"Soldier of cinema" Werner Herzog has been making documentaries for as long as he's made fiction films. But in the last decade, it's been the nonfiction forays — among them the strange and tragic "Grizzly Man," the wondrous "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," and two last year alone — that have put the German iconoclast's curiosities more rivetingly front and center.
It's intriguing, therefore, that his two most recent narrative movies, "Queen of the Desert" and "Salt and Fire," arrive at the same time this week: Does Herzog still have the power to mystify and challenge audiences the way notorious hallmarks "Aguirre, Wrath of God" and "Nosferatu" did earlier in his career?
"Queen" is Herzog in lush and, dare one say, discordantly respectable biopic mode, serving up Nicole Kidman as British archaeologist/writer Gertrude Bell, a turn-of-the-20th-century adventurer heiress whose deep explorations into Arabian lands and warm relationships with tribal leaders gave her influence in establishing the boundaries of modern Iraq and Jordan. Herzog feels an obvious kinship with Bell's independent spirit, a figure who broke the confines of her "domesticated" upbringing so she could touch distant lands and discover herself.
It's also, less interestingly, a "men who wooed me" version of a pioneer woman's life. Kidman's game, but she and an accent-challenged James Franco (as moon-faced suitor Henry Cadogan) prove mismatched cuddlers. Faring better are Robert Pattinson's snickering T.E. Lawrence — who respected Bell's Bedouin diplomacy — and Damian Lewis' love-struck army officer. The main flaws in "Queen," however, are a lurching narrative coupled with dialogue awkwardness, and a blasé approach to Bell's motivations. They dissipate Herzog's and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger's stabs at poetically rendering a challenging landscape, not to mention its native inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, he's as fascinated by dromedaries and a squawking vulture as he is the humans.
More Herzogian in its uncomfortable loopiness is "Salt and Fire," a tossed-off tale (inspired by a Tom Bissell story) about a dedicated scientist named Laura (Veronica Ferres), sent with two colleagues (one of whom is Gael Garcia Bernal) to Bolivia to examine an ecological catastrophe. The trio is kidnapped at the airport by a masked security team and brought to the villa of an eccentric industrialist (Michael Shannon). Coldly hospitable initially, he's wracked with guilt over his company's connection to the disaster. He also yells uncontrollably, proudly displays his anamorphic art, and decides Laura needs to be stranded in the region's vast, unforgiving salt flats, near an expectantly angry volcano, with meager provisions and two blind boys.
Like something you peer at rather than absorb, "Salt and Fire" is both awful and a tad fascinating. Taken as an allegory for Herzog's relationship to his obsessions — leaving civilization for the harshly beautiful, dwarfing might of the natural world — its skewed logic has a weird pull. But compared with the gloomy Gustav guiding tours of volcanoes, and the people who love them, in last year's "Into the Inferno"? These days, Herzog the storyteller is more what the doc(umentary) ordered, curating the unreality in the real than the other way around.
'Queen of the Desert'
Rated: PG-13, for brief nudity and some thematic elements
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: AMC Rolling Hills 20; AMC Orange 30
'Salt and Fire'
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood