To really grasp the significance of story in documentary film, it helps to screen a film that doesn’t have a traditional story thread. Bells From the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia by Werner Herzog is unique among the docs I’ve screened so far in that it is more observational than storytelling. It is a “documentary” in the literal sense, a series of brief snapshots, of undeveloped characters. Herzog, it seems, was curious about the topic of mysticism in Russia, and chose to explore them with his camera. The result is an interesting, obscure film that hardly anyone’s heard of (you can view the hour-long film for free instantly here).
Synopsis: Herzog visits Russia to explore the topic of mystical spirituality, and finds Jesus look-alikes, Rasputin doubles, and a Siberian shaman, among others. The film is composed of mostly short vignettes: a baby being baptized, a Jesus-figure visiting disabled people, and a faith-healer working a packed crowd. It’s most lengthy segment deals with the legend of the lost city of Kitezh.
Story Structure: The film is a non-linear series of snippets separated by chapter titles, which are white text against light blue screen. Only structure is provided by Herzog’s voice translating the Russian into English. He provides no narration, though, and it struck me that this film isn’t really terribly different from “Encounters at the End of the World.” Except for one thing: narration. In Encounters, Herzog imposes a story on an otherwise random series of encounters with narration, historical footage, interviews, etc. But there is no “story” in and of itself. Fascinating.
Also fascinating is the controversy surrounding this film. It turns out that no pilgrims were on the ice during Herzog’s visit to Kitezh. So he hired two drunks from the next town, and one of them promptly passed out on the lake, as if he were lost in meditation. Herzog freely admits the fabrication, because for him, it represents a higher truth, what he calls “ecstatic truth.”
Cinematography: It’s beautifully shot. Lots of lengthy sequences with few cuts. Memorable scenes: Herzog opens the film in Siberia, by walking into a Shaman’s cabin. Beautiful shots of throat singers are filmed simply against a piercingly blue, ice-choked river backdrop. Stunning, really.
Sound and Music: I now know where Herzog first discovered the incredible Orthodox chanting music he used for the under-the-ice sequences in Encounters. He uses the exact same cut in this film! It’s good in this film, but much better in Encounters.
Herzog translates into English, but provides no other narration, which strikes me as a weakness of the film. It feels unfinished by comparison with his more recent work. Narration could have provided the missing link that made this film something other than an interesting oddity.