Even if you don’t count the Dalai Lama (and you should), there are two amazing people in Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheel of Time. One is a monk who made a 3,000-mile pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, the place in India where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The monk travelled by foot, prostrating all the way. All told, it took him three and a half years. Three and a half years, y’all. The other amazing person is a Tibetan Buddhist who has recently been released from prison after 37 years. Every time he spoke the words “Free Tibet,” more years were tacked onto his sentence.
Herzog’s becalmed yet electrifying film is about the Kalachakra rituals of 2002, wherein Buddhist monks are initiated. The first takes place in India, where hundreds of thousands of the faithful gather. Herzog’s main theme is obsession, and his camera certainly catches the devotional aspects of the many rituals — the prayers, the mass feeding, and especially the painstaking creation of a sand mandala which will eventually be scattered, signifying the impermanence of physical things. The Dalai Lama is too ill to participate in many of these proceedings, though he does turn up and promise to engage in another Kalachakra in Austria later that year.
Everywhere you look in the frame there are astonishing faces; one is reminded of why Eisenstein went overboard in Mexico, shooting reams of footage. But Herzog keeps Wheel of Time to a trim 80 minutes, holding the camera on various meditating pilgrims just long enough to let us share in their serenity. The mandala sequences (the creation is duplicated in Austria) are jaw-dropping, showing an ancient craft requiring almost inhuman intricacy and patience. You may feel a little pang of regret when you see the Dalai Lama wipe out the mandala as per the ritual, but that’s just your Western attachment talking. The beauty of the mandala is to be appreciated all the more for being impermanent. The same goes for life.
We also spend time with pilgrims who trek around the base of Mount Kalish for three days, a trip that is said to erase the bad karma of one’s current life and pave the way for good future lives. Thankfully, Herzog doesn’t try to pull a boat up Mount Kalish, but we realize that his Fitzcarraldo madness and the rigor of monks who set out to do 100,000 prostrations over six weeks come from the same impulse to transcend the mundane and touch the divine.
Herzog, you’ll recall, is the guy who not too long ago was actually shot while giving an interview and shrugged it off (“It was not a significant bullet”). One look in his eyes and you know he’s not like you or anyone else. (The same could absolutely be said of his longtime star Klaus Kinski, which explains why they hated/loved/needed each other.) In Wheel of Time you look in the eyes of the Dalai Lama, or the monk who prostrated his way across 3,000 miles or the Tibetan who kept insisting on freedom in the face of imprisonment forever, and they’re not anything like you either. Their serenity and capacity for joy, even after their lifelong struggles and hardship, shame the rest of us who agonize over such small, small things. This is yet another Herzog trip into the extreme. Forget Jackass and skateboard stunts — this is the real thing. The Dalai Lama takes his unlikely yet oddly fitting place next to Kinski, Timothy Treadwell, Dieter Dengler, and all the other fascinating species in the Herzog menagerie.