Starring: Klaus Kinski, Bruno S., Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Director: Werner Herzog
“A man doesn’t have to be as a big as the tower he builds,” remarks a character in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. Werner Herzog’s exploits behind the camera seem at odds with that assertion. Working in often hostile territory, with difficult actors who fight him all the way, he sometimes appears to be in competition with his mad protagonists over who can suffer and achieve and persevere the most. Watching this mammoth 8-disc box set which gathers together films and documentaries from the first twenty years of his career, it’s possible to have quite a volatile reaction to the man – admiring, yes, but decrying his excesses, infuriated by his recklessness. The appeal of the major movies themselves, however, is much more straightforward – it’s the appeal of simple, mythic stories luminously told.
Talking of luminous, this seems like a good moment to mention the picture quality of this box set. All of the key feature films have received 2K HD transfers which are of a uniformly high standard, with no grain or artefacts, an extraordinary depth and clarity and crisp, airy colours. Given the trying circumstances in which many of these movies were made, it’s a tribute to the craftsmanship of Herzog’s cameramen, as well as to the technicians involved in supervising the transfers.
Most of the feature films come with various audio options – English, German, the original mono or stereo or 5.1 surround sound – and with commentaries by Herzog, in that instantly recognizable voice of his, ultra-civilized, light and refined. Incisive, articulate, eccentric, sometimes mystical, sometimes matter of fact, always honest, touching on the same themes again and again, these commentaries add up to a fascinating and rounded portrait of the director in their own right.
Speaking about Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Herzog reveals that the script was written in 2 ½ days on a coach trip with his soccer team, and that it was made on a budget of $360,000 with one 35 mm camera stolen from a Berlin film school. And yet this tale of conquistadors exploring the Peruvian jungle on a quest for El Dorado is still the most widely celebrated of his movies, routinely listed among the greatest films ever.
You only have to look at the opening scenes to see why: the extraordinary shot of Pizarro’s expedition trailing endlessly down a sheer, slippery, mist-shrouded cliff-face, as out of place in their heavy armour and stiff, ceremonial garb as though they had been dropped there from outer space. Cut to them slogging through swampy, clinging jungle (at one point you can see Herzog’s brawny hand reaching into frame to effortlessly push a toppling sedan chair back into position). A little while later on, off they go, twirling along on flimsy rafts over seething rapids, the cast drenched and cowed – as well they might be, become presumably those heavy costumes would have dragged them straight to the bottom.
It’s hard to think of any other film where the sense of place is so imposing and makes such a statement. A lot of the time, it’s enough simply to watch these people trying to exist in the climate, melting away in the heat and humidity. But there’s also Klaus Kinski (who got a third of the tiny budget as his fee) in the role he was born to play, the dangerous second-in-command who sees something in the jungle that mirrors his own savagery and who leads his fellows unerringly into revolt, social breakdown and finally death.
Aguirre was an historical fantasy, inspired by a handful of references. Herzog’s follow-up, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974), was based on a well-documented case, famous in its day – the never-solved riddle of a young man who was found abandoned in Nuremberg’s town square in the 1820s, standing there like a statue and giving every impression of having been born yesterday. He was able to utter only one sentence, couldn’t walk or even move without assistance, and displayed no understanding of the most basic concepts that people take for granted.
Cleaving closely to the facts as recorded by Kasper himself, the film shows him being puzzled over by local worthies and treated with more kindness than not. Befriended and instructed by an elderly philanthropist, a whole new layer of strangeness emerges when Kasper learns to talk and express how he thinks. Although he was twice the age of the actual Kaspar, who was only 15 to 17 years old when he was found, Bruno S. was the ideal candidate for the role. His own story was almost as sensational as Kasper’s: locked up and brutalized by his prostitute mother, as a child he lost the power of speech and was institutionalized. Wide-eyed, vulnerable and childlike, he gives a remarkable performance as he goes from being unable even to use a spoon to becoming an amateur philosopher and the darling of high society, writing his eagerly awaited autobiography.
Herzog shoots all of this with a sense of sympathy and wonder. The story isn’t exploited for comedy or drama; instead, through the enigma of Kasper Hauser, Herzog examines the enigma of what it means to be human and exist in the world. This seemingly quiet, modest film thus tackles issues which could hardly be more fundamental and important, and it does so with lightness and charm. Bathed in a contemplative stillness, it’s perhaps the most sunny film Herzog has ever made, and the meticulous recreations of period detail make the world it portrays as magical and surprising to us as it must have been to the real Kasper.
Herzog’s next feature, Heart of Glass (1976), is perhaps the hardest of his films to get one’s head around. Set in Bavaria amid spectacular mountain scenery, it concerns the plight of a glassmaking town whose master glassmaker has died, taking the secret of his special ruby glass with him. Fearful of ruin, various characters hunt for the missing formula. Complicating things is an enigmatic folkloric element as Hias, a burly cowherd-cum-soothsayer, foretells a Biblical doom for the town.
Herzog took a very strange approach to making the film. In the accompanying commentary, he explains that he placed some of the actors under hypnosis to heighten the otherworldliness of their performances, and that he even had a plan to appear on screen and hypnotize the audience too. Something of this trance-like mood certainly translates to the finished product, but not perhaps in the way he hoped, because the resulting film is pictorially striking but almost impenetrably remote. (And there’s a sinister subtext – was he using hypnotism to try and deepen his control over his actors? And was isolating his cast and crew in the jungle on films such as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo another way of doing the same thing?)
Stroszek (1977) was offered as a consolation to Bruno S. after Herzog backed out of casting him as the lead in his film version of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, opting for Kinski instead. (Written very quickly, it borrows from the arc of Buchner’s classic play and even – perhaps not intentionally, one suspects – has a rhyming title.) Drawing on the circumstances of Bruno S.’ own life, it’s a Fassbinder-like tale of amour fou among marginal folk. Bruno S. plays a street musician and sometime drunkard who gives his heart to a homeless prostitute. Persecuted by a pair of young thugs, they hatch a plan to move to Wisconsin, only to find that the American dream has its own way of grinding you down.
Bruno S. brings all of his Kasper Hauser mannerisms with him to his second outing with Herzog, and whereas in the other film they were an undoubted asset, here they’re a bit of an obstacle; he seems completely isolated in himself, and lacks the sensitivity and awareness to convince as a man in love. But the location shooting – blackened, run-down Berlin tenements, the flat umber terrain and oily railyards of Wisconsin – elevates the story to the level of poetry, and there’s a certain good-humoured unexpectedness to the whole enterprise – Bruno S. looking as splendidly out of place in the New World as those conquistadors did in the Amazon.
Herzog’s next two films saw him returning to the German romantic milieu that had worked so well for him in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is a loose remake of F.W. Murnau’s renowned silent film, but there’s not a great deal of Murnau in it (or Bram Stoker for that matter, although Herzog restores Stoker’s original names to the characters, which Murnau didn’t use because he’d omitted to secure the rights to the book).
In Herzog’s hands, the Dracula story becomes another of his tales about the deadly tug of the unknown. Stuck in a sexless marriage (they sleep in separate beds and his wife Lucy, played by Isabelle Adjani, is conspicuously virginal), Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Harker is champing at the bit to get away from the dull charms of his home town Wismar. Herzog mounts his arduous trek to Dracula’s castle as a spiritual ascent (a great deal of it is accomplished on foot, and fans of Herzog will know that he has a strong belief in the meditative value of walking). The Count, when we meet him, is feral but also priestly. Descending on Wismar, he transforms it into a place infested with rats and coffins in a way that perhaps fulfils Harker’s subconscious desires. But Lucy (who has a much bigger role than her counterpart in the Murnau film) puts up stern resistance and turns vampire hunter or, if that won’t work, sacrificial victim: she and the Count are battling for Harker’s soul.
Herzog’s handling of genre conventions is uncertain (he plays the traditional warned-at-the-inn scene early on almost for laughs), but the encounters between Lucy and the Count are staged with a powerfully morbid sensuality – he’s like a slug devouring an orchid – the locations are very striking, the set-dressing creamily attractive, and the scenes of Wismar (actually shot in Delft, with 11,000 rats) sinking into cynical revelry as the dead bodies accumulate are suitably nightmarish (and actually a homage to the plague scenes in another Murnau film, Faust). It may not exactly be scary, but the movie carries with it a strong, unsettling whiff of the night, if only because it is so drastically nihilistic, suggesting as it does that even if only death and madness await beyond the horizon, that is still better than ordinary life in Wismar.
There’s yet more death and madness in Woyzeck (1979). Klaus Kinski gives a fine performance as the lowly, mentally disturbed soldier tipped over the edge by the news that the woman with whom he’s had a child has taken up with a dashing drum major who is everything he isn’t. Buchner’s play seems to wither slightly on screen – the satire of the authority figures who lord it over the central character and badger him with advice and demands comes over strongly, a sense of his hellish torment less so. Still, it impresses as one of the most beautiful of Herzog’s films on this HD transfer. The picturesque small town setting, the scenes of the marching band parading through the street and the fair in the town square all come up with ravishing freshness and pretty, Frith-like colours, and there’s a shot of Kinski running through a field of green-headed poppies that has an almost psychedelic intensity.
Now for Fitzcarraldo (1982). This, of course, is the one with the steamboat being dragged over a hill. But there’s much more to it than that. In some ways it’s the most conventional of Herzog’s films, and he’s not above engaging the audience with some low-brow but effective ploys. For instance, when he first introduces Klaus Kinski’s maladroit music buff who wants to build an opera house in the jungle, he ensures our sympathy by pairing him with Claudia Cardinale’s feisty brothel madam. We like Claudia Cardinale very much, it goes without saying, and if he’s with her, we like him too. Job done.
But if this is a Herzog who’s milder and more eager to please than we’ve seen before, that’s not because he’s lost any of his ambition. Fitzcarraldo is also the most expansive of his films; it has the opulence and generous dimensions of a grand opera house. It’s exhilarating, the unflagging skill with which Herzog introduces us to various worlds – first off, the world of Manaus, then the richest city on the planet, where Fitzcarraldo’s heart flutters when he sees Caruso on stage and the great singer seems to look straight at him; then the shabbily colourful frontier post of Iquitos, Fitzcarraldo’s home town, with its crumbling plaster and sprays of flowers; then the world of the steamboat which Fitzcarraldo takes upstream (in the hope of claiming a rich parcel of land for a rubber plantation), with its drunken chef, its engineer who is also a spy and its captain who is half-blind but who can navigate the river system by the taste of the water; and finally the world of the indigenous natives.
The steamboat’s tense, thrilling encounter with these natives is full of excitement and suspense, and the film’s portrait of them is a triumph. Fitzcarraldo doesn’t exploit them, he wouldn’t know how; they help him for reasons of their own which are hard to fathom, but let’s just say he’s not the only one interested in making a grand gesture.
Only after this do we get to the film’s famous set-piece, as the three-storey steamboat is winched, painfully slowly, up a forty degree gradient with the aid of a giant capstan, and there’s more to come, including an ending as serene and elevated as any in cinema. Perhaps because it seems, superficially, like a retread of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo has never received the recognition it deserves, but it’s a masterpiece on the largest scale, and every frame of it is breathtakingly gorgeous on this HD transfer.
If Fitcarraldo flows like a river, Cobra Verde (1987) glitters like a heap of dry bones. Kinski’s crazily detached, almost contemptuous performance as a South American bandit turned slave trader makes him seem like a bystander in his own story, and you sense that whole sections of the script (based on a novel by Bruce Chatwin) were despairingly junked by Herzog, who finally seemed to run out of energy on this, the most ragged of his films. (In his commentary, Herzog explains that Kinski became increasingly unmanageable, culminating in a moment when he attempted to kill the director with a rock while they were filming the 360 degree pan which opens the movie.) It has some striking moments though, as when Kinski’s character is kidnapped and bundled off, rolled up like Cleopatra in a blanket, to meet the mad King of Dahomey. And it makes use of some stunning locations, especially the historic slave fortress of Elmina in Ghana. It’s a film you watch yearningly, wondering what it would have been like with a different leading man.
As well as these major feature films, this box set also includes several experimental pieces (including the visual essay Fata Morgana) and a number of Herzog’s documentaries. Exploring odd corners of human experience, some of these are mainly of interest because Herzog found these things interesting, or because they pair up with the feature films in illuminating ways – for example, Land of Silence and Darkness, about a deaf-blind woman, clearly relates to Kasper Hauser as it questions what it is to experience the world. But they also include the charming How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, which consists of interviews with auctioneers who’ve perfected the art of talking at tongue-twisting speed, and the delightful Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner – a misleading title, because the subject, Walter Steiner, was actually a ski jumper, or rather a ski flyer. Sky flying is the next step up from ski jumping, and the documentary shows competitors shooting off giant ramps and reaching speeds of 140 mph, with Steiner himself making jumps of 170 metres. Shot, in 1975, in grainy 4:3 format and offering the sight of a young, woolly haired Herzog clutching a microphone and talking intensely into the camera, the piece now has an irresistible retro kitsch appeal; it feels like the germ of a Wes Anderson movie.
Turning to the extras, the one that will be of most immediate interest to Herzog fans is Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982). In this astonishing feature-length documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog was interviewed on location in the Amazon over the course of four years, during which he seemed to age at least ten. And no wonder. His first attempt to make the film was stymied by irate natives, who issued death threats and spread rumours that the film crew were rapists and arms smugglers, his second by the bad case of amoebic dysentery which struck down his star Jason Robards. Later, we see the director with his cast and crew in a camp on the Eastern foothills of the Andes. He’s like a mayor of a small town, dealing with security issues and bringing in prostitutes to keep the native extras occupied. The engineer who designs the pulley system for the ship-winching quits, afraid the cables will pull loose and kill everybody and predicting a 70% chance of catastrophe, but Herzog ploughs on, taking the risk. The jungle gets to everybody. “The trees are in misery, the birds are in misery, they don’t sing, they just screech in pain”, says Herzog in one extraordinary rant. The whole thing climaxes in the never-to-be-forgotten sight of Herzog and Kinski, hunkered over the body of injured cameraman Thomas Mauch, arguing furiously about Kinski’s performance while the steamboat they’re standing on is being tossed around like a box of matches by the terrifying Pongo de Mainique rapids – a scene of complete lunacy.
Although Les Blank’s film is justly famous, the South Bank Show from 1982 also included here is perhaps even more startling for its insight into the toll a decade of extreme filmmaking had taken on Herzog. Accompanying him home to Bavaria and the magical landscape of his childhood, the documentary finds the director at his most mystical and opaque and not, perhaps, entirely lucid at times. At one point he talks about how Kinski threatened to walk off Fitzcarraldo ten days before the film was due to wrap, and how he responded by telling Kinski that he had a rifle and nine bullets and that he would shoot Kinski in the head eight times and then kill himself. He’s not joking, and it’s absolutely chilling.
“Would I really want to be stuck up the Amazon with this man?” is the question you might well be asking yourself after watching a scene like that. And even without such frightening glimpses of the director’s dark side, you can have enough of Herzog’s view of the world – which so often seems to take little or no account of the joy of everyday relationships or the actual experience of life as most of us live it in towns and cities, and which barely recognizes the existence of women beyond the most basic mother and whore archetypes. But when Herzog sets aside symbolism for humanism, as he does in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser and Fitzcarraldo, there are few directors who can see so deeply with the camera or move you so intensely. And if you do want to experience the world of Werner Herzog at length, this lavish, technically excellent box set is the ideal way to do it.