Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Beyond the Green Inferno: HERZOG: The Collection (16 film blu-ray collection) - Review


Francis Ford Coppola's disastrous decision to cast Brando as Colonel Kurz for Apocalypse Now (1979) is by now a true Hollywood cautionary tale of amok ambition and dangers of trusting in the improv skills of titans: Coppola was losing his Godfather fortune, and sanity even before Brando finally showed up. He was already stretched past endurance by typhoon season, drugs, malaria, wayward helicopters, Martin Sheen's heart attack, and Dennis Hopper's mania. Brando arrived overweight, befuddled, expensive, pissing away millions while he mumbled incoherently along, utterly and in every way unprepared--and this final straw took years off Coppola's life. The entire shoot dragged on for two years, and Brando wore Coppola's genius down to such a low point he's never gotten it back, never made a great film again (he admits it). His films have tended towards the safely set-bound ever since. Never in a million years would he work with Brando again, let alone bring him back to Philippines in ten years for Apocalypse Now 2. 

Let this tale be testament not just to the dangers of jungle location shooting and hiring egotistical maniacs as stars, but to the gonzo madness of Werner Herzog's oeuvre. For he went back again and again to his jungle, and he worked with his egotistical maniac, one who made Kurz-era Brando seem a model of professionalism, no less than five times. Such masochism is surely indicative of a personality that would have thrived in the very same madness that consumed Coppola on that woebegone shoot, would have welcomed the miseries on the set of Apocalypse Now as welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German 'sanity.' Maybe Coppola needed to be German to find that heart of darkness, and needed a German actor like Klaus Kinski as Kurz. Kinski starts at the dark heart destination Brando could never quite reach, and goes deeper from there.


In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)--their first collaboration and the film that put Herzog on the map--Kinski plays a wayward conquistador searching for El Dorado who doesn't just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the King of Spain himself, in his mind, and sails ever onward into the jungle, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys after everyone else has been picked off by unseen natives. Insane or no, while the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, Kinski's Aguirre is making friends with the insects, imitating the movements of wind through the fronds in every little gesture. Giant frog eyes dilating and seething and lolling back like a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski is eternally adrip and atrip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him from across time and media formatting. His eyes meet ours and we shiver in our safety shadows. No matter his character or period, Kinski is alive in the moment and in the film and in the room with us.

And now, thanks to a gorgeous and essential set from Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog's existential sanity and Kinski's foam-at-the-mouth madness colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind: Herzog: The Collection gives us 16 films on stunning Blu-ray, covering a 30 year period--from his black and white cult slice of mayhem Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to 1998's My Best Friend, Herzog's documentary about his five films with Kinski (all of which are included in the set), a 28 year-spanning Götterdämmerung of low key brilliance, including fictional films, documentaries, and cinéma vérités semi-documentaries. It's one of the most well-constructed sets I've ever seen, no annoying slipcase or crackable plastic, all beautiful thick pages with the DVDs fitting perfectly within thick paper pages bled to the edge with pulsing green photographs from the films. The dark images perfectly capture the moody existentialism and Germanic emotional peaks and crevasses of Herzog's style, the intentional blurring of the line between documentary-reality--with himself onscreen as narrator and shaper of action--and historical recreation and/or other fiction. And each fiction movie is likely to include a documentary of its making, it's own DVD extra in a matter of course, with commentary tracks abounding.

Maybe like me you've seen some dusty PAL or VHS copies of these in the past, but these Blu-rays are a whole different world; we can now make out every blade of grass and every dirty fissure in Kinski's extraordinarily expressive face. Challenging, disturbing, beautiful, tragic, and sometimes downright boring, watch them all and feel your senses slow and widen and dilate to better behold God's all-seeing blindness. And through all five of their collaborations, Kinski's willingness to throw himself off a cliff at the drop of a hat provides the perfect orbiting satellite for Herzog's implacable sanity. There are also several documentaries and two films with his other insane star, Bruno S. 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (a true story of an abused man with eerie parallels to Bruno's own dark childhood as subject of Nazi experiments), and Stroszek (1977). According to imdb: Bruno "was very difficult to work with... sometimes needing several hours of screaming before he could do a scene." If anyone was going to be able to work with him, to wait out the screams and/or get them on film, it would be Herzog.


Needless to say there are copious extras which dovetail into the films themselves, though not all successful (Where the Green Ants Dream, for example, has a commentary track but it's in German mit out subtitles). My Best Friend is practically a DVD extra for the five Kinski movies included). And all the extras add to the self-reflective post-modern sense of dreaming and waking up into a dream far more vivid than localized reality.


In addition to the stunning and essential Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and their final collaboration, Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog made two, more German, small scale masterpieces with Kinski in 1979: Wocyzek--an adaptation of a German play about a soldier who kills his wife after submitting to mind control experiments--is claustrophobic, hypnotic, glacially slow and tragic, providing the chance for Kinski to bounce off the walls and cave on in himself in high Germanic style. It's also a more effective horror film for my money than Nosferatu, which seems airless and beery compared to most Herzog films, partly no doubt due to the bland somnambulism of Bruno Ganz as Harker. Though a fantasy-horror, Herzog is unwilling to abandon his beloved docu-realism and uses found settings to replace the dream expressionism the tale so clearly demands (and Kinski's little snake fangs are ridiculous). Shooting on location in Bavaria and Carpathian towns in centuries old buildings seems a spooky natural, but the slick white coatings of the slate walls of old inns and castle interiors gives them a dead museum air. Put Herzog on European soil, it seems, and he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a Germanic noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts atop beer-puffed German faces and costumery seemingly borrowed from a local stage play. But Adjani is a great expressionistic Mina. With her darkened eye rings and pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of--not just Murnau's original, but Cabinet of Caligari or Lang's Mabuse.


Having only seen (all the way through) Aguirre, Nosferatu, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and At the Top of the World before diving into this set, I kind of felt Herzog's obsessions with dreams seemed a kind of knee-jerk raison d'être for his continued docu-wandering. I was however drawn to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence which I knew in the end would be soul transforming, and truly it's been a long, soul-warping awe inspiring yet deeply troubling, at times maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.


Second hurtle: I've always been put off by some of Herzog's more jokey titles, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, not to mention the subject matter, the former seeming exploitative, the latter masochistic (as an ex-POW recreates his tortures on location in moments recalling William Devane's demonstrations to his wife's boyfriend in Rolling Thunder) and yet at the same time boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Dwarfs could pass for something Alejandro Jodorowsky or a drunk Bunuel, filmed in black and white it's a bit like the end of Over the Edge stretched to feature length with little people playing the kids.

And Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot ever to escape his captors and be rescued in all of the Vietnam war after being shot down over Laos and held prisoner for two years, suffering terrible tortures at the hand of the Viet Cong until he made a great escape through the uncrossable jungles. With Herzog in tow, Dengler revisits the locations, and in one great scene puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer, the look in that guy's eyes is so profound it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. Dengler is a bit larger than life via his sheer gratitude to be free and continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors. It's catchy.


As Herzog's camera follows, Dengler talks us through his ordeal in modulated perfect flow of English, words cascading over the rocks and trees, and he never seems to need to take a breath. Through it all, Herzog--bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle--watches and learns of nature's bloody initiation that opens the gate to wonder, the vision of horsemen angels rolling towards him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching. As Dengler goes on, one realizes he's a great writer --it's all facts and recreations, no wasting time with describing emotions or feelings, and when he mentions his dreams and hallucinations they're described in the same matter-of-fact style, and through that one discovers the root of Herzog's genius. Physical reality is just the eventual manifestation of the unconscious, twisted up as we are, raw and full of mysteries. Dreams have more in common with reality than our emotions or feelings. Herzog eventually filmed a more dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale, it's Dieter that packs more punch for being such a gentle, forgiving film in image and speech, conveying at the same time such deep horrors and inhumanities on both sides.


Another example of this unique documentary approach is Lessons of Darkness (1992), which shows the horrors of Kuwaiti oil fires in the weeks after the (first) Gulf War, the oil blackening the sky and pillars of flame illuminating everything in all directions. Letting the faces of Kuwaitis and the amniotic droning of the music and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration guide our response only, as it were, to the precipice. At the end, when the oil firefighters having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, they re-light one. Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind their next bizarre action looking for his own answers to, like all his questions, the nature of dreams, madness:
"Two figures are approaching an oil well.
One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to?
Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content
Now there is something to extinguish again."

In the end it's this kind ambivalence that makes Herzog endure. His narration in the documentaries makes no plea for tolerance or recycling. He doesn't try to understand if there's a valid reason Dieter Dengler was bombing Laos or being starved by his captors; he doesn't judge the oil workers lighting the gushing untapped oil back up after working so hard to put it out; he doesn't judge the mining company finally winning the right to blast the green anthills apart in Where the Green Ants Dream. He knows how to recognize any judgment as his own prejudice or that of others; the camera finds its own poetry and truth when free of imposed meaning's blinders, and within these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet, bringing a gold record of Wagner's "Siegfried's Funeral March" along for company as he gamely and steps into the pyre, refusing to judge the flame as it consumes him. Get this set, then, and wade in to there with him. As your screaming ego melts down around you, you will see the light at the end of the dark tunnel, and if you keep melting you will see a new, stranger darkness waiting behind the light, and within that darkness, finally, the heart Coppola's camera could not catch.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this collection was going to be released. I have almost all of them on DVD already - all of the Kinski material plus another box set with Hauser, Dwarfs, Dieter, and a handful of others.

    "Aguirre" is stunning in any form I think. When I first saw it a few years back, I could not believe I had never heard of it before. It is shocking in its effectiveness and Kinski and the overall imagery are unforgettable.

    I also love the documentary that's a film about an obsessed guy hauling a riverboat over land in order to film a movie about an obsessed guy hauling a riverboat over land.

    I wish I had an excuse to buy these again, actually.

    "Aguirre" in particular should be known far and wide as one of the greats!

    ReplyDelete

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