Scenery Seeks Movie: Herzog's 'Queen of the Desert' at the Berlinale

Werner Herzog has enacted the absurd over half a century of art and life—what can self-parody mean to him?

Ben Mauk

Ben Mauk

Nicole Kidman in 'Queen of the Desert' (2015), directed by Werner Herzog

This is the second part of our three-part coverage of the Berlinale. For the first part, on Jafar Panahi's Taxi, click here.

By all accounts, Werner Herzog is not the sort of person who worries about self-parody. With a career-average output of one to two films a year, he hasn't got much time to reflect anyway. And it's hardly in keeping with his philosophy of forward momentum, as described to Paul Cronin in last year's collection of interviews, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed: "I wouldn't hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket."

The 72-year-old director has also reveled in his self-made mythology as a shoe-eating, bolt-cutting, Europe-trekking, fence-hopping, permit-forging, guard-bribing, gun-waving criminal and adventurer. Yes, he has made guest appearances on Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons. He has played the voice of a plastic bag. In 2013, he made From One Second to the Next, a short film for AT&T about the dangers of texting while driving. But he has also partied with warlords, kings, Amazonians, and Nicolas Cage. He has enacted the absurd over half a century of art and life—what can self-parody mean to him?

And yet, it must be said, his oeuvre is a mine field of parodic ordnance: The existential dread of his documentaries, the Technicolor globetrotting of his feature films, the deadpan voice-overs, the protagonists driven to murderous ends in pursuit of an insane goal—parody beckons with every new iteration of his oversized themes. Even Herzog's famously unconventional working methods have become a convention unto themselves, ripe for satire, and so we know to expect from behind-the-scenes anecdotes an intransigent on-screen partner (Klaus Kinski, Bruno S., Cage), an easy relationship with international border law, and an even more relaxed attitude toward the finicky distinctions between fiction and fact.

If Herzog has avoided self-parody over a career of more than 50 films, it is because of the relentless and overwhelming focus he brings to bear on his subjects. Having established himself in the 1970s as one of the best of the German New Wave (with classics like Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser), he has continued to surprise in the new millennium with such diverse and unyielding documentaries as Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Encounters at the End of the World , produced alongside mixed but worthwhile feature films like Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Whatever the subject, his singular Herzogian perspective—simultaneously exotic and banal, antediluvian and apocalyptic—is like nothing else in the history of the medium.

I caught his latest film, Queen of the Desert , during its much-hyped premiere last weekend at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. Herzog was back on home turf with the mostly German-speaking audience at the Berlinale, and the mood was, well, appropriate. Just before the screening, I asked a well-dressed man, in German, which film he was in line to see. He stared at me for a moment, arched his eyebrows, and turned away with all the silent disgust of Kinski in his prime.

For this film, Herzog seems to have attempted something completely new: a romantic epic featuring few of his bizarre or sordid flourishes. Yet Queen of the Desert is nevertheless a descent into self-parody inexplicable and even mysterious in its badness, like some kind of cumbersome, lazy genie. It has many of the hallmarks of Herzog's great work, including an outrageous and mostly true story, insurmountable natural obstacles, and the usual mix of death and danger. In every aspect, though, the blows are glancing, the flaws glaring.

Clip from 'Queen of the Desert' (2015), directed by Werner Herzog, featuring Nicole Kidman and Damian Lewis

The film is a historical epic about the life of Gertrude Bell, the turn-of-the-century British adventurer who helped divvy up the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, Bell was an uncompromising explorer and amateur archaeologist (in an era when moneyed enthusiasts could get away with it). Convincingly played by Nicole Kidman, Bell drives herself toward the desert with the cold gaze of the obsessed. Unfortunately, Herzog chooses to locate the source of her obsession in a laughably unlikely love interest: James Franco (an occasional VICE contributor), who plays a consulate secretary, orientalist, and gambler in Tehran. What should be the world's most fascinating man becomes, in Franco's hands, a squinting, disinterested adolescent with a flickering British accent. Every scene between the lovers is literally cringe-worthy, from their spontaneous translations—in rhyming English couplets!—of Omar Khayyám, to their promises of everlasting love, symbolized by an ancient coin cut in half. After Bell's father rejects their engagement, Franco's character commits suicide. The remainder of the film is structured not around Bell's solo desert adventures, which occur almost incidentally, but around her improbable mourning for him and, later on, her flirtations with other men.

These men include a young Lawrence, played by Robert Pattinson, and Charles Doughty-Wylie, the British consul general to the fracturing Ottoman Empire. Played by Homeland's Damian Lewis, Doughty-Wylie ends up the film's most interesting character, torn apart by incompatible allegiances in love and politics. Unhappily married and devoted to Bell, he throws himself fatally into the defense of an empire he already knows is dying. His story should be of secondary concern, but the film gives us too little of Bell's own internal mettle.

This is both a narrative error and an injustice to the real-life historical figure. Bell was a focused and resourceful worker on her journeys, as even a random glance at her diaries will attest:

[1 March 1911] ... The Shethatha Arabs left us. I made a bad map with a plane table and then photographed interiors and began measurements for elevations with 'Abud. A messenger came from the Mudir bringing us our dabiyeh full of semneh which had been stolen at Shethatha. Worked till nightfall.

In the film, we encounter no such marvelous diversions. The entries Kidman recites are concerned instead with her latest suitor, or else with her new-agey connection to the landscape. Such moments are love letters to the desert with all the nuance and personality of a National Geographic spread: swirling sandstorms, suggestive rock formations, and—the film's worst offender—an abrasive pan-Arabian score better suited to a Putumayo CD.

Shooting on location, Herzog has at least managed to find beautiful vistas. There are uncanny depictions of outposts and oases in Morocco and Jordan, often from the angle of a swooping overhead camera: expensive Hollywood shots that the Herzog of Fitzcarraldo or Stroszek could not have hoped to afford (nor would he have wanted for them). But the desert never coheres to the 19th-century drawing-room story that surrounds it.

There are other problems. The orientalism espoused by the film is hardly more complicated than the kind championed by the imperialist heroes onscreen. It is a film packed with offensive paeans to the White Lady's Burden, such as the moment when a befuddled servant asks Kidman how to cook an egg. ("The desert knows no eggs! No hens! No chickens!" he cries.) It is a film filled with obsequious servants and shrewd but easily placated local chiefs. Bell's eventual role as Iraqi and Jordanian kingmaker is applauded by Bedouin and Brit alike.

Speaking of which, here is also a film with a convoluted geopolitical context that nevertheless betrays itself—even to this halfway-educated reviewer—as so much Wikipedia-sourced hash. Timelines are confused beyond recognition. The Arab Awakening is barely a footnote. The events that are shown are conveyed so broadly they might as well be invented, beginning with an opening scene in which a cigar-chomping Winston Churchill from the Spider-Man Villain School of Acting discusses postwar strategy with a simpering Lawrence, who is gamely and decently played by an actor, however, best known for his insuperable role as a sparkling vampire in The Twilight Saga .

At no point does Queen of the Desert step boldly onto the surface of self-parody, like an astronaut planting a flag. (Some would argue this was the route of Bad Lieutenant , which lifted some of Herzog's inclinations to indulgent yet captivating heights.) Instead, the constellation of his obsessions is presented perfunctorily, without focus or enthusiasm. Bell's relationship to the desert, made subservient to the underwhelming loves in her life, remains unexplored. Queen of the Desert ends up playing like a Merchant Ivory picture minus the literary merit, or a TV movie with prettier stars. At best, the film is a colorless homage to the director's previous Hearts of Darkness, such as Fitzcarraldo or Cobra Verde. (And hopefully it is not indicative of his next project: a romantic thriller about supervolcanoes set in the Bolivian salt flats.)

There is one scene—and only one—with the old Herzog magic. This involves a Zoroastrian burial tower outside of Tehran, an attempted embrace between Kidman and Franco, and the sudden, fish-eyed appearance of a vulture feasting on rotting human flesh. Far from self-parody, it's a satisfying reminder of the body of work that brought us into the theater.

Then the moment ends, and Kidman and Franco are making out against an expanse of Persian badlands, the camera swooping overhead in its overpriced cherry picker.

Ben Mauk is a Fulbright Scholar living in Berlin and a regular online contributor to the New Yorker.