The latest film by German director Werner Herzog is an eco-thriller featuring an abducted scientist that ends up fending for her life in the middle of a salt desert in Bolivia.
"Salt and Fire" starts almost like an action thriller. Accompanied by two assistants, United Nations scientist Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) is to investigate an environmental disaster at the Diablo Blanco in Bolivia. But the group is kidnapped shortly after their arrival at the airport. By whom and why - that remains unknown for a while.
The three UN scientists (Volker Michalowski, Veronica Ferres and Gael Garcia Bernal) are abducted by thugs in black
Sommerfeld and her assistants (Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Michalowski), surrounded by armed kidnappers clad in black, are being brought to a far-out hacienda. It all looks like extortion and blackmail - until the boss of the operation takes off his mask. It's Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of the consortium that's responsible for the environmental disaster.
The archaic fight for survival
What follows is a verbal tug-of-war between him and Laura Sommerfeld. While she tries to find out why she was kidnapped, Riley replies in the style of a melancholic philosopher, quoting Nostradamus and Ecclesiastes, and talking about transformation and a change of perspective: "There is no reality, but only assumptions, perspectives and collective fears growing into conspiracy theories."
Riley is deeply fascinated by a particular painting hanging in the Roman cloister Santissima Trinitá that features a praying saint under a tree; when one approaches the image, the pleats of the saint's robe rather look like a landscape.
As Sommerfeld begins to trust Riley a bit, he and the kidnappers drive her to the top of a hill in the middle of a huge salt desert, and leave her there alone with two blind guys.
Almost all films by Werner Herzog have an archaic storyline, featuring people who fight for survival while pursuing their own plans without any consideration for others - like in "Fitzcarraldo." It might be because they are driven by their destiny, their desire to either accelerate - or suppress - the progress of civilization, like in "Cobra Verde." They might also be driven by the desire to discover strange worlds, like in "The Wild Blue Yonder."
In his documentaries, Herzog tries to explore the unknown sides of humans. In "On Death Row," for example, he describes cases of sentenced murderers. In "Grizzly Man," he portrays environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, who fought for the survival of bears.
The apocalypse is near
Werner Herzog can therefore be seen as filmmaker who focuses on the threshold between life and death - though that would be a reductive summarization.
All of his films also transmit poetry. Herzog loves beauty - both in nature, and in art - and he tries to show this beauty in his films, such as in his fascinating documentaries "The White Diamond," featuring an expedition in the rain forest of British Guayana, and "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," presenting the prehistoric paintings in the southern French cave of Chauvet.
In "Salt and Fire," this aspect of Herzog's films is expressed by Riley's philosophical statements, as well as some outstanding visual effects of the film. Here, Herzog leads his protagonists into a deserted railroad track with old rusty trains in the middle of a desert - a perfect metaphor for mankind stuck in a dead end of civilization.
The tour through the white salt desert (Bolivia's Uyuni salt flats) feels like the discovery of a strange planet. And once Sommerfeld, together with the two boys carrying Inca names, lies down on the ground there in order to hear the volcano seething below the surface, the end of the world seems tangibly near.
From the Aral Sea to Bolivia
The film is based on the book "Aral" by Tom Bissel, focusing on the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. It was the world's fourth biggest inland water until the Soviets started to cultivate cotton there. Today, the former lake is a huge salt desert. "Entire fishing fleets are sitting on the sand, rotting away," explained Werner Herzog.
Originally, the film was to be shot at the Aral Sea, but logistical problems made that impossible. That's why Laura Sommerfeld is sent on a mission to write a UN report about the Bolivian salt lake instead.
Actress Veronica Feres' performance is respectable, but not spectacular. Werner Herzog once declared her to be "Germany's only female star" - a rather ridiculous statement. Herzog can be forgiven many things: He isn't the best dialogue writer, the structure of his screenplays isn't always perfect, nor is his directing of actors. But there's so much devotion and narrative power in his films, crowned by great visual moments that they're all worth being seen. "Salt and Fire" is definitely one of them.