By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Wild Blue Yonder,” 518 Media Inc./Subversive Cinema]
These days, to be a Herzogian a devotee of and eager participant in German master Werner Herzog’s lifelong quest for the mythopoetic image experience is like being a beer-lover during Oktoberfest. This year there were three new films released here (“Grizzly Man,” “The White Diamond,” “Wheel of Time”), revivals of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Kasper Hauser,” and now two more new movies, each dancing in that no man’s land between documentary and fiction: “Rescue Dawn,” a fictionalized remake of the Herzog doc “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” starring Christian Bale, and “The Wild Blue Yonder,” coming straight to DVD.
The latter film, which has been hitting festivals since last year, is the braver freak-out. A mock-doc in format, but a film that actually finds its strangest epiphanies in genuine non-fiction footage, “Yonder” is science fiction, and not all that different from Herzog’s apocalyptic tone poem “Fata Morgana,” filmed 35 years earlier. We meet Brad Dourif, aged and wild-eyed and pony-tailed, glaring directly into Herzog’s camera from a ghost-town streetcorner, and recounting in a fuming rant the story of his race aliens from the edge of Andromeda who landed here years ago after their world had been ruined, and failed miserably to either establish a cooperative kingdom on Earth or even assimilate. “We suck,” he spits, as he also recounts the parallel story of a human space voyage sent to locate an inhabitable world as ours devolves into polluted chaos. Ironically, the humans locate the alien’s abandoned planet, and explore its murky depths.
The story obviously came second what came first was the unseen, real-world footage illustrating the human sojourn: life aboard the NASA shuttle mission STS-34, sent into orbit in 1989 for purposes of launching the Galileo craft at Jupiter. Here’s Herzog at play in the fields of absurd physics, rapt as the astronauts float in no-gravity space, attend to personal hygiene with surreal difficulty, and sleep strapped to the wall. We’ve seen astronauts floating in spacecraft interiors before, and we’ve seen the epic emptiness of space, but we haven’t seen them until Herzog shows them to us. Along the way he invents alternate poetic stories for their bizarre behavior, all of it attending to the emotional tribulation of space-lost loneliness. The crowning flourish is the arrival at the alien planet: Herzog uses breathtaking footage shot in the waters of the Antarctic to depict a barren, blue world with a liquid atmosphere and a sky of ice. Vital to each of these visual orchestrations is the achingly mournful soundtrack mass, a fugue arranged by Herzog between Dutch jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger, Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and a five-man Sardinian shepherd choir. It’s a Herzog thing if you’re fortunate, you’ll understand. The DVD has a making-of featurette and, naturally, a Herzog commentary track.
Another kind of German sine qua non G.W. Pabst’s Expressionist landmark “Pandora’s Box” (1929), restored, retitled, polished and retooled for digital eternity in a Criterion package that’ll surely be a holiday-gift ubiquity. A brooding whorl of shadow, menace and sexual manipulation based on Wedekind’s stories, Pabst’s film introduced and for the most part epitomized Louise Brooks, who as a man-eating Berlin prostitute immediately became one of cinema’s most enduring icons. (That black bob wig still shows up in films, whenever a female character is masquerading as a demimondaine.) From society-skewering slut-triumph to bad date with Jack the Ripper, Brooks’ Lulu may be a femme fatale paradigm, but Brooks herself remains one of the most mesmerizing not merely beautiful actresses to ever meet celluloid. To see her is to experience movies almost on a chemical level. Criterion’s package includes four different musical scores, two documentaries about Brooks, interviews, commentaries and essays by Kenneth Tynan and J. Hoberman.
“The Wild Blue Yonder” (Subversive Cinema) was released on DVD November 14th; “Pandora’s Box” (Criterion) will be available on DVD on November 28th.