Issue Date: December 21, 2007
Werner Herzog's ecstatic vision speaks to the truth of Christmas
By DICK STAUB
Last week, a truth-loving friend sent what he found to be inflammatory comments uttered by the documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog was speaking at the 2007 American Film Fest on the subject Is the filmmakers responsibility to the subject to capture objective truth or realize his own artistic vision?
Heres how he answered: There is no truth; if youre looking for it, go do something else. Objective truth is baloney. He went on to argue that the line between documentary and narrative cinema is irrelevant, and so he aims for a deeper artistic truth.
Todays younger generation often learns history through docudramas. Its a dubious enterprise when the filmmaker views truth as an artistic invention, so I am concerned about Mr. Herzogs comments.
I remember my son, then 16, saying as we left the theater after we saw Oliver Stones JFK, Wow Dad, Im really glad to finally know what happened at the Kennedy assassination. His comment was a sobering one for me, an older man who had lived through the event and then tried to untangle all the murky conspiracy theories.
However, in the case of Herzogs vision of a deeper artistic truth, I think its a mistake to ignore the significance of what hes saying. Correspondence between Mr. Herzog and film critic Roger Ebert (posted online at Herzogs Web site, www.wernerherzog.com) allows us to see what hes talking about.
Mr. Ebert recalls being enthralled after seeing Mr. Herzogs documentary, Bells from the Deep, about contemporary Russian mystics. In the letter, Mr. Ebert reports talking for some time about the film, and then director Herzog saying, But you know, Roger, it is all made up.
The film critic did not understand, and Mr. Herzog clarified. It is not real. I invented it.
At this point, Mr. Ebert was understandably confused, but then recalled hearing Werner Herzog talk about ecstatic truth, of a truth beyond the merely factual, a truth that records not the real world but the world as we dream it.
Which brings me to Christmas.
Christians are not alone in enjoying the magic of this season, but we do believe the Christmas story is a reference to what J.R.R. Tolkien called the one true myth, a true story underlying all myths.
This true myth is the world as we dream it, and in Tolkiens view, we dream it because it is real and we yearn for it.
Tolkiens friend C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, Hope is one of the theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not ... a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.
At Christmas, the spiritual dimension is alive. Angels appear to shepherds, to John the Baptists mother Elizabeth, and to the Virgin Mary. Wise men follow astrological charts to find the birthplace of a newborn king. All is magic and mystery, a veritable banquet for mystics seeking ecstatic truth.
Werner Herzogs film vision is that of a mystic who yearns for a deeper, ecstatic reality; as an artist, he must imagine and then create it.
This was true of C.S. Lewis before his conversion. Lewis remarked in Surprised by Joy that he had reached an impasse where nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
After the author experienced what he called a baptism of his imagination, he said he started believing the unseen world was the real world, and this world a transitory one. Lewis saw his task as discovering the real, unseen world, not the creation of it.
This unseen and real world is what C.S. Lewis is describing in the last line of Narnia where he writes, For us this is the end of all the stories. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world ... had only been the cover and the title page: Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever and in which every chapter is better than the one before.
God, the great creative artist, invented the ecstatic truthful story of which filmmaker Herzog and author Lewis got glimpses. During the Christmas season, it is made accessible to anyone with eyes to see.
Dick Staub is the author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.
National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007
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