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William Verrone - Transgression and Transcendence in the Films of Werner Herzog

William Verrone - Transgression and Transcendence in the Films of Werner Herzog

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Film-Philosophy
15.1 2011
Film-Philosophy 
| ISSN: 1466-4615
179
 
Transgression and Transcendence in the Films of Werner Herzog
William Verrone
University of North Alabama
The films of Werner Herzog present us with a very unique and distinctdilemma, namely, the difficulty of admiring protagonists who very oftenperform unappealing acts in order to satisfy their own desires, needs, orambitions. A good many of Herzog’s characters transgress because theyseek transcendence. Not every Herzogian hero chases futile dreams, but themajority of his films depict characters in dire circumstances where they eitherdeliberately choose or are forced to transgress. Transgression is aphilosophical, sociological, and spiritual concept that connotes boundary-crossing, wrongdoing, sin, or, more figuratively, self-searching. Herzog’s‘outsider’ characters allow us to recognize the boundaries that have beenconstructed by social institutions, and the transgressions show us the moraland ethical constraints that compel people to transgress. Contexts andcircumstances also guide Herzog’s characters’ dreams and motivations, butthe binary and often competing concepts of transgression and transcendenceprovide a thematic and formal link in many of Herzog’s films. Herzog’sfilms are typically wrought with careful attention to mise-en-scène,cinematography, and narrative structure. Many of his films have characterswho transgress given the nature of their circumstances. I want to discussseveral of his films and their protagonists, ones that very deliberately seekalternative ways of existing. These characters live in worlds where seekingtranscendence means committing a transgression or a series of transgressions.The philosophical interpretation of transgressive behaviour hasperhaps been best articulated by Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault. Andwhile Herzog does not directly confront either in his films, their insights intoindividual behaviour do belie a certain tendency of his characters who seektranscendence through transgression. The purpose of transgression ortransgressive acts is to transport one to other realms—to literally or
 
Film-Philosophy
15.1 2011
Film-Philosophy 
| ISSN: 1466-4615
180
 
figuratively ‘move beyond’ the ordinary. Herzog’s diverse array of characters, from Aguirre to Fitzcarraldo to Timothy Treadwell, allparticipate in an act of transgression that perpetuates their transcendence.To this end, I will briefly discuss Kant’s idea of transcendentalism, whichallows for a particular way of thinking about transcendence in Herzog’sfilms. In what follows, I will offer a discussion of Herzog’s aesthetics, themeanings and relevance of transgression and transcendence in his films,before providing a closer analysis of Bataille and Foucault and then specificanalyses of only some of Herzog’s films and characters. Much can be saidabout Herzog’s films in terms of the dialectic between rationalism andpoeticism, or, the dichotomy of German Idealism and Romanticism, twoseparate—yet linked—philosophical inquiries into human behaviour andendeavor. I mention these briefly, but it seems each merits a separate, morethorough, and different type of analysis than what my aim is here. I onlywill address Kant’s transcendentalism, which stems from German Idealism.(For instance, Herzog’s tendency to focus on the beauty and awe of thelandscape—the sublime—belies a certain Romanticism. However, Idealism’sfocus on thought over sensation possibly complicates this Romanticism.Still, there is a connection between these two discourses: the phenomenalworld is produced
a priori
by the activity of the consciousness by reacting tothat external reality whose eternal nature cannot be fully known.) I hope toarticulate a more nuanced way of arguing about the nature of transgressionand transcendence as two major themes, poles, and complementingtendencies in Herzog’s films.
Herzog’s Aesthetic: Transgression and Transcendence
The characters who inhabit Herzog’s films are very often in search of something—whether a higher calling, a new level of consciousness, or aphysical and psychic transposition or transfiguration. They essentially seektranscendence. Transcendence, both in a philosophical and religious sense,means something that reaches beyond any possible knowledge of humanunderstanding. Kant suggests that transcendence is beyond the limits of human experience and is therefore unknown (Kant, 2008, 1); still, if transcendence connotes surpassing others to achieve a physical or mentalstate beyond ordinary perception, we can recognise both the attempts atreaching this level and also the depiction of the transcendent state itself, asHerzog demonstrates in some of his films. The nature of these quests is moreoften than not spiritual, and by ‘spiritual’ I simply mean a personal journeyfor meaning or understanding while passing from one place or space toanother, either inwardly or outwardly. These spiritual journeys do not haveto be religious (indeed, religion and spirituality are not the same thing), and
 
Film-Philosophy
15.1 2011
Film-Philosophy 
| ISSN: 1466-4615
181
 
in Herzog’s films they usually are not. More precise, the characters inHerzog’s films undertake transgressive transformations; they seek to discoverthemselves through spiritual quests and by violating certain laws, boundaries,or moral codes. It is a highly personal endeavor that requires egoism. Jean-Paul Sartre, in
The Transcendence of the Ego
(1937, 98) writes that‘transcendental consciousness is an impersonal spontaneity,’ which suggeststhat transcendental consciousness determines its existence in an instant,hence its spontaneity. Such Herzog heroes as Aguirre, Kasper Hauser,Nosferatu, Cobra Verde, Timothy Treadwell, or even the entire cast of 
Heart of Glass
(1976), push beyond the limits of sanity, freedom, and societalrestrictions in order to transgress or ‘pass’ into a different state of being—transcendence. I suggest these moves are spiritual because the charactersbecome individual disciples of their own imaginings, their own beliefs, andtheir own codes of behaviour. Both physically and psychically thesecharacters embark on journeys that allow us to see how difficult, yetultimately manageable, these transgressions are. These intensely focusedexpeditions also epitomize what Herzog calls ecstatic truth.The thread that runs through Herzog’s cinematic output consists of three main ties: transgression, transcendence, and the search for ‘ecstatictruth.’ These elements work in combination to create the overwhelmingsense of anxiety that hovers in almost every individual film, but also theoverriding sense of beauty, wonder, and awe. In his ‘MinnesotaDeclaration,’ a manifesto of sorts about ‘truth and fiction in documentaryfilm,’ Herzog suggested the ‘ecstatic truth’ implies that there ‘are deeperstrata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. Itis mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication andimagination and stylization’ (Herzog, 1999, n.p.). This truth accounts forthe extreme situations of his characters; discovering the ecstatic truth isachieved through privation, exertion, and strong will, and transgressivebehaviour exemplifies these character attributes. Herzog carefully presentsus with the sacred and the profane, where transgression and transcendencereside mutually and inclusively. Few other filmmakers have explored theobscured grey areas of human constraint and freedom that infuses individualconsciousness in such glorious and grotesque ways as Herzog. He isdemanding because he often refuses to give clear endings or rather, letsambiguity remain. But what makes the films unique is the way he veryaccurately portrays how and why individuals spiritually transgress. This isnot a negative thing, as the word ‘transgress’ might connote. Rather, whatHerzog teaches us is the necessity to constantly strive for a spiritual center,no matter how mad, strange, or transgressive it may be. By attempting todiscover the ‘ecstatic truth,’ these characters find themselves on journeys thatare overly individualistic and thus quite burdensome since they engage in

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