Saturday I watched the rough cut of Walking to Werner, a fascinating movie that local filmmaker Linas Phillips shot while traveling on foot from Seattle to Werner Herzog's house in Los Angeles. Though I'd written about the production a few months ago, I hadn't seen it fully assembled until now. Thanks to the highway dwellers Phillips met along the route, the movie is turning out to be as much about American Christianity in extremis as it is about Phillips's journey or the titular Bavarian. Not all of the naked spirituality documented in Walking to Werner is my style, but it's brutal and extremely affecting, and it left me with a weird appetite for religious film.
You can't get much more religious than Jesus, You Know, the 2003 film by Austrian documentarian Ulrich Seidl, which was released last week on Kino International DVD. (The Passion of Joan of Arc? It's too preoccupied with the mystery of personality. The Passion of the Christ? Too physical.) A limited release that made it to theaters in New York but was never distributed here, Jesus, You Know portrays a parade of German-speaking Catholics as they pray aloud in Vienna churches.
The filmmaking is deceptively austere. A stationary camera watches each individual as he or she ascends the stairs to a cathedral and enters the empty sanctuary. Another camera, positioned at the altar, stares rigidly forward as the petitioner approaches and kneels in prayer. The churches, observed peripherally, are opulent but tasteful. The only close-ups are of art: A favorite subject is the sacred heart of Jesus, whether burning symbolically or in primitive anatomical detail, flames pouring out of a tubular aorta and a simplified ventricular flap. Meanwhile, Jesus' various dour or benevolent expressions seem to mirror the ways the supplicants address him—as a guidance counselor one moment, a chum the next.
Each prayer is addressed directly to Jesus, and a prickling sensation of voyeurism is not diminished by the uncertain circumstances of the film's creation. Were the prayers rehearsed? And if not, how did Seidl find believers who could appear so artless in front of the camera? The prayers in Jesus, You Know are amazing. One waxy adolescent complains that his family makes fun of him for attending Mass instead of studying. Later he admits that he has erotic fantasies about the "glamour pages" in the TV guide, and also about stories in the Bible. A married woman worries about the pernicious effect TV talk shows are having on her husband, then speaks movingly about the tensions produced by her Christian beliefs among his Muslim family. A middle-aged lady with a face like a cherub confesses she's thought about offing her husband: "I have poison," she says, wide-eyed. She looks evil. It's awesome.