The opening of Werner Herzog’s 1972 breakthrough film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, follows a large group of Spanish conquistadors and enslaved natives as they march together on a thin pathway that snakes down the Andes mountains toward the jungles of the eastern part of South America— once part of the Incan Empire, later known as Peru. In the first of his five features with Herzog, Klaus Kinski stars as the group’s indefatigable second-in-command, Lope de Aguirre, who’s on a quest for El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold. The hubris and arrogance of the Spaniards — to say nothing of their wildly impractical armor and supplies — makes them vulnerable to hostile locals and the unforgiving forces of nature. For Aguirre and the few others who survive, these are the first steps in a long descent into madness.
There’s a shot in the second half of Documentary Now!’s brilliant Herzog parody, “Soldier of Illusion,” that mirrors the opening of Aguirre. Only here the descent is down the Ural mountains of Russia in the early ’80s and the conquistadors are a sitcom test audience flown in from Woodland Hills, California. They will also be subjected to hostile locals and an austere natural terrain, but to their credit, they’re more adaptable than Aguirre and company, who probably would not have been satisfied by “a small per diem and pizza.” No one dreams of El Dorado any more. They’ll just take what they can get.
There was always going to be a Documentary Now! on Herzog, who may be the lowest-hanging comic fruit in the nonfiction world. His unmistakable voice — curious, probing, eccentric, and deeply German — has been a feature of his documentaries for decades, and the older he’s gotten, the more it has infiltrated popular culture. His speech about nature in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s 1982 classic doc about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, was always quotable (“The trees here are in misery, the birds are in misery”), but its popularity has metastasized in the viral age. Comedians from Paul F. Tompkins to every cinephile you’ve ever met have offered up imitations of Herzog, and the director himself has embraced his status as living legend and cult of personality. He even turned up as the villain on the first season of The Mandalorian. His familiarity is perhaps the biggest pitfall: How do you find a fresh angle on such a ubiquitous target, especially given Herzog’s own willingness to score off his image?
The big answer, as with all the great Documentary Now! episodes, is attention to detail. The Herzog of Burden of Dreams may be the key inspiration for “Soldier of Illusion,” as well as the third-person narration and visual texture of Blank’s film, but John Mulaney, who scripted the episode, feasts from a wider buffet of texts, referencing Aguirre, Grizzly Man, and My Best Fiend, Herzog’s 1999 documentary about his contentious partnership with Kinski. He also cleverly jabs at the mainstreaming of Herzog by putting Rainer Wolz (Alexander Skarsgård), his version of the famed iconoclast, in charge of two productions at once: An ethnographic documentary about the indigenous Dushkir people of the region and a CBS sitcom pilot called Bachelor Nanny.
The juxtaposition between the bottom-rung banality of an ’80s sitcom and Wolz’s austerity as an artist is a formula that pays off ceaselessly in the run-up to the pilot, which aren’t generally shot on location — and certainly not this location, a primitive community carved out near the Kazakhstan border. (Wolz’s idea of building the set in an abandoned Soviet mine, “at one time the sixth-largest source of boron in Eurasia,” is rejected by a seismologist, who warns that any noise above a child’s whisper will cause the mine to collapse.) Bachelor Nanny is the initiative of a new CBS executive, Alan Yaffa (Fred Armisen), who, like many new media executives, wants to distance himself from anything made by the previous administration. That means better shows (“I wouldn’t screen [last] season’s pilots for Helen Keller”) and rolling the dice on Wolz to bring to life his fresh comedy about a bachelor who takes care of twins.
The casting process brings a couple of stock funnymen for the lead roles: A stand-up named Gary Jacks (Kevin Bishop) plays the bachelor, and his best friend, Gordy, is played by Kevin Butterman (Nicholas Braun, best known as Greg from Succession), a former child star who’d fallen on hard times since his Partridge Family–like show was canceled. (“I knew he would bring to Gordy the desperate longing of a broken man,” says Wolz.) From there, Wolz has to improvise: To ease tensions with the Dushkir, the incomprehensible/uncomprehending daughter of a tribe elder is cast as the love interest, and the babies are played by two mute Dushkir twins of around age 10. The natives build an outdoor set, along with bleachers and wooden props, but the integrity of the script is sacrosanct. “Boy, these pacifiers really work,” says Gordy. “I should get one for my ex-wife!”
The second half of “Soldier of Illusion” begins with a dramatic change on the pilot: Due to an obscure conflict with the Soviet army, Gary Jacks has to be sacrificed to the authorities for production to continue — he is taken away to a gulag, presumably never to make a MILF joke in public again — and he’s replaced by Dieter Daimler (August Diehl), the Kinski to the show’s Herzog. The bond company takes issue with Dieter’s habit of “nearly killing people on every shoot,” but Wolz has learned how to manage the actor’s homicidal tendencies since their first shoot together, 1962’s The Stigmata of Aldo the Dwarf. Still, when the test audience arrives from Woodland Hills, they’re in the mood to laugh.
The funny part of Dieter’s volatile presence on set is that his rages are mostly contained, but his true offense is screwing up takes by giggling through them. This seems like a distinct Mulaney touch, given his history on Saturday Night Live and other comedies where actors, like Dieter, can fall “into the abyss of infectious laughter” and break character. That’s when Wolz finally loses his patience and draws the line with his star: “If you keep riffing with Kevin Butterman and jeopardize the fate of Bachelor Nanny, the Dushkir elders and I will disembowel you in front of this audience from Woodland Hills, California. You do not want to put these good people through that carnage.”
Amid all the hilarious touches over the two-part episode, “Soldier of Illusion” sneaks some insight into Herzog himself, who may have a well-earned image as a rebel adventurer, but also knows what it’s like to work within the confines of commercial cinema. Wolz does not challenge Yaffa or the studio as flagrantly as Dieter does, and he concedes that bringing in the Woodland Hills crowd is the right choice, even while “their fat, corpulent ignorance” enrages him. A tension exists between Herzog the auteur and Herzog the brand, and the episode teases it out affectionately. Somewhere, Herzog is out there chuckling.
• The episode doesn’t lean too hard into Herzog’s famous Burden of Dreams monologues, but it does include this circular bit of philosophizing about the line between truth and fiction: “A wilderness with a camera in it, it’s something else. When you add another camera to that, you are adding a camera to a new thing, which is a wilderness with already a camera in it. Each lens distorts the previous distortion. What you are left in the end is not a wilderness anymore, but an illusion resembling a wilderness.” (Sounds silly, but Wolz is right here.)
• The big Fitzcarraldo reference is an effort to drag the bachelor’s pool table up a hill using a primitive pulley system. For his film, Herzog used such a system to drag an entire three-story steamboat up a hill between two waterways — something even the real-life Fitzcarraldo didn’t attempt to do.
• The Grizzly Man reference comes about when two brown bears attack the set. A scene in which Wolz and Yaffa go over footage of the carnage nods to Grizzly Man’s most famous scene, when Herzog listens to audio of a bear mauling his subject, Timothy Treadwell (and Treadwell’s girlfriend), and advises a friend never to do likewise. “I will destroy the tape,” says Wolz, “but it will continue to haunt us forever.”
• “Gary Jacks, frequent guest of Merv Griffin and The Tonight Show, was whisked away to a fate unknown.”
• Dieter provoking the audience at his one-man avant-garde show: “I am Eve in the Garden of Eden. The first harlot in an endless line of harlots that ends with all your mothers!”
• Butterman connecting with the Dushkir twins between takes: “I was younger than you guys when I was on my first sitcom, actually.”
• “Before we begin, I’m going to read a list of crew members who have died of exposure over the last month.”
Update: An earlier version of this recap mistakenly misidentified the location of Peru. It has been corrected.