I’m a sucker for experimental cinema. I’m also a sucker for the work of Werner Herzog. Putting the two together is, for me, something mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and perfect.
One of Herzog’s earliest features, Fata Morgana is a quasi-documentary set in the Sahara desert. Fata Morgana—which translates to “mirage” in English—is an entire film of just that: mirages, as imagined by Werner Herzog himself. Shot on location, the audience can almost feel the violent heat of the desert seeping through the screen. In order to complete the film, the crew battled various obstacles including the imprisonment of their lead cinematographer. (Anyone familiar with Herzog’s work knows how typical such events are for the eccentric director.)
Herzog examines the desert’s ecology, its peoples, and its unique geography. During the film’s hypnotic tracking shots and extremely long takes, pieces of a Mayan creation myth are recited, with a kind of thought-provoking, dreamlike brilliance. We are given the opportunity to contemplate on the meaning of life and humankind’s relationship to both the environment and the universe. The screenplay was written by Herzog himself.
Much of the cinematography for the film was captured by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, who rode through the desert atop a VW van while Herzog drove. The film crew—with Fitzcarraldo-like bravado—smoothed the roads out themselves in preparation for filming. The entire project is a metaphor for, as well as a foreshadowing of, Herzog’s later work, which would build on his grandiose desires to conquer the cinematically unconquerable.
Many of the aesthetic decisions present in Fata Morgana—both visually and thematically—will be recycled in Herzog’s later work. It is clear that the creative experience Herzog had out in the sands of the Sahara came to have lasting effects on his cinematic vision. For example, the towering flames shooting upward in Saharan oil fields are only the beginning of Herzog’s mesmerization with burning oil. Two decades later, in Herzog’s 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, similar flames will be shown.
Further, the random (and beautiful) musical performances in Fata Morgana, filmed with an almost paranoiac attention to detail in, will be seen in similar fashions throughout many of Herzog’s later films including The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, Nosferatu, the Vampyre, and Woyzeck.
Not only are these examples evidence of the very real mark this film would come to leave on Herzog, but thematically—as I mentioned earlier—Fata Morgana marks the beginning of his general obsession with accomplishing the artistically impossible.
Originally intended to be a science-fiction film, Fata Morgana’s subject-matter is refreshingly strange, deep, humanistically reflective, and full of wonder. Herzog’s ability to dribble Camus-esque absurdity onto his cinematic canvass is a feat rarely accomplished by filmmakers of even the highest caliber.