November 17, 2022

CABLE | 'Documentary Now!' Climbs High – 'Soldier of Illusion'

Fred Armisen Alexander Skarsgård | Soldier of Illusion | Documentary Now! IFC AMC+
Broadway Video
Billed as "season fifty-three" of an acclaimed but highly fictional documentary anthology series, hosted by the very real Helen Mirren, also called Documentary Now!, the IFC comedy's actual fourth season of half-hour mockumentaries returns to its extreme sense of niche specificity with another enjoyable selection of dryly comedic episodes. Its two-part premiere, "Soldier of Illusion," goes for it in tackling Werner Herzog's venture into the jungle from the 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo whose making-of was seminally documented in Burden of Dreams.

Scripted by comedian John Mulaney and starring Alexander Skarsgård as a very funny Herzog analogue, "Rainer Wolz", as both a young and old man, the big ridiculous satirical twist is the supposed documentation of filming not some sort of serious, awards-y dramatic film but a very hokey three-camera 1980s CBS sitcom pilot called "Bachelor Nanny", starring August Diehl (standing in for Herzog stalwart/antagonist Klaus Kinski) and Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg from Succession) as swinging bachelors, filmed for absolutely no reason high up on a remote and very dangerous wilderness mountaintop village somewhere in Siberia in the company of an Indigenous population.

It's a testament to the reverence the original co-creators and executive producers, Saturday Night Live alums Fred Armisen (who appears in many episodes including the premiere), Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers, have for the often obscure cinematic material. Every episode is directed by Rhys Thomas (also a co-creator) and Alex Buono in a different cinematic style with careful attention to detail in storytelling to exact the most amount of visual humour possible.

It's really a miracle something so niche and specific as Documentary Now! exists. "Soldier of Illusion" is a perfect example of making a loving mockery of something the writers and producers clearly revere so much. It's an A+ exercise in using cinematic parody for the purpose of visual joke-telling.

Season four of Documentary Now! is available to stream on both CBC Gem and AMC+.

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