Written, Produced, and Directed by Werner Herzog
Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
Music by Stavros Xarchakos
Edited by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus and Maxi Mainka
Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg
Sometime during World War II, three German soldiers recovering from injuries are assigned to light duty guarding an ancient fortress on a Greek island. The ancient fortress is full of stone faces. The trio of soldiers finds themselves with nothing of consequence to do. One of them is a scholar of ancient Greek, and spends his days deciphering the writing inscribed on old stones. Another one amuses himself with trying to exterminate all the cockroaches infesting the island. And the third, Stroszek, decides to get married to a local Greek woman. The three soldiers and the Greek woman create among themselves a wonderful little community. You wouldn't even know this was a WWII picture if it weren't for the military uniforms. These four spend their time loafing, drinking, eating, and idly fantasizing about insignificant things. Nothing much seems to happen until Stroszek loses his mind.
Stroszek goes mad when he is confronted with a vista of windmills while on patrol duty assigned to him as busy work. Maybe he is possessed by the ghost of Don Quixote. Stroszek decides to seize the ancient fortress and threaten to blow up an ammunition storage house located on the grounds. The German army, shocked and confused by all this, tries to figure out how to contain the situation.
Signs of Life is the strangest World War II movie I have ever seen. But maybe it's not really a World War II movie as I usually think of it. On the DVD commentary track, director Werner Herzog says that he wanted to make a film featuring Germans who served in World War II not because they believed in the Nazi ideology, but because they faced execution if they did not serve. Removed from the situation of having to fight for Germany, the three soldiers behave in much the way anyone would if they were tourists on vacation in the Greek islands or some other breathtakingly beautiful place.
So why does Stroszek go mad? Maybe it's something to do with how the war has already worked its way inside him, into his soul. This madness of war has perhaps combined with his resentment, shame, and anger towards the state of his native Germany, and so he seizes the fort and puts himself in opposition to his own army. Like Don Quixote, he becomes a man without any particular national identification, but rather someone who seeks to go beyond the limits of an oppressive social structure, and to seek unlimited adventure free of the restraints of reason and reality. Madness liberates Stroszek even if his rebellion is ultimately doomed to failure. For a little while, at least, he is totally free to be the master of his own vision of life and heroic struggle.
Signs of Life is one of those movies that you could call deceptively simple. It's not very long, just barely an hour and a half, and it seems to tell a very strange story in a straightforward way. Stroszek's madness is the most dramatic thing that happens, but many of the early scenes of the movie show the idle good times of the three Germans and the Greek woman as they live on the fortress grounds. These early scenes invite the viewer into the lazy, enchanted rhythms of their lives in a way that reminded me of the beach interlude in the Japanese gangster film Sonatine.
In Sonatine, yakuza seeking to escape the fallout of a violent gang war take refuge on a little used stretch of beach where they begin to relax and play childish games and stage silly dances. The hardened thieves and killers seem to shed their old lives and revert to a more innocent state. The old ways reassert themselves when an assassin shows up to kill one of their number.
Signs of Life also involves a similar disruption of an idyllic state. Three men and one woman thought they could, maybe, escape the harsh realities of a world convulsed with mass slaughter. Maybe they could have, but then one of them woke up to a strange spirit of rebellion, and the idyll was no more.
Signs of Life trailer: