Fata Morgana Review
Fata Morgana is a compelling, beautiful and baffling film, blurring the line between fiction and fact in a manner which became characteristic of its director Werner Herzog. It’s a documentary of sorts about the Sahara desert and its mirages, as well as the people who live in the area. The project was originally intended to be a science-fiction film about an alien race encountering Earth for the first time and the filmmaking process was odd in itself. Herzog and his crew shot reams of footage, with particular attention to filming the mirages, without any clear idea of what they were going to do with it. Herzog certainly isn’t particularly interested in making a straightforward documentary, as he has demonstrated a number of times in extraordinary works like Land of Silence and Darkness and Lessons of Darkness. Instead, he produces a quite unique combination of fable, imagery and social commentary which has a cumulatively hypnotic effect.
The film is divided into three parts. The first, “Creation”, is a series of lengthy shots of the desert accompanied by a sporadic commentary spoken by Lotte Eisner and taken from the Mayan creation myth the Popol Vuh. The second part, “Paradise”, is about the community of people living in the middle of the desert with an ironic narration from Herzog and occasional diversions into natural history – much emphasis is placed on the survival capacity of a lizard. The final part, “The Golden Age”, begins very bizarrely with a middle-aged couple playing piano and drums and what appears to be a kazoo. It then goes on to consider the turtle and finishes with an examination of what has happened to the planet. Each title is ironic and reflects Herzog’s apparent disillusionment with what man is doing to the planet – although it’s nowhere near as despairing as its 1992 companion piece.
There’s not a great deal of point trying to analyse or even tease out the meanings in Fata Morgana. It would be possible to take it scene-by-scene and discuss how the images relate to Herzog’s themes, both here and in other films. But to do so would, in my view, be a betrayal of everything which makes the film so extraordinary. For this is a film which you have to experience and interpret for yourself, drinking in the sumptuous visual evocation of endless nowhere, noticing how the endless drifts of sand resemble the female body, how the mirages resemble the jet-stream of the landing planes in the opening scene and how the real objects found are as strange and irrational as the illusions – the remains of a jet plane, abandoned technology, an upside-down car, a barrel, seemingly endless animal carcases in various stages of corruption.
Then to see the faces of the people who call this home, lined up for the camera and fascinated by the idea of being filmed. The camera moves constantly, restless and hungry for images as if it were insatiably devouring them. Then it will abruptly stop, staring into places or faces for so long that you either find meaning or abstraction. Herzog’s excitement, his hunger for something new that has never been photographed is infectious and his method is embodied in the famous quotation - "Perhaps I seek certain utopian things, space for human honour and respect, landscapes not yet offended, planets that do not exist yet, dreamed landscapes. Very few people seek these images today." In this sense, the film is perhaps a marginal work of science-fiction in its yearning for utopia, its fascination with space and landscape and its depiction of the world as something inexpressibly strange and alien.
It’s easy to get lost in a film like this. Occasionally, and frustratingly, something detracts from the overall effect. For example, the sudden appearance of the jarring voice of Leonard Cohen which inappropriately ties the film down to a very specific period in time. It also connects it to a particular artistic movement which tends to make Herzog appear like a hippie tourist looking for spiritual enlightenment in the midst of sand-locked aridity. The third part is also a step too far, taking the film past the hour mark and entering the self-consciously weird territory which damaged so much of Herzog’s work after Fitzcarraldo.
The interpolations of the middle-aged couple are certainly odd but they don’t add a great deal to the film, succeeding mostly in taking us away from the cascading imagery of the Sahara which has intoxicated us for the first hour. The appearance of the turtle enthusiast at the end is a little more engaging but it’s only in the final few moments that the film regains a complete hold on our attention. The final message could be dismissed as naïve mystic-trail nonsense, but when accompanied by such incredible images it has a surprising potency to move and inspire.
Anchor Bay’s Region 1 release of Fata Morgana, on a double-sided disc with Lessons of Darkness, was praised for its picture quality. It’s with regret that I note the failings of the Region 2 release in this regard. Although the colours are reasonably strong, the film has a grubby appearance. I don’t just mean the grain, inevitable due to the 16MM source, but also some print damage. There is also the presence of blocky compression artefacts to contend with. The rather soft appearance of the film is, I assume, intentional.
As for the soundtracks, the Dolby 2.0 option is the one to choose. It’s allegedly stereo but it sounded like 2 channel mono to me. The music sounds great throughout and the narration has a rhythmic quality which is very compelling even if, like me, you have to rely on the subtitles. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS options are a waste of time, frankly. Nothing much changes and, basically, the film is just louder. There’s also an English dub of the film which is utterly appalling but weirdly, masochistically fascinating.
The main extra feature is a commentary track which features the fascinating Herzog in conversation with his usual interlocutor Norman Hill. There are also contributions from the actor Crispin Glover who is a long-time Herzog buff. I have mixed feelings about this track. If you listen to it, you will be in no doubt as to what Herzog intended the images to mean and you’ll become adept at spotting the mirages. But explanation tends to reduce a film like this to an academic exercise and, for that reason, I urge newcomers to watch it a couple of times for themselves before putting on the commentary track.
We also get a good biography of Herzog and some eloquent film notes.
An incidental note: Don’t do what I did and read some of the Popol Vuh in the hope of further elucidation. I got completely lost and the film seemed more elusive than ever – it’s a bit like what happens when you read “From Ritual To Romance” in order to try and understand “The Waste Land”.
Fata Morgana is only available in the UK as part of Anchor Bay's good value Werner Herzog Collection boxset