Queen of the Desert: Werner Herzog bows to Nicole Kidman

The flipside of the director’s famed portraits of hubristic male adventurers, this Gertrude Bell biopic, still undistributed in the UK, not only features a rare female Herzogian protagonist but willingly adopts the style of a Nicole Kidman vehicle.

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Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (2015)

Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (2015)

One of the most surprising things about critical commentaries on Grizzly Man (2005) is their tendency to treat Werner Herzog as the film’s unquestioned author, despite much of it having been shot by somebody else.

I am not suggesting this emphasis is unjust. On the contrary, Herzog’s role in shaping and narrating those videos he acquired from the estate of Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear activist who posthumously became this documentary’s subject, clearly renders him principal creator of the result, which reflects his personality at every point.

At the same time, Treadwell’s material cannot be regarded as simply ‘found footage’, in the sense that this term is applied to works in the avant-garde tradition. Viewing Treadwell’s videos in their original form would obviously not be comparable to encountering them within the explicitly critical framework provided by Herzog, but much of their fascination would undoubtedly be retained.

Kidman with Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence

Kidman with Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence

Which brings us to Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (2014), a ‘fiction’ feature in which Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell, recently reevaluated as a crucial figure in the history of the Middle East. The first thing to be noted about this splendid film (which, astonishingly, is still without a UK distributor) is just how seldom it feels Herzogian. Thematically, one has little difficulty placing it within Herzog’s oeuvre, focusing as it does on an individual pushing against the boundaries of accepted reality. Yet I do not think anyone would guess that Queen of the Desert, with its gracefully flowing camerawork, was made by the creator of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1981) or even The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans (2009).

Indeed, stylistically it far more closely resembles several other Nicole Kidman vehicles, such as Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1997) and Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco (2014). The connections between the Dahan (which I defended in a previous Bradlands column) and the Herzog are especially striking, since these films, which were made the same year, introduce Kidman in exactly the same way; she is initially seen from behind, our view of her face withheld until she confronts her own reflection in a mirror (a device borrowed from Max Ophüls’ Madame de… (1953)), thus exposing the inherent voyeurism of the cinematic apparatus (much as Bell will do later by taking control of a camera).

Herzog’s use of a female protagonist in both Queen of the Desert and his subsequent film, the disappointingly confused Salt and Fire (2016), is almost unprecedented (Nosferatu the Vampyre is the only former exception, and a very partial one at that), making his positive portrayal of Bell particularly notable. That hubris – a determination to go beyond the known world – which distinguished so many of Herzog’s male ‘heroes’ comes across very differently when associated with the opposite gender. What had previously been archetypal masculine behaviour taken to its logical extreme here becomes precisely the opposite: a protest against those forms of social organisation which deter women from engaging in activities seen as the exclusive province of men.

Damian Lewis as Major Charles ‘Richard’ Doughty-Wylie with Kidman

Damian Lewis as Major Charles ‘Richard’ Doughty-Wylie with Kidman

Consider the heroine’s various statements of self: “I will forge my own destiny”; “For the first time in my life, I know who I am. My heart belongs to no one now but the desert”; “The deeper I penetrate this mysterious labyrinth, the more I become known to myself.” We can easily imagine Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo making such declarations, but Bell’s assertion of agency, unlike theirs, entirely lacks solipsism or neuroticism. If the projects of Herzog’s earlier adventurers were explicitly imperialist, Bell rejects all attempts to recuperate her activities in the name of imperialism, contemptuously dismissing Mark Sykes’s suggestion that she make her curiosity “more systematic”, and informing Richard Wylie (Damian Lewis) that “I am a spy for no one. No one but myself.”

Those men assumed to be the star performers on history’s stage are given remarkably short shrift; they are treated as objects for the look, relegated to minor roles, and in two instances commit suicide offscreen. The main function of James Franco’s character, Henry Cadogan, is to die as quickly as possible, thus letting Bell’s desire for him serve as an alibi permitting further heterosexual entanglements to be resisted in the name of fidelity to a ‘lost love’. Those intimations of homosexuality which so frequently accrue to Franco come into play here, Cadogan’s supposedly passionate relationship with Bell coming across as curiously abstract, being adequately represented by the divided coin he offers her as a romantic token, and the card trick (“You will do everything”) she instantly sees through.

Kidman with James Franco as Henry Cadogan

Kidman with James Franco as Henry Cadogan

Cadogan is merely a device by means of which the female star can display yearnings that are ostensibly directed towards an appropriately masculine recipient, but actually glorify a passion that cannot be so neatly construed, the only amorous feelings she will subsequently indulge being for men who are either married (Wylie) or gay (T.E. Lawrence). An end title informs us that Bell never married, and for much of the film’s running time she celebrates not her conveniently impossible lovers, but rather herself as an autonomous individual. One thinks of Greta Garbo’s bedroom scene in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), in which, as Andrew Britton points out (see A New Servitude in CineAction 26/27, Winter 1992), John Gilbert “becomes a mere bemused spectator of the jouissance which he is alleged to have caused,” the male being “completely superfluous to the moment of heterosexual awakening”.

Herzog thus seems to be positing a female viewer who may well be the product of decades of feminism, but might just as easily be the modern-day equivalent of those 1930s/40s cinemagoers with a taste for female-centred Hollywood melodramas. Which is to say that he is every bit as attentive to the needs of Nicole Kidman (and her fans) as George Cukor was to Katherine Hepburn, Michael Curtiz was to Joan Crawford and Irving Rapper was to Bette Davis.

Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert (2015)

Herzog’s willingness to symbolically cede responsibility for Queen of the Desert’s mise en scène to Kidman tells us something crucial about his output. One would find it difficult to delineate a directorial approach encompassing more than a small portion of this large filmography, and if Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde (1987) do share certain visual tendencies, this may be because they are so firmly rooted in the figure of Klaus Kinski, much as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977) are structured around Bruno S., and The Bad Lieutenant takes its stylistic cues from Nicolas Cage’s theatrical hysteria.

Herzog’s career as a documentarian seems significant in this context, since even his purportedly fictional narratives function as documentaries on their actors. Which might explain why those Herzog films without strong lead performers – one thinks of Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and Invincible (2002) – prove so curiously unmemorable. And this split holds true for Herzog’s actual documentaries, Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1996), with their unrelenting focus on Timothy Treadwell and prisoner of war Dieter Dengler, proving far more compelling than the wide-ranging Lo and Behold (2016). Despite his ‘masculine’ obsession with domineering madmen, Herzog would appear to be one of those genuinely modest ‘feminine’ figures who happily defer to their collaborators.

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