done it so early in his career. Fata Morgana is at once weird, beautiful, esoteric, and hypnotic.
Herzog and a small crew shot Fata Morgana in the Sahara Desert in the late 1960s without any real plan for how to edit the footage together or how it would be assembled into a coherent narrative. “Fata morgana” refers to the unusual instances of faint mirages that pop up above the horizon line in deserts and on the ocean, and in the film, Herzog captures several of these in slow tracking shots that take in the barren desert landscape. The film also includes some brief interludes with human subjects, but the bulk of its visuals are landscapes. Early in the film, Herzog sets these stunningly beautiful images to a voiceover narration by German critic Lotte Eisner reading a version of a Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, which Herzog has adapted. Later he introduces the music of Leonard Cohen, giving the images a more grounded feeling, while the creation myth used in the film’s first half elevates the images to a more ethereal significance.
On its surface, Fata Morgana is a very simple film, consisting simply of placid images and sporadic bits of voiceover. However, as you watch the film, the images start to add up to a more complex narrative, giving each other context and significance. Herzog had initially envisioned the film as a science-fiction film about a dying planet, and it’s easy to see how that could have been accomplished. The depopulated landscapes of the Sahara that Herzog and his camera operator, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, film certainly feel cold and alien. The way the mirages that they capture flicker at the horizon line, it’s easy to get the sense that there is some great secret, or a hidden civilization, existing just outside the frame. Herzog shows us rotting animal corpses and the rusting wreckage of aircraft, furthering the impression that we are observing the death of a once-great civilization. Eisner’s narration, however, provides counterpoint to the barrenness of the images, giving the impression that if these are the ruins of a long-dead civilization, they are destined to be the site of a blossoming of the next society. Her recitation of the Popul Vuh gives the mirages a hopeful, if somewhat portentious, feeling.
As the film progresses, a more explicit narrative starts to emerge as the nature of Herzog’s images changes and he abandons the creation myth in favor of the soft music of Leonard Cohen. My mind couldn’t help but drift to thoughts of colonization and the exploitation of the African continent for centuries when the images began to shift away from an exploration of the natural world of the Sahara and towards a more industrial, urban landscape. Midway through the film, Schmidt-Reitwein’s camera begins to focus more intently on construction sites and the frames of buildings, the skeletons of heavy industry. Flickering mirages give way eventually to the ghosts of Europe’s colonial influence on the continent. Herzog interviews a German scientist holding a monitor lizard, who talks about the unique ecosystem of the desert, and its importance for his studies of the lizards. I felt like his attitude towards Africa as a strange, exotic place, useful only for his scholarly pursuits was quite pejorative, and it indicates a new, less obvious form of paternalism and colonialism. Though anti-colonialist sentiments aren’t made explicit in any way in the film, I have to think that revolution and colonialism were on Herzog’s mind as he made Fata Morgana, as it was partially shot in Cameroon during that country’s war for independence.
Of course, by their very nature, movies like Fata Morgana are wide open for various interpretations. The film was one of the first popular psychedelic experimental films, and I have to think that experiencing it on psychedelics would only enhance the film’s multitude of possible interpretations. The images in the film are hallucinatory and mesmerizing, with the same framings or locations often being repeated with slight variations, furthering their dreamlike nature. Divorced from explicit context or explanation, the images invite the audience to provide their own narratives, spinning them out into collective dreams. While Herzog undoubtedly had an idea in his head about the meaning of the film that he had carefully constructed, he left so much room for interpretation that, like the mirages it depicts, Fata Morgana can appear to be many different things to many different people. It’s a movie that I would be very interested in seeing in a crowded theater, because I think that the reactions to it would be varied and passionate. I think that most people would either dismiss the movie as weird and esoteric, or they would strongly identify with it, having pasted their own experiences and viewpoints onto its beautiful landscapes, imbuing it with a highly personal meaning.
Though Herzog continues to work prolifically in documentary and his filmography is peppered with instances of formal and narrative experimentation, Fata Morgana is certainly the most explicitly experimental Herzog film that I have ever seen. The film is a product of its montage, with the images being stripped of their context, and therefore being opened up to interpretation and the influence of the viewer’s mind and experience. The fata morgana depicted in the film also become tabula rasa. The film invites intent and engaged viewership, but also offers a sort of hypnotic, sedative quality, as the images and the narration and, eventually, music, wash over the viewer. This is a thinking person’s stoner film, and one that will definitely stick around in your consciousness for a little while after a screening. This is one of my shorter posts about a movie in a while, but not because Fata Morgana isn’t worthy of deep discussion and consideration, both as a formative feature-length experimental film, and within Herzog’s filmography, but because I don’t feel that I really have an adequate vocabulary to really describe the film’s uniqueness. It’s a movie that deserves to be more watched, particularly by people who are fans of midnight movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Body Song. It’s a cinematic trip well worth taking, and one that will likely open up your mind to new ways of engaging with cinema as art.