ANYONE WHO DISMISSES Werner Herzog’s feature films for being too stylized a version of reality need only watch ‘God’s Angry Man’. This 1981 documentary captures an epoch in the life of Dr. Gene Scott with the same uncanny focus and surreal grandiosity that define the German director’s greatest works. Prematurely white-haired, dapperly suited, and as deeply tanned as his teeth were pearly, Dr. Scott was a perfect fit for television and the embodiment of California cool. He also happened to be a pastor. A spiritual warrior, he fumed on set. A democratically-elected leader of a non-taxable church that he would defend to its end, he declared repeatedly (sometimes while ensconced in his limousine). A passionate man answering a calling that opened him to the world but left him conflicted, isolated, and lonely, he confided to Herzog from his private chambers.
Herzog’s voice can be heard in a few short interviews passages, but only to provide context for the answer and never as a voiceover narrative. And though he did travel to California to make the film (with counterpart cameraman and silent partner Thomas Mauch), much of the footage is taken from Scott’s own cameras. As with much of his oeuvre, Herzog does not pronounce judgment or conclusions on his subjects, but rather interpretations. He communicates to the viewer his impressions, if not his conclusions, through the editing: long passages of Scott’s fund-raising rants intercut with close-ups of his silent and teary faithful waiting by the phones, or maudlin but heartfelt Christian harmony groups singing sweet deliverance before Scott’s tempestuous admonitions of Christ-smiting vengeance. We sense Herzog’s skepticism towards the whole affair—despite Scott’s regular mentions of his sermonizing, he is never shown actually preaching the Word—but he remains respectful in every meeting, eschewing the baiting or provocative questions many contemporary documentarians depend upon to score the headlines. Indeed, Scott seems to have taken a liking to Herzog, discussing private matters with him, showing off his one private possession (a bag, which he coyly refuses to open), and coming to open realizations about himself on camera almost as if Herzog were his therapist. Perhaps he felt that a foreign journalist was easier to talk to than anyone from the American media, many of whom he felt had vendettas against him. In this, Scott verged on exhibiting a persecution complex, but never stepped over the line to compare his own suffering to Christ’s or any comparable megalomania. If anything, this documentary reveals him to be a passionate but deeply reflective man who struggles with his faith and is struck with a spiritual urgency. Some may even empathize with his position.
This is Herzog’s ecstatic truth at work. It does not depend upon a conclusion to be valid, nor does it require an agenda or overarching context to be relevant. It is simply a revelation of life as some people live it—at a deep and singular level that commands attention and defies the comprehension of most. The following year, Herzog would release the film ‘Fitzcarraldo’, in which a white-suited and shockingly blonde protagonist (Klaus Kinski) becomes possessed of a transcendental passion and wades through the Amazonian wilderness to achieve it. Fitzcarraldo’s passion was opera, his gauntlet the rainforest; Scott’s passion was Christ, and his burden the couch-bound and apathetic misers. When watching the one Herzog must have been reminded of the other, and in many regards they are filmed in the same way. But the scope of ‘God’s Angry Man’ is so narrow and close in, particularly compared to the sprawling landscapes and length of ‘Fitzcarraldo’, that it takes on a unique and quixotic depth. It is a narrow peephole into a fantastical existence, like a meticulous and macro-focus Rembrandt hanging in a gallery of ceiling-scraping Titians. Its detail is reveal and its focus riveting, but still the shadows lay deeply.