Werner Herzog’s reputation perhaps owes more to his adventurous approach to film making than to his actual output. Whether making feature films or his excellent documentaries, he has repeatedly risked life and limb (and not just his own) to create work that is sometimes frustrating but always beautiful. Salt & Fire, which received its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, is no exception.
Herzog’s obsession is obsession: his characters are lonely, tenacious, mentally ill or megalomaniacs. They climb mountains, cuddle bears, burrow into caves, peer into volcanoes, or murder people. Most famously, and fatally, while shooting Fitzcaraldo (1981) he had a team of Amazon indians actually haul a paddle steamer over a mountain. The Director’s hubris mirrored the character’s, and real lives were lost. He has continued to test cast and crew in hostile locations around the world for five decades.
All the trademarks are present in Salt & Fire. A repentant businessman (Michael Shannon) who’s company has caused an ecological disaster, is obsessed by informing the world about its imminent destruction. His plan involves kidnapping a UN scientific delegation, and marooning one of them (Veronica Ferres) on an island with his two blind sons. By the time Shannon returns Ferres has rediscovered the beauty of solitude, an appreciation of the simple things, her maternal instinct, and love for her mysterious abductor.
The plot is ridiculous, and the script so poor that even Shannon can’t bring it alive. Unfortunately the other actors are not as good as Shannon. In fact the only voice one can imagine getting away with such heightened pseuodo-philosophcal dialogue is Herzog’s own distinctive German lilt. The rare moments of levity are so jolting that I felt like I was being mocked: the other members of the UN delegation are dispatched by a severe bout of diarrhea; wheelchair-bound machine-gun carrying Krauss gets up for a stroll (this joke is repeated. Several times).
It’s all terribly meaningful. The ‘island’ is a rocky cactus-covered outcrop. The ‘sea’ is a vast white salt flat (Uyuni in Bolivia). Krauss is played by reknowned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. The final shot shows Krauss’ empty electric wheelchair thrusting across the virgin white expanse of salt, carrying nothing but an unopened (but pre-shaken) magnum of champagne. This is probably a metaphor for something but I’m not sure what. Or maybe Herzog is just taking the piss.
Luckily it is all beautifully photographed and I decided to stop being cross with it and just enjoy the film as a weird travelogue.