The 1968 German film, Signs of Life, is a deceptively simple film.
In fact, the story that it tells is so simple and so seemingly straight-forward that I’m sure some people would be surprised to discover that this was Werner Herzog’s first film. When most people think of Herzog, they think of Klaus Kinski ranting against the Amazon and maybe Herzog himself talking about how he feels that chaos is the only governing principle of the universe. Signs of Life, on the other hand, is a rather low-key and almost gentle film. That said, the film does contain several of the themes that would show up in Herzog’s later film. Even with his first feature film, Herzog already had a fairly good grasp on what he wanted to use cinema to express.
The film takes place in World War II and it deals with three German soldiers who have suffered from minor injuries in the war. Deemed unfit for combat, they’ve been assigned to guard the munitions that are being stored at an ancient fortress on the Greek island of Kos. It’s not demanding work. The villagers are largely passive and, for the most part, seem to be just waiting out the war. The leader of the soldiers, Stroszek (Peter Brogle), has recently married a Greek woman named Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and she is living with him at the fortress.
The film celebrates the beauty of Kos. Herzog’s camera finds poetry in the simple sight of white linens hanging out to dry. One of the soldiers explores the local cemetery and Herzog encourages us to ponder the long history of both the island and the people who live there. In perhaps the film’s best known scene, Stroszek and Nora look down on a valley full of windmills and the beauty of it is a bit overwhelming.
As would often happen in later Herzog films, the soldiers never quite appreciate the beauty of the world around them. While the audience is taking in scenes of breath-taking beauty, the soldiers are going a bit stir crazy. Could it be that, as men of war, they’re incapable of appreciating the peaceful surrounding? Perhaps but, then again, it could just be the fact that there’s not much to do on Kos other than ponder the mysteries of life and, in Herzog’s films, that often leads to insanity. Stroszek ends up threatening to blow up the munitions dump but it must be said that, as far as Herzog lunatics are concerned, he’s no Klaus Kinski.
The plot of Signs of Life is largely secondary to the images that Herzog captures. Watching Signs of Life, you get the feeling that Herzog simply fell in love with the island and that the film’s storyline is just something that he came up with so he’d have an excuse to share that love with the rest of the world. Signs of Life is an exercise in pure cinema. It’s not a perfect debut film but, at its best, it shows tantalizing hints of the great filmmaker that Werner Herzog would soon become.