Against the Image: Herzog and the Troubling Politics of the Screen Animal
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Against the Image:
Herzog and the Troubling Politics of the Screen Animal

Late in 1968, while students in the European capitals were still dreaming of revolution, another version of it was being enacted several thousand miles away. The instigator was West German filmmaker Werner Herzog, directing his second full-length feature on the island of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. Entitled Even Dwarfs Started Small, the film describes the discontent brewing among a community of dwarves in an institution on the island, and the insurrection they launch against their keepers. The revolt is by turns, farcical, incompetent and destructive – setting fire to various objects, smashing windows and crockery, and killing a pig. In the grotesque climax to the film, a monkey is tied to a cross and symbolically "crucified," then paraded about in a nightmarish caricature of a victory march.

It is not hard to detect here a response to the événements of the previous spring. The student radicals are intellectual midgets, Herzog seems to be saying, mounting an ill-considered charade whose pretensions mask the sheer futility of the exercise. As Thomas Elsaesser notes: "The film issued a challenge to the German Left about what Herzog saw as the impossibility of combining political revolution with radical subjectivity" (1989: 157). But even though Herzog denies that the film was specifically alluding to May 68 and its aftermath, he admits that he was unmoved by that particular historical moment. "I knew the revolution would not succeed," he says, "because it was rooted in such an inadequate analysis of what was really going on, so I did not participate" (2002: 56). Years later, when Herzog is making Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, stories of exploitation and maltreatment appear in the German press, and a makeshift "tribunal" is set up to try him in absentia. Again, the filmmaker is dismissive of his critics. The tribunal, he says, was just a "group of doctrinaire left-wing ideologues, another sad leftover of 1968" (184).

Following Fitzcarraldo, Herzog's international stock dwindled, as he concentrated more and more on documentary filmmaking. His return to public attention came in 2005 with Grizzly Man, a portrait of the self-styled [End Page 117] "kind warrior" Timothy Treadwell. Herzog's method was to provide a context and commentary for Treadwell's footage of the thirteen summers he spent in the Alaskan wilds—living in the proximity of bears, as their supposed "protector," and subsequently perishing at the claws of a particularly savage grizzly, in 2003. As the film's title—and indeed, its ostensive message—indicate, Treadwell's fate is a cautionary tale of human-animal relations: respect the boundary between the two, it tells us, or suffer the consequences.1 Yet Herzog is just as critical of Treadwell's attempted "activism," his claims to be siding with nature against poachers and federal authorities. The real boundary, implies Herzog, is not only the unbridgeable gap between human beings and animals, but also the disparity between Treadwell's political posturing on behalf of the grizzlies, and any objective benefit presumed to derive from it.

Herzog's antipathy to overt political discourse is well documented. "[B]ecause I have never been into using the medium of film as a political tool," he says, "my attitude really put me apart from most other filmmakers" (2002: 56). The position Herzog has consistently adopted since he started making films has been that of the counter-revolutionary. His concern is not so much with systems of injustice or oppression as with the suffering, isolated individual, whose alienation is existential rather than political, and for whom the only "cure" is ecstatic release or visionary excess rather than a reconfiguring of social relations. Too pessimistic for genuine social critique, Herzog's films depict situations in which myth displaces politics, and the irrational takes precedence over the analytical. Elsaesser sums this up as Herzog's "mystical romanticism," and suggests that it manifests itself through "his unusual visual style, his unconventional narratives, his outsiders, recluses, madmen and outcasts, his love of excess, exhaustion and extremes" (1989: 292).

Yet despite his disavowal of direct political involvement, Herzog's obsession with marginal figures lines up with his...