There ain’t no party like a Werner Herzog party. His latest, Salt and Fire, feels like a mashup of his current preoccupations – combining philosophical volcanology (Into the Inferno and Encounters at the End of the World), ecological apocalypticism (Lessons of Darkness), historical/cultural analysis (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), and his penchant for having very intense men delivering very cryptic dialogue (basically everything he’s ever done).
The narrative centres on a team of scientists travelling to Chile to deliver a report on an ongoing ecological disaster. They’re Professor Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres), Doctor Cavani (Gael Garcia Bernal), and Doctor Meier (Volker Michalowski), who are on a UN mission and are expecting to be met by government officials once they land.
Unfortunately for them, they’re actually met by a team of black-clad paramilitary soldiers who kidnap them and whisk them away to an isolated villa. They’re led by Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of the shadowy ‘Consortium’ – the originator of the disaster they’re here to expose. But Riley proves to be no cackling villain concerned with covering up what his company has done. Instead, he plans quite the opposite.
Herzog is known for his idiosyncrasies, but Salt and Fire is eccentric even by his standards. The first act is a tense thriller, with the scientists gradually realizing the danger they’re in. It then devolves into an extended conversation between Riley and Laura as they wander around the villa and say things like “truth is the only daughter of time.” Then comes a striking final act in which the scientist is abandoned in the middle of the salt flats with Riley’s two young blind sons and left to survive for a week.
It’s a wilfully baffling movie, as eager to deliver a miniature lecture on the history of anamorphic art as it is to discuss the extinction of the human species. Yet throughout the film, there’s the familiar Herzog philosophy of humanity as an insignificant organism jumped up on its self-importance, spiralling through a dispassionate cosmos.
Herzog repeatedly shows us humanity from a warped perspective – something literalized in the studies of anamorphic art. Variations on this are seeing the human body as an incubator for microscopic life (thus allowing Gael Garcia Berna to deliver the transcendentally Herzoggian line, “There’s hordes of protozoans swirling in my digestive tract!”), contrasting our language skills with that of a parrot, or just showing humans dwarfed by an infinite expanse of nothing.
This all amounts to a gradual boiling away of the human ego – a dehydrated Laura woozily explaining that she knows her extreme environment is changing her, but she can’t be sure of exactly how. By the end I had my own interpretation – that the endless political, economic and philosophical bickering over environmental matters can (and should) be grounded in the inarguable fact that human bodies have biological requirements and our being unable to fulfil them will result in death.
You might have guessed by now that I’m a pretty big Herzog fan: I could guzzle up his brand of doomy nihilism day and night. But I shudder to think what an uninitiated audience would make of this (it’s getting terrible reviews elsewhere). For example, Michael Shannon’s Riley is straight up weird – far more alien than his General Zod ever was – played with a stilted, unblinking clarity that feels eerily robotic. The late cinematic breakdown into boundless white is concluded with by an astonishingly opaque and moving final shot that feels destined to have audiences scratching their heads.
Late in the movie the characters place their ears against the salty desert floor and hear distant volcanic rumblings. It’s impossible for them to divine what they mean: they could be benevolent geological activity or a portent of civilization ending Armageddon. Salt and Fire is much the same: a cinematic enigma that’s alternately fascinating and infuriating. Individual mileage on this will vary, but Werner Herzog is extremely my shit and this distillation of his thought processes pushed all my buttons.
Audiences unfamiliar with Herzog will be largely baffled by this eccentric and meandering eco-drama, but aficionados will find much to enjoy here.