Fata Morgana, one of German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s earliest films, was shot in 1968-69, shortly after the release of his first feature, Signs of Life (1968). The film wasn’t released until 1971, apparently because Herzog was struggling to edit the footage while working on what would prove to be his breakthrough film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, which was released in 1970. Although Fata Morgana still has its devoted followers, it’s primarily of interest today for the light it throws on some of Herzog’s recurrent themes that appear in his later films.
Certainly Herzog is one of the great representatives of Expressionism in Film and a person whose highly original cinematic vision has encompassed both fictional and documentary filmmaking. His go-it-alone originality, however, has consequences: he sometimes seems to push his vision at the expense of cinematic craftsmanship. For example, he boasted that he shot and edited Woyzeck (1979) in 22 days, and it shows. You are best advised to avoid seeing Woyzeck if you want to retain an unblemished image of Herzog’s filmography. Fata Morgana is another example of a project that needed more care and forethought. It’s still somewhat interesting, though, if only because it is an example of a rarity: an Expressionist documentary film.
Fata Morgana was mostly shot in the southern Sahara region of Africa, where Herzog had to suffer through some extreme experiences that included severe illness and some jail time in Cameroon. When he returned to Germany with his camera footage, he then had to decide what kind of film he would make out of it. Apparently his initial idea was to take all the footage showing the desolate Saharan landscape and fashion a science fiction film about a dying planet, called “Uxmal”. Whatever initial notions that he may have had, though, nothing remains of science fiction in the finished product of Fata Morgana, as far as I can see. Nevertheless, Herzog has still claimed that Fata Morgana is a sci-fi film.
What he did come up with was a lurid portrayal of dystopia in the desert. As such, it reflects Herzog’s pessimistic view of man’s place in the universe and how far short this is from whatever romantic dreams that we may have. To me, Herzog is a frustrated romantic: he doesn’t want the world to be this miserable, but that’s the way it is, and we have to face it. Our hopes and visions concerning humanity, virtue, and the good life are merely illusions, “fata morgana”, if you will. There are other Herzogian elements here, too: obsessive men living at the remote extremes from normal existence, the alienation from nature, the fascination with the grotesque, etc.
Fata Morgana comprises three sections: "Creation", "Paradise", and "The Golden Age". Creation, the longest section at about 39 minutes, consists primarily of panning and tracking shots of desolate desert landscapes, mostly devoid of life. There is no live-action speaking in this section, only the voice-over narration from Lotte Eisner, who reads from the Popol Vuh, the classic creation text of the Quiche Indians of Guatemala. The Popol Vuh is an important work from the 16th century that is thought to reflect the stories of the Pre-Classic Mayan people. Lotte Eisner was a noted film historian who worked at the Cinematheque Francaise for thirty years and authored the classic text on German Expressionist film, The Haunted Screen. She seems to have been a significant Expressionistic influence on Herzog, and in fact a few years later in 1974, Herzog made a celebrated journey on foot from Munich to Paris to visit the 78-year-old Eisner at her sickbed (this may have helped – she lived another nine years). Eisner’s voice is only heard in this section of the film.
The narration of Creation relates how the great gods, the Mighty and Cucumatz, created first the world, then the animals, and then man. Their first attempts to create man were not very successful, since the created beings did not speak properly, so the gods destroyed them and tried again. The second time, they created man out of wood, but again these people didn’t speak properly, and so the gods destroyed them, too, this time by drowning them. It was only their third attempt that was successful. One wonders here if Herzog may think that the gods of today will consider our own existence on the planet to have been a failed experiment that should also be terminated. The images shown on the screen in this first part loosely reflect the narration, since there are no signs of life for the first twenty minutes or so, and no humans are seen until 25 minutes into the film. When we do start seeing people and their surroundings, it is mostly shots of ramshackle hutments in generally squalid conditions.
The second section of the film, “Paradise”, lasts about 26 minutes and now has a male voice-over narration. During this section a music track of Leonard Cohen’s ballads (such as “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Good-bye” and "Suzanne") is interlaced with some absurd, sarcastic poetry about Paradise (e.g. “In Paradise sometimes roasted pigeons fly directly into your mouth”). Most of the visual footage in this section is simply long shots taken from a moving vehicle of the desolate villages of the Sahel, including various shots of wrecked vehicles abandoned in the desert and shots of decaying animal carcasses. An exception is a sequence of a German naturalist who describes his intense determination to study how the monitor lizard, or in fact any animal, can survive in such a hostile climate.
The third section, “The Golden Age”, is a further plunge into even more bizarre, dystopic images that must have struck Herzog's fancy. There is a garish piano and drum duet performed on a stage in an apparently empty music hall; further absurd, voice-over poetry about some golden age; a scene of three giggling Germans reciting more nonsensical verse; and a man in a diving outfit lecturing about the attributes of a big turtle. The only common element to these scenes is their portrayal of the uselessness and triviality of man’s knowledge and accomplishments compared to the vastness of nature.
For me, none of this works (and remember I’m a fan of Herzog), so be warned. Although the travelogue-like images of the African villages are mildly interesting and the narration from Lotte Eisner is intriqueingly eerie, the film winds down at the end with more of a whimper than a bang. All you are left with is Herzog’s view of an ugly world that couldn’t possibly have been created by a loving God. It’s a world of squalor, misery, and death. Man’s attempts to survive in this hostile environment are inconsequential, pathetic and doomed. But despite some visceral imagery from remote locations, the presentation of this gloomy assessment is only schematic. The fundamental problem with Fata Morgana is that the narrative, such as it is, doesn't move much. There would be much better Herzog movies to come later.