The shadow of history, the darkest and most criminal parts as many nations possess, weighs heavily, and a most frequent practice throughout the world is displacing connection and responsibility, trying by individuals and institutions alike to forget and encouraging the act of forgetting, rendering historical information inaccessible and outright revising it, so as to allow these acts and the systems that produce them to continually exist unchallenged.
Born into Germany during WWII and adolescent in its aftermath, Werner Herzog was inherently placed at the forefront of a nation confronted by its own moral failings, known for its efforts to preserve the memory of this history without empowering its criminals. He has nonetheless done everything he can to distance himself from being associated with this particular history or acknowledging how those experiences could directly inform his works. He famously and proudly proclaims his heritage as more Bavarian than German, and speaks often to his intent to avoid politics in his film, in favor of what he sees as artistic pursuits more valuable and meaningful than political ideals. He was and is operating on a notion that works of art can be apolitical simply by declaration and he is thusly free to act as an artist without consideration for the context surrounding these actions, both internal (his biases and privileges of experience) and external, the reality of the material he captures with his camera.
While the relationship between political function and artistic accomplishment is complex, being apolitical as a concept is a falsehood born of privilege allowing the choice to disregard the perspectives of others and thus the consequences of one’s actions upon them. Even the most conceptually innocent works, those seemingly most distant from our plane of reality, are nonetheless informed by those internal and external factors of their creators. Herzog’s efforts to avoid reflecting on his country’s history has sent a reverberating effect throughout his career upon the films and their subjects alike, creating a consistent disengagement from reality that dehumanizes individuals in the same cultural power dynamics as the Nazi Germany that he tries to forget. Whether it’s choosing to use African children as props to be seen through an “alien’s eyes” in Fata Morgana, or the notorious animal abuses throughout his 1970s films, there is both tangible evidence for Herzog’s choice to forget his country’s past and tangible consequences for this decision. Even his most intensely and broadly empathetic films, like Land of Silence and Darkness, manage to consistently mistreat his subjects.
Herzog shares his tendency for denial with the subjects of two very different works involving him, Dieter Dengler in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Jiro Horikoshi in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, and it’s the dissonance between the portrayals of these lead characters along with the contradictory nature of his role in the latter film, that most clearly cast a shadow over his attitude towards political content in his films, the apparent contrast between the treatments of these characters demonstrating a distinct failing on Herzog’s part within Little Dieter. After having been known for years for criticizing his country’s conservative politics and relating failure to reckon with its imperialist past, with The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki tackled these ideals head-on in conjunction with exploring the potential moral and personal consequences of artistic pursuit, through a loose adaptation of the life of Japan’s foremost military airplane designer. During a stalled period in his career after collaborating with Germany’s Hugo Junkers, who soon after would be ousted by the Nazi Party, Jiro meets a German refugee called Castorp, who quickly recognizes that Jiro is an engineer that has visited Dessau, where he witnessed not only Junkers’ mistreatment but a purge of his Jewish employees without objection. Jiro is comfortable criticizing “Mr. Hitler’s men” in their private space, without regard for his own continued collaboration with the Nazi government or the equally fascist Japanese empire, and Castorp confronts him for this not long before he flees the Japanese secret police.
With an animated avatar far from his primary career, speaking the words of a far more politically involved filmmaker, Herzog criticizes Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and a character whose attitudes parallel his own with this monologue: “This is a good place to forget bad things. Make a war in China – forget it. Make a puppet state in Manchuria – forget it. Quit the League of Nations – forget it. Make the world your enemy – forget it. Japan will blow up. Germany will blow up too. My country will go to war again. They must be stopped.” Despite Castorp’s words to him, Jiro continues to maintain his long-standing conviction, that he is merely pursuing his creative ambitions and love of flight in the context available to him and that he is not responsible for the actions of those he is working for, throughout the film, until he is fully confronted by the consequences of his actions in the finale, where his greatest triumph and greatest failures are directly juxtaposed, one begetting the other. The difference between The Wind Risesand Little Dieterlies in how the former allows its character’s perspective to fully play out while still interrogating it and seeing outside of it, presenting what he is choosing to ignore and that he is choosing to ignore it.
On Miyazaki’s behalf, Werner Herzog condemns Jiro’s sin of forgetting, Japan’s sin of forgetting, but left to his own devices, he was an accomplice to Dieter’s forgetting as an extension of his own. Herzog and Dieter possess multiple dimensions of shared history: adolescences during the aftermath of WWII, growing up amidst the ruins of a shattered nation, being deprived of resources and residing in the shadow of its deep shame; backgrounds as working class laborers; experiences as German expatriates within the United States. Beyond biographical details, there is a powerful sense of connection between them, apparent in the film’s portrayal of Dieter and Herzog’s own words in interview, a sensation of two storytellers finding kindred spirits with one another.
In his quest for accomplishing affection towards and understanding of Dieter from the audience, Herzog consistently and wholly practices a careful concealing of and deliberate disregard for the glaring moral issue surrounding Dieter: Dieter’s need to fly drove him to comfortably align himself with imperialistic military force and the active aggressor in the Vietnam conflict, and despite having personally experienced the trauma of being a civilian on the ground subjected to warfare, he shows no concern for the fact that he subjected the Vietnamese to the same experience. Herzog abets this failure of critical self-reflection by applying distinct scoring and his own words to carefully chosen archival footage to frame the warfare as a disconnected and surrealist experience. “From air, Vietnam didn’t seem real at all. Everything down there seemed to be so alien and abstract, like a distant barbaric dream.” The dehumanizing stylistic treatment of both the Vietnamese and the unknown German citizens seen in footage standing in for Dieter’s post-war childhood fits right in with the pattern set by Lessons of Darkness and Fata Morgana of Herzog seizing the realities of the Gulf War in Kuwait and sub-Saharan African poverty to be appropriated for his abstract expressionism, this time directly servicing rather than just practicing the belief that these additional subjects don’t matter. Werner needs them not to matter to believe in his art for its own sake and not an elaborate method of running away from home; in his discovery of a fellow man who doggedly pursued dreams with blinders on to the consequences of his choices, he found the ultimate reinforcement of this need.
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