Originally, Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana was supposed to be a science fiction film. Herzog and his crew wandered through the Sahara Desert in search of mirages, and planned to use these images to depict the world of aliens from the Andromeda Galaxy. Eventually, however, the director began to feel that his footage would be best suited to something “more substantial.” The finished product isn't a science fiction movie, but what is it, exactly? A documentary? A religious film? A music video? A satire? An impenetrable art film? All of these, and none of these. Even by Herzog's own standards, this is a challenging and mysterious movie. It's a film made purely on instinct; pieced together based on feelings Herzog himself couldn't quite articulate rather than on a more conventional, coherent master plan.
Fata Morgana is divided into three sections: The Creation, The Paradise and The Golden Age. The first section is quietest and most mysterious, as complex mirages are accompanied by readings of an ancient Mayan creation myth (also known as The Popul Vuh). In the audio commentary Herzog recorded for the film, actor Crispin Glover (a longtime Herzog devotee) asks whether the director had intended this narration to be there from the beginning. “No, I just felt something was missing, and I was fascinated with Mayan religious texts at the time,” Herzog replies. He then goes on to reveal that almost nothing in the film was planned in advance – that he merely shot whatever fascinated him and put the pieces together later.
The images Herzog presents have a certain sinister beauty, and after a while we begin to recognize that the grandiose words offered by the narration don't always match the increasingly unsettling images we're seeing onscreen. Eloquent verses on the beauty of nature are paired with images of rotting animal corpses, and statements on the wonder of creation are layered on top of shots of desolate wasteland. Herzog doesn't seem to regard the desert with quite as much suspicion as he regards the jungle (“In the face of the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle, which lacks only dinosaurs as punctuation, I feel like a half-finished, poorly-expressed sentence in a cheap novel”) or the ocean (“A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger”), but he nonetheless tends to zoom in on its dark side: its chilling emptiness, omnipresent death and mirages filled with false promises of hope.
The further the film progresses, the more it focuses on human beings. The Paradise offers long, meditative tracking shots of humble African villages, most of which are underscored by plaintive Leonard Cohen songs. We meet a man obsessed with understanding the survival methods of lizards. He tells us he has only sixteen years left to unlock their secrets, though he doesn't tell us how he arrived at that figure. Again, irony is everywhere: the narration describes the glories of paradise, and we're given shots of a place that looks difficult at best. There's a German woman ranting to a group of native children about blitzkrieg, which may or may not mean anything but is certainly interesting.
Things get even stranger in The Golden Age, which spends much of its time spotlighting a peculiar musical duo: an elderly woman pounding piano keys and a goggles-sporting drummer muttering incoherent lyrics. A man reads ancient texts while a second man films him and a third man laughs and laughs and laughs. Well-dressed white people roll around in the sand dunes. Humbly-dressed black people march in front of a church. An enthusiastic man wearing scuba gear offers a goofy explanation of a sea turtle's anatomy. Another mirage, this time featuring a solitary vehicle driving across the vast desert landscape.
What does all of this mean? How do all of these pieces connect? How much of what we're seeing is real, and how much is part of Herzog's own cinematic mirage? I don't know the answers to all of these questions. As ever, Herzog demonstrates a gift for finding the most fascinating elements of any place he finds himself in, but he usually assembles those elements within a package that feels more purposeful. Fata Morgana is a dream subject to each viewer's individual interpretation. It does not offers answers or enlightenment, but it does offer many unforgettable moments. Once you've seen the film, you won't soon forget the sights you have seen: the eerie landscapes, the elusive mirages, the weathered faces, the mad grins. Whether you see an empty desert or a cinematic paradise will largely be determined by your patience, your understanding of Herzog's mindset and your appreciation of movies that show you things you've never seen before.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 76 minutes
Release Year: 1971