Tango for Adults

"To feel that life is only a breath of wind...
that twenty years is nothing."


A few weeks ago, I happened to rent a couple of movies with tango music in them. It was just a coincidence, and it wasn't until I thought about it later that I realized tango was a key part of both movies. The first one was Volver, and the second was Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The two movies are as different as two movies can be... and so are their directors. Volver is from the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who specializes in, I guess you could say, the psychodrama of sex, women and families. Little Dieter is a documentary by Werner Herzog, the almost insane German director whose movies are often about men trying to survive in brutal environments. Both of them are "New Wave" directors who are on the cutting edge of modern filmmaking, yet they used 75-year-old tango music as an integral part of both of these movies. And not only that... they both used the same tango!

The tango is Volver ("To Return"). It's not a dance tango, but I'd like to talk about it anyway, because it's an example of the lasting power and durability of the music from tango's Golden Age. In the movie Volver, the heroine sings a flamenco version of the tango, which she learned from her mother. She believes her mother has died—but she is actually still alive, and listening to her sing from a hiding place. When her mother hears her daughter singing, she feels the full impact of the music's message, and begins to cry. Almodovar uses it as the emotional high point of the movie.

Werner Herzog also uses Volver, but he puts it in a very different movie. Little Dieter is a documentary about a man who survived the allied bombing of Germany as a child in World War II, and then immigrated to the U.S. Eventually, he became a pilot in the U.S. Navy, and ended up being shot down over the jungle in Laos during the Viet Nam war. He was captured, and he endured almost unbelievable hardship and torture. Again, tango is an integral part of the film—but I have to admit, at first I didn't get it. Herzog shows archival footage of starving German children during WWII, and then the scene jumps to Viet Nam. As the grainy black and white film rolls, first of starving children amid the ruins of WWII, and then of carrier operations in the Tonkin Gulf during the 1960s, Gardel begins to sing. It's a very strange mix—grainy footage of Spads and A-4s being launched from the deck of the USS Ranger... and then, turn of the century music from the arrabal of Buenos Aires:


VOLVER, Carlos Gardel


The music must be important, because Herzog plays the full version during these crucial scenes, and then he uses it again later in the movie, as Dieter Dingler sits on a bridge over the Mekong River discussing his life. But what does it mean? Well, Herzog is a very sharp and interesting guy. One of the problems I have with today's movies is that they insult your intelligence. But that doesn't happen with him. In fact, sometimes, he almost doesn't seem to care if you get it or not. (Another of his recent films is a documentary called Grizzly Man. It's about a man and his girlfriend who are killed and eaten by a bear. Herzog has an actual audio recording of the attack... but he doesn't use it. We see him listen to it for a moment with earphones, but then he simply says it's too horrible. So he continues the story without it.)

It turns out that some of the keys to Little Dieter are hidden in the lyrics of Volver—which is really fascinating when you think about it. Herzog is a German director, making a documentary in English—but to get it, you have to understand an old Argentine tango with castellano lyrics! And what if you don't? Too bad. Herzog isn't going to hold your hand.

Here's the translation:


I imagine the flickering
of the distant lights
that will signal my return.

They are the same that lit
my deep hours of suffering
with their pale reflection.

And although I didn't want to return,
we always return to our first love.

The old street where the words echo:
"Her life is yours, her love is yours"...
beneath the gaze of indifferent stars
that mock my return.

To return...
with wrinkles on my forehead,
and the snows of time
silvering my temples.

To feel that life is just a breath...
that twenty years is nothing...
how fevered the gaze,
searching the shadows,
looking for you... naming you.

To live...
with the soul grasping
to a sweet memory,
that cries once again.

I fear meeting
with the past that returns
to confront my life.

I fear the nights,
filled with memories,
that imprison my dreams.

But sooner or later, the traveler
must stop running away.

While the passing of time
is destroying my old memories,
the simple treasure of hope
still hides in my heart.

Yo adivino el parpadeo
de las luces que a lo lejos,
van marcando mi retorno.

Son las mismas que alumbraron,
con sus pálidos reflejos,
hondas horas de dolor.

Y aunque no quise el regreso,
siempre se vuelve al primer amor.

La vieja calle donde el eco dijo:
"Tuya es su vida, tuyo es su querer"...
bajo el burlón mirar de las estrellas
que con indiferencia hoy me ven volver.

con la frente marchita,
las nieves del tiempo
platearon mi sien.

Sentir... que es un soplo la vida,
que veinte años no es nada...
que febril la mirada
errante en las sombras
te busca y te nombra.

con el alma aferrada
a un dulce recuerdo,
que lloro otra vez.

Tengo miedo del encuentro
con el pasado que vuelve
a enfrentarse con mi vida.

Tengo miedo de las noches
que pobladas de recuerdos,
encadenen mi soñar.

Pero el viajero que huye,
tarde o temprano detiene su andar.

Y aunque el olvido que todo destruye,
haya matado mi vieja ilusión,
guarda escondida una esperanza humilde,
que es toda la fortuna de mi corazón.


Herzog's movie begins with Dieter Dingler walking quietly around San Francisco, and then driving to his nice home in Marin County. He looks like any other guy, but Herzog’s voice in the background tells a different story. He says something like, “You see a man on the street… he may look normal… but you can’t see inside. You can’t know where he has been, or what may haunt him.” It turns out that this normal looking man, with “the snows of time” in his hair, has spent time in hell. For several years after his ordeal in the jungle, he couldn’t sleep. When he eventually returned to his ship, the captain actually gave his comfortable quarters to Dieter to try to help him. Finally, they found the only place he could sleep was in the cockpit of an airplane, so they reserved a plane on the hangar deck for him to sit in and sleep.

In his home, Dieter somewhat sheepishly raises the floorboards to reveal a cache of food. There are large barrels of wheat and honey, and he can’t live unless he knows they are in the house. Dieter appears normal, but he isn't. For him, his “deep hours of suffering” from thirty years earlier seem like yesterday, and he fears the night, and the memories that return to confront him. Then, almost cruelly, Herzog takes Dingler back to the Jungles of Southeast Asia to film the rest of the documentary. So, like our narrator in Volver, Dingler returns to confront his demons. Suddenly, the use of this tango makes sense. Listen to the words again, and if you can, try to get beyond the English. I never really understood poetry until I started listening to tangos, so see if you can feel the power of the words directly from the castellano:

"Volver... con la frente marchita, las nieves del tiempo platearon mi sien.
  (To return... with wrinkles on my forehead, and the snows of time silvering my temples.)

"Sentir... que es un soplo la vida, que veinte años no es nada..."
  (To feel that life is only a breath... that twenty years is nothing....)

And finally this:


" I fear the night, filled with the memories that imprison my dreams...
  but sooner or later, you must to stop running."

Pretty serious stuff. But to me, both the music, and the story it tells, seem a little old fashioned for modern ears. I began to wonder if maybe the success of Volver was because people back in the '30s were more serious. Maybe it was a different time, and people were more open to a “heavy” message like this one. So just for fun, I decided to check the most popular songs in the year Volver was released. Number one on the hit parade for 1935 was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing Dancing Cheek to Cheek. And the second most popular song in the world was… get ready… Shirley Temple singing On the Good Ship Lollipop!  Yikes. So much for that theory.

Anyway, in the seventy years since this music was released, the popularity of Argentine tango has spread all over the world. (I even get emails from a group of people in Hanoi, Viet Nam, who want to build a tango community.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean tango is for everybody. I think you need to have been around the block a few times for the message in a tango like Volver to really hit home. Which raises a question: Is tango only for grown-ups? Let's talk about that on the next page.