Searching for a Definitive Signs of Life from Werner Herzog

Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen) is Werner Herzog's debut feature film. As such, maybe it feels a little creaky along the corners, a little like a filmmaker still finding confident footing. But it's surprisingly effective and stands up alongside his later films better than you might expect. And, like just about every Herzog film, it's been released a couple of times in differing editions. So I thought I'd take a comparative look at now, because I don't think any other site ever has, so we can see which is the preferable disc.

Update 5/21/15 - 6/16/22: Well, it's been seven years now, and it looks like we've concluded the search. Signs has shown up on blu for the first time, thanks to Shout Factory's Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2.  But you'll still want to hold onto your DVDs, for reasons we'll detail below, so it's still not entirely clear-cut.
Herzog tells a very leisurely paced story, here, of a German soldier named Stroszek, wounded during the war, who finds himself stationed in a small arms depot located on a tiny Greek island. He marries a local woman and stays there with two fellow soldiers, maintaining an otherwise deserted station. Life becomes very placid, safe and perfunctory. Slowly Stroszek begins to unravel, and decides he must defend his depot from everyone and everything and nobody knows how to get him out.

As you might've gathered from that description, things move rather slowly and for the most part is removed from being "action packed" as on can get. Things ratchet up a little towards the end, sure; but for the most part we're observing a lot of subtle moments with the four main characters and a few local villagers. A lot of common themes in Herzog's work turn up here, though, and even specific moments (this isn't the only film Herzog shows us how to hypnotize a chicken through one of his characters), and it draws you in if you're not too restless. Eventually signs of life to emerge from the still, gray environment. And the proceedings are helped immensely by some intriguing performances and a rich location.
Now, being an earlier work, Signs of Life doesn't tend to get the high profile releases, like a fancy Criterion DVD or Shout Factory blu-ray. But, like I said, there are a couple of releases out there. There's a German DVD from Studio Canal, but that one isn't English friendly, and the movie itself is spoken in German, so we'll rule that one out. There's also an Australian 6-disc set of Herzog films, called simply Werner Herzog Collection, which includes Signs of Life. But until now, most readers would've been interested in the two remaining releases, which I've got here for comparison: the Italian 2-dsic set from Raro, and the New Yorker's DVD release right here in the US. That's been turned on its head somewhat, now that Shout Factory has released the film in HD as part of their new, BD set Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2.  But they both have some interesting and unique features, too, to keep the matter complicated.  So let's dive right in.
1) 2005 New Yorker DVD; 2) 2005 Raro DVD; 3) 2022 Shout Factory BD.

So the DVDs have essentially identical transfers, presented in 4:3. But there are definitely things to point out. The first thing you may be asking yourself is what's up with the subtitles in the first comparison. Well, okay. The film is primarily spoken in German, and all of that is translated by optional English subs, like normal. A few scenes, however, have characters speaking Greek, and those subtitled into German. And those subtitles are burned into the picture. In those brief instances, both DVDs than just lay the English subtitles right on top of the German ones, as pictured. The blu at least gives them a different color and moves the translated German far above the Greek.  And while you're looking at that, notice that all three discs' English subtitles are translated differently. I can't really tell you which is more accurate; but they're not really that critically different.

You'll also notice some pull-down issues with the New Yorker disc, resulting in interlacing/ ghost frames. Did they actually just rip the Raro DVD? It very well may be the case, since that one came out first. If not, they got it from some PAL source and didn't bother to rescan it. Either way, it's not exactly ideal.  But that's more of an academic distinction now that there's a clear, HD winner in picture quality.  Shout's new blu is much sharper, with detail far clearer and more refined.  It's a very strong step forward.  The framing also pulls out to reveal slightly more picture along the bottom and right-hand side, widening out from 1.31:1 to 1.36.  The grain, though, is soft when it's detectable at all, suggesting this is an older scan, or troubled encode, or possibly even DNR'd?  The blu handily trumps the DVDs, but it's not an exceptional blu-ray transfer by the higher format's standards.

All three discs just have the original German mono (with the subtitles as already discussed), but the Shout does deliver it in DTS-HD.
The differences in extras are much more extreme. The New Yorker disc is pretty simple, but actually quite strong. It's main feature is probably the most compelling of all: an audio commentary by Herzog, with a little helpful prompting by Norman Hill. The commentary drifts a bit to Herzog's childhood and starting his career, but when they talk about the film itself, which is most of the time, it's very enlightening. And it's also pretty upbeat and engaging; a highly recommended commentary. Besides that, the New Yorker disc doesn't have much else. There's the original theatrical trailer, which is disappointingly untranslated (a narrator seems to have a lot to say; I'd love to know what), and a few bonus trailers for other New Yorker releases. There's also a nice, little insert with credits and notes.

Raro's a little more all over the place. Each of the two discs feature a 17 minute talk by a film critic: Enrico Ghezzi on disc 1 and Fabrizio Grosoli on disc 2. They're pretty dry, but do tell you some key info about Herzog and this particular film. The commentary is a much more rewarding and direct way to learn this stuff, but since it isn't on the Raro set, at least these interviews give you a lot of the same, key points. And this doesn't even have an untranslated trailer, so for Signs of Life specifically, I'd say the New Yorker has the much stronger set of extras.
But there's more. The Raro set also includes five early Werner Herzog short films: Herakles (1962), Last Words (1967), The Unprecedented Defense Of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967), Precautions Against Fanatics (1969) and Nobody Wants To Play With Me (1976).  All five of these films (thoroughly covered here) have been released in other sets, most notably in the Documentaries and Shorts collections sold through Herzog's website and the Australian version released by Shock. But they turn up on other releases, too. For instance, three of them are on BFI's DVD and blu-ray editions of Aguirre, Wrath of God. So how valuable this set of shorts is depends entirely on whether or not you've already got them elsewhere. If you're collecting all of Herzog's works, you're going to need to pick up some of the bigger sets anyway, rendering this redundant. But if you're more of a casual viewer, they do make for some neat bonuses.

Anther big selling point for the Raro set in Italy is surely the booklet, which is pretty impressive. Way more than the little insert the New Yorker disc has, this one's so thick it has a squared spine. Just picking up the Raro case you'll feel how much heavier it is, and their booklet is why. But none of it's in English, so for most of us reading the blog, it's not actually all that valuable.

And the new Shout Factory blu?  Nothing, zip, zero, zilch.  It does have the other films in the set, which I suppose top Raro's bonus shorts, but there are no special features for this or any of the films in The Collection, Volume 2.  The original Collection at least preserved a lot of the existing commentaries from other releases, and the New Yorker had a great one, but nope.  So that's a disappointment.
So, if you've already got one or more of those DVDs, keep 'em for the special features, but it really is worth the double-dip for the jump to HD.  If you don't already have them, well, IMHO I'd say you could probably skip the Raro (get those shorts elsewhere), but keep an eye out for the New Yorker and that commentary.  That and the blu add up to a very satisfactory edition.

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