Part One is the Creation and the screen offers four minutes' footage of aeroplanes coming in to land at an airport. Then the narrative begins with shots of the desert and its mirages while the narrator (respected critic Lotte Eisner) reads out the Mayan creation story of the Popol Vuh which describes how the world was formed from out of the void and the land was formed from out of the sea. All the while the images of the Sahara build up, sometimes merging with the narration, sometimes standing alone until a mystical texture is fashioned from these basic elements.
Just don't ask me to explain it, because director Werner Herzog used that familiar get out clause that states that this particular work means whatever you want it to. What it meant to him was about a year of travelling around North Africa and filming the most interesting sights he could find, all the while avoiding the military and trying not to die from blood poisoning. He and his crew managed only one of those things, as while Herzog didn't die he was captured by the government, beaten and imprisoned for his pains.
Normally information like that would be an item of trivia, a footnote, but here it gives the imagery more significance knowing the strenuous efforts it took to bring it to the world. The film is split into three parts, and apparently when Herzog returned home with his film he wasn't entirely sure of what to do with it. He began editing together a science fiction film, as if the footage was a documentary from another planet, but what he ended up with was inscrutably strange while employing a hypnotic power.
At first, the desert looks so inhospitable that you cannot believe anything lives there, although you can believe that things die there judging by the wreckage of planes and vehicles and animal corpses dotting the landscape. Then the people make their presence felt, the natives in the distance and eventually in closeup, like the boy who holds up the small furry creature we presume is his pet; Herzog stays with the shot, as he does many of the others, for an inordinate length of time as if to eke out a deeper meaning from what could be simple reportage in another filmmaker's hands.
As it goes on, a sense of humour makes itself apparent. There's the goggle-wearing scientist who holds forth on the subject of the monitor lizard (while holding a monitor lizard), the scientist who outlines the basics of the turtle, and the couple of musicians (are they a married couple? Are they mother and son?) who only appear to know two songs, or at least that's all they get to play. The music in Fata Morgana ranges from classical to church to Leonard Cohen, but Herzog treats it as part of the landscape he is shaping as he does with his narration in the second (Paradise) and third (The Golden Age) segments, which may or may not be the ramblings of a man who has spent too much time in the desert. Interesting as an experiment, this prime example of a seventies head movie is as stimulating as you want it to be.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.