“People should look straight at a film. That’s the only way to see one. Film is not the art of scholars but illiterates. And film culture is not analysis; it is agitation of the mind. Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism.”
You’d expect the above comment to come from a cynical Hollywood producer or some similar self-justifying hack, not from one of the most daring and poetic filmmakers of our time. If nothing else, Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of “Heart of Glass” gives a portrait of an artist even more enigmatic and frantically creative than his films make him seem. First released in the late ’80s, Every Night the Trees Disappear is a wild ride into the process of making a film and a quixotic adventure into the world and mind of Werner Herzog who, despite the above quote, hardly had approached his work with casual distain and quick money on his mind. His recent documentaries push the envelopes of the genre and of audience perceptions as dynamically as his work in the mid ’70s period covered in this bio.
Well, abstract bio. This tale by Alan Greenberg is told in a series of slightly surreal vignettes, interwoven with scenarios from the evolving versions of Herzog’s production of Heart of Glass, about a German village of glassmakers. Greenberg, disillusioned with Hollywood, hooked up with Werner Herzog in the early ’70s, after having traveled to Cannes in order to find films and filmmakers of substance, and spent two years with him and his ragged crew of philosopher cameramen, a psychologist, a cast literally hypnotized by Herzog (in order to tap into their psyches and make them more suggestible), and assorted suicidal, minstrels and one rabidly anti-American German.
Greenberg keeps himself in the background, at least in terms of commentary. While clearly welcomed into Herzog’s menagerie, he reports from his intimate position with bemusement, sometimes wonder, but never with overt fascination for his subject or his own place in this world. Greenberg, who would later go on to make his own films and write his own screenplays, at least one fruit of which was a deep friendship with Bob Marley, is here perhaps too young to be awed. While clearly sure of Herzog’s genius and appreciative of the rare opportunity he has been given to glimpse into the creative process, his reactions are deadpan. Whether recounting Herzog and an assistant dangling a reluctant actor out of a speeding car or Herzog directing a snowball fight with dictatorial menace, or when spotlighting his genuine romantic spirit and the ease with which his extreme behavior can dissolve into brittle vulnerability, Greenberg doesn’t flinch from reminding us that this extraordinary creature, who he flew halfway around the world to help him restore his faith in film, is as much a person as a titan.
Perhaps that is the gift of Every Night the Trees Disappear: Even when recounting the most outrageous acts, and when using his own taut, poetic prose in doing so, he makes one feel that the wild, unpredictable, obsessed nature of genius is open to any that embrace it. One may not be able to produce work of the caliber of a Werner Herzog, but the liberating act of creating ought to be ordinary: maybe one of the reasons that too few of us even try to fearlessly explore our creative ideas is that when we’ve tried it hasn’t felt special enough: the world didn’t change or, more likely, notice us. Greenberg’s matter-of-fact commentary on the extraordinary reminds us that Werner Herzog is not a manic creative force because he is otherworldly; he is so because he is simply a human who wasn’t cowed by doubt.