Thursday, July 7, 2011

Killing time

Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life) 1968 Germany (87 minutes) written, directed and produced by Werner Herzog; includes a kibitz version with Herzog watching and commenting on the film with Norman Hill.
A young man serving in the military in wartime in a country far from home comes slowly unglued under the steady, indifferent gaze of an alien place and its people, its history, and the hot sun.
In his first feature film, Werner Herzog employed what would become his signature method: take an inspiration to a place, combine a cast of professional actors with friends, film crew and local people, and shoot in and among the lie of the land and found objects to create an of-a-piece work of art.
Stroszek (Peter Brogle), a German paratrooper wounded in combat in Crete, is sent to Kos, one of the Dodecanese islands near Turkey, to recover and to guard an ammunition depot. Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou), the Greek nurse who treated Stroszek and whom he marries, and two lightly wounded comrades, Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) and Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) accompany him.
The depot, in the citadel of the long-abandoned but still imposing Castle of the Knights built by the Knights Hospitaller in the late middle ages, is of minimal military value to the Germans because they cannot use the ammunition in their weapons. The German command is concerned that partisans may try to take the stockpile.
But the war is far away. The prospect of having to defend the position against partisans or anyone else is slim. The young men’s main foe is every soldier’s chronic occupational hazard: boredom. It is their duty to rise and shine every morning and spend each day finding ways of going through the motions of something that does not make much sense to begin with, fortunate to be in the rear.
They smoke and talk a lot, eat and drink, paint things, and make fireworks of the antiquated ordnance. Meinhard fishes, designs a contraption to catch roaches and hypnotizes a chicken. Becker (a non-actor friend of Herzog and scholar of antiquities) deciphers classical inscriptions found at the site. Stroszek and Nora play house.
They kill time.
            The soldiers’ boredom is heightened by the impassive, sun-beaten setting. One senses eyes on the Germans everywhere they go, but few of the local people besides small boys appear to be watching them. The islanders seem to carry on with their lives as usual, content to let the non-Greek-speaking whomevers go about whatever business has brought them there.
Animals and people in old photographs appear to be watching the foreign soldiers the same way: steadily, with patience; indifferently, without judgment.
            One even gets the sense that the past is watching the young men. The fortress grounds are littered with artifacts of antiquity. Successive cultures incorporated pieces former ancient structures and statuary into their masonry as they built on the old, speaking for the many centuries in which this place has seen foreigners come and go about their brief vanities and then disappear.
            Stroszek’s nerves begin to fray. Relieved to be detailed to a safe patrol with Meinhard to break the monotony, Stroszek is undone when they suddenly come upon a valley filled with the sight and sounds of hundreds of windmills. 
            The German authorities intervene after Stroszek takes sole control of the depot and threatens to blow it up. From this point on, we see him only from the distance, bounding madly along the parapets like an antic mountain goat in an unusual, effective portrayal of madness by the young Herzog which could echo from the writings of Joseph Conrad.
            The kibitz version in which Herzog discusses the film with Norman Hill as it runs also is worth seeing. Among other things, Herzog says that his interest in Crete and Kos was inspired by his grandfather, Rudolf Herzog, the archaeologist who discovered and excavated the renowned Asklipieion at Kos at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is where Hippocrates, the traditional ‘father of medicine,’ practiced and taught his art. Achmed Hafiz, an old Turk who appears as a local in the film, worked at the dig as a boy with Rudolf Herzog.   
            Other than the surname, there is no connection between the Stroszek in this film and the title character in Herzog’s eccentric 1977 classic Stroszek, in which Bruno S., his girlfriend Eva and an elderly neighbor Scheitz have a series of bizarre misadventures in their odyssey from contemporary Berlin to rural Wisconsin.
            Herzog told Hill that in both instances he used the name to honor a promise to a fellow university student named Stroszek, that if Stroszek wrote a history paper for Herzog, Herzog would make his name ‘immortal.’

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