Werner Herzog

Ten Thousand Years Older



This short 2002 documentary sees Herzog return to the Amazon basin, where he had shot some of his defining feature films Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, although this time to Brazil rather than Peru. As in those earlier films Herzog reflects upon people facing extreme natural environments, one of his enduring themes (indeed Herzog’s monolog on the jungle in The Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, is perhaps his greatest work), and returns once again to the more subterranean question of colonization and the conflicted processes of modernization that ran through them. Although Herzog might be accused of harboring something of the same Amazonian orientalism that typifies some of his characters, the dark currents of romanticism that ran through those earlier ‘Amazon’ films is absent here. Instead Herzog presents a more sober, indeed melancholic, reflection on the effects of colonization – or more recently ‘contact’ – on one tribal people living in the Brazilian jungle, the Amondauas. The increasing contact between the Amondauas and the ‘modern world’ of the state and expanded patterns of trade not only establishes new channels of communications and networks of relations but sees older ones, those that have been integral to the community and culture of the Amondauas for centuries if not millennia, rapidly unravel in a matter of years. Herzog quietly probes the ways in which communication with the ‘outside world’ comes at the expense of communication across generations, as a gulf – perhaps even a ‘civilizational’ gulf – opens between the younger members of the Amondauas, born into and embracing of the changes that ‘contact’ brings, and older members who are seeing long-stable relations dissolve with the intrusion of the ‘outside world’. One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the attention given to language as both a medium for and barrier to communication, especially in the poignant scene where one of the elder members of the tribe enacts a ritual which has largely lost its cultural power, seeming instead to take the form of a desperate attempt to hold on to a language and an entire way of life in the face of a seemingly irresistible tide of change. This reflection on the death of a language and the eclipse of a culture by the forces of modernization perhaps has its counter-point in Herzog’s ambiguous reflection upon the ‘new language’ of capitalism that he saw emerging in the impressive high-speed cattle trading at Pennsylvania livestock auctions, the subject of an earlier documentary short, 1976’s How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck.