In the establishing shot of Werner Herzog’s Glocken aus der Tiefe: Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland (Bells From the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia, 1993), two people are seen to be dragging themselves over the top of a frozen lake. One gets on his knees and crosses himself, after which he continues to crawl on the ice; the other just lies flat on his stomach looking towards the bottom of the lake. These people are supposed to be pilgrims in search of the sunken city of Kitezh, which according to legend was tossed by God into a bottomless lake, where its inhabitants continue to live in bliss, chanting bells from the deep.

Bells From the Deep

As Herzog explains, the pilgrims, it turns out, are not actually believers coming to the lake in search of the sunken city.

I wanted to get shots of pilgrims crawling around on the ice trying to catch a glimpse of the lost city, but as there were no pilgrims around I hired two drunks from the next town and put them on the ice. One of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant’s truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take. (1)

Herzog’s documentary depicts something he refers to as “ecstatic truth”. His film segregates itself from cinéma vérité and strives to find a higher form of fact and truth, an essentially poetic one. So the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and what appears to be pilgrims on a lake in deep meditation are in fact people ice fishing; while two young boys singing a love song become two boys singing a religious hymn, if you allow them to be. Herzog does not hide behind his made up truth, he advertises it, as it serves a higher purpose, it tells an ecstatic truth.

Herzog’s persona is as elusive as his so-called documentaries. He supposedly travelled to many exotic places as a teenager, and he and his family had to relocate to a little village in Bavaria because the house next to theirs was destroyed during a wartime bombing. He also stole his first camera from the Munich Film School (2). The stories he tells about his adolescence are as mystical as the legends he depicts in his movies. As an adult he is just as indefinable – filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, actor and opera director.

Bells From the Deep

In Bells From The Deep, Herzog shows his audience an array of bizarre characters out in Siberia, while the film is neatly segmented into chapters. Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, known by his followers as Vissarion, is one of these figures, a former policeman who came to the conclusion that he is the reincarnation of Christ. Herzog introduces Vissarion standing on top of a hill preaching, a close-up of his folded hands while he lectures evoking a strong resemblance to images from the Bible. The entire first half of the movie concentrates on mystical figures, faith healers, sorcerers and exorcists. But the idea of people who believe in shamans who foresee the future by burning incense seems too bizarre to most western viewers and Herzog plays on this incredulity. Why else would he choose to show the faith healer Alan Chumack teaching a huge audience how to charge water and ointments with a photo of himself? A scene in which Yuri Tarassov performs an exorcism of crying and screaming women is just another instance of how the movie can make its audience feel uncomfortable and a little terrified. And then, all of a sudden, there seems to be an intermission, an opportunity for the spectator to catch their breath, as we meet Yuri Yurevitch Yurieff, an orphaned bell ringer. He is not a mystic and his only connection to the religious subject of the film, apart from his ringing of the bells, seems to be the fact that he crosses himself and bows a few times before he starts speaking to the camera. Thus the second half of the documentary begins, and subsequently deals almost exclusively with the sunken city Of Kitezh.

Herzog characteristically deploys his long extended landscape shots throughout the film, but this dominant style leaves the viewer with an uneasy feeling in the second half of the movie as the camera begins to linger on pilgrims crawling around the lake where the lost city is supposed to be. It is uncomfortable to watch people of an advanced age crawling all around the banks of the lake and praying to tree stumps, which they believe have healing powers. This sensation is once again invoked when we watch a little boy – hardly older than five – get down on his knees to pray, and then being lifted by his mother to kiss the tomb of Saint Sergei.

Throughout the movie Herzog sombrely and solemnly portrays his characters replete with all their peculiarities and odd beliefs. But at the very end we seem to be left with a sarcastic final statement as the film returns once more to the mystical lake, where God is supposed to have sunk a city, but instead of seeing people in deep prayer and meditation, we are shown ice fishers digging holes casting their lines, and two young people ice skating on the frozen surface. It is with this closing shot that Herzog seems to tell his audience not to take everything too seriously. We should not assume to have just seen a documentary telling you the hard facts about faith and superstition in Russia – even if the title does suggest this. All you have seen is a poetic manifestation of what Herzog believes to be truthful:

When you look at a film like Bells From the Deep you are not watching a film that in any way strives to report facts about Russia, like an explicitly ethnographic documentary might do. This sounds like someone who reads a poem by Hölderlin where he describes a storm in the alps claiming, “Ah, here we have a weather report back in 1802”. (3)

Endnotes

  1. Paul Cronin and Werner Herzog, Herzog on Herzog, New York, Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 252.
  2. Timothy Corrigan, The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, Methuen, New York, 1986.
  3. Cronin and Herzog, p. 252.

Glocken aus der Tiefe: Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland/Bells From the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993 Germany/USA 60 mins)

Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion Prod: Lucki Stipetić Dir, Scr, Narr: Werner Herzog Phot: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein Ed: Rainer Standke