Seemingly concocted while filming his volcano documentary, Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire is the rare misfire from the great – and prolific – filmmaker. That’s not to say that the picture isn’t intermittently interesting – it is Herzogian in every way.
The film bears some similarity to the director’s other narrative features of recent years – namely, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? – although it’s not as successful as the former or as macabre as the latter. However, it is as batshit insane as both.
Clearly not aiming for anything resembling realism, Salt and Fire concerns a group of scientists, including a German scientist (Veronica Ferres) who has been summoned with several others in her field – including a short, apparently kung fu-trained German colleague and an Italian (Gael Garcia Bernal, not aiming to be Italian in the least) with roving hands – to travel to Bolivia, where they are expected to examine an active volcano.
Instead, they are kidnapped by a group of men led by Michael Shannon, whose bon mots include such truisms as “the noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest.” In the meantime, one of his kidnapping colleagues pontificates about alien abductions, Bernal suffers through “the mother of all diarrhea” episodes and Ferres is left alone in the salt flats with two partially blind children, with whom she plays games. You got all that?
Salt and Fire ranks high on the scale of weirdness, even for a Herzog film, although it comes nowhere near the delirium of Bad Lieutenant, which was also significantly better. And although it features a man versus nature theme that we’ve come to expect from the director, it doesn’t hold a candle to such masterpieces as Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Grizzly Man, which both explored that concept to much better effect.
The picture’s strangeness and clearly stilted dialogue held me in thrall – to an extent, at least – for the first half of film, but by the time Ferres has been left alone with the two aforementioned children, it was pretty clear that Salt and Fire had lost its way.
Herzog is a master filmmaker – one of the best in the world – and his resume is a long list of remarkable fiction and documentary movies. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. The picture has its moments – a few of which are particularly bonkers – but it’s a minor work from a major artist.