Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.
As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.
[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]
Paul Cox’s Man of Flowersbegins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.
The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.
Herzog: 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 Darknessfor 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.
“A planet in our solar system. Wide mountains ranges, clouds, a land shrouded in mist.” The landscape of Lessons of Darkness at first glance looks like the desert counterpart to the Carpathian Mountains of Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, a land shrouded in myth as much as in mist. But those initial ethereal images give way to a wasteland of death and fire. It could be a primordial planet in the throes of it birth or the aftermath of an apocalyptic war that has left the planet dying, choking on its own blight.
In 1990 Iraq invaded the tiny, oil-rich desert kingdom of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf and occupied the country until an international military coalition led by the United States drove the Iraqi army back over the border. The Iraqi forces set fire to over 700 oil wells in their retreat. It was an ecological disaster, polluting the skies with thick black smoke and soaking the sands in a smothering slick of spilled oil. The inferno burned for eight months before the last of the fires were extinguished.
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
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.
It’s easy to see why Werner Herzog was so fascinated by Timothy Treadwell, the former beach bum turned self-made wildlife activist and grizzly bear guardian who spent thirteen summers living amidst the grizzly bears of the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska until he, along with his girlfriend and traveling partner, Amie Huguenard, was mauled, killed, and devoured by his beloved cause.
As his documentary Grizzly Man suggests, Treadwell saw himself as a new-age Grizzly Adams with a video camera and a quest to save the habitat from humanity. He could be a real life folk version of the dreamers from Herzog’s dramas, less manic and not as prone to epic gestures but no less obsessed. Treadwell relentlessly videotaped his sojourns and the magnificent footage that he left behind captures a serenity and savagery of the wilds at times reminiscent of Herzog’s best films.
But the footage also serves his self-made mythological identity—”the lone guardian of the grizzly”—by constantly and pointedly placing himself in every shot, like the host of a non-existent nature show/nature reality series. His footage is accompanied by grandiose stream-of-consciousness running commentary, a mix of naturist idealism, poetic romanticism and a kiddie-show host blissing out on the wonders of mother nature. He speaks of the isolation of his solo forays into the wilds, even though he was accompanied and assisted by female partners/girlfriends on practically every trip, and is careful to never mention their presence, let alone allow them to share credit in his adventure. Amie, the girlfriend who was killed with Treadwell, is only glimpsed only twice in the background of footage Treadwell left behind, and even there is barely present.
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984), suffers from limitations imposed by its subject: the effort of two daredevil climbers to scale two difficult mountains back-to-back, without a break in between. They describe this as something never done before and much more dangerous than climbing one peak. The aesthetic problem, though, is that the available footage was evidently limited to what Herzog shot in conjunction with interviews, and there is no real visual evidence of danger or drama.
The interviews are colorful enough, in their way. One climber boasts that, thanks to frostbite on previous climbs, he is down to four toes; his colleague, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, admits to having all ten, but does note [hopefully?] that, with the difficult project they are undertaking, that could change. Aside from the unique and unprecedented nature of the stunt, and its danger, neither climber cites any particular reason for doing it. The more seasoned of the two—the one with four toes—concedes that he climbs compulsively, and gravitates toward doing new things; unless I’m missing something, that is another way of saying he does it to keep from getting bored. This is quite a jarring contrast to the ski jumping in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), which Herzog transformed into a mystical pursuit of the transcendent and the poetic. It seems odd to find Herzog, a decade later, celebrating the things mountain climbers do to ward off boredom. And without climbing footage, the film is inert; even the announcement that they have successfully climbed the second mountain registers as curiously flat, almost anti-climactic.
When I first saw Rescue Dawn—in fact, when I saw the preview trailer—I said to myself, Aha! After a whole generation, here’s another green film from Werner Herzog.
Herzog has made a lot of remarkable films. But so long is the reach of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and so profound their visual stamp, that it is impossible not to see Rescue Dawn as their cousin—perhaps even their completion. Here again is the green of the jungle, both inviting and forbidding, both enchanting and deadly. Here again is the stubborn determination of a half-mad man not to be beaten by nature at its rawest and most implacable. Here again is civilization and its power politics ebbing away to insignificance in the face of a single man’s grandiose vision and relentless will to win.
Werner Herzog has always been interested in men like this. It’s shallow to say that he has outgrown or otherwise abandoned the vision of his celebrated earlier films (particularly the Kinski films), with their obsessive dwelling—literal or metaphoric—on German culture, German politics, German guilt. Whether it’s Don Lope de Aguirre or Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald or Timothy Treadwell or Dieter Dengler, and whether the film is fiction, documentary, or adaptation, Herzog remains committed to an exploration of the powerful, charismatic personality, and its tug of war with the world.
(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.
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.
[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.
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.