Sunday, December 21, 2008

On the Road with Werner Herzog!

Pilgrimage, 2001

It seems to me that if there is one subject for which Herzog's particular style of filmmaking is most perfectly suited, it must be the observation of pilgrims on the painful, suffering road to the adoration of their God. My first taste of these extraordinary pilgrimages made by the inconceivably devout was in his 2003 film, *Wheel of Time* Here we watch monks travel a road of up to 3000 miles to their ordination in Tibet. And they don't just walk the road, they travel it in protestations. That is, each step is taken through bowing and touching the ground with the face or the hands in a gesture intended to dispel arrogance and pride.

Tonight I saw an earlier short film, Pilgrimage in which the pilgrims make their way in protestation or on their knees to a variety of idols: the Virgin of Guadalupe, the tomb of Saint Sergei in Zagorsk/Russia and others. We watch in agony as the devout suffer physically to serve the depth and profundity of their spiritual and religious belief. The pilgrims are known to develop lesions on their hands and knees, making movement sometimes so difficult that they must be held up by someone on either side.

All the time, the music of John Tavener plays on the soundtrack. And what more perfect sound to accompany the pilgrims as they transcend the incredible affliction of the body in pain, in order to strengthen the spirit and acknowledge the profundity of their religious commitment.

Though he may seem a long way from the pilgrims crippled by their devotion, I am again reminded of Aguirre. Like them, he has a goal that is inconceivable to most of us - just not worth the effort. And he is so driven and committed to that goal, that nothing will stand in his way. As in *Aguirre, Wrath of God,* it is the task of the filmmaker in *Pilgrimmage* to watch these seemingly irrational behaviors with utmost respect, bestowing on its subjects a dignity and a faith in their motivations, their beliefs. And just like his great Romantic wanderers - Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Kaspar Hauser - Herzog's religious pilgrims succeed in their journey, but at what cost. They reach their goal, that is true. Here, however the film makes it clear that the longing, and the desire, are the dream of a world always out of reach, a world and a life overrun by conflict, in this case between the body and the spirit.

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