It’s easy, when talking about Documentary Now!—IFC’s relentlessly brilliant love letter to the non-fiction form—to do so by talking about “parody.” It’s something the show itself encourages with some regularity, what with its intense dedication to mimicry, moving heaven and earth to capture the specific look of, and particular images from, whatever piece of real-world filmmaking that directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas, and the show’s rotating crew of high-profile comedy writers, have set their sights on for any given week. And it was certainly truer in the IFC series’ early going, when huge pieces of the documentary canon—Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, Salesman, etc.—were still waiting to be plucked for parody from the vine.
But as the show has matured over the last four seasons on the air—and as original stars Fred Armisen and Bill Hader have become less prominent/available, depriving the show of a Saturday Night Live-ish ability to cast and re-cast them as its subjects from week to week—something interesting has happened to Documentary Now!. There’s been a shift away from parody deep in the show’s DNA, into something more akin to a kind of comedic synthesis of the real and the fake.
Take, as demonstration, tonight’s deeply funny two-part fourth-season premiere, “Soldier Of Illusion.” From the title—and from Alexander Skarsgård’s drooping mustache and portentous, faux-Teutonic monologues—it would be easy to assume that Buono, Thomas, and writer John Mulaney were taking direct and focused aim at Les Blank’s legendary making-of doc Burden Of Dreams, the story of German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s near-successful efforts to get himself and a bunch of other people murdered by the South American jungle during the filming of his 1982 drama Fitzcarraldo. Sure, the action is transplanted across the globe to the mountains of Russia, and Skarsgård resists the urge to give his own tortured filmmaker, Rainer Wolz, a direct imitation of Herzog’s much-imitated voice. But the central idea—of a deeply committed dreamer endangering both his own life, and that of his crew, in pursuit of a sort of artistic perfection—is clearly front and center.
It takes “Soldier” just about two minutes to reveal what joke Mulaney is actually building up to here, though—and it’s as John Mulaney-ass a joke as you might ever hope to encounter, blending a highbrow loftiness with a certain lower strata of trash TV nostalgia. The punchline arrives when an older Wolz, reflecting on his past, reveals that he was in the region to film not just one, but two projects. One: A “film chronicling the Dushkir people during their Tusian sheep breeding season.” The other? “A CBS sitcom called Bachelor Nanny.”
To understand why this joke works—and why a whole 40-minute short film predicated on this one particular bit of seemingly simple comic juxtaposition also works—you just need to listen to the passion in Skarsgård’s voice as he lays down Bachelor Nanny’s logline: “The story of a single guy who, after agreeing to take in his sister’s twin newborns, has to juggle both babies…and babes.” The easy, lazy read on a premise like this would be to portray Wolz as better than, or contemptuous of, Bachelor Nanny, filming the CBS pilot only under duress or out of financial necessity. But that’s not Wolz. If anything, he’s more committed to the artistic vision of Bachelor Nanny than he is to A Journey Into The Way Of The Dushkir People Of The Ular Mountains, throwing himself body and soul into producing the best ’80s multi-com sitcom he can possibly conjure up.
In doing so, “Soldier Of Illusion” reveals itself, not as a parody of Herzog, but as an exploration, even a celebration, of his commitment to his creations. (Cut with just enough of a huckster’s sense of showmanship to keep the rubes in the audience entertained). Skarsgård nails the sense of carefully concealed mischievousness that has become more detectible as Herzog has aged into elder statesman status, and handles the flip between the darker and the more sitcom-y sides of Wolz’s personality in a way that leaves them comprehensible as reflections of each other, rather than being in conflict.
Premise now established, “Soldier Of Illusion” then runs through all the beats of the filming of Bachelor Nanny, many of them lifted loosely from Burden Of Dreams—from the shot of a shirtless Skarsgård playing soccer with the Dushkir locals, to local “arrow-catching” games, to having Wolz’s efforts to install a studio audience in an abandoned boron mine stand in for Herzog’s potentially deadly efforts to pull a 320-ton steamship over a jungle hill. But the episode also pulls from numerous other moments in the Herzog canon, including a point when a sudden bear attack transitions into a direct lift from Grizzly Man. With Wolz and “CBS head of comedy Allan Yaffa” (Armisen, clutching an Emmy, and used with effective sparingness) reviewing a disastrous hair and makeup test, the scene produces Documentary Now!’s own very particular take on that film’s famous “You must never listen to this” sequence. (Yaffa, horrified by the carnage: “No one can see this… Are they going to try something different with Gary Jacks’ hair?”)
Unfortunately for all involved, the Russian government takes umbrage with Jacks (Kevin Bishop), the star of Bachelor Nanny, for his participation in rituals embedded in the local Dushkir culture. (Rituals that Wolz forced him to participate in, natch; the character shares Herzog’s sometimes, let’s say, liberal approach to the safety of others if it means keeping his project alive.) And so, Wolz regretfully ends the first half of tonight’s two-parter by giving up the amiable American comedian to the authorities—leaving him with no other choice than to cast his old frenemy, Dieter Daimler, in the now-vacated part of the titular Bachelor Nanny.
As Daimler, August Diehl comes the closest to a straight imitation out of any of tonight’s participants, channeling the mercurial, sensitive, and sometimes violent nature of Herzog’s wild-eyed muse Klaus Kinski. (Hard to fault him, when a part as varied, and sometimes vile, as Kinski is just waiting to have an actor’s teeth sunk into it.) The second half of “Soldier Of Illusion,” then, shifts its parodic focus in part to Herzog’s 1999 film My Best Fiend, the director’s attempt to reckon with an artistic relationship that often-times encompassed soaring triumphs, raging anger, and the apparently sincere contemplation of murder on both sides.
Early on, Wolz successfully soothes Daimler’s ego, inventing a pregnant local woman that he can kick out of the set’s “luxury lodgings” so that his star can move in. The climax of the two men’s conflict comes, though, on the night of the taping of the Bachelor Nanny pilot, when Daimler develops a fit of “the giggles” after co-star Kevin Butterman (Nicholas Braun) ad-libs a line. After a few minutes of playing nice guy, Skarsgård suddenly brings the entirety of his considerable intensity to the forefront, cowing the wayward actor with some very pointed threats of violence. All seems well—until the outdoor soundstage, and its Burbank-imported studio audience, are suddenly attacked by a raiding rival village.
And this, honestly, is why the Documentary Now! team is so smart in their choice to not attempt to out-do, or out-absurd, the films on which their work is based. That raid is, after all, a more-or-less direct lift from Burden Of Dreams, where filming on Fitzcarraldo is suddenly interrupted when a big chunk of Herzog’s extras abruptly depart the movie’s set so they can go off and retaliate against a similar attack. (Nobody, to the best of our knowledge, got bonked with a giant bowling pin, but the point remains.) “Soldier Of Illusion” can’t hope to beat the sheer amount of strangeness and misery that Herzog and his team weathered on Fitzcarraldo by trying to go even bigger—after all, big, bizarre events are specifically the subject matter that documentarians are most typically drawn to. Instead, they narrow in, filtering it all by applying Herzog’s monomania to the production of something as banal as Bachelor Nanny. It was absurd and tragic for Herzog to risk life and limb (his own, and others’) for a doomed stab at dramatic grandeur; seeing the exact same level of dedication applied to a multi-camera sex farce airing opposite Three’s Company elevates the entire thing into something both silly and sublime.
None of this works without Skarsgård, who channels the hyper-specificity of Mulaney’s script to perfection, whether he’s delivering one of Wolz’s many speeches about the savagery of existence, or simply putting the exact funniest spin on the word “Burbank” every time it comes dourly slipping out of his mouth. Documentary Now! has always been a gentle show, even with its more ridiculous or ugly subjects; in the last few seasons, though, it’s committed ever more fully to creating characters that feel like real people, in addition to whatever comedic purpose they’re meant to serve. When Wolz travels back, years later, to the Dushkir people to spread Daimler’s ashes—“Hey shitmouth,” the letter issuing this final request hilariously begins—Skarsgård isn’t portraying a parody of sadness, or beauty. Rainer Wolz is a silly man, but so, in his own way, is Werner Herzog—and it’s in finding the synthesis between the two that “Soldier Of Illusion” demonstrates that this show has become much more than a simple series of elaborately crafted film nerd jokes.
- Hey, folks, I’m William Hughes, your new recapper for the fourth season of Documentary Now!. I just want to start by noting how indebted I am to the excellent work Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya did in covering the first three seasons of the show.
- In prepping for tonight’s review, I did a full watch of Burden Of Dreams, a film I’d previously only seen clips from. (I was surprised by how little of the Kinski/Herzog conflict Blank put on film, given what a nasty and contentious shoot Fitzcarraldo apparently was.) I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated by the level of research that will be going into each of these reviews, but excited to try to tackle it.
- Mulaney peppers his script with a lot of Herzog-isms, but none made me laugh harder than when Wolz describes the aftermath of the bear attack (and counter-attack) by noting that “the Kamchatka bear and his girlfriend survived 68 stab wounds before escaping into the safety of death.”
- I can’t tell if Braun’s part is under-written, under-acted, or just under-utilized, but his take on a child star made-good-but-then-bad-again is probably the weakest part of the two-parter.
- More successful: Gana Bayarsaikhan as chieftain’s daughter Masho, given the part of Bachelor Nanny’s sassy female lead in an effort to appease the village. The reveal of her eventual fate—happily married to Alan Yaffa for decades, ensconced in a comfortable California home—is a very funny final touch.
- Daimler’s “I am Eve!” monologue is presumably riffing on Kinski’s famous one-man show, Jesus Christ Saviour.
- Wolz, on the topic of the imported studio audience: “While their fat, corpulent ignorance does enrage me, I have to agree: They do make the best test audiences.”
- Another one of those “way better than first instinct” choices: Bachelor Nanny turns out to be a massive hit; it only falls apart when Daimler is outraged at losing an Emmy to Michael J. Fox and quits.
- Meanwhile, the episode’s best sight gags come from Wolz recruiting the local Dushkir people to hand-carve all the sets’ props; the hand-carved, burning “APPLAUSE” sign encapsulates the beautiful absurdity of the whole thing perfectly.
- Wolz, shutting down Daimler’s horseshit after the actor insults his mom: “My mother died peacefully of MS in her eighties. 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.”
- And that’s a wrap: We’ll be back next week to watch Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter riff on The September Issue and 3 Salons At The Seaside with “Two Hairdressers In Bagglyport.”