Director Werner Herzog’s latest mediation on man vs. nature Salt and Fire is a divisive and surreal eco-thriller
Sitting in the packed-to-the-back TIFF P&I (press and industry) screening for Werner Herzog’s latest feature film, Salt and Fire, you could just feel it, you just knew. You knew that half of that audience wouldn’t be there by the time the film ended and that the folks that did go the distance would be applauding. And this is pretty much what happened, more or less. It’s a Herzog movie, man. This is just how it goes.
Since his earliest days as the warrior of the German New Wave, Herzog has created consistently challenging, earthy and cerebral films that celebrate the natural world and examine the plights of the often dangerous humans who dare to try to tame it. His movies are personal and yet epic, melancholy and yet absurdly funny, dark and psychological and yet almost child-like in their curiosity. These dichotomous sensibilities are what make his movies so beloved and divisive and are what make his award-winning documentaries so unique and fascinating.
Really though, what you need to know and embrace when it comes to experiencing a Werner Herzog movie, is to know and embrace the man himself. In the last 20 years, Herzog has become sort of a secret handshake cult figure. His inimitable narrative voice and way with the English language are the subject of much imitation and impersonation (for maximum laughs, have a listen to Herzog reading the mock-children’s book Go The F**k to Sleep) and he shows up in the most unlikeliest of places, from the finger-eating villain in Jack Reacher to the alien God in Freaks of Nature. People that love Werner Herzog, worship him. People that don’t get him, however, often have difficulty grasping the organic magic of his movies.
In Salt and Fire, Herzog casts his My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (another film that caused half the critics to walk when it premiered at TIFF a few years ago and a film that might just be one the director’s best works) star Michael Shannon as a rogue corporate industrialist who kidnaps a UN investigator (played by the lovely Veronica Ferres) and drags her to a staggering salt formation in the middle of Latin America (actually a real phenomenon in Bolivia). Ferres was en route with her colleagues (which include Gael Garcia Bernal in a hilarious cameo) to said formation anyway, but Shannon and his masked, armed henchman have other plans for how they want her to see and experience the incredible and potentially planet-destroying ocean of salt.
To love this film – and we most certainly adored it – one must understand that there is little difference between a Herzog narrative feature and a Herzog documentary. His characters communicate to each other in Herzog-speak, vocalizing the specific messages the director wants to convey and in doing so, employing his distinct, lyrical language. For the average viewer, this will seem like actors struggling with a “bad” script. But such bourgeois conventions are beneath a film like this. When Shannon drops Ferres off into the middle of the salty landscape with a hot plate, tent and water and two little blind children for companionship, the movie abandons whatever structure it had and just opts to watch this woman exist and endure in this strange, lethal and remote world. It becomes less a film than an all-consuming environment.
Salt and Fire is a fantasy, a strange surreal meditation on man’s relationship with the planet he’s married to and yet seemingly keeps letting that basic fact elude him. Like all Herzog movies, it’s a dream, an immersion into its creator’s mind.
And what a beautiful mind that is.