This elaborate practical joke begins as a documentary on director Werner Herzog, erstwhile shining star of the ’70s New German Cinema, and his plans to shoot his own documentary, Enigma of Loch Ness. At first all this seems plausible, even when we meet Enigma’s producer Zak Penn, a screenwriter whose credits include Inspector Gadget and X-Men 2; Penn wants the prestige that would come with working on a Herzog project and Herzog wants a producer with resources. Penn supplies a veteran Hollywood cinematographer and sound man and Herzog supplies the art cred. But it quickly becomes apparent that the two men have clashing priorities, with Herzog speaking of the search for ‘ecstatic truth” and Penn determined to make the most commercial film possible under the circumstances.
So, ostensibly it’s a documentary about the making of a documentary, but — and here’s the kicker — neither of them are on the level. If you don’t pick up on the indications that this thing is bogus within the first 15 minutes (and the main indicator is that Penn seems more like a bad actor than someone behaving naturally going about his business), they’ll be no doubt by the time the crew arrives in Scotland and Penn’s ideas for the film become more and more absurd. His insistence that everyone wear identical jumpsuits so that the Loch Ness venture looks like “a real expedition” (the dignified Herzog refuses) is just the beginning. He also brings in a bikini-clad model who’s supposed to be a sonar technician, and a self-described “crypto-zoologist,” who apparently believes in the Loch Ness monster and a whole array of harebrained concepts.
The first two-thirds of the film is an amusing if occasionally heavy-handed comedy about Hollywood values subverting Herzog’s visionary approach to moviemaking, but then it takes a sharp turn into Blair Witch territory, and deeper into obvious fiction, when the Loch Ness monster actually shows up. It seems a little strange to have all attempts at verisimilitude suddenly tossed out the window — but even fake documentaries need an ending.
This is a minor entry in the Herzog canon (it’s easy to forget that he’s not really directing the Enigma film here, he’s just pretending) but it’s an intriguing blend of reality and hyper-reality. Ostensibly everybody’s playing themselves, but with, in some cases, an added degree of ridiculousness; one doubts that Zak Penn, who actually directed the film we’re watching — as opposed to the two fake films we’re watching being made — is really the asshole Zak Penn depicted herein. And if that’s not confusing, you’ll probably enjoy this clever little joke.
Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 14, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].