Werner Herzog is one of my all time favourite directors. Ever since watching his take on NOSFERATU, I knew I was hooked. Exploring both his fictional and documentary films, you will find a fascinating body of work. Sure, some of his opinions I really don’t agree with (I’m talking about you, INTO THE ABYSS and DEATH ROW) but wether you agree with the content or not, a film with Herzog’s name on it will at least touch you in one way. The British Film Institute recently released a 10 disc box set of some of Herzog’s films. Over the coming weeks (and maybe months) I will be going through each disc here on the blog. Part review. Part retrospective. Hopefully you will join me on my Herzogian journey. Wether you are a fan of Herzog or a newcomer to his work, I hope you at least get something out of this.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
(Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)
“I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?”
The year is 1560. A group of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian slaves, lead by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), are on a journey through the beautiful, yet deadly terrain of the Andes mountains. They are in search of the kingdom of gold, El Dorado. Unbeknownst to them, it’s a myth created by the newly conquered Indians. Whilst battling the rugged landscape, lives are lost and the expedition comes to a halt. Gonzalo gives Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) a week to venture on a head to see what is in store. He makes Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) the second command. What follows is a descent into madness for Aguirre. After members of Ursuúa’s group are killed at the hands of an unseen enemy (amongst other things), becoming increasingly frustrated, Aguirre stages a mutiny and orders the surviving members of the group to join him on finding the mythical riches. Death follows Aguirre round every corner, even at his own hand. Those who survive slowly become feverish and begin to believe everything they see and hear right up until the end, where Aguirre’s small army and sick daughter are stranded on a raft. Everyone dies when they are bombarded with arrows except Aguirre. Insane, isolated and surrounded by death, Aguirre’s raft becomes overrun with monkeys and together, they slowly drift off down the river.
What a fantastic way to start off this box set. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is nothing short of a masterpiece. On a technical level, the film is beautiful to behold. The breathtaking landscape of the Peruvian mountains and jungle are shot beautifully by Thomas Mauch. The visuals are complimented perfectly by the equally breathtaking (and not to mention haunting) score by Popol Vuh. Herzog’s documentary style overall is nothing short of spectacular. It’s often rough in places, but you get thrown in to the situation playing out on screen. Klaus Kinski steals every scene he is in, and you really get the sense that Kinski doesn’t just believe he is the character Aguirre, but also a God like figure. The electricity in his eyes is almost as ferocious as his performance.The story itself is loosely based on the accounts of Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish Domican monk as well as the life of Aguirre himself. It’s a very well written story but overall, it’s Kinski’s performance and the location that really hold the power of this film. Aspiring filmmakers, take note.
THE UNPRECEDENTED DEFENCE OF THE FORTRESS DEUTSCHKREUZ (1967)
(Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreuz)
“Attacking is good, but living is better, even in poverty.”
This short film from 1966 sees four men breaking into and abandoned castle in Deutschkreutz. The castle was the site of a battle between German and Russian soldiers during World War II. The men discover old military uniforms and hardware. They proceed to act out drills, training and eventually battles. Of course, there is no emery and Herzog claims that his film is “A satire on the state of war and peace and the absurdities it inspires.”. The film is essentially silent except for the use of voice over. It’s a very simple film and crude in some regards. You can clearly see Herzog slowly perfecting his craft with this one. It’s a pleasure to see early short work of Herzog.
LAST WORDS (1968)
“They tell me to say no, but I won’t even say that.”
Last words is a very strange short film indeed. Filmed in two days on the island of Spinalonga island and Crete, Last Words tells the story of the last man to leave Spinalonga. The film is told through accounts of the locals and those involved in relocating the man to Crete. We find out that Spinalonga was a leper colony and that the man, as a result of being forcibly removed, flat out refuses to talk to people. He can seen during the evening however, playing the lyre in a local pub. What makes Last Words so intriguing is its unusual narrative structure. Characters repeat their lines multiple times, often in long takes. Overall, a very unusual and enjoyable short.
PRECAUTIONS AGAINST FANATICS (1969)
(Massnamen gegen Fanatiker)
“I would like to protect the horses from fanatics.”
The next short on the disc is another quirky one that showcases Herzog’s humour. It was also the first film Herzog shot in colour. Basically, the short is about various people at a racetrack in Munich who like to protect horses from fanatical fans. This includes an oddball played by Mario Adorf who demonstrates his favourite punching technique, man who likes to walk horses round a tree for 36 hours and a young boy who, despite the track owners well wishes, wants to protects horses and then eventually resigns to protecting flamingos instead. To top it off, there’s an old man who interferes with each of their interviews and isn’t happy. This short is seen to be believed and is genuinely funny.
FATA MORGANA (1971)
“In Paradise, even gentiles move mountains.”
The final film included on the first disc isn’t a short film, but Herzog’s bizarre and often unnerving film, Fata Morgana. Shot in the Sahara desert, the film heavily relies on the image. Herzog and his cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein capture the vast landscape primarily by long tracking shots. The cinematography throughout is devastatingly effective. To accompany the striking visuals Lotte Eisner (in the German version) provides narration reciting Mayan creation myth. Some pieces of Leonard Cohen's work are also included. Overall, the film deals with idea of mirage (the definition of Fata Morgana) and you will often find yourself seeing things in the background. Aside from the landscape we find abandoned villagers, the corpses of animals and suspicious looking residents of the area. It’s possible to get lost within the film and many aspects are open to interpretation. If one thing is for certain, there is never a dull moment throughout the film. Newcomers to Herzog may want to watch this after viewing some of his more well known and accessible films. On a side note, the making of the film is just as interesting as the film itself and is well deserving of more research.
I'm not going to go in to the technical aspects of the DVD collection until the conclusion in the final post but I can say that all films look and sound brilliant. Extras on the first disc include English and German versions of Aguirre and Fata Morgana as well as commentaries for both. There is also a stills gallery as well as theatrical trailers. Overall, just by looking at the first disc alone, this set is very promising indeed. It's great to see Herzog's earlier short films as well as seeing his more notable efforts presented so well.
I hope you will join me for my second part in this series where I will be looking at the second disc.
You can buy this set from the BFI here, MovieMail here and Amazon UK here. Buying from the BFI directly means you can support the great work they do 100%. You can also pick up a gorgeous looking steelbook of Aguirre here and here.
To find out more about the BFI and some of their release check out their website here.