Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Art and 'The One True Myth': Werner Herzog's Ecstatic Vision Speaks to the Truth of Christmas

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Art and 'The One True Myth': Werner Herzog's Ecstatic Vision Speaks to the Truth of Christmas

Article excerpt

Last week, a truth-loving friend sent what he found to be inflammatory comments uttered by the documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog was speaking at the 2007 American Film Fest on the subject "Is the filmmaker's responsibility to the subject to capture objective truth or realize his own artistic vision?"

Here's how he answered: "There is no truth; if you're looking for it, go do something else. Objective truth is baloney." He went on to argue that the line between documentary and narrative cinema is irrelevant, and so he aims for a deeper artistic truth.

Today's younger generation often "learns history" through docudramas. It's a dubious enterprise when the filmmaker views truth as an artistic invention, so I am concerned about Mr. Herzog's comments.

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I remember my son, then 16, saying as we left the theater after we saw Oliver Stone's "JFK," "Wow Dad, I'm really glad to finally know what happened at the Kennedy assassination." His comment was a sobering one for me, an older man who had lived through the event and then tried to untangle all the murky conspiracy theories.

However, in the case of Herzog's vision of a deeper artistic truth, I think it's a mistake to ignore the significance of what he's saying. Correspondence between Mr. Herzog and film critic Roger Ebert (posted online at Herzog's Web site, www.wernerherzog.com) allows us to see what he's talking about.

Mr. Ebert recalls being enthralled after seeing Mr. Herzog's documentary, "Bells from the Deep," about contemporary Russian mystics. In the letter, Mr. Ebert reports talking for some time about the film, and then director Herzog Saying, "But you know, Roger, it is all made up."

The film critic did not understand, and Mr. Herzog clarified. "It is not real. I invented it."

At this point, Mr. Ebert was understandably confused, but then recalled hearing Werner Herzog talk about "ecstatic truth, of a truth beyond the merely factual, a truth that records not the real world but the world as we dream it."

Which brings me to Christmas.

Christians are not alone in enjoying the magic of this season, but we do believe the Christmas story is a reference to what J.R.R. Tolkien called "the one true myth," a true story underlying all myths. …

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