Berlinale Blog Beloved Loneliness

“Queen of the Desert” by Werner Herzog
“Queen of the Desert” by Werner Herzog | © 2013 QOTD Film Investment Ltd., All Rights Reserved

The images in Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert” are at once grim yet grandiose. In his competition entry, he sends Nicole Kidman – in the role of Gertrude Bell – on a journey across the Middle East.

The endlessness of the desert, an infinite series of dunes, amongst them a caravan made up of four dromedaries. Their riders, three native men and one blond woman, battle their way through a sandstorm. Gertrude Bell decided at the end of the 19th century to leave England behind her and travel to Teheran, where she fell in love with the country, the culture and its people, and became an intermediary between the various local tribes and the British occupying forces. Although her British compatriots react with incomprehension and resistance, it earns her respect and esteem among the Bedouin peoples.

Pathos and loss

Despite these diplomatic successes, her private life is characterized by loss. Twice she falls in love with men who admire her for her courage and urge to explore. Both are prevented by social conventions from making their feelings for Gertrude public, and both die before they can marry her. Herzog does not skimp on pathos when portraying the two love stories. Long, yearning glances, reciting of poetry and gushing love letters feature so frequently that their effect is merely corny and lends the scenes an unwanted comic aspect.

The desert as a landscape of the soul

I was positively relieved each time when Miss Bell headed back into the desert with her heart broken once again. The loneliness she feels after being dealt these harsh blows by fate is reflected in the wide-angled panoramic shots of the sparse desert landscapes. In these scenes, Herzog illustrates how Gertrude Bell feels an affinity with the desert – a connection which best describes her life’s work as a mediator between the Arab cultures and the European occupying forces.