For a movie with no dialogue and no plot, consisting largely of footage of male bodybuilders working out to a saxophone jazz soundtrack, Werner Herzog‘s first movie, a 9-minute short called Herakles (Hercules) made when he was just 19 years old in 1961 or 1962, is unexpectedly thoughtful. To finance the movie, Herzog took a job as a welder on the night shift while at university, something to think about when you complain that nobody is giving you any opportunities to move forward in your chosen career.
In Herakles, footage of men lifting barbells etc. is occasionally interrupted by stock footage, which always relates to a (pretty much illegible) caption that has just appeared. The captions all relate to the twelve labors of Hercules, while the stock footage “commentary” points to a modern-day equivalent that all the Schwarzeneggers in the world would do very little to change. So for instance, the question “Wird er sich der stymphalischen Vögel erwehren?” (Will he resist the Stymphalian birds?) is followed by footage of U.S. military planes flying in formation and dropping bombs on training targets. Likewise, after reading “Wird er die lernäische Schlange töten?” (Will he kill the Lernaean Hydra?) the viewer is treated to footage of a long line of stalled traffic on a highway. And so on. To construct metaphorical conceits out of generic footage of muscle-bound weightlifters…. this is pretty clever and interesting stuff.
To his credit, Herzog doesn’t think very much of his starting point. He had bigger fish to fry. In the book Herzog on Herzog, the director said, “My most immediate and radical lesson came from what was my first blunder, Herakles. It was a good thing to have made this little film first—rather than jump into something much more meaningful to me—because from that moment on I had a much better idea as to how I should go about my business. Learning from your mistakes is the only real way to learn.”
In the same book Herzog also said, “Looking back on Herakles today, I find the film rather stupid and pointless, though at the time it was an important test for me. It taught me about editing together very diverse material that would not normally sit comfortably as a whole. For the film I took stock footage of an accident at Le Mans where something like eighty people died after fragments of a car flew into the spectators’ stand, and inter-cut it with footage of bodybuilders, including Mr. Germany 1962. For me it was fascinating to edit material together that had such separate and individual lives. The film was some kind of an apprenticeship for me. I just felt it would be better to make a film than go to film school.”