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Alexander Skarsgard as Werner Herzog in Documentary Now is a dream

John Mulaney’s Burden of Dreams parody – a chronicle of Herzog’s famously tense Fitzcarraldo production – kicks off another stellar season.

At the beginning of Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, subject-turned-director Werner Herzog explains why he feels compelled to see a difficult production through to the end.

“It’s not just my dreams,” says Herzog of his films. “I believe that all of these dreams are yours too, and the only difference between me and you is that I can articulate them. That’s what poetry or painting or literature or filmmaking is about. […] It is my duty because this could be the inner chronicle of who we are. We have to articulate ourselves – otherwise we would be cows out in the fields.”

Few explanations come closer to defining the enduring wonder being cast by Documentary Now!, IFC’s seven-year-old comedy series, which returns for a fourth season on Wednesday night. Composed of loving parodies of famous (or infamous) documentaries, the creation of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas has long felt too niche to exist. A TV show that spoofs a different documentary in every episode? And the documents are not even current, but often decades old, subtitled and filled with obscure references – references that not only inform the basic story, but also mimic formal approaches such as narrowed aspect ratios, grainy footage and still appropriate era incomprehensible accents? Who is watching this?!

Movie nerds my friend. Movie nerds and comedy fans. After four seasons — including two three-year breaks between the most recent entries — it’s clear that Armisen, Hader, Meyers and Thomas have tapped into dreams beyond their own. In the meantime, every submission is not met with confused skepticism, but with high expectations. From the unforgettable series premiere (starring Armisen and Hader as stand-ins in Gray Gardens) to the Season 3 finale (co-written and starring the one and only Tim Robinson), Documentary Now! has set a high bar for humor and homage , and by tackling one of the most infamous film shoots ever recorded by a documentary crew — Herzog’s notoriously troubled production of “Fitzcarraldo,” the season four premiere accomplished a vision worthy of that lore’s Lanterns.

Helen Mirren returns in her 53rd season as the host of Documentary Now! and introduces Soldier of Illusion, an early 1980s documentary that starred visionary German filmmaker Rainier Wolz (Alexander Skarsgård) on his Magnum Opus ” accompanied. At the foot of Russia’s Ular Mountains, Rainier sets out with a film crew in tow to chronicle the lives of the people of Dushkir – shepherds preparing for the breeding season. Unfazed by the freezing gusts and humid climate, Rainier lives among the natives of Dushkir for several months, building trust and collecting footage for his passion project.

The set-up, of course, reflects Herzog’s trip to Peru for Fitzcarraldo, where he befriended the Aguaruna, cast them as extras on the film, and hired skilled workers to help set up the sets. Rainier follows in similar footsteps, but his Sisyphus task is less of a direct parallel to Herzog towing a ship over a mountain – and therefore a better joke. Rainier has agreed to shoot not one project, but two (a decision he attributes to the “bloated vinegar” running through his veins).

The natural consequence—”But…why?”—is not worth dwelling on. It’s far better to listen to Rainier describe for himself his relationship to each project, as well as their relationship to each other. Skarsgård – who has long been a talented comedian, as anyone who has seen “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” knows, strikes the right balance between required imitation and casual impersonation. His heavy vocal sounds are quick to recall Herzog’s often imitated intonations, but he balances a voice that can quickly become caricatured with the artisan attitude of a man alternately driven by his profession or exhausted by its demands. The actor gets as many laughs for repeating silly words like “Pee Pee, Poo Poo” as he does when he dismisses the local sheep as “little jerks” in frustration.

Alexander Skarsgard as Rainier Wolz and August Diehl as Dieter Daimler in the documentary Now!  - Season 4, Episode 1 - Credit: Will Robson-Scott/Broadway Video/IFC/AMC

Alexander Skarsgard and August Diehl in “Documentary Now!”

Will Robson Scott / Broadway Video / IFC / AMC

In other words, it’s not just a glimpse of the Herzog mythos, but a mix between the Herzog from “Burden of Dreams” and the Rainier we meet here, pumping up “studio” audiences live by calling names of Reads to crew members I “died from exposure”. “Soldier of Illusion” has countless highlights, and Skarsgård is the most important among them. The conviction he brings to reading stage directions brings simple scenes to life, as does Nicholas Braun’s perfect cast as former child star Kevin Butterman – a perpetual optimist who clap and bounce as he climbs the rocky, desolate path to his… Doomed comeback hikes bid. Until Klaus Kinski, er, Dieter Daimler (August Diehl) shows up — as a last-minute replacement for a much more audience-friendly (and generally friendlier) sitcom lead — all you can do is thank the gods for “Documentary Now!” had the common sense to make an hour-long episode out of his “Fitzcarraldo” parody.

The rest of Season 4 proves equally rewarding. Cate Blanchett backs up her Oscar nomination for “Tár” with an endearing, no-holds-barred turn in Episode 3 as the savvy hairstylist working alongside the great Harriet Walter. (Maybe I’m just a fan of good-hearted fare, but Blanchett’s hilarious twist is worthy of a sitcom of its own that spans all seasons.) Episode 4 draws a delightful but poignant analogy to boxing in “When We Were Kings.” Mockumentary, while Episode 5 delivers a fairly direct critique of Netflix’s Oscar-winning (but critically divisive) My Octopus Teacher.

Describing more would be superfluous. Documentary Now! either grabs you or drifts by in the distance, and for those of us enjoying its esoteric Easter egg hunt or just feeling taken in by the series’ very special reverie, it’s best to savor every moment, as they appear. But it’s worth remembering that these dreams are not imagined or experienced in isolation; They are shared and therefore worth the effort to articulate. Herzog, I think, would be proud.

Class: A

“Documentary Now!” Season 4 premieres Wednesday, October 19 at 10:00 p.m. ET on IFC and AMC+.

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