Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1971):

A staggering, faux-extraterrestrial fugue, abstrusely related to 2001: A Space Odyssey -- where Kubrick saw the Old Testament and the New in sci-fi idiom, Werner Herzog used the mythology of the Mayan Popol Vuh read by Lotte Eisner. "Creation" is the first panel, the screen is a Rothko canvas ("Only the skies were there") that rapidly fills with sand, carcasses (a rusty jeep, a WWII bomber, a camel), expanses blasted orange and blue. It's the Sahara, but the way Herzog photographs its dunes like a vast being's weight shifting to opera music, it could be another galaxy. Power plants in the distance are the first intimation of human intrusion, oil-burning flames aren't far behind ("They came to the Mighty and to Cucumatz and considered light and life: 'In what manner shall life be sown, and how shall light shine?'"). The camera gazes down from a mountain-top for a lovely vista, but Herzog's most invaluable work is done ground-level and up close. The director himself takes over the narration for "Paradise" ("In Paradise, roasted pigeons fly right into your mouth... In Paradise, Man is born dead") and arranges local boys in frozen poses, meets a fellow explorer in aviator glasses marveling at a lizard, and scores mammoth, horizon-scanning tracking shots to Leonard Cohen tunes. "The Golden Age" cuts from the spaciousness outside to a shoebox of a drab ballroom stage, a proto-Kaurismäki snapshot of an unsmiling tourist couple on drums, piano and scratchy microphone ("Man and Wife in harmony"). There's neither distance nor derision in Herzog's gaze: The Earth is a boundless wonder, people are as odd and varied as landscapes, the great turtle swimming in the stream might be the same one held later by a traveler facing the camera in full scuba gear. Shantytown kids playing, homes carved into the sides of mountains, airplanes landing like firebirds, the horizon undulating to the heat -- mirages, and, to a dedicated, restless seeker like Herzog, self-sufficient rewards. Cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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