The Loveless Cinema of Werner Herzog
by Lily Ekimian
Anyone who’s familiar with Werner Herzog knows just how apart his films are from anything else. They are hypnotic, existential, strange, but one thing they are not is romantic, and that may be what’s most unusual about them. Herzog’s films are so consistently devoid of love that it makes you notice just how reliant so many other films are on their romantic plots; if a common selling point for films is some steamy and irrelevant romance, a selling point for Herzog can be that he doesn’t play along.
When I tried to think of what love looks like in a Herzog film, the first image that came to mind was of the twisted, mangled sculpture Bruno presents Eva in Stroszek, a “schematic representation” of how he feels. The unlikely pairing – a man recently released from a mental asylum and a prostitute – have moved to Wisconsin from Germany to start a new life. Bruno and Eva’s relationship is a strange one, and there is no hint at romantic involvement until we learn that Eva does not let Bruno sleep in her room anymore. “And this is what it looks like,” Bruno tells her, “when a man is writhing with painful longing.” Eva replies, “I’ve never had a room to myself before.” Their individual needs and desires could not be further apart, one longing for solitude and the other companionship, and in helping themselves neither can fully understand how to help the other. The second image I thought of was of Klaus Kinski’s character in Woyzeck as he confronts his unfaithful mistress in a scene of frightening intensity; he is not jealous because he loves her, he is jealous because he feels she is his. And why is she cheating? Because she is fed up, most likely.
I would say the closest thing we get to love in Herzog’s films comes from Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, a documentary showing the life and death of a bear enthusiast. But even this is undermined by Herzog’s narration; Treadwell’s great love for bears leads to the brutal death of him and his girlfriend, and Herzog does not shy away from pointing out this reality: “And what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Perhaps this is precisely the root of Herzog’s rejection of love, that he does not see it in nature.
But none of this is a criticism of his films; on the contrary, without romantic love other emotional avenues can be explored, avenues that are too often forgotten by mainstream cinema in favour of romance. Many of Herzog’s characters are overpowered by a single emotion – one that leads to madness or death. We get characters with power complexes, such as in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, whose sole driving force revolves around their personal conquest. But there are also those who so desperately seek a reason for their existence, as in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, and Heart of Glass. What the desires portrayed in these films have in common is that the characters tend to fix their attention on a single, tangible thing in the hopes of providing their life with meaning, and that single thing is never romantic love.
And to not include love does not mean its absence is not felt. When Kaspar Hauser, a man who was raised in a dark cellar without human contact (apart from the man who is keeping him there), holds a baby for the first time, he cries quietly and tells the child’s mother, “Mother, I am so far away from everything.” Herzog’s characters are tragically isolated people, whether it’s the result of their circumstances or their own doing, and in their isolation love is not permitted.