A look on how traditions shape religions, not on how religions shape traditions
I had once borrowed Herzogs Rad der Zeit" (Wheel of Time"), which contained Bells in the Deep" as a bonus. With the main film I was a little disappointed, mainly because I wasn't very interested in the subject. But, upon realizing that the video-store was already closed, I pushed the DVD back into the player and figured that I might well watch the bonus as well. Now I'm very glad that I did.
I never cared much for religions but rather was interested in the mythology behind the various forms of belief. Don't expect any deep insight from this documentary. There are no revelations or "ultimate truth" albeit the conclusions that the viewers draw themselves. Herzog was never a director who wanted to push a point on the audience but rather films what is and what he sees and leaves the rest to the viewers own devices.
Primarily Herzog gives us some astonishing, beautiful images and scenes: people crawling across a frozen lake in order to catch a glimpse of a supposedly lost city (which may or may not have been staged by Herzog, but so what?), a pair of Mongolian musicians and a particularly "harsh" baptism in the orthodox tradition (which, as I fondly remember, made my wife wince). But my personal favorite scene is a bell-player of a local church, a seemingly fragile person, who talks about having been adopted and the pain of not knowing your own origins. Once he starts to manipulate his bells with a series of strings and levers, one can only stare and listen in awe.
So why did Herzog film all this and what did he want to achieve? Personally, I believe it has to do with Herzogs own background, him being Bavarian, where the people are as arch-catholic as they get, yet where traditions are still deeply rooted in the older pagan-believes and mysticisms (as anybody, who has ever watched a "Perchtnacht", a night where villagers dress up in demonic masks, can attest). If you have visited rural Bavaria, you may also have noticed how the place is virtually littered with carved, wooden figures of Jesus, each seemingly trying to outdo the next in terms of the figure looking bloodied and battered. I've overheard tourists you considered it slightly "obscene" to have so many corpses all over the place, but perhaps it has something to do with the old Germanic god Wotan, who crucified himself on an oak in order to receive wisdom.
Having watched the documentary again with an American friend, I also found it rather amusing that he considered those Russian believes and superstitions rather outlandish, even calling "Bells in the Deep" a "freak-show". It never occurred to him to look at the many strange paths that various sects and cults in the USA had taken, be it Mormons, Baptists, reborn Christians, Creationists, etc., and traditions like handling snakes and speaking in tongues. None of this would look less outlandish than the Russian practices to an outsider.
If there is any message behind "Bells in the Deep" it is that religion doesn't shape traditions and cultures as much as traditions and cultures shape religions. If you feel the need to take a message from this documentary, that is. If not, you might as well just lean back and enjoy the marvelous images.
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