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, who went back again and again to his jungle, and worked with his egotistical maniac--who made Kurz-era Brando seem a model of professionalism--no less than five times, with much better results. 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 that destroyed Coppola, 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.

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.


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 everyone else has been picked off by unseen natives or quietly run off on his crazy ass.

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. His giant frog eyes dilating, seething, and lolling back on a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski seems eternally adrip and atrip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex - the kind of psychosis you can't fake. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him, through the screen, 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. 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 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, 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). All in all, it's a three decade-spanning Götterdämmerung of low key brilliance, fictional films, documentaries, cinéma vérités and 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 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 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.

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, more German, small scale masterpieces 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 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, soft-bellied somnambulism of Bruno Ganz's Harker. Though the's 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 (my feet hurt in sense memory of being dragged through boring historical tours on elementary school field trips). 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 and costumery seemingly borrowed from a local stage play.

Adjani is--however--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. But better.


CONFESSION: 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 thought he was insufferably dull. 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, yes, maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.


Another Herzog issue: I've always been put off by some of his 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 similar demonstrations in Rolling Thunder) and yet at the same time boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Dwarfs could pass for something by 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, only not as good.

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, this 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 ashamed guy's eyes is so profound, their connection so glorious, 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--a 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.

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.


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, the amniotic droning of the music, and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration, he guides 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, re-light one, Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind it. He's only looking for his own answers to, like all his 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 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 while 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....

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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