Sunday, July 14, 2013

Birds At Large: Werner Herzog's Happy People

Werner Herzog is an absolute golden god of cinema.  His fiction films are uncompromised and ballsy in a way that no other filmmaker's are.  Of all the great things about these films, my favorite is that Herzog harnesses the seemingly long-lost joy of cinematic spectacle, eschewing computerized special effects for much more incredible, honest-to-goodness realism - whether it's the unending parade of South American trekkers at the beginning of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the African coast signal flaggers in Cobra Verde, or the insane meta-joke that is the pulling of the steamboat in Fitzcarraldo

For birders, many of his documentaries (his more recent ones, especially) are special for a different reason - because they exhibit a deep interest - a loving interest, I think - in the perversities of the natural world.  He films insane penguins running inland toward certain death in Antarctica in Encounters at the End of the World, and an insane man following Alaskan bears in Grizzly Man.  Herzog imbues these documentaries with a sense of fascination that other "nature" documentaries don't.

Which is why I was dismayed recently when I was watching his 2010 documentary Happy People.  The film focuses on the lives of fur-trappers in the remote taiga of north-central Russia.  It's a beautiful film, providing a glimpse into a lifestyle that I didn't think existed anywhere in the world.  The Russian taiga looks a whole lot like a much bigger, wilder version of Maine, where I grew up, and so I relished in the sights and sounds of the deep woods.

But my idyll was disrupted by those sounds.  There are two very faint bird songs in this Vine I took of a scene in the film, where a trapper is knocking out a new window in one of this hunting cabins:

If you listen VERY carefully, you can hear both song types of a Black-throated Green Warbler (both the "zoo zee zoo-zoo zee" and the "zee zee zee zoo-zee" songs).  What's the problem?  Of course, that Black-throated Greens don't live in Russia.  It's an after effect.

Now I can't be sure that this was done with Herzog's OK.  I'm a bit confused on how it all worked, but Happy People was actually filmed by a Russian named Dmitry Vasyukov and then re-edited in to its present form by Herzog.  I am not sure when the sound effects were added, but added they were.

I thought that of all the world's filmmakers, the last I'd be doing a Birds at Large piece on was Werner Herzog.  His documentaries, I thought, were above these kinds of cheap, unthinking tricks.  Alas.

Special thanks to Derek Lovitch - the only birder I know who has been to Russia - for help with BTNW range questions.


Ken Burton said...

I noticed the same thing as well as Spotted Towhee songs and calls and White-throated Sparrow songs. Also, some of the songs were in late fall/early winter, when birds wouldn't be singing at all. Very disconcerting and disappointing.

NickL said...

Thanks Ken. You heard them in the movie? Nice work.

alaoguz said...

the same after effect trick is done in the film Rescue Dawn, shot in Vietnam. You can hear the sound of screaming piha there, but unfortunately the bird does not live that geography.

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