Bells From the Deep & Herdsmen of the Sun

Monday, August 15

1993, 60 minutes

“In the establishing shot of Werner Herzog’s BELLS FROM THE DEEP: FAITH AND SUPERSTITION IN RUSSIA, two people are seen to be dragging themselves over the top of a frozen lake. One gets on his knees and crosses himself, after which he continues to crawl on the ice; the other just lies flat on his stomach looking towards the bottom of the lake. These people are supposed to be pilgrims in search of the sunken city of Kitezh, which according to legend was tossed by God into a bottomless lake, where its inhabitants continue to live in bliss, chanting bells from the deep. As Herzog explains, the pilgrims, it turns out, are not actually believers coming to the lake in search of the sunken city.

‘I wanted to get shots of pilgrims crawling around on the ice trying to catch a glimpse of the lost city, but as there were no pilgrims around I hired two drunks from the next town and put them on the ice. One of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant’s truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take.’

“Herzog’s documentary depicts something he refers to as ‘ecstatic truth’. His film segregates itself from cinéma vérité and strives to find a higher form of fact and truth, an essentially poetic one. So the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and what appears to be pilgrims on a lake in deep meditation are in fact people ice fishing; while two young boys singing a love song become two boys singing a religious hymn, if you allow them to be. Herzog does not hide behind his made up truth, he advertises it, as it serves a higher purpose, it tells an ecstatic truth.” –Senses of Cinema

1989, 52 minutes

“Werner Herzog’s fascination with the natural world at its most enduringly strange has led him to the southern Sahara for HERDSMEN OF THE SUN, a startling anthropological documentary about the nomadic members of the Wodaabe tribe. In the space of only 52 minutes, Mr. Herzog examines their peculiar mating rituals, conveys a sense of their history and suggests how seriously their future is threatened. What he does most powerfully, as he has in other short documentary films (most notably La Soufriere), is to discover a reality more exotic and mysterious than anything a storyteller could imagine.

“…Mr. Herzog presents [an] extravagant masquerade: that of the slender and graceful Wodaabe men, many of them seven feet tall, adorning themselves with beads and hats and blue lipstick as part of a traditional tribal celebration. The preparations for this ritual can take a full day, and they involve elaborate makeup methods (including the use of toxic battery chemicals as eyeliner). This is all intended to make these men look beautiful… among Wodaabe women the ritual has its desired effect. The man deemed most beautiful is obliged to spend the night with the woman who has selected him, and on at least one morning after (as seen in the film) the result is a proposal of marriage. ‘Do you love me because of my beauty or my charms?’ the contest winner asks his prospective bride. ‘Were you told to do this, or did you do this as a personal choice?'” –New York Times

Images ©Werner Herzog Film

Part of the series Ecstatic Truths: Documentaries by Herzog

  • Running Time minutes
  • Director Werner Herzog