Thursday, October 28, 2010


I first encountered the films of Werner Herzog as a college student in the 1970s. His 1972 feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God was the first film I watched and I found it hypnotic, eccentric, strangely beautiful, and emotionally powerful. This was the first of 5 films he would make with the German Actor Klaus Kinski, and also followed a Herzog theme of an obsessive central character who is at odds with society or nature or both.

Herzog emerged from the New German Cinema in the 1970s which included the filmmakers Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, and Margarethe von Trotta. They wanted to make films that were artistically interesting rather than films that were dictated by commercialism. Herzog has always made both narrative features and documentaries. 

The strength of Herzog's work is in the layering of image and music,  creating an emotional experience and drawing the viewer into the film. His characters or subjects are often eccentric individuals and there is often dark humor in the dialogue or narration.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes place in the 1500s and follows a group of Spanish conquistadors moving down the Amazon searching for the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. It is based on some historical facts, but works more as a metaphor for man's thirst for power, the need to conquer others, and the madness and folly of trying to dominate nature.

The film was shot in the Peruvian rainforest, and starts with a long shot of the expedition moving down a mountain in the clouds, set to the music of Popol Vuh. Herzog holds his images on screen longer than most filmmakers and this gives them a hypnotic effect. Throughout the film the camera lingers on images of natural beauty in the rainforest. 

Aguirre, becomes the ruler of what is left of the expedition as they move down the river, slowly starving and suffering from hallucinations. Kinski plays him with an intensity and snarl that makes him frightening and intimidating as he descends into madness. He is full of eccentric dialogue including - 

" I will produce history, like others produce plays."

"If I want the birds to drop dead from the trees....the the birds will drop dead from the trees..."

"The earth I pass will see me and tremble."

In the end it becomes clear they are on a river to nowhere and after all of the other men are dead, Aguirre is left alone on a raft of monkeys as the camera swirls around him.

"I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. I am  the Wrath of God.

This is one of many films that Herzog made in difficult and treacherous circumstances.

Fitzcarraldo, also made with Kinski in the lead is about a man who wants to build an opera house in a small city in Peru. To do so he needs a lot of money and wants to get into the rubber business. To deliver his product he has to haul a 300 ton steamship across a mountain to another river tributary. Herzog actually did this in the filming, creating huge problems and injured crew members. Kinski and Herzog also fought a lot on the set of this film, and some of it is documented in Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.

Another early feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small, concerns the story of a group of dwarfs confined to an institution on a remote island. They rebel against the guards and riot in total chaos. The dwarfs gleefully break windows, set fires, kill animals, and crucify a monkey.

In 1974, Herzog made The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser about a  man in the 1800s who lived his first seventeen years of his life chained in a tiny cellar with only a toy horse to occupy his time, devoid of all human contact except for a man in black who feeds him. One day the man leaves Kaspar in the town of Nuremberg. He becomes a curiousity, and is exhibited in a circus before being rescued by Herr Daumer who attempts to transform him. He learns to read and write, and develops unorthodox approaches to logic and religion, but music is what pleases him most. He attracts the attention of academics, clergy, and nobility. In the end he is attacked and then murdered by the man in black. In this film he uses the non-actor Bruno S., who also appeared in a later film Stroszek.

Another major film of Herzog's from this period was Heart of Glass made in 1976. It takes place in a Bavarian town with a glass blowing factory which produces a brilliant red ruby glass. When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost, and the town gradually sinks into disorder and madness. During the filming, the entire cast performed while under hypnosis.

In 1979, Herzog made his remake of Nosferatu, inspired by the 1922 F.W. Murnau version starring Max Schrek. Again, Herzog uses Klaus Kinski in the lead role. It is strange and funny at times and contains some beautiful cinematography put to the music of Wagner.

As I stated earlier Herzog has also made many documentaries. Two that stand out are from more recent times - Lessons of Darkness made in 1992, and Grizzly Man made in 2005. 

Lessons of Darkness resembles an earlier work Fata Morgana  where the desert takes on its own voice. Lessons of Darkness concentrates on the imagery of the aftemath of the first Gulf War - specifically the oil fires in Kuwait - although the film never mentions any relevant political or geographical information. There are helicopter shots of the bleak landscape. Herzog's minimal narration reinterprets the imagery out of its documentary context into a poetic fiction. The workers are described as creatures whose behavior is motivated by madness and the desire to perpetuate the damage that they are witnessing. There is a science fiction quality to the film as if it is not earth but an alien planet.

Grizzly Man, chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film consists of Treadwell's own video footage of his interactions with grizzly bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a bear in 2003. There are also interviews with his friends and people from the area, as well as Herzog's commentary. Treadwell spent 13 summers at Katmai National Park and Preserve and over time believed he had become trusted by the bears as if he was one of them. He has names for them and got extremely close to them, even touching them at times. But many felt he was deluding himself and was putting himself and others in danger, which later proved to be true. He interviews himself at times and his mental state is cleary threatened at times. Herzog saw him as a disturbed individual who may have had a death wish.

There are many other wonderful films by Werner Herzog. These are just some that stood out for me. 

Werner Herzog has made films for over 40 years and they are some of the most interesting, innovative, and idiosyncratic works of cinema ever produced.

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