Alexander Skarsgård Is A Better Werner Herzog Than Werner Herzog
Documentary Now! has returned to IFC for its long-awaited fourth season, and the documentary parody anthology certainly didn’t disappoint the film nerds and comedy fans who had waited three long years for more episodes of the Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers-led series that dares to ask, “What if Werner Herzog made a multi-camera sitcom?”
The first two episodes of Season Four, titled “Soldier of Illusion: Part I and II,” satirize the controversial “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams, which chronicled the chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s epic adventure film Fitzcarraldo. Playing the monotone Bavarian auteur is Alexander Skarsgård, fresh off of the starring role in A24’s Viking epic The Northman. Skarsgård's performance is as impassioned, transfixing, and grimly absorbing as every Herzog film put together. He’s somehow more Herzog than Herzog.
The two-part episode opens in the modern day on a desolate landscape nestled in the mountains of Eurasia where Skarsgård’s Herzog character recollects one of the most ambitious and confusing undertakings of his career: In the 1980s, he attempted to simultaneously film a documentary about the native people during the mating season of the goats on which they have built the foundation of their meager existence, and a CBS sitcom pilot called Bachelor Nanny about a free-wheeling ladies’ man who is forced to adopt his twin nieces. As Skarsgård utters gravely, “He must juggle babies and babes.”
“Soldier of Illusion” uses its surreal setup merely as a launching pad as it careens wildly between different touchpoints in Herzog’s exhaustive filmography — at one point, the production crew of the sitcom/documentary are assaulted by a pair of Kamchatka brown bears, only for the beasts to be butchered by a sleepless monk wielding a bowie knife. In his perfect Herzog deadpan, Skarsgård poetically laments the bears, saying, “The Kamchatka bear and his girlfriend would survive 68 stab wounds before escaping to the safety of death.”
Skarsgård is pushed to find the outer limits of his Herzog embodiment at the act break between the two episodes with the arrival of the Klaus Kinski character, played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences for his role as a formidable Nazi officer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. The chemistry between Skarsgård and Diehl is as violent and electric as that of Kinski and Herzog, who, on more than one occasion, came deathly close to ending each other’s lives.
Also appearing in “Soldier of Illusion” is Skarsgård’s Succession castmate Nicholas Braun, television’s go-to guy whenever they need to cast a 6-foot-7 sad sack. Braun plays a washed-up child star looking to revive his career on Bachelor Nanny.
The entire two-part episode is as whimsical and grim as we could have ever hoped for once Documentary Now! inevitably set its sights on Germany's most doleful documentarian. Of all the powerful performances in the history of the parody series, none has been more accurate, more focused and more artful than that of Skarsgård’s Herzog. Skarsgård does not just do a good Herzog impression — he captures the filmmaker’s very being, and shows us what it would be like to witness Werner Herzog greeting a live studio audience by reading off a list of all crewmembers who had died during the filming of a family sitcom.
Later this season on Documentary Now!, we will be treated to “My Monkey Grifter,” a parody of My Octopus Teacher, and “How They Threw Rocks,” based on When We Were Kings — new episodes will come out Wednesdays on IFC.