Signs of Life (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1968):

Werner Herzog's first feature and already the landscape is the protagonist, Greek hills are introduced in a sprawling wide shot held long enough for sparse shrubbery to become dark spots on a jagged canvas. A tale of the Occupation: The wounded German parachutist (Peter Brogle) is dispatched to Kos for recuperation, the sleepy island is sun-baked and cracked by old earthquakes and not quite the "pretty little garden" he imagined. Two grunts join him, a distracted beanpole (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) deciphering archaic tablets in between naps and a burly grumbler (Wolfgang Reichmann) with a complicated relationship with insects. (He sets up elaborate traps for the cockroaches he loathes, yet simmers with outrage for the flies trapped in a tiny wooden toy.) Painting doors, polishing rifles, hypnotizing hens, crisp chunks of time-wasting observed by the Greek bride (Athina Zacharopoulou) and the impassive faces carved in ancient stone. "I have the feeling that life's rather unbalanced here." The crack-up on the mountain, profoundly existential and irrepressibly comic, for Herzog an immemorial position—it reaches back beyond E.T.A. Hoffmann to Eurypylus losing his mind over the Dionysian image. The affable Gypsy King and the fellow Teuton with an earful of "malicious" Chopin are acquaintances along the way, the berserk antihero takes up "the cause of Man" and does a crazy-legs jig atop the ammunition depot. Cervantes' windmills (a whole valley of them), Buñuel's decomposing donkey dragged away by a truck. "You know what a kangaroo looks like on Sunday?" A metaphysical slow burn (vide Reichmann's Edgar Kennedy-like double-take at the rooster on the shore) and a mark left against the sky with fireworks, a tremendous foundation for Herzog's visions. A certain conjunction with Bogdanovich's Targets will be observed, Fassbinder in a year or so has his own boredom to pulverize in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Cinematography by Thomas Mauch. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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