• FILM

  • SEARCH FOR

Echoes From a Somber Empire

Directed by Werner Herzog. (1990, NR, 91 min.)

REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., Oct. 2, 1992

The documentaries of Werner Herzog exhibit the same fascination with the strange, the exotic, the evil and the bizarre as do his narrative films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, or Stroszek to name a few. Echoes From a Somber Empire follows journalist Michael Goldsmith, who was imprisoned and tortured by mad dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central Africa, as he tries to make sense of his experiences from the perspective of more than a decade. Goldsmith interviews Bokassa's wives (he is estimated to have had as many as 54), his children, his political enemies and others who knew him but he is compelled, like the Ancient Mariner, to tell them his story almost as if he cannot believe it himself. Interspersed with Goldsmith's interviews is archival footage of Bokassa's reign. Eerily, these scenes are silent save for the beautiful, contemplative music Herzog uses in the background. The flickering footage, the gaudy pomp of Bokassa's coronation and state occasions are like the echoes from the past that so haunt Goldsmith. Bokassa, who ruled from 1966 to 1979 inexplicably returned to Central Africa from exile after he was condemned to death for, among other crimes, cannibalism. Though it is believed that Bokassa is in prison, his fate is similar to that of Goldsmith who, Herzog tells us in the film's opening, has disappeared somewhere in Africa. There is so much that is unexplained. Is the young woman who tells of being raped by the dictator really his daughter as well? How does the woman who lives in France as his wife feel when she hears about her husband's horrible crimes? Herzog's insistence that we draw our own conclusions and discover our own truths becomes frustrating in the case of Echoes From a Somber Empire. Likewise, the director refuses to speak for Goldsmith other than to read a letter from the journalist as he tries to explain the feeling of unreality and detachment he is left with after his experiences. And perhaps what is really most frustrating cannot be helped from the point of view of the director. There simply is no explanation for humanity's mad excesses. To document them as Herzog does is a reminder that such things exist, and that we have within ourselves the capacity for more evil than we care to admit.

READ MORE
More Werner Herzog
Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of 'Heart of Glass'
Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass
How to explain the genius of Werner Herzog?

Marc Savlov, May 4, 2012

The Big Seedy
The Big Seedy
Werner Herzog talks about his eccentric tour de farce, 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'

Marc Savlov, Dec. 11, 2009

More Werner Herzog
What Would Werner Do?
What Would Werner Do?
New to home viewing: A feast of Herzog, ‘Zero Charisma’

Kimberley Jones, April 8, 2014

From the Vaults: Herzog's Ecstasy of Truth
From the Vaults: Herzog's Ecstasy of Truth
Werner Herzog on documentary filmmaking

Marjorie Baumgarten, March 1, 2013

More Werner Herzog Films
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog goes down the internet rabbit hole

Kimberley Jones, Sept. 2, 2016

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Werner Herzog focuses on Siberian fur trappers in his latest documentary.

Marjorie Baumgarten, March 1, 2013

More by Kathleen Maher
Singles
Love in the Nineties: no drugs and the sex is scary. Actually, Cameron Crowe documents the habits of a generation that adapted.

Sept. 25, 1992

Incident at Oglala
British filmmaker Apted makes a carefully reasoned, yet passionate statement about the legal system that has ensnared American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier.

July 10, 1992

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Echoes From a Somber Empire, Werner Herzog

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
This content has not been formatted for this window size.
Please increase the size of your browser window, or revisit this page on a mobile device.
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)