Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.
As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.
Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.
While Stroszek is the film’s central character, it is his comrades, Becker and Maynard, who are most clearly individuated. Each is introduced and defined by private eccentricities, Becker absorbed by the inscriptions on relics in the fortress where they are stationed, Maynard cantankerously declaiming the lunacy of a place where the same substance, oil, is used with salads, fish, and machine guns. Stroszek seems made of blander stuff, longing for a rational, ordered world where chickens lay eggs and goats give milk. His comrades adapt to the absurdities that surround them ordering small parts of the world: deciphering inscriptions, trapping cockroaches (to punish them for “being so repulsive,” an opinion expressed with hilariously furious conviction), a solitary Chopin recital. These private actions help them evade the confusion that Stroszek senses but cannot articulate. When Stroszek encounters the inexplicable—a valley full of endlessly circling windmills—it completely unhinges him and he starts his doomed rebellion.
Through much of the film, Herzog views Stroszek from a distance. Even his reaction to the windmills is shown primarily in long-shots that contrast with the much closer shots of the previous sequence of him on patrol. Similarly, at the dining table where Stroszek’s mad rebellion begins, Herzog cuts to a long-shot to show the crazed soldier as he starts to attack his surroundings. The later shots of Stroszek are even longer, underscoring his dwarfish insignificance in the landscape on which he seeks to impose order.
The last time we hear Stroszek speak, his voice has the same demented cackle as that of another Herzog madman, Aguirre. Subsequently, his thoughts are reported by a narrator, and he is scarcely visible as a distant speck, climbing and then falling off a wall in the fortress. But the film’s last shot, as Stroszek is carried—as at the film’s beginning—across the island in a truck, does not show him from a distance but takes his point of view: the film ends with the camera looking back at the dust rising from a road, visual evidence of his ephemeral effect on the island’s landscape.
© 2009 David Coursen