Sadly, this new Werner Herzog documentary does not possess the singularity of Grizzly Man, God’s Angry Man, or even his fiction narratives that seemingly captures the blind ambitions of one self-consumed individual. Rather than having its story chained to one or two individuals, Wheel of Time focuses on hundreds or thousands of individuals who travel great lengths to take part in a highly spiritual Buddhist ceremony.
At the center of this grand event is the laborious construction of a giant sand painting, know as a sand painting. Intricately designed and painstakingly crafted by well-trained artisans, this colorful map to the inner being is destroyed just after it has been finished and viewed by the many pilgrims who have trekked many miles for enlightenment. With a swipe of the Dalai Lama’s palm across the countless grains of colored sand, the impermanence of all things is visually expressed, but sadly, it is done in such a matter of fact way, that any sense of loss slips away from the image.
Taking the story away from the construction of the sand painting Herzog attempts to construct a larger picture of Buddhist practices. From lively philosophical debates to masochistic journeys across barren lands to Western Buddhists in Austria, the view Herzog delivers is that of a wide reaching National Geographic documentary and not the usual focused study that Herzog has been known to produce. The fact that much of the film is promoted as Herzog being able to get access to sacred lands and unseen rituals does not really help the film. One has a hard time believing that these images have not been captured before. Especially with many cameras in the frame.
Still, Herzog is Herzog. Whether he is debating with the Dalai Lama himself or he is taking the time to let his camera point out odd idiosyncrasies such as the security guards at a Buddhist meeting in Austria or the occasional Westerner influence upon Buddhist monks in India these are things one expects only Herzog to handle in such a delicate and contemplative manner.
Perhaps, if Herzog would have focused wholly on the construction of the sand painting, the effort and time that goes into it and then its ultimate destruction this film would have the same impact as Grizzly Man. Alternatively, perhaps, he could have marched for years with the one Buddhist who traveled cross-country by kneeling and pressing his forehead against the Earth after each step.. As it now stands, the Wheel of Time is interesting and engaging. It is an open look into a different culture, but outside of a few Herzogian moments of brilliance, it feels more like a travelogue done by a great director than a great piece of documentary filmmaking.