Werner Herzog's Sublime

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  • Topic: Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man, Romanticism
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  • Published : September 21, 2006
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The films of Werner Herzog's have often been approached from the point of view of a vision of the ‘sublime'. Do you agree with this reading of his work? Discuss your answer with reference to at least two of his films.

The above question contains several separate facets. Firstly, there are many different definitions and interpretations of the sublime. For the purposes of feasibility, the most appropriate definition will be examined as well as the historical and modern-day relevance of the concept. Secondly, Herzog himself has consistently rejected any intellectual criticism of his work. "I never attempt to articulate my ideas in abstract terms through the veil of an ideology. My films come to me very much alive, like dreams without logical patterns or academic explanations" (2002, 65) It will require close examination of Herzog's films and the academic analysis of these films if we are to accurately assess their level of relevance to the sublime. Thirdly, while the entire oeuvre of Herzog may or may not be approached from the point of view of the sublime, this essay will examine the question only in relation to films that have been viewed.

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy categorises the sublime into four distinct categories: Origins, Nature, Kant and Postmodern Revival. Of these four, it is Kant's expansion on Burke's notion that is given most attention and his which has assumed modern-day relevance. "When beholding a mighty object or phenomenon, we know that in relation to our puny natural being the mighty item has absolute physical authority." (1998, 203) But "while the mighty object indeed makes us fearful, we can, as rational beings, nevertheless evince a kind of moral resistance to it" or put another way " an overwhelming item in the natural world is contained by our rational comprehension of it" (1998, 203) It is this attempt to rationalise an ‘irrational' object or force that renders the experience an aesthetic one. The sublime emerged once again as an object of discussion in the light of postmodernism. In the past where nature was the main ingredient of the sublime, the "accelerating complexity and instability of society itself" (1998, 204) became part of the sublime mix.

The notion of the sublime is an integral element of romanticism. According to the Encyclopedia of Enlightenment, romanticism "ranged from a celebration of the individual and irrational freedom to a stress on community and group cohesiveness" and was "usually depicted as a movement in which irrationalism is glorified" whereby "intuition and imagination" were seen "as alternatives to limited reason" (1996, 348) Romanticism originated in Germany and spread to England and then on to France. Kent Casper and Susan Linville recall Lotte Eisner's identification of how expressionist filmmakers adopted thematic models similar to those used by German romanticist writers: "the interfusion of dream/fantasy/illusion with reality, and the psychic precariousness of bourgeois identity confronted by the supernatural" (1991, 17). The central ideas of German romanticism are "presented as quest romance, the dialectical movement of the hero's striving imagination toward individuation in a series of conscious-expanding epiphanic moments that appropriate and "spiritualize" nature" (Casper and Linville, 1991, 18). In romantic tales where the hero is lured into either nature or desire (or both), "the trajectory of narrative desire tends toward an ironic circle, either trapping the hero in solipsistic self-imaging or "saving" him though restoration of traditional bourgeois-Christian values." (Casper and Linville, 1991, 18). This "ironic circle" is used by Herzog in several of his films. Casper and Linville also note that in these tales "the infection from the fantasy realm is incurable, "stranding the hero in a dream" […] he attempts to eschew the madness of "Waldeinsamkeit" through a return to the garden community and its domesticizing structures" (1991,...
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