Signs of Life

Dir: Werner Herzog. 1968. Starring: Peter Brogle. German. Foreign.
Signs of Life

Signs of Life is Werner Herzog’s first feature, and it is also my personal favorite out of all his films. In Signs of Life Herzog introduces many of the themes and techniques he would elaborate upon with each successive film. His cast of rebellious misfit characters, the remote exotic locations, and his hauntingly poetic images are all introduced and fully utilized in this film.

Signs of Life is the story of a soldier who is wounded during a war and reassigned to a remote Greek island with his wife and two fellow soldiers. Their task is to guard a useless munitions dump in a ruined fortress located next to the harbor in a small village. In an attempt to escape his feelings of entrapment, Stroszek goes out on a patrol of the bordering hills where he is gripped by madness at the site of something he sees over the horizon. This encounter drives Stroszek to madness propelling him to lock himself away in the fortress and declare war on both man and nature.

The landscapes in Signs of Life play such a vital role in the film. The movie was filmed on the Greek island of Kos in a small village in the harbor. Herzog doesn’t just use the landscape as a backdrop for the story; instead he incorporates it into the telling of the story and uses it as a trigger to engage Stroszek’s madness. Herzog frames the landscape so that it appears to have a life of its own. It’s a barren, sparse Mediterranean landscape, with rolling, dusty hills scattered with rock formations and palm trees. Everything about the landscape is overwhelming and remorseless. The sun is an oppressing presence in the sky that beats down upon Stroszek and the land. The ocean is a vast empty vessel with its waves that perpetually lap against the shore. In the film, Stroszek feels overwhelmed by the landscape. By portraying the landscape in this way, Herzog creates a visual atmosphere for Stroszek’s state of mind. The first time I watched this film I was blown away by the images Herzog captured, and every time I re-watch it I amazingly manage to find something new I hadn’t noticed before.

I can’t recommend this film more highly. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous. The simple score of Mediterranean folk music by composer Stavros Xarhakos is both beautifully hypnotic and melancholy. The movie has one of the most breathtaking and original uses of fireworks I’ve ever seen. And also look for a small cameo from longtime Herzog collaborator and leader of the band Popol Vuh, musician Florian Fricke.

Signs of Life is truly an original film by a master filmmaker, and to fully understand Herzog’s evolution as an artist you need to see this film. It’s available on Anchor Bay DVD, which comes with an always entertaining and informative commentary by Herzog himself! Check it out! (DVD: Anchor Bay)

Posted by:
Eric Kench
Jun 7, 2008 5:37pm
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