Echoes From a Somber Empire
1990, NR, 91 min. Directed by Werner Herzog.
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.