Kant and Burke’s Sublime in Werner Herzog’s Films: The Quest for an Ecstatic Truth

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Abstract

In his famous lecture “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog controversially associates “truth” and “reality” in film with Kant’s notion of the sublime, by explicitly treating the sublime as a key element in developing his notion of ecstatic truth. Herzog’s aim is to offer a response to what he considers to be “the assault of virtual reality” and to question the prevalent idea of the “factual” in cinema, television and new media. The significance of the idea of the sublime in Herzog’s works can hardly be considered a novelty: the filmmaker has discussed the concept for years, and the issue of the sublime runs thematically throughout Herzog’s work. In his films, and in art in general, Herzog believes that it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth which is closely related to sublime experiences.
In this paper, I critically examine Herzog’s interpretation of Kant’s sublime and the relations he establishes between the sublime and his own key aesthetic notion of ecstatic truth. I will then examine how the sublime in Herzog’s films arises from encounters with the overwhelming force and power of nature experienced by his characters (in the feature films) and participants (in the documentaries). Although Herzog explicitly draws on Kant, I will also question whether Kant’s conception of the sublime is the one that best aligns with Herzog’s aesthetic aims. To this end, I will contrast Kant’s transcendental sublime with what I describe as the “physiological sublime” of Edmund Burke. Comparing Kant’s and Burke’s theories of the sublime will help us to further understand the sublime’s complex function in Herzog’s films, namely the role it plays in framing the encounter with the overwhelming forces of nature, on the one hand, and the physical ecstasy as a path to truth that accompanies this encounter, on the other. I will finish by drawing some conclusions about the moral dimension of the sublime in the context of the relationship between humans and nature within the frame of contemporary ecological concerns.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149–170
Number of pages21
JournalFilm-Philosophy
Volume26
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Keywords

  • Sublime
  • Kant
  • Burke
  • Herzog

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