As Herzog documentaries go, Wheel of Time is fairly sedate and un-unsettling. I guess that's to be expected, considering the subject matter is Tibetan Buddhism.
The drama comes from Herzog's examination of some intense, and intensely foreign, faithful and their practices. He shows us preparations for a massive Buddhist event (called the Kalachakra initiation) at Mahabodhi in Bodh Gaya; a later, similar event in Graz, Austria; a massive pilgrimage at the holy Mount Kailash; an interview with a Tibetan former political prisoner; and his conversation with the Dalai Lama. Each segment of the film has its own remarkable moments, but to give examples would spoil much of what makes Wheel of Time intriguing.
Patience is necessary to get through Wheel of Time. (I never finished the first one! Heh…okay, obligatory Robert Jordan reference complete.) Herzog's narration goes silent for minutes at a time, as it should—the film has the meditative, searching tone we might expect, and when Herzog does start talking, that reassuring monotone only serves to enhance the effect. Yet, true to form, Herzog throws in one or two bizarre bits just to make us wonder about his motivations (though nothing here is as WTF as the Stroszek chicken or Aguirre's pooping monkey). During one scene in particular I began to worry that Herzog was going to pull a Herzog and make us watch something horrific occur…and you'll know the scene I refer to when you get to it.
My only complaints? An occasionally intrusive soundtrack and a sense that it could've gone deeper. I expected more discussion of Buddhist principles, such as a scene where Herzog really probes the motivations of some of the pilgrims. All the same, I found the close look at some of their most important practices plenty interesting, in an "I have no idea what's going on" sort of way.
Those new to Herzog should definitely not begin here, but those who can't seem to get enough Herzog will find Wheel of Time a thoughtful approach to a unique topic, and might perceive a new angle on the personality of their favorite weirdo filmmaker.
Star Score: 3.5 out of 5