Signs of Life (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1968):
(Lebenszeichen)

Werner Herzog's protagonist is the Greek landscape, introduced in a sprawling long-shot scored to fevered bouzouki strumming and held long enough for the sparse shrubbery to become dark blots on a canvas. Injured in combat, a German paratrooper (Peter Brogle) is sent to cool off at an island off of Crete, not quite the "pretty little garden" he had in mind: The land is sun-baked and earthquake-cracked, his territory consists of a deserted fortress and an unfinished museum, his task is to watch over a supply of ammunition that won't fit his gun. His companions are a grumpy private (Wolfgang Reichmann) who nurses an empty rifle and sets traps for cockroaches, and an abstracted soldier (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) who translates slabs of ancient scriptures in between naps; Brogle's Greek bride (Athina Zacharopoulou) glides gracefully between them, trying out her German grammar. Herzog in his debut already displays a boundless curiosity for the world around him, availing himself stunningly of the island's fauna, flora, and architecture -- the village's twisting streets caught in hand-held tracking shots, relics found in the rubble, an amiable, self-appointed Gypsy King, insects trapped in a wooden owl-souvenir. The characters come upon these discoveries in the midst of large chunks of idleness, although the "strange effect" the place has on Brogle is clinched by the sight of a valley full of mocking windmills, a Cervantes image multiplied tenfold in order to push the military wonk onto an armed rampage "in the name of man." The progression from boredom to eruption is very poetically realized as a muted Edgar Kennedy slow-burn, tipped off by Reichmann's double-take at the discovery of a chicken by the beachfront; the climax is written with fireworks, a Tati punchline that trails off into mythology. To Herzog insanity is a valid, funny, moving way to engage with the cosmos, and besides, the pianist tells us, Chopin was crazy, too. Cinematography by Thomas Mauch. With Julio Pinheiro, and Florian Fricke. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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