Posted in: Documentary

Losing Focus: Three Herzog Shorts – The Dark Glow of the Mountains, The Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984), suffers from limitations imposed by its subject: the effort of two daredevil climbers to scale two difficult mountains back-to-back, without a break in between. They describe this as something never done before and much more dangerous than climbing one peak. The aesthetic problem, though, is that the available footage was evidently limited to what Herzog shot in conjunction with interviews, and there is no real visual evidence of danger or drama.

Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains
Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains

The interviews are colorful enough, in their way. One climber boasts that, thanks to frostbite on previous climbs, he is down to four toes; his colleague, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, admits to having all ten, but does note [hopefully?] that, with the difficult project they are undertaking, that could change. Aside from the unique and unprecedented nature of the stunt, and its danger, neither climber cites any particular reason for doing it. The more seasoned of the two—the one with four toes—concedes that he climbs compulsively, and gravitates toward doing new things; unless I’m missing something, that is another way of saying he does it to keep from getting bored. This is quite a jarring contrast to the ski jumping in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), which Herzog transformed into a mystical pursuit of the transcendent and the poetic. It seems odd to find Herzog, a decade later, celebrating the things mountain climbers do to ward off boredom. And without climbing footage, the film is inert; even the announcement that they have successfully climbed the second mountain registers as curiously flat, almost anti-climactic.

Even more anti-climactic is Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). The nature of flying, and the verb “needs” suggest an emotional, perhaps even spiritual, desire to escape from the earth-bound and mundane. But when Dieter tries to explain his “need,” all he can muster up is a report of seeing a plane in flight and deciding that he wanted to take up flying. Despite the title, the film is less about his “need” to fly than its upshot: he became a pilot in Vietnam, was shot down and imprisoned, and later dramatically escaped. Herzog was so taken with the extended account of the escape narrated in Dieter that he re-created it—rather conventionally—in Rescue Dawn (2006). But nothing in either Dieter or Rescue Dawn suggests that there might be moral implications to satisfying such a “need” by flying missions over Vietnam, rather than, say, joining a flying club.

That moral obtuseness had achieved a stunning apotheosis a decade earlier in what is certainly Herzog’s most reprehensible work, The Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984). The title refers not to size but to age: the “soldier” is a 12-year-old Miskito Indian (most of his fellow-“soldiers” are younger) fighting with the Nicaraguan contras against the Sandinista government. Herzog solemnly describes them as the vanguard of the world-wide struggle for indigenous peoples’ liberation.

At the time, the film was derided for taking the wrong side in Nicaragua’s civil war, a point well taken, but somewhat beside the larger point: left or right, fighting to liberate indigenous peoples or to restore a thuggish regime of gangsters, these are not “little soldiers,” but children, not yet in their teens. As such, they are incapable of the moral judgments needed to make an informed decision to take up arms, one reason the Geneva Conventions—a document considered quaint in some quarters—prohibit using children under 15 as soldiers.

The little soldiers
The little soldiers

The film shows the “little soldiers” in well-fitted child-sized camouflage suits and combat boots, looking a bit overmatched as they struggle to fire full-sized automatic weapons; Herzog asks no questions about funding for the spiffy uniforms. Instead, Soldier—rather like the conventional propaganda from which it seems virtually indistinguishable—dutifully chronicles the “little soldiers” going through their paces: describing how the Sandinistas killed their siblings and parents; taking target practice with a machine gun two of them can barely control, until the firing range is littered with spent shells; setting off on a combat mission that ends quickly—and, needless to say, without bloodshed—when the element of surprise is lost; as I recall, there is even a song.

Near the film’s end, Herzog gives a perfunctory nod toward ethical questions when a crew member—not Herzog, who is the narrator—voices misgivings about how the Contras incite children to hate the enemy. It reminds him, he says, of how the Nazis prepared children for combat late in World War II. A valid enough point, certainly, but utterly wrong to the extent it suggests that things would be copacetic if the indoctrination were just a little more honest. Neither the film, nor Herzog, seems to recognize that the evil of using children in war cannot be mitigated by doing it “responsibly.” The film is particularly clueless when the narrator implicitly endorses combat training for the children by reporting—based, no doubt, on reports helpfully provided by the Contras—that the Sandinistas send children into combat without training. And once the indoctrination box has been dutifully checked, the film resumes its matter-of-fact, rather complicitous treatment of the use of child soldiers—and, by extension, of their Contra patrons—in the struggle for indigenous peoples’ self-determination.

Given the jaw-dropping credulity and lack of moral sense, it’s probably carping to add that the film is rather dull and conventional, adjectives not often used to describe Herzog in his heyday a decade earlier. But here, as in Dark Glow, talking heads don’t make for compelling cinema.