I think it’s pretty safe to say that the most exciting thing about Tom Cruise’s new action flick, Jack Reacher, is Werner Herzog. The legendary German director does act, occasionally, but playing a Russian bad guy in a mainstream Hollywood movie? That’s something to be excited about, if only because his Russian accent will almost definitely be memorably off-beat.
Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t Herzog’s first time dealing with machismo on film. Way back in 1962 he made a short called Herakles, his very first film ever. It’s a critical look at the relationship between masculinity and the 20th century world, at least in a sense. The bulk of the film is made up of footage of bodybuilders working out in a gym, wearing the scantiest of briefs and flexing for the camera as often as possible. The beefcake reel is then interwoven with images from the modern world that clash with the “ideal” human male, sarcastically representing the twelve labors of Hercules. “Will he clean the Augean stables?” Herzog asks, and then shows us an enormous pile of trash.
What do we take from this? Well, the director himself calls the work “stupid and pointless” in Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews published in 2002. He also explains that he has a particular obsession with the “strongman,” a hero with strength well beyond the physical. He detests bodybuilders and feels that it’s a “gross deviation.” I’m not entirely sure if that disgust is what drives Herakles, however. The film’s perspective seems to be that bodybuilding is silly rather than horrid, and offers quite the visual metaphor for the ills of contemporary society. Each Herculean labor is cleverer than the last, ending with the US Air Force as stand-ins for the Stymphalian Birds. There are ideas in this, creative and memorable ones, and someone should tell Herzog that it isn’t nearly as much of an embarrassment as he remembers.
Note: While there is no dialog in this short, there are titles in German with Italian subtitles. A helpful YouTube commenter translated it all, and I’ve copied it below the video. Thanks, TheKrottyKid!
Will he clean the Augean stables? (Garbage dump)
Will he kill the Lernaean Hydra? (Endless lines of cars)
Will he tame the Mares of Diomedes? (Racing cars crashing, spectators killed)
Will he defeat the Amazons? (Women marching in uniform)
Will he conquer the giants? (City reduced to rubble)
Will he resist the Stymphalian birds? (U.S. Air Force jets dropping bombs)