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Klaus Kinski

Videophiled: ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’

ManPridevengeanceMan, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.

In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘Herzog: The Collection’

Herzog CollectionHerzog: The Collection (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is the biggest Blu-ray box set to get released this year. The collection presents 16 films on 13 discs spanning three decades, from his second feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to his documentary tribute / remembrance My Best Fiend (1999), which profiles his long, turbulent personal and professional relationship with Klaus Kinski. Apart from Nosferatu the Vampyre, the films all make their respective Blu-ray debuts in the U.S., mastered from new digital transfers produced by Herzog and supervised by Herzog’s longtime producer Lucki Stipetic. Some of the discs look better than others and

It’s not even close to Herzog’s complete output and it leaves out many of Herzog’s most interesting and offbeat non-fiction films (perhaps a second volume will follow if sales are good enough?) but it includes the major films Herzog created in the period, including both the German and English language versions of Nosferatu, which Herzog shot concurrently.

The films in the set were produced and financed by Herzog and he remains ownership of them all. Let’s take a tour through them. Not necessarily in chronological order.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is the earliest film on the disc and Herzog’s second feature, and Fata Morgana (1971), is his third fiction feature, a dreamy non-narrative meditation on the beauty of the Saharan Desert and the garbage brought to it by humanity. Both of these films, by the way, have commentary by Herzog in conversation with Crispin Glover, which is a highlight all in itself.

Werner Herzog’s breakthrough film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) is an astounding vision of imperialism run amuck in the primitive, savage Eden of 15th century Peru and the film still entranced four decades thanks to the vivid, visceral filmmaking. It’s also Herzog’s first collaboration with madman and meglomaniac star Klaus Kinski, who delivered the most expressive performances that visionary director Werner Herzog ever put to film. Herzog in return gave Kinski his boldest roles. This collection features all five collaborations between the director and the actor, plus Herzog’s documentary tribute to the actor.

In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Kinski stars as a mad Spanish conquistador searching for the mythical city of gold El Dorado. The imagery is astonishing: jungles layered in mist and fog, broken by a glittering train of armored soldiers with their slaves, their guns, and thrones carrying improbably dressed and coiffed noble women. His vision comes alive in Kinski’s feral, furious evocation of a lunatic soldier overcome with delusions of Godhood. The film’s final scene, with the raving Aguirre reigning over a kingdom of spider monkeys adrift on a raft, is one of the greatest images of man adrift in madness ever put to film.

They reunited in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire classic in chilly color: chalky whites and murky midnight colors both faithful to Murnau and quintessentially Herzogian. It’s the same disc that Shout Factory released separately a couple of months ago, and the only to have been previously released on Blu-ray in the U.S. I reviewed it for Parallax View here.

It features both the German language and English language version, which were shot separately but simultaneously with the actor slipping from one tongue to another. The differences are minor but noticeable. Kinski, Adjani and Ganz are rather uncertain and stilted in their English delivery, giving them an off-putting aloofness that makes this version more dreamy and detached. The German readings are warmer and easier, giving the characters a flesh and blood anchor, though French actress Adjani is dubbed by another actress.

Shot a mere five days later, Woyzeck (1979), adapted from Georg Buchner’s play about a soldier pushed to the point of madness, is a stark, bleak vision. Kinski’s feral face is haggard, tortured, twisted in desperation as a tormented garrison soldier who submits to scientific experiments. It’s his most vulnerable and sad performance, but Herzog pulls back from intimacy with a handsome but removed style.

Werner Herzog’s most ambitious undertaking Fitzcarraldo (1982) is this dreamer’s most impressive look into the obsessive drive of another dreamer. Kinski is less demonic and delirious than previous Herzog heroes as the Irish opera lover in South America determined to bring Caruso to the jungle. In this epic of European exploitation and tribal mysticism, Kinski is dwarfed by the majesty of the jungle and enormous scale of the film’s set piece: hauling the steamboat over a heavily overgrown mountain slope with rope, pulley and sweat, an act Herzog performs for the camera for real–and it shows.

In their final collaboration Cobra Verde (1988), Kinski is a 19th century Brazilian bandit sent to Africa to re-open the slave trade, where he raises an all-girl army that makes him a powerful force on the African coast. Kinski died in 1991, but their love/hate bond was too great to end, so Herzog paid strange tribute to the madman with the documentary My Best Fiend (1999). Stories of their volatile clashes and plots to kill one another are legendary and Herzog admits that they brought out the both the artist and the beast in each other. Herzog seems reluctant to dig too deep into their combustible relationship, but his portrait of Kinski manages to capture his extremes, from Kinski spitting and cursing at a booing audience on his so-called “Jesus” tour to a smiling child-man with the butterfly kissing his face.

Herzog’s other great screen actor collaboration was with the inimitable Bruno S., who spent most of his youth growing up in mental institutions and prisons. He lent his blank, childlike face and frozen demeanor to only two of Herzog’s films but they are among his greatest. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1975) he plays the real life savant raised in isolation who wanders into Nuremberg without any knowledge of language or even other people. Herzog turns his story into a tale of wild innocence tamed and, in many ways, destroyed by the “civilizing” influences of language, logic, and social learning. It remains his sweetest, warmest film. In Stroszek (1977), Bruno S. is a social misfit in modern day Berlin, a starving street musician just sprung from prison who bands together with streetwalker Eva Mattes and old man Clemens Scheitz and moves to “the world”: Wisconsin. It’s a sad, scathing portrait of the American dream turned into an alienating ordeal as their trailer home paradise disintegrates with poverty and frustration. The final act is devastating and both films are beautifully photographed with an earthy power

Picking out the leftover oddities we have Heart of Glass (1976), famed as the film where Herzog hypnotized the entire cast before turning on the camera. The result gives this mystic tale of a Bavarian village gripped in madness a trance-like quality. And he went to the Australian Outback for Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), specifically a sacred spot where an Aboriginal tribe takes a stand against a mining company transgressing their culture.

And there are four additional documentaries. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) explores the world of the deaf-blind through the life of a 56 year old woman, Fini Straubinger, who has been deaf and blind since her teens and now works to help others similarly afflicted. Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) looks at the persecuted Mikito Indian tribe of Nicaragua. Lessons of Darkness (1992) is a portrait of the oil fires set by the retreating Iraqis in the wake of their invasion of Kuwait and a visually stunning film essay on the power of nature in a man-made catastrophe. I wrote about Lessons of Darkness for Keyframe a couple of months ago.

Finally, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) is the story of German helicopter pilot Dieter Dangler, who was captured and imprisoned by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war and returns with Herzoz to Vietnam decades later to tell the story of his escape and even reenact some of his experiences. Shackled and marched through the jungle, the balding, middle-aged Dengler quietly confesses “You can’t imagine what I’m thinking.” He’s right, but it doesn’t make the scene any less disturbing, or his survival (in both body and spirit) any less extraordinary. Herzog later retold the story in dramatic form.

These are not necessarily restored editions. They are, however, high quality masters from primary elements from Herzog’s own archive. According to Shout Factory, they were (but for two films) all scanned from the original negatives or the original 16mm CRIs (Camera Reversal Intermediate). The results are a significant upgrade from the previous DVDs released almost a decade ago.

There are no new supplements created for this edition but Shout Factory got the rights to the commentary tracks Herzog recorded for the earlier Anchor Bay DVD releases of Even Dwarfs Started Small (with guest commentator Crispin Glover), Fata Morgana (again with Glover), Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Strozek, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Fitzcarraldo (with producer Lucki Stipetic) and Cobra Verde and German-language commentary tracks (with English subtitles) recorded with Laurens Straub for the German disc releases of Aguirre the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Fitzcarraldo and Where the Green Ants Dream. Also includes the English-language documentaries Portrait: Werner Herzog (on the Woyzeck disc) and Herzog in Africa (on the shooting of Cobra Verde) and the German-language “In Conversation” interview with Herzog conducted by Straub.

Shout Factory collects it all in a handsome bookleaf folder with a 40-page booklet featuring essays, film notes and photos and sturdy paperboard leaves with the discs in individual pockets. It’s very nice package, easy to access and very protective of the discs, and the dimensions (a 7 ½ square) will fit on most shelves.

The release is limited to 5000 copies.

‘Nosferatu’: A Tale of Two Versions

As a German filmmaker, we had no real fathers to learn from, no points of reference. Our father’s generation sided with the Nazis or was forced into immigration so we were a generation of orphans. And you can’t work without having some sort of reference as to your own culture and the connection and continuity, so it was our grandfathers–Murnau, Fritz Lang, Pabst and others–who were our teachers, our guidance. For me, Murnau’s film Nosferatu is the best German film ever, and I somehow needed to connect, I had the feeling I had to go back my own roots as a filmmaker. As an homage to him I chose to make this film.”
—Werner Herzog, 1999

Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski in ‘Nosferatu’

One could never accuse Werner Herzog of choosing projects by their commercial prospects. This is, after all, a filmmaker who hypnotized his cast for Heart of Glass and made a documentary about waiting for a volcano to erupt. So the decision to follow up his devastating Stroszek with a remake of a revered masterpiece of world cinema with a cast of international stars—Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz and Klaus Kinski reunited with Herzog for the first time since Aguirre, the Wrath of God—was about more than making money from a vampire movie. (While the film is based more on Murnau’s film than Stoker’s novel, Herzog maintains that is “not a remake, it’s a free version of his Nosferatu…”) It was a tribute, of course, and he kept the title Nosferatu even though he renamed the character Count Dracula (one instance of Stoker over Murnau). It was also a natural subject for a filmmaker who focused on outcasts and obsessives and landscapes rich in natural grandeur and mythic power.

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On Staring Into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2
Aguirre, the Wrath of God

And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

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Fitzcarraldo: The Idea Was a Bold One

[Originally published in The Informer, January 1983]

“The project fell through, but the idea was a bold one.” The story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s life—perhaps his epitaph—is writ large very near the beginning of Fitzcarraldo, by his own loving Molly. Fitzcarraldo is in a recursive nightmare: To bring opera to Iquitos, he must have money; to get money, he must produce rubber; to produce rubber, he must have land; to do that, he must borrow money, buy a ship, and show some evidence of successful exploitation in a few months’ time; and to do that, it turns out, he has to haul a ship over a mountain. The danger of this kind of recursion, of course, is that the means continually threaten to become the end; and that is finally exactly what happens. Fitzcarraldo never loses sight of his goal, never loses his enthusiasm for the project; but he ends up settling for a one-night stand rather than a functioning opera house.

Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again
Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again

Through it all, Fitzcarraldo keeps his humor; and Klaus Kinski’s performance, though not his best, is easily his most likeable. For all his lowering Teutonicism, he manages an impish Irishman’s twinkling grin that is utterly winning. One has to tell him—as does another character in the film—”You’re a strange bird, but I must say I like you.” That’s Don Aquilino, a rich exploiter of the jungle, bored with his money, like the others, but unwilling to use it to back Fitzcarraldo’s venture—like, one imagines, so many potential backers for the films of one Werner Herzog.

It’s tired by now to point out the Herzog-Fitzcarraldo analogy, but it’s foolish to ignore it. “Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald is moving against the Amazon!” Keep Reading

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God: Extraordinary Images, Extraordinary Resonance

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1971, reprinted in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

We were looking at a back number of the magazine for quite another reason and happened on this piece by the late Ken Eisler. It was written at a time when most of us had heard little of Werner Herzog and seen less. Ken had caught Aguirre, Zorn des Gottes in Mexico City—one of the few places the film played before Herzog became a cult item; he wrote this appreciation sometime later. There are some misremembered details here, and maybe just a little Kunstwerk of Ken’s own. These factors do not contradict our fondness for the piece, even underscore its value as a personal response, one artist to another. Aguirre is firmly established as a cult item now, and a lot of our present readers will not have access to MTN 29 of January-February 1971. So here.
– RTJ

A strange breed of Katze, this “autodidact” film director Herzog. Lacks decorum, y’ know: Dash of this, dash of that … and that … and that. Just splashes it all together up there, out front; damned if the thing don’t come out echt Kunstwerk.

Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party
Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party

To begin with, a good story. Quasi-historical. It’s 1560. A party of conquistadores toils exhausted through deepest Latin America, looking for EI Dorado. Then, in mid–Amazonian jungle, a putsch! Pedro de Ursua of Navarre, servant of king and country, is out. The new leader: ruthless, crazy Lope de Aguirre—and screw king and country. Sort of based on the annals, I gather; but such liberties, such liberties. Like, Aguirre, the Rebel Conquistador! See the Bad Seed, in Pursuit of the Sud’s Boodle, Go Coco-Loco! He Blitzkrieged the Impenetrable Jungle! It Laughed Last!…

Well, speaking of Murnau, he surely would have relished the supple camerawork of Aguirre, its saturated Andean colors; but its reckless admixture of elements—now that might have been something else again. The pop adventure yarn, maybe; but the pop parable? Colonialism? Fascism? Take your pick.

The distancing, maybe, the cool. Example: On a surging river, a big raft revolves helplessly, crowded with panicky soldiers in gleaming heavy armor, horses, Indians at each corner locked in treadmill struggle with a maelstrom that just won’t quit. Long motionless take, telephoto, from across the river. It looks curiously static, this life-and-death struggle, suspended calmly in time and space.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God – Defying the Natural Order

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man inter­acting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are comple­mentary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.

This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “real­istic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.

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