If the bulk of director Werner Herzog's work feels thematically consistent, it's because the director has always had a strong hand in the creative process. He's written or co-written nearly every screenplay for the films he's directed, guiding the characters and story to the areas that intrigue him most. However, in 1991 he agreed to helm a film penned by his longtime production manager Walter Saxer: Scream of Stone, a mountain climbing movie based on an idea by famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Herzog would later go on to all but disown the movie, claiming that that he doesn't consider it his film and admitting that he shouldn't have agreed to direct a movie written by someone else.
The film has certainly been difficult enough to see. Its theatrical run was incredibly brief, and it still hasn't received any sort of DVD release in the U.S. Unloved by its director and by many of those who saw it upon its release, it seems destined to remain the sort of cinematic curio that will only be seen by Herzog fans devoted enough to track it down (just a few days ago, I saw a one-night-only theatrical screening of the film in Atlanta – the only theatrical screening the film has had since its initial release). Is it as mediocre as its reputation suggests? Yes and no.
The story concerns two mountain climbers determined to climb Cerro Torre – an incredibly steep and dangerous mountain that has never been conquered by anyone. One of the climbers is Roccia (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Three Brothers), a veteran mountaineer who has tackled many of the world's most challenging climbs. The other is Martin (Stefan Glowacz, Fire, Ice & Dynamite), a talented young climber who has won many indoor climbing competitions but has little experience with real mountains. An ambitious television producer named Ivan (Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now) recognizes that a competition between the two men could make a compelling story, and he decides to accompany the climbers on their trip.
The stage is set for a compelling tale of obsession and ego (familiar thematic ideas for Herzog, to be sure), but the poor dialogue and acting tend to prevent us from focusing on the film's larger themes. The script is filled with tin-eared exchanges that feel as if they were written by an alien attempting to mimic human speech, and that feeling is only accentuated by the thoroughly wooden performances from Mezzogiorno and (especially) Glowacz. There's another weak performance offered by Mathilda May (Lifeforce), playing a woman who seems to serve no real purpose in the narrative other than providing a bit of romantic distraction for the two male leads (there's potentially compelling material here about romantic desire fueling the competitive relationship between the two men, but the film explores such notions rather clumsily). Donald Sutherland is his usual charismatic self, but his character seems poorly-defined, flitting between mercenary producer and sympathetic observer from scene to scene.
Herzog makes a number of strange choices throughout the film. After a tragic development early in the movie, Martin begins experiencing guilt-ridden flashbacks – and the first-person perspective we see in those flashbacks inexplicably switches from Martin to another character midway through. Later in the movie, Roccia decides he's going to go hide out on a secluded farm for a while, but his reason for this is insufficiently explained. Sutherland provides narration for the first two-thirds of the film, but eventually Herzog pulls the plug on the narration and Sutherland's perspective.
Still, there are moments when Herzog's unmistakable voice begins to shine through. The film's most fascinating character is a man named “Fingerless” (Brad Dourif, The Wild Blue Yonder), who initially appears in a goofy scene that provides the film's title (“That's not a mountain – it's a scream of stone!”), but later reveals himself as a man haunted by his own encounter with Cerro Torre. The mountain took four of his fingers, and it seems to have taken his sanity, too. He nurses a serious crush on the late Mae West (“They say she's dead, but that's not true, she runs a beauty salon somewhere...”), and the mad spark in his eyes is precisely the sort of thing the movie could use more of (Klaus Kinski was initially set to star as Roccio, and he surely would have been a vast improvement over the dull Mezzogiorno). “This movie should be about Fingerless,” I thought to myself. In retrospect, the movie actually is about Fingerless – though I dare not reveal the details of the scene revealing that.
After a while, I was just about ready to write off Scream of Stone as a disastrous misfire, but Herzog has an ace up his sleeve. The final act of the movie is built around Roccio and Martin climbing the Cerro Torre simultaneously, and it features some of the most astonishing climbing footage I've seen on the big screen. The dialogue and acting are whisked away, replaced by staggering images of humanity's valiant battle to overcome one of nature's most imposing obstacles. There were moments in this sequence that put knots in my stomach, as Herzog's camera work makes it abundantly clear that everything we're seeing is absolutely real. It's here we are reminded of what an operatic filmmaker he can be, and there are shots that rival the wonders of Fitzcarraldo. The final scene is terrific, granting the film a thematic resonance I honestly didn't expect it to achieve.
In a way, watching Scream of Stone is a bit like climbing a mountain. It takes a while just to get there, and once you do you're in for a painful, difficult journey that few people are even interested in attempting. However, if you endure, there's a tremendous reward waiting for you. The film is well below Herzog's usual standards in many respects, but the great moments are unforgettable.
Scream of Stone
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1991