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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Signs Of Life - 1968


Werner Herzog is one of the greatest directors in history and surely one of the best or even the best living director.

The quantity of his work combined with the consistent quality makes him a truly daunting figure in the Cinematic world.
Over the course of 5 decades he has directed 17 feature length films all of which are highly acclaimed, 7 short films and around 30 documentaries, some feature length, some made for TV and others short.

So he's not one of the most prolific directors, when it comes to feature films anyway, but his films very rarely disappoint in terms of quality.

Herzogs' films are great examples of art in film instead of being empty-headed entertainment. They are sensitive, often beautiful works that deal with fascinating subjects that really show mankind in a different light than what we are used to seeing in film.

As well as being fascinating and sometimes illuminating stories of Man and Nature, Herzogs' film are always extremely well made, he just has a natural talent behind the camera and can make any scene however seemingly banal into something wonderful to experience.

Now I could go on for a considerable length of time discussing Herzog's merits as a director, but this is after all a review of his first feature film, Signs Of Life.

Strange poster to a strange film...

As I mentioned, Signs Of Life is Herzog's first film, he directed it in 1968 at the age of 16. Now as far as first films go this one is very impressive, it was shot on location on the Greek isle of Kos and has a relatively large amount of extras. This just makes the fact that he directed it at such a young age even more remarkable.

Of course there have been some exceptional first films made before, such as Citizen Kane and since ,such as Reservoir Dogs and Stranger Than Paradise, but generally even the greatest directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa, Scorsese..... had to direct a few films in which they developed their individual styles and techniques, these films are rarely successful and are often forgotten even by fans of those directors (Fear and Desire for Kubrick, Who's that Knocking At my Door for Scorsese, Sanshiro Sugata for Kurosawa, The Colossus Of Rhodes for Leone...).
So, often a directors first film isn't necessarily his breakthrough film but in the case of Herzog it definitely was, as Signs of Life was entered into the 18th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury.
This amazing story marks the beginning of a truly great career in Cinema.

Youngest looking Herzog photo I could find, he was even younger than this when he directed this film though...

Stroszek is a soldier of the Reich during WWII, in the opening of the film we are told he has been wounded and is sent to a small Greek island ,that hasn't seen any fighting yet, in order to recuperate from his injury.
Upon arrival he is posted to garrison duty in a ancient fort overlooking the town, he is alone there with his Greek wife and two other soldiers.
He eventually starts showing signs of mental deterioration and eventually slips into madness.

If you are familiar with Herzogs body of work then you would have noticed that what was to become one of his preferred themes is being developed even though it is his first film, the gradual descent into madness.This theme is often evident in his films such as Aguirre; The Wrath Of God and to a lesser extent Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, sometimes it is central to the film as in Woyzeck.

The film is shot entirely in Black and White, this was presumably done for budget reasons for I can't recall seeing any other of Herzog's films filmed in Black and White.
I've always enjoyed Herzog's use of colour and I felt that this film would of benefited from being shot in colour. It would have been especially useful in conveying the foreignness of this Greek island as well as it's climate and beautiful landscape, but Herzog did a commendable job with the Black and White nonetheless.

The film has a rather rough feel to it, the editing could of been smoother and some frames were very grainy, but all that was to be expected and one shouldn't really compare such things with modern day standards.

I thought Herzog's early directional style was very daring and sometimes slightly unconventional which I liked a lot, such as the opening scene which really sets the tone for the film, the shots of the Greek landscape with a vehicle slowly moving along a winding road. Another scene that I was surprised by was the scene near the beginning of the film in which the camera is in movement and is working it's way through deserted streets, moving in a simple walking movement and looking around. This combined with the rather speedy editing and the traditional instrumental Greek music, transported me to the location in a simple but effective way.

And that brings me to another interesting point, as far as I could see this film was entirely shot on location ,even the indoor scenes. This is something one comes to expect from Herzog as he has built a reputation as a a director who is obviously most willing to travel and film on location whatever the discomforts may be. He is now the only living director to have filmed on every single continent on Earth.

This willingness (and the fact that he was financially able) to film on location definitely changes the film in a positive way, for as good as a set is it will always be a set and cannot fully replace real life. But due to the filming on location this film almost seems like a documentary at times and this realistic feel goes very well with the story in my opinion even though some might argue that the somewhat fantastical nature of the story would be contradicted by the realistic filming style, but more on all that later.

Another small problem I had was with the narration, it was interesting and often necessary to the plot but I felt it was to loud and aggressive, it would have worked better if it had been more subtle in my opinion, instead of it sounding someone shouting out orders.

So the film isn't a technical wonder due to it's rather unpolished edges, but many aspects of it are commendable nonetheless. Especially as it's a debut film.

The acting was hardly the strongest point of the film, the main actors did their jobs well enough but no performance was truly outstanding, the supporting actors were often locals so they added a sense of realism to the film, they made it feel more documentary like but then again their naturalness contrasted visibly with the actors who were obviously "acting", this effect makes for some rather strange scenes, these scenes can be found in many Herzog films as he is a director who strongly believes in casting the locals as extras.

(Interesting little fact, the man who plays the German pianist, is in fact Florain Flicke of the ban Popol Vuh, who composed the music for many of Herzogs later films such Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, a very talented musician, his music went perfectly with Herzog's images.)

The main actor had a challenging task as his character gradually descends into madness. I was definitely convinced by his performance but it was not up to the level of Klaus Kinski's later portrayals of similar subjects.
So, the film has acceptable performances (if you overlook the occasional obvious glance at the camera) with definite room for improvement, but the real star of the film is the director.

An interesting and entertaining soundtrack, full of traditional Greek tunes played on traditional instruments. Nowhere near as awe inspiring as Herzog's later use of music in his films but still very interesting.

As I stated before the story has a rather fantastic side to it which contrasts somewhat with the realistic style of film making used. This gets more and more evident as the films goes on, towards the end there are many obviously strange and intriguing scenes such as the rockets being fired and the town being reduced to chaos by a single man. But besides these most obvious oddities, the film is full of small scenes that at first glance will probably appear to be useless to the narrative, such as the arrival of the gypsy "king", the hypnotising the chicken scene, the scene with the little girl, and most notably the scene in which Strozsek's problem first becomes apparent, in this scene he gesticulates violently upon arriving on top of a hill and observing what lies in the valley before him, windmills, the valley is full of windmills, this scene instantly reminded me of one of the more famous passages from Don Quixote in which he attacks windmills. But of course these are just musings of mine and cannot be taken to be true without seeing the film for oneself.

But despite all these absurdities, the film has a very simple,human feel to it and is easy to enjoy. Some have complained over the slow pacing and the fact that the film is far too absurd, but I can't agree with any of that, the film has a relatively fast pacing especially when compared with other Herzog films such as Heart of Glass, and as for the absurdities, well without all the strange little touches the film would be incredibly bland and uninteresting to watch, even if it would be more credible.

One might easily forget that this film does take place during WWII, for apart from  the German soldiers in uniform there are indicators of the massive destruction being wrought elsewhere in the the world, this Greek Island seems very detached from the rest of the world, maybe that is what drives Strozsek into insanity, who knows, it is not explained in the film nor does it need to be. Rational explanations as to why these events take place would render the whole film futile, this is not a film to puzzle over and try and comprehend, there is no point in that, it is a film to be watched and appreciated for what it is, a strange but very compellingly made piece of cinema by a director who is know considered a genius by many.

Signs Of Life is recommended viewing for all fans of Werner Herzog. But I would also recommend it for all those who are interested in becoming directors as this is a great example of a first feature film and is definitely inspiring for those who have yet to direct theirs.


  1. I've always felt that Herzog's work double as travelogues. Herzog always takes the time to document and truly witness the cultures and societies in which he immerses himself. That's one of the reasons why he is such a great director.

    As for greatest LIVING director...I consider that a toss-up between Herzog, Von Trier, Scorsese, and the Coen Brothers.

  2. Excellent review, Jack! I really want to see this one!

  3. Word of advice, Nick a budding and promising cinephile, seek out as many of Herzog's films as you can possibly find.

    Trust me.

  4. @Nathanael
    That is definitely something that strikes me about his work, his use of locations and the inhabitants really makes his films quite unlike any others.
    I've enjoyed pretty much all I've seen of his work so far with only one notable exception: Heart Of Glass, I just didn't like that film at all...

    Yeah, it's hard to say who could be the greatest living director, but I think Herzog is slightly above Scorsese and The Coen's mainly because I he has an almost universally great filmography while the others despite their great films have directed a few bad ones, I think consistency in quality is very admirable.

    I haven't seen any of Von Trier's films yet although I have to admit I've been intrigued by his work for a while now, I suppose I'll get around to it someday though, after all I'm only in the early stages on "cinephilia", if such a word exists.

    @ Nick
    I agree with Nathanael, Herzog's films are unique and mesmerizing and really cannot be missed, I'm sure you'll enjoy them!

  5. Well...speaking as somebody who has seen about 30 of Herzog's films...I can definitely say that the man isn't immaculate. He has filmed his fair share of stinkers as well.

    You haven't seen ANY of Von Trier's films?!

    That's it...go watch "Dancer in the Dark" or "Anti-Christ" RIGHT NOW!!!!!

  6. I'm sure he has directed a few bad films, I would say that Heart Of Glass, The Wild Blue Yonder, and Bad Lieutenant, are the weakest Herzog films I've seen so far, but I really haven't seen that many...
    Which ones would you say are his worst? and which ones his best?

    I will get around to Von Trier someday, but I don't know if I'm reading just yet... I might watch Dancer in The Dark but I'm not so sure about Anti-Christ...

  7. Dude!

    "Bad Lieutenant" was incredible!

    I can't really speak as to which films are his worst...but I can give you a list of some of his best:

    Aguirre: The Wrath of God
    The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
    Where the Green Ants Dream
    Little Dieter Needs to Fly
    Bad Lieutenant

  8. Well I did like Bad Lieutenant a bit, mostly for Nic Cage's performance and the strange overall atmosphere, but I wasn't really impressed by it, and I consider it one of Herzogs weaker films, even though it's better than most of what Hollywood churns out these days...
    Have you seen the other Bad Lieutenant (1992), that is a very good film.