Scream of Stone is unmistakably a Werner Herzog film in only a few ways, but when it does smack of the director, it’s as strong a movie as its name implies. When it doesn’t, what it most resembles is something lost to the weirdo backroom of your great local video store: a supremely silly yet strangely well-made anomaly just waiting for a semi-ironic rediscovery of its eccentricities and virtues.

Scream of Stone begins in a Munich sports arena, where a fake mountain of wood (think the Aggro Crag from that old Nickelodeon sports show) has been erected for an international free-climbing championship. The entire event, though surely a bigger deal than it seems, looks to have been set up solely by Donald Sutherland’s insouciant and creepy sports journalist, Ivan. Sutherland also lends his syrupy whisper to the play-by-play, and the image of young German exemplars free-climbing a wooden wall while Sutherland apathetically drawls a description of every physical feat into a giant microphone is as disjunctive and odd and purely Herzog as anything you’ll find in his lesser works (among which Scream of Stone is absolutely included). A young Adonis named Martin (real-life champion climber Stefan Glowacz) wins the championship, but his accomplishment is scoffed at by Roccio (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), a world champion mountain climber (that’s real mountains, as distinguished from a climber of man-made walls) who promptly challenges the younger athlete to a race to the top of Patagonia’s treacherous, indomitable Cerro Torre peak (described by one character as not a mountain but a “scream of stone,” in case the connection was unclear). The race is on, orchestrated and eventually turned into a media circus by Ivan, but, to Herzog’s credit, this pat plotline is eschewed almost as soon as the climbers set off on their competition. The director has more in mind than a competition between arrogant humans who insist on trying to conquer nature’s challenges, but exactly what that is becomes muddled as the film moves on.

Martin soon claims to have reached the peak, though Herzog never shows him doing so and it’s suggested that Ivan cooks up the story to make it more sensational for the papers. Roccio, wounded at his loss, stays behind in a cabin at the base of Cerro Torre, where his scant stable of companions includes an ancient-looking, unintelligible Native woman and a wild-eyed climber-vagabond named Fingerless (the great Brad Dourif, who in this movie talks and acts so much like a proto-Owen Wilson that it’s impossible not to imagine a young Wilson poring over Dourif’s performance and taking notes). Back in Munich, Martin is a returning hero, but his success with the climb is heavily doubted by the German mountain climbing community, so he vows to do it again, this time with the news cameras watching. Doing so will bring him back into conflict with Roccio, drawn out of his new hermetic lifestyle by the prospect of finally conquering the mountain.

I know this sounds convoluted and (in all likelihood) boring. It is most definitely the former, though hardly ever the latter, if mostly just because Herzog films the treacherous mountain with the quiet respect of a man humbled and inspired by the dangers of nature. A scene in which the svelte, half-naked Martin lounges in bed with Roccio’s fully nude ex-girlfriend (Mathilda May) is so out of place in the Herzog canon that it almost fits in by dint of pure weirdness. Sutherland’s voiceover narration, which comes and goes on the soundtrack like light from a malfunctioning bulb, has absolutely zero relation to anything else in Herzog’s work; having a character explain the movie’s themes in voiceover is the kind of crutch that directors who envy Herzog might rely on. In his documentaries, the director’s own voice in the narration always serves to deepen the sense that man is nothing in the face of the planet’s wrath. In fiction, the device comes off as such a cheap ploy to make the plot hang together that it has to point to the director’s loss of some kind of creative control.

As it turns out, that was exactly the case. In the book Herzog on Herzog, the director spins his usual colorful anecdotes about the production of Scream of Stone, including a putative incident in which he froze his hand to a steel bar while hanging on to the bottom of a helicopter that had just rescued him from the side of a blizzard-covered mountain; he even claims to have been released from the frozen grip only after a local man peed on the hand to unfreeze it. But Herzog also gives a pretty good indication, albeit in typically cryptic language, of why this film is so hot and cold when looked at in relation to the great Herzog films: “[The script] needed more changes very badly, but because I was prevented from doing so, I cannot even say that Scream of Stone is my film.” There are touches of classic Herzogian themes—man vs. nature, the horrors of sellout mass media—but Scream of Stone is largely a dud, an insurmountable, jagged mess dotted very intermittently with rugged peaks of foreboding, awe-struck nature photography.

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