Sep 26, 2013

Signs of Life (1968)

As a longtime appreciator of Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog’s idiosyncratic cinematic oeuvre, I felt it was about time that I watch his first feature-length film Signs of Life (1968) aka Lebenszeichen, a breakthrough work that also proved to be the director’s first critical and commercial success, even earning him the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the 18th Berlin International Film Festival. Admittedly, I was more interested in seeing Signs of Life because it is the director’s sole work set during the Second World War than because it is Herzog’s first flick, but rather unfortunately, as the director stated himself, “The film is set during the Nazi occupation of Greece, and inevitably some people will want to suggest that the film is something like a ‘historical drama’. Of course, it is nothing of the sort.” Indeed, Signs of Life is far from a conventional ‘war film’ as it depicts soldiers of National Socialist Germany, even mentally deranged ones, with an uncommon degree of humanity, or as Herzog explained himself, “How often do you see German soldiers acting as decently as this in a war film? I think that using the war as a backdrop enables the audience to see the absurdity and total violence of what went on during the Second World War in a different light, one we are not used to seeing. It is not a metaphor, but like Invincible which is set just before the era of the Third Reich, Signs of Life uses the absurdity of this situation – showing the interactions between an occupying army and the locals – to make what is a more ‘existential’ point.” Indeed, aside from humanizing the horrendous homicidal Hun, Signs of Life, although loosely based on the story Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau (1818) aka The Mad Invalid at Fort Rattoneau written by Prussian Romantic poet Ludwig Achim von Arnim, was an extremely personal work for Herzog as the film is set at a real 14th-century fortress built by the Knights Hospitaller where the director’s grandfather Rudolf Herzog, who apparently went mad later on in life, worked as an archaeologist for a number of years publishing translations of ancient Greek engravings, which even appear in the film. 

 A fairly conventional and even sometimes mundane flick for the first hour or so, Signs of Life ultimately turns into a positively penetrating psychodrama during the last 30 minutes when the anti-hero Stroszek goes berserk and runs amok in a most pathetic manner. A sort of German New Cinema equivalent to Stephen King’s The Shining, Signs of Life depicts the wonderful whimsicalness that occurs when a boyish beta-male who can only dream of being an Aryan alpha finds himself with a screw or two loose and believes he had debts to pay to invisible adversaries, thereupon futilely attacking everyone in his path. Far from seeming like a formative work, Signs of Life is hopelessly Herzogian to the cracked kraut core as a work that features the hallucinatory physical and metaphysical madness of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the bold black-and-white insect fetishism and exotic island eccentricity of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), the charming chicken hypnotism of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), the breathtaking windmill landscapes of The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), and the wacked out war weariness of Rescue Dawn (2007), not to mention the fact that the lead protagonist’s name is Stroszek, the same name as the protagonist of Herzog’s Amero-kraut masterpiece Stroszek (1977), both of which were named in tribute to a classmate that helped the director cheat on a test while he still was a underage student. The absurd story of a man with the intensity to exterminate an entire army, but is far too impotent and only manages to kill a mere donkey in the end, Signs of Life is a celluloid parable of sorts about the insane impotence that ensues when a spiritual cuckold forgets his place in society and ultimately loses everything, especially his sanity, in the process. 

 It is the Second World War and an injured paratrooper named Stroszek (tightrope walker Peter Brogle) is sent to the ancient Greek city of Kos with his foriegn Greek wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) where two other injured Teutonic soldiers, Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) and Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) are also temporarily residing to recover from their injuries. Basically, the men do nothing aside from pretending to protect a stone fortress that they are not even worthy of setting foot on. While Becker helps translate ancient Greek inscriptions, Meinhard creates a somewhat dubious yet effective makeshift cockroach trap. Somewhat controversially married to a non-Aryan woman of swarthy Mediterranean stock, Stroszek is weaker than his wife, who helps him take precious gunpowder from grenades to make Roman candles and other fireworks. In one especially foreshadowing scene, Stroszek seems immensely disturbed by a young blond Aryan (played by Herzog longtime musical collaborator of Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh) , who describes “Chopin as evil,” while playing Chopin on his piano, thus suffering a minor mental breakdown, but the best is yet to come. While Nora attempts to refine her German, Stroszek, who seems to suffer from both boredom and an unwavering feeling of impotency, complains to his commanding officer and is reassigned to guarding the countryside where, after spotting a virtual army of windmills, he loses what is left of his sanity. Later that day while eating a lovely dinner with his wife, as well as his comrades Becker and Meinhard, Stroszek accuses them all of being secret spies out to get him and haphazardly chases them with his rifle, failing to injure any of them in the process. While Stroszek’s behavior is wildly whimsical and uniquely unpredictable, if one thing is for sure, it is that he has an incapacity for doing any real damage to anyone. In fact, in the end Stroszek only manages to kill a donkey. For all the horror stories regarding the German military during the Second World War, Stroszek is treated rather respectfully by National Socialist commanders during his standoff, where he literally states, “I don’t know what duty is.” In the end, Signs of Life concludes with the following words, “His rebellion had set something colossal in motion, and his adversary was much more powerful than he was. So, like many others before him, he had failed miserably,” which may or may not be a thinly disguised reference to Uncle Adolf.

 While not exactly Werner Herzog’s greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker, Signs of Life is certainly no small debut cinematic effort, but a positively penetrating celluloid psychodrama that, at least in my mind, depicts how the director might have acted were he forced to fight for the Fatherland in the Second World War. Indeed, Herzog could not have chosen a more diacritic setting and context for a WWII war film as Signs of Life seems like another universe that is equal parts paradise and pandemonium. In terms of a first feature from the great director of German New Cinema, Herzog’s Signs of Life certainly beats Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (1966), Wim Wenders’ Summer in the City (1970), and even Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) as a work with an audacious auteur signature that has not been dated by anachronistic far-left politics nor aesthetic influences from the French New Wave (thankfully, unlike his contemporaries, Herzog was never inspired by Godard). As for what Signs of Life means for Herzog himself, he stated the following in an interview, “One thing to say about Signs of life – and maybe other filmmakers felt this way about their first films – is that I have always had the very strong feeling that it was made somehow as if there was no history of film preceding it. As such it is my only really innocent film. Something like this happens only once in your lifetime because, once this innocence has been lost, it can never be recovered.” Undoubtedly, compared to a monolithic mainstream artistic work like Invincible (2001)—a film that is easily the director’s most artistically compromised and phony cinematic one to date—it does indeed seem like Herzog has certainly lost a bit of innocence since Signs of Life, but he would also go on to direct a number of masterpieces of world cinema, including (but certainly not limited to) Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982). The perfect work to deprogram oneself from both the anti-German WWII propaganda and formulaic aesthetic vapidness of Hollywood, Signs of Life—with its crazed cocktail of gypsy conmen who claim to be kings, a pathetic platoon of National Socialist nerds and nihilists, a creepy cameo from the musical mastermind of Popol Vuh, and an odd appearance from an old Turkish man that was the last surviving worker from Rudolf Herzog's archaeological project—is just one of the many reasons why Werner Herzog is not only one of the greatest filmmakers of German New Cinema, but cinema history in general. 

-Ty E

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