Combustible Celluloid
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With: Peter Brogle, Wolfgang Reichmann, Athina Zacharopoulou, Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg
Written by: Werner Herzog, based on a story by Achim von Arnim
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German, Greek with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 06/01/1968

Signs of Life (1968)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Island of Lost Dreams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Werner Herzog made his feature debut at age 24 with this extraordinary film, and already his exploration of man's destiny within nature had begun. A wounded soldier called Stroszek (Peter Brogle) -- no relation to Herzog's 1977 film -- is given a cushy job guarding an old bunker on a remote Greek island. Joining him are his new Greek wife, Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and two other soldiers, Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) and Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann). The balding, robust Meinhard is obsessed with various creatures and their capture and he provides a specific, enjoyable balance throughout the film. He builds an elaborate trap for cockroaches, but becomes indignant when he discovers a fly trapped within a little wooden toy that "moves" by itself. Herzog clearly and effectively establishes the film's setting, sun-blasted, rocky and deadly dull. The men invent jobs for themselves, but soon run out of things to do. Eventually Stroszek goes mad and begins shooting fireworks into the town below. At the same time, Herzog takes the time to establish the flow of life, independent of these characters, such as fish circling in the water, darting after some floating debris. Even Stroszek's tender relationship with his Greek wife -- and her tenuous grasp on the German language -- contributes to the movie's rich theme. Signs of Life is more controlled, more fully-formed than many of Herzog's later, madly grasping, exploratory masterworks, but it's a true work of greatness.

DVD Details: New Yorker has released Signs of Life on a new DVD, and the black-and-white transfer captures the warmth and rockiness of the picture; they seem to be improving with every film. Herzog provides another in a series of great, fascinating commentary tracks, this one moderated by Norman Hill. The disc also includes the trailer, as well as trailers for several other New Yorker releases. Herzog's Landof Silence and Darkness (1971) was released at the same time.

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