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. Francis was already stretched past endurance by typhoon season, drugs, malaria, wayward helicopters, Martin Sheen's heart attack, and Dennis Hopper's gibbering mania. Brando arrived late, as the myth goes, and overweight. He appeared befuddled, acted irrationally, if at all, pissing away Coppola's millions while he mumbled incoherently along, utterly and in every way unprepared. 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 (he admits it). Francis's 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. 

Herzog would. 

Let the woeful tale of Coppola's nonetheless undeniable masterpiece be testament not just to the dangers of jungle location shooting (when overlapping with monsoon season can be cataclysmic) and hiring temperamental egomaniacs as stars, but to the gonzo madness of Werner Herzog, who went back again and again to his jungle, and 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, would have saw it all as a welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German 'sanity,' and maybe would have put a gun to Brando's head and said snap into it or die here, right here and now. Maybe Coppola needed to be German to find that heart of darkness, maybe he needed a German actor like Klaus Kinski as his Kurtz.

See, Kinski starts deep in the darkness heart, already deeper in the blackness that Brando could ever reach, not if he mumbled and hid in the shadows for ten thousand takes. And Klaus just goes deeper from there. Brando's Heart of Darkness is as a blazing sun by contrast.

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. His Aguirre doesn't just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the King of Spain himself, and sails ever onward into the jungle, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys after the rest of the expedition has been picked off by unseen natives or quietly run off while his crazy ass was sleepin'.

Insane or no, while the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, Kinski's Aguirre is making friends with the insects; he's imitating the movements of wind through the fronds in every little gesture; his giant frog eyes dilate, seething, and lolling back on a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski seems eternally adrip and a-trip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex - the kind of psychosis you can't fake. It takes real wild man energy. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him, through the screen, while he's Aguirre, from back in 1972, from across time and media formatting, when his eyes meet ours and we shiver in our safety shadows as if he's right there in the room and could turn us to stone and steal our drink from our of our frozen hands. We feel his breathing in the clatter of trash cans and whir of sirens in the distance outside the window; he's in our blood like a fever, and somehow he knows it.

And now, thanks to a gorgeous and essential set from Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog's existential sanity with and without Kinski's foam-at-the-mouth madness, whether colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind and mud, it's all there: 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). All in all, it's a three decade-spanning Götterdämmerung of low-key brilliance, ranging from fictional films to documentaries, cinéma vérités and even semi-faux 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, dark colors bled to the edges, all pulsing green photographs from the films. The dark images perfectly capture the moody existentialism, Germanic emotional Alpine peaks and harrowing 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, the very least a death to nature.

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, every drop of flowing river, 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 planetary 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.

Bruno, you look the picture of health!
Needless to say, the extras are not all successful (Where the Green Ants Dream, for example, has a commentary track but it's in German mit out subtitles, was ist los mit dir, Shout?). But 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. Herzog's films almost being commentaries of the films as they're happening, the sheer metatextuality of commentaries on commentaries adds one more rung on the ladder between screen and viewer consciousness, until the TV is as a giant fishbowl mirror where you can see yourself slowly drowning.

Brother, you said it
In addition to the stunning and essential Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and their final collaboration, Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog made two small scale masterpieces, shot in Germany, with Kinski in 1979. Wocyzek is an adaptation of a German play about a soldier who kills his wife after he's endured mind control experiments: claustrophobic, hypnotic, glacially slow and tragic, it provides the chance for Kinski to bounce off four walls for a change before caving in on 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 uber-bland, soft-bellied somnambulism of Bruno Ganz's Harker. Though he's supposedly making a fantasy-horror film, a remake of a silent vampire classic, 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 baby doll fangs are ridiculous). Shooting on location in Bavaria and Carpathian towns in centuries old buildings seems a good idea on paper, but the budget wasn't there to paint things in cobwebs and Gothic air, so the slick white sealer lathered onto the brick walls of old inns and castle interiors (used to keep the dampness out) gives them a dead museum air. Put Herzog in the jungle and he comes alive, but on European soil he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a Germanic noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts, beer-puffed German faces (nothing like the hardships of the jungle to strip that away) and costumes that seem fresh from the Oktoberfest peasant parade.

Adjani is--however--a great expressionistic Mina. With her darkened doll eyes, pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of--not just Murnau's original, but Cabinet of Caligari or Lang's Mabuse -- a child of some Gothic Tim Burton does Weimar Marwen dollhouse.

Having only seen Herzog's Aguirre, Nosferatu, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and At the Top of the World before diving into this set, I came in thinking Herzog's obsessions with dreams seemed a kind of knee-jerk raison d'être for his continued docu-wandering. Just the weirdly Germanic way he says "what are their dreams?" every five minutes in his voiceovers made me kind of want to throttle him, or go to sleep and have dreams and not tell him shit about them. I was however drawn to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence (my own German heritage?) which I knew in the end would be soul transforming. Indeed, it has proven a soul-warping, awe inspiring, yet deeply troubling--sometimes even maddeningly boring but always insightful and deeply Herzogian--25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.

Another confession, in addition to the way he says "their dreams" I have always been put off by some of Herzog's more jokey titles, especially: Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly may boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Like Jodorowsky or a drunk Bunuel, filmed in black and white, Dwarfs is a bit like the end of Over the Edge stretched to feature length with little people playing the kids, only not as good. Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot, 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 some of his captors. In one unforgettable scene, Dengler puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer. The look in that ashamed Vietnamese guy's eyes is so profound, their connection so human, it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. Dengler is quite a character, his ever-present gratitude to be free and his continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors -all speak to the long term effects--negative and even positive--of surviving long-term captivity. It's catchy. You may never look at doors the same way.

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--a bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle--watches and learns of nature's bloody initiation. As Dengler goes on, one realizes he's a great writer --it's all facts, 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. When he tells of a near-death vision he had of horsemen angels rolling towards him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching from hunger, disease, and deprivation, Herzog doesn't need to do anything for us to feel the collective soul's thunderous nod.

It's through these moments that one discovers the root of Herzog's genius. Physical reality, to him, 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, but 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, but never with judgments. It helps there's no actor like Bale there to bring the tortures vividly to life. Hearing about them rather than seeing them makes them bearable.

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. Using shots of fire alternating with faces of Kuwaitis, letting the amniotic droning of the music, and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration, he guides our response only, as it were, to the precipice - not of emotion (there's no judgment one way or the other) but of Germanic awe at the weird intensity of life here. At the end, when the oil firefighters, having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, re-light one, Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind it. He's only looking for his own answers to his own questions the nature of dreams, madness.

He describes the sight thus:
"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 and moral ambiguity, that 'need to extinguish' 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 any judgment would automatically reflect his own prejudice. He lets instead the camera finds its way to a zone where poetry and truth operate free of imposed meaning. Within these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet; the camera does the searching, he obediently follows, bringing only a gold record of Wagner's "Siegfried's Funeral March" along for company. Even if the planet is 400 degrees he will gamely step 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, glorious and godly.... let go of that need to extinguish yourself... keep burning....

And if you keep melting and moving deeper, you will see a new, stranger darkness waiting behind the light, the darkest heart, the one Coppola's camera could never quite 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!


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