Echoes From a Somber Empire

Tuesday, August 16

One screening only!

DCP projection

“The man on television denies the charges against him with great indignation, even though he has been accused of cannibalism and there are strong indications the stories are true. A great many citizens will swear that Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the deposed Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Republic, did indeed eat his countrymen and that he maimed and murdered others in comparably horrifying ways. The oversize refrigerator and oven in his quarters have long since been abandoned, but they are reminders of the Bokassa regime and its bloodthirsty ways.

The people of the Central African Republic no longer see much of Bokassa since he is incommunicado (with a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment) in a tiny cell. Nor was he at the disposal of Werner Herzog. So Mr. Herzog’s haunting documentary ECHOES FROM A SOMBER EMPIRE… must work obliquely to summon images of this eccentric, benighted ruler and the damage he left behind.

Bokassa’s absence turns out to be oddly helpful to Mr. Herzog, who characteristically finds more in the mystery of Bokassa than he does in the actual man. Unlike Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 General Idi Amin Dada, which allowed the despot to reveal himself devastatingly before the camera, this restrained film prefers to wander through the memories and artifacts left over from a tyrant’s reign. Its post-mortem on the Bokassa years is conducted by Michael Goldsmith, a journalist whose dignified bearing and quiet manner correspond well with the film’s reflective tone. Mr. Goldsmith’s memories are colored by the fact that he himself was once tortured and imprisoned by Bokassa, an experience that the film conveys by showing a foot slowly crushing a pair of glasses.

…Throughout ECHOES FROM A SOMBER EMPIRE, Mr. Herzog’s camera tacitly absorbs the madness of the Bokassa legacy and at times transforms that madness into mesmerizing visions. A statue of the dictator lies rusting in the weeds (‘Do you know who it is?’ Mr. Goldsmith asks some nearby children) and a monkey smokes a cigarette with unnerving intensity in the ruins of the Emperor’s private zoo. Mr. Goldsmith’s nightmare of a world inundated by orange crabs is illustrated quite literally, in eerily brilliant colors. And the thought of a monstrous and unstoppable plague lingers in the memory long after Bokassa has faded.” –New York Times

Image ©Werner Herzog Film

Part of the series Ecstatic Truths: Documentaries by Herzog

  • Country France/Germany
  • Year 1990
  • Running Time 93 minutes
  • Director Werner Herzog