Film review: Director Werner Herzog’s latest film Salt and Fire tests the patience of his audience

The film is somewhat esoteric – but Herzog has always been at his best in movies where the environment and humanity clash or intertwine.

Michael Shannon and Veronica Ferres. Courtesy Camino Filmverleih
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Salt and Fire

Director: Werner Herzog

Stars: Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal

Three stars

With his latest film, Werner Herzog seems to be testing the audience to see whether they can make it through a clunky, talky kidnap thriller to arrive at a beautiful, scenic and fun section set in the salt flats of ­Bolivia. If the answer is yes, the rewards are great. If not, you will find yourself thirsting for something more conventional.

Herzog has avoided female protagonists for much of his storied career. Here, though, he follows up his tepid Queen of the Desert – a biopic about British archaeologist, spy and ­traveller Gertrude Bell, who played a major role in creating the ­modern-day map of the Middle East – with another tale featuring a female explorer discovering herself in foreign lands.

One of the many problems with Queen of the Desert was the casting of Nicole Kidman as Bell. In Salt and Fire, the main character is played by German actress Veronica Ferres, who seems to struggle with acting in English (at least, that's the kind explanation for her ­stilted, wooden performance). This is a major problem given the ­early scenes revolve around her ­providing a lot of expositional dialogue.

Yet, when not talking, Ferres is very believable as Laura, the leader of a delegation of scientists – including a sleazy Gael García Bernal and chivalrous Volker Zack Michalowski – who head to Bolivia to investigate an ongoing ecological disaster at the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

Her performance is just one example of the yin and yang that flows through this enigmatic film.

It is based on Tom Bissell's short story Aral, in which an American scientist is kidnapped by the KGB and forced to change her assumptions about the Aral Sea disaster.

The film shifts the action to South America, while the kidnappers become “The Consortium”, a seemingly evil group of capitalists headed by Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) and Krauss (Lawrence Krauss).

When the action takes place indoors it feels overwrought – but when the characters reach the vast salt plains, Herzog, and the film, are liberated.

The characters quote philosophers as they talk of aliens, ­supervolcanoes and man-made disasters. Mysterious blind children carry toys. There is a playfulness, in short, that one more usually associates with the films of Michel Gondry.

The ecological message ­pinpoints the short-sighted foolishness of humanity and the brutality of nature. For sure the film is somewhat esoteric – but Herzog has always been at his best in movies where the ­environment and humanity clash or intertwine.