Directed By: Werner Herzog
Starring: Lotte Eisner, Eugen Des Montagnes, James William Gledhill
Trivia 1: This movie premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival
Trivia: While shooting this film in Camaroon, Herzog and his small crew were arrested, with authorities believing they were members of a terrorist group that had been sentenced to death in absentia
It started as a science fiction movie about aliens, who travel to earth from the Andromeda galaxy to study life on this planet. But as director Werner Herzog was shooting in the Sahara, capturing mirages on film, he abandoned that storyline and settled instead on a documentary approach, allowing the images to speak for themselves. The resulting movie, 1971’s Fata Morgana, is a tidal wave of astounding visuals; some amazing, others frightening, but every single one unique.
Fata Morgana (which, in Italian, means “mirage”) opens at an airport, the camera set up at the end of a runway watching as a series of planes come in for a landing. But as the day grows longer, and the heat becomes more intense, the images begin to blur, as if the planes themselves were transforming before our eyes. It was Herzog’s way of establishing how heat can sometimes play tricks on our senses, and from there, we’re transported to an even hotter location: Africa’s Sahara Desert, where shots of what appear to be lakes in the distance, or cars driving along the sand, are, in reality, nothing at all (apparently, mirages act like a mirror, showing reflections of things that are occurring miles away. Late in the movie, we see a parked tour bus in the distance, with a number of people surrounding it, stretching their legs. On the DVD commentary, Herzog tells of how, just after shooting this scene, he and his two assistants, parched by the desert sun, ran to this location, hoping the bus might have some ice or water to quench their thirst. When they got there, they found only empty sand, with no tracks whatsoever to signify anyone had been there).
But Fata Morgana is more than desert illusions. “I filmed whatever fascinated me”, Herzog said when speaking of this movie, which also includes aerial shots taken on the Easter Islands (during the making of Even Dwarfs Started Small) of Flamingos gathered around a lake; and a large cathedral on the Ivory Coast (with locals holding a parade in front of it). Back in the Sahara, Herzog occasionally comes across remnants of civilization, a tractor or a half-assembled warehouse, that have been abandoned, often hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the nearest town.
Such images have a subtle beauty to them, but not everything in Fata Morgana is beautiful. During their travels, Herzog and his team stumbled upon hundreds of dead cattle, their bodies so dehydrated that they’d flattened out to near nothing. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Werner Herzog film without the occasional foray into the bizarre; along with a trip to a brothel, where the Madame and head pimp stage their own musical act, we meet a man whose home on the Ivory Coast has a swimming pool filled with sea turtles (he spends hours on end “hunting” the turtles, only to release them, over and over again, back into the water).
Today, Fata Morgana is as notable for what happened behind the camera as what took place in front of it; while in Africa shooting this film, Herzog and his crew, misidentified as German mercenaries by a government that had just seized control in Cameroon, were arrested, then tortured by their guards. This tragic occurrence aside, Fata Morgana is a fascinating motion picture, and yet another example of director Werner Herzog’s determination to bring something new to the screen.
And rest assured: you’ve never seen anything quite like this movie!