(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)
Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.
And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.
That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.