Werner Herzog Presents Two Visions of America in How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck (1981) and God’s Angry Man (1976)

As an Amer­i­can, I admit that only an out­sider can view my coun­try with the great­est clar­i­ty. And as long as we want to look at the Unit­ed States through for­eign eyes, why not look through those of Wern­er Her­zog? Even aside from his wild­ly cre­ative body of work as a fea­ture film­mak­er — he made Aguirre, the Wrath of God; he made Fitz­car­ral­do; he made Bad Lieu­tenant: Port of Call New Orleans — Her­zog the doc­u­men­tar­i­an has offered up a host of his own rich and sur­pris­ing per­cep­tions. He’s trav­eled the globe, from the Less­er Antilles (La Soufrière) to Antarc­ti­ca (Encoun­ters at the End of the World) to south­ern France’s pre­his­toric caves (Cave of For­got­ten Dreams), look­ing intense­ly and com­ment­ing even more intense­ly on peo­ple, from cham­pi­on ski jumpers (The Great Ecsta­sy of the Wood­carv­er Stein­er) to Viet­nam pris­on­ers of war (Lit­tle Dieter Needs to Fly) to wildlife film­mak­ers eat­en by bears (Griz­zly Man). By com­par­i­son, most of us might con­sid­er places like the auc­tion hous­es and tel­e­van­gel­i­cal broad­cast stu­dios of Amer­i­ca com­par­a­tive­ly unex­ot­ic ter­ri­to­ry.

Not Her­zog, how­ev­er: when he watch­es a live­stock sale, he hears in the rapid-fire bab­ble of the auc­tion­eer “the last poet­ry pos­si­ble, the poet­ry of cap­i­tal­ism,” and when he watch­es a tele­vi­sion preach­er, he sees an appeal to “the para­noia and crazi­ness of our civ­i­liza­tion.” Here we have two fruits of these strands of Her­zog’s fas­ci­na­tion with his now-adopt­ed home­land of Amer­i­ca: 1976’s How Much Wood Could a Wood­chuck Chuck and 1981’s God’s Angry ManLike many oth­er doc­u­men­taries of Her­zog’s, and not a few of his fic­tion films, these doc­u­men­taries deal with pur­suits so spe­cial­ized, obses­sive, or both that watch­ing them in prac­tice becomes mes­mer­iz­ing. The first wit­ness­es a series of auc­tion­eers as their obscure, qua­si-musi­cal pat­ter keeps one high­ly par­tic­u­lar gear of the econ­o­my spin­ning. The sec­ond, one even more con­cerned with mon­ey and with an orig­i­nal title of Creed and Cur­ren­cy, looks into the world of Los Ange­les’ flam­boy­ant, dona­tion-demand­ing, FCC-hat­ing, seem­ing­ly untir­ing reli­gious broad­cast­er Dr. Gene Scott. Do cow­boy-hat­ted rur­al busi­ness­men and man­ic tel­e­van­ge­lists accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent Amer­i­ca? Hard­ly. But inter­pret­ed by Her­zog, they show you the coun­try in a way nobody else could.

Find more great films in our col­lec­tion of 600 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wern­er Herzog’s Eye-Open­ing New Film Reveals the Dan­gers of Tex­ting While Dri­ving

Por­trait Wern­er Her­zog: The Director’s Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Short Film from 1986

Errol Mor­ris and Wern­er Her­zog in Con­ver­sa­tion

Wern­er Her­zog Has a Beef With Chick­ens

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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  • ortega says:

    How thinks are dif­fer­ent here!
    Hav­ing been born in Spain, I can only say that every time a for­eign­er tries to under­stand us he usu­al­ly only utters absolute non­sense.
    Maybe Oba­ma is wrong and you are real­ly excep­tion­al, then.

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