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Of Gods and Giants: The Megalomaniacal Movies of Werner Herzog

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“Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to the man? A laughingstock or a painful embarassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarassment…

– Friedrich Nietzsche


It’s hard to believe we’re already halfway through the year, but here we are with another exciting slate of June programming to kick off summer! We’re celebrating Pride Month this year with Be Gay Do Crime, a series of queer or queer-adjacent films about characters on the other side of the law like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Gregg Araki’s The Living End. Also playing next week is The Wachowskis’ science fiction classic The Matrix, playing as part of our Party Like It’s 1999 series, and Kill Your Lover, a new horror-thriller from Alix Austin and Keir Stewart. Later in the month, we’ve got a returning favorite in the form of 80s fantasy classic The NeverEnding Story, followed by a special presentation as part of Science on Screen. Before that though, another series, Arthouse 101: The New Wave, wraps up with Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. An adventure-drama set in late 19th-century Peru, Klaus Kinski stars as the titular rubber baron, wishing to use the profits from an untapped source of rubber deep in the Amazon to facilitate his dream of bringing the grand opera to his hometown. When informed that a series of dangerous rapids prevent boats from reaching the area in question, Fitzcarraldo devises an outlandish plan: transporting his steamship over a hill and onto the other side where the rubber – and with it, glory – awaits.

Widely regarded as a highpoint of New German Cinema, the film was one of several collaborations between Kinski and Herzog. Starting as a documentarian in his 20s, Herzog has since gone on to direct a veritable film festival’s worth of movies, including 20 feature films and 34 documentaries. Although his movies cover a wide range of subjects and personalities, the most commonly-noted thread running through them is a fascination with people (often eccentric or otherwise unusual) trying to realize some incredible dream or overcome some great obstacle that brings them into conflict with others, nature, or even their own conscience. It is this recurring interrogation of human nature that makes Herzog’s work resonate as deeply as it does with critics, but it’s not just film snobs like me who appreciate his oeuvre. In fact, Herzog himself is so recognizable that he frequently guest stars on TV shows, acting on programs as varied as The Boondocks and Parks and Recreation as well as The Mandalorian, in addition to him and his films being parodied on shows like Documentary Now! and Comedy Bang! Bang!

To understand the indelible appeal of Herzog and his cinema, however, it helps to be familiar with some of the entries in it. Brush up on your German (or not, there’s subtitles) and brace yourself for an epic trek through the sometimes inspiring, sometimes shocking, but always daring films of Werner Herzog!


Aguirre The Wrath Of GodAguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Only Herzog’s third feature, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is inspired by the account of Lope de Aguirre, a conquistador who mutinied against the Spanish crown and dreamed of discovering the mythical city of El Dorado only for his rebellion to be violently put down by the colonial authorities. Primarily dealing with Aguirre’s quest for El Dorado, the film takes liberties with the original story in order to focus on the doomed nature of the expedition and the toll it takes on its members. For a film of such epic proportions, it was not only shot on a shockingly small budget (a mere $370,000) but also runs at a quick hour and a half. Yet this makes it all the more remarkable what Herzog was able to achieve within these humble parameters: achievements helped in no small part by shooting entirely on location in Peru, giving a real-world authenticity to this South American adventure.

Marking his first collaboration with Herzog, Klaus Kinski gets their partnership off to an auspicious start as Aguirre. Though Kinski’s own voice is not heard in the movie (he reportedly demanded too much money to re-record his lines after filming), the dubbed voice that is heard complements his cruel scowl and watery eyes very well, with all three working to convey the power-mad conquistador’s malevolent nature. Kinski also employs a limp when walking, a decision inspired by the real-life Aguirre’s own but also one that recalls another historical figure, Richard III, remembered today as a limping villain with megalomaniacal designs of his own thanks to Shakespeare. While Kinski undoubtedly anchors and drives the film, several of the supporting actors turn in noteworthy performances as well. Del Negro, with his harsh features and deep (albeit dubbed) voice, makes for an arresting presence as the cynical Brother Gaspar (whose account the film is loosely based on). Helena Rojo, meanwhile, provides moral sensitivity as Ines, the widow of the expedition’s overthrown leader and probably the closest thing to an unambiguously good character in the film.

Reflecting Herzog’s proclivity for documentary, much of the film is shot in a way that communicates the scale of the conquistadors’ endeavor. Recurring use of medium shots gives a sense of scope beyond the main action, with background characters often doing their own thing as the leads advance the plot, while less-common wide shots capture the immensity of the endless rainforest and imposing cliffs that they are forced to navigate. Much attention is also focused on the sheer drudgery of the expedition, with the camera often taking time to document the struggle of the group’s members to move cannons and other equipment through rough, occasionally wet terrain. Another trick Herzog frequently use is shooting with a handheld camera, giving a jarring movement to shots that makes one feel like they’re trapped in the jungle with Aguirre and his companions/victims. In contrast to the relatively naturalistic cinematography though, Krautrock band Popol Vuh contributes a very electronic, very proggy main theme that is heard throughout the film. Driven by a haunting Choir-Organ (a Mellotron-like instrument that is apparently quite the mystery among Popol Vuh fans ), the piece has an ethereal and enigmatic air that plays well against the sinister proceedings onscreen.


“Reflecting Herzog’s proclivity for documentary, much of the film is shot in a way that communicates the scale of the conquistadors’ endeavor. Recurring use of medium shots gives a sense of scope beyond the main action, with background characters often doing their own thing as the leads advance the plot, while less-common wide shots capture the immensity of the endless rainforest and imposing cliffs that they are forced to navigate.”


While Aguirre is himself arguably a casualty of his mad quest for power, the other characters also face the consequences of not understanding its true nature. Ines’ husband Don Pedro Ursua and the slovenly noble Don Fernando are given authority over the expedition’s members and – believing the reasons given for their wielding it – attempt to use it in responsible ways. Ursua uses his power to order the recovery the bodies of dead members and Fernando uses his to commute Ursua’s death sentence after he is overthrown, but they quickly find themselves on its receiving end because these acts, though humanitarian, are detrimental to Aguirre’s schemes. Even Balthasar, the Inca slave with a royal background, acknowledges at one point that he too has fallen victim to this vicious cycle: before the Spanish arrived and enslaved him and his people, he wistfully remembers that his former subjects once wouldn’t even dare look him in the eye. Power is not only treacherous, it is transient: it is as likely to end you as it is to serve you.

A penetrating journey into the darkness of the human soul not unlike Apocalypse Now, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an early minimalistic triumph of Herzog as both a filmmaker and philosopher.


Nosferatu The VampyreNosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Seven years after Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski would partner again for Nosferatu the Vampyre. Reflecting the scale of his own ambitions, Herzog envisioned this production as a remake of what he estimated to be the greatest German movie ever: F.W. Murnau’s landmark 1922 horror Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. A thinly-veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film emerged out of the German Expressionist movement (several films of which, including Nosferatu, I wrote about in a previous article) and revolutionized not just the horror genre but cinema as a whole. As such, a simple remake of Murnau’s film wouldn’t do: it required its own unique vision and sensibility to rival the original’s. Remarkably, Herzog’s movie radiates both, successfully reinterpreting the silent, black and white original as a colorized, aurally-engaging production. Doing Murnau even one better, the film keeps the original names from Dracula for its characters, the happy result of Stoker’s novel finally entering the public domain in 1979.

Donning pale make-up and rat-like fangs and shaving his head completely bald, Kinski offers a mesmerizing take on the legendary vampire (well, two legendary vampires if you count Orlok and Dracula as separate characters). In contrast to the hungry, wide-eyed stare of the original’s Max Schreck, Kinski usually affects a tired, despondent expression that reflects Dracula’s weariness with his endless existence. This weariness can also be heard in Kinski’s voice, which sounds breathy and forlorn in both German and English versions of the film. Similarly to Schreck however, he exhibits great control over his movements, frequently evoking his predecessor’s slow, methodical walk. He is also capable of sudden speed and strength though, as seen when he violently knocks over a chair sitting between him and Jonathan Harker. Harker himself is portrayed by Bruno Ganz (an accomplished actor in his own right but now forever remembered for memes parodying his performance as Hitler in Downfall.) While Ganz is perfectly suitable as Harker, it is Isabelle Adjani as his wife Lucy who turns out to be the true hero of the film, making the most of her bewitching eyes as she investigates Dracula’s plan and puts herself at risk to stop it.

Much like Murnau in the original, Herzog forgoes hyper-stylized studio sets for filming on location, shooting in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia to depict Harker’s hometown of Wisborg and Dracula’s homeland of Transylvania respectively. This gives the movie a naturalistic feel that allows viewers to believe that, if the story of Dracula really happened, this is what it would look like. It also gives Herzog another opportunity to indulge his documentarian impulses, highlighting gushing waterfalls, antique town houses, and even a group of mummified bodies (shot in Guanajuato, Mexico) in the film’s intro. On the music front, Popol Vuh returns: recycling their original track “Bruder des Schattens – Sohne des Lichts” as the film’s main theme, this eerie, choir and oboe-heavy piece is the perfect accompaniment to Herzog’s horror. But the most memorable use of music in the movie – indeed, I’d argue the most memorable scene in the movie – has to be the excerpt of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold heard during the final leg of Harker’s journey to Dracula’s castle. As the brass and strings of the opera’s prelude swell up behind him, Ganz gazes into the great beyond before him, with the camera slowly panning toward the towering, misty mountains that almost seem to urge him to turn back while he still can.


“Donning pale make-up and rat-like fangs and shaving his head completely bald, Kinski offers a mesmerizing take on the legendary vampire (well, two legendary vampires if you count Orlok and Dracula as separate characters). In contrast to the hungry, wide-eyed stare of the original’s Max Schreck, Kinski usually affects a tired, despondent expression that reflects Dracula’s weariness with his endless existence.”


Turning Herzog’s recurring theme of man struggling to overcome nature on its head, Nosferatu deals not with the struggle as it happens but rather the aftermath and consequences for the man in question. Being a vampire, Dracula is a man who conquered death yet now not only regrets it but is no longer even a man. He has eternity to spend as he pleases and the power to enact his will in ways no ordinary human can but he has long since lost any capacity to enjoy any benefits that these advantages confer. Indeed, as menacing as Dracula is, there is something woefully pitiful about him, a quality that is most visible in his initial encounter with Lucy. Asking for her hand like a desperate suitor, this superhuman creature (who was already a noble of some import in life) is reduced to begging for the one thing he cannot take by force and that even he – the man who conquered death – cannot overcome: love.

An ambitious reimagining of one of horror’s most enduring stories, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a rare remake of a classic film that manages to be even greater than the original.


WoyzeckWoyzeck (1979)

There is no rest for the wicked and, as it turns out, the creative, for immediately after production on Nosferatu wrapped, Herzog started working on Woyzeck. Based on the unfinished play of the same name by Georg Buchner, the film utilizes the same crew as Nosferatu and stars Kinski as the eponymous character. A soldier stationed in a remote, 19th century German town, Woyzeck is desperately poor and subjects himself to degrading work and medical experiments to support his wife, Marie, and illegitimate child. As the work and experiments take their toll on him, he begins to have apocalyptic visions that imperil his already fragile sanity. Filmed in Telc, Czechoslovakia, the movie is a curiosity compared to the preceding two films in that its story and presentation are much smaller in scope. “Smaller” shouldn’t be confused with “worse” though, with Herzog receiving his second Palme d’Or nomination for the film when it played at Cannes.

Once again, Kinski carries the movie as a troubled/troublesome man with violent tendencies. Wiped out after working on Nosferatu, Kinski allowed his exhaustion from acting in that film to carry over into his performance as Woyzeck, with excellent results. Affecting a sad, tired gaze not unlike the one he used in the preceding movie, he adds to it a habit of letting his mouth gape open, giving the unstable soldier an appropriately distressed look. This distress is seen from the very moment he marches on screen: panting for breath, he tries to carry out his military exercises in an orderly way but is unable to repress the primal, pent-up energy his expression and body language exude. This energy is palpable over the course of the film, building up inside our much put-upon anti-hero (to the extent that Woyzeck can be called a hero, anti or otherwise) until it reaches a breaking point. Conversely, Kinski’s co-star Eva Mattes is calm and deceptively comforting as Marie, whose infidelity proves to be her undoing.

Shot in only 18 days, the quick shooting schedule shows in the extended length of individual shots, with many going on for some time before the camera cuts to the next. This quieter editing style allows for greater emphasis on dialogue spoken by characters, giving the film a play-like feel that suits the story’s theatrical origins. Not to say that Herzog doesn’t work in some interesting camerawork. On the contrary, shots of Woyzeck sitting framed in the foreground while his rival, the Drum Major, taunts him from the background and Marie’s face, reflected in a handheld mirror, staring directly into the camera make for subtle yet intriguing compositions. Indeed, one of the most powerful shots in the film has to be the most simple. Discovering that Marie is having an affair with the Major, Woyzeck runs through a lush, green field to be alone with his disordered thoughts. Shot in a single take and introduced by the ironically cheery music of the Fidelquartett Telc, it’s a strangely peaceful moment for a person (a soldier, no less) who probably hasn’t known peace in a long time.


“…one of the most powerful shots in the film has to be the most simple. Discovering that Marie is having an affair with the Major, Woyzeck runs through a lush, green field to be alone with his disordered thoughts. Shot in a single take and introduced by the ironically cheery music of the Fidelquartett Telc, it’s a strangely peaceful moment for a person (a soldier, no less) who probably hasn’t known peace in a long time.”


Some struggle to divine any deeper meaning or point from Woyzeck. Indeed, the relatively restrained story and style may throw those accustomed to Herzog’s more bombastic features off guard. However, when you expand your line of vision beyond Woyzeck himself to the town he lives in, there does appear to be some significance to his story. Throughout the film, the people of the town (including, at times, Woyzeck and Marie) seek entertainment in marching bands, carnivals, and dances. The point of these divertissements is just that: to divert their attention from the dullness and drudgery of their daily lives. Yet it is none of these fleeting pastimes that make them happy: it is Woyzeck’s shocking murder of Marie (his revenge for her affair) and subsequent death by drowning that does. Through onscreen text describing the crime as a “a good murder, a real murder, a beautiful murder”, the townspeople happily note that “We haven’t had one like this in ages.” At long last, something of interest – something of import – has happened in their quiet little town, and all it cost was the lives of a poor, deranged man and his wife.

More modest in story and scale than the preceding movies, Woyzeck is nevertheless an unforgettable portrait of man in crisis that’s right at home with Herzog’s grandest films.


FitzcarraldoFitzcarraldo (1982)

Nearly 10 years after Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog revisited the jungles and waterways of Peru for Fitzcarraldo. Taking inspiration from the story of the real-life Carlos Fitzcarrald, Herzog transforms the ruthless rubber baron into Brian Sweeney Fitzcarraldo, a much more benevolent figure who merely wishes to use the resource as an ends to bringing opera to the town of Iquitos. Beset by various production problems (some of which resulted in the injury and even death of crew members), the film is infamous for the notoriously volatile Kinski’s unbecoming behavior behind the scenes, as shown in Herzog’s later documentary My Best Fiend. In fact, Herzog was reportedly asked by the chief of the local indigenous tribe if he wanted them to kill Kinski close to the end of filming, an offer that the director apparently passed on. Yet out of these miserable, literally life-threatening conditions emerges a finished product that is as awe-inspiring as it’s premise would have you believe.

Filling in for original star Jason Robards after he dropped out of the film, Fitzcarraldo has the distinction of being one of – if not the most – benign characters Kinski ever played in a Herzog movie (in contrast, ironically, to his conduct behind the scenes). There are moments of classic Kinski sturm und drang such as frantically ringing a church bell and yelling his demand for an opera house or getting violent with party guests and staff when they try to remove his phonograph, but he overall comes across as more eccentric than insane here. Indeed, Kinski seems to channel his typically abrasive energy into a more amenable form, giving the opera-loving rubber baron a charisma that makes viewers believe in his wild dream. This charisma is present throughout the film but it is most powerfully felt when Fitzcarraldo’s crew hauls the ship over the hill, with him giddily raising his arms and excitedly calling for the music of Enrico Caruso to celebrate his triumph. Playing opposite Kinski this time around is Claudia Cardinale (a veteran of Italian arthouse films like The Leopard and 8 1/2 but also, more importantly, Princess Dala in the original Pink Panther) as Fitzcarraldo’s wife Molly, supporting her husband’s spectacular endeavor with her fierce loyalty and delightful presence.

Running at a whopping 2 hours and 37 minutes, much of the film is spent laying the groundwork for its central set piece: that is, the hauling of the steamship (lovingly dubbed the Molly Aida) over the hill. Some might find the extended focus on Fitzcarraldo’s attempts to find support and capital for his venture unnecessary, but it makes the pay-off when we finally see him and his crew lug the Molly up and down the muddy hill all the more satisfying. Mind you, no miniatures or special effects of any kind were used for this scene: Herzog actually orchestrated the transportation of a 320-ton ship over steep, treacherous land for the sake of a movie. It’s as if Fitzcarraldo was directing the film himself, with the camera capturing the spectacle in low-angle close-ups that make us feel as small as the characters must feel next to the steamship and high-angle wide shots that in turn make the ship look small compared to the wild terrain it’s traversing.


“…Kinski seems to channel his typically abrasive energy into a more amenable form, giving the opera-loving rubber baron a charisma that makes viewers believe in his wild dream. This charisma is present throughout the film but it is most powerfully felt when Fitzcarraldo’s crew hauls the ship over the hill, with him giddily raising his arms and excitedly calling for the music of Enrico Caruso to celebrate his triumph.”


In contrast to the rest of the movies here, Fitzcarraldo seems to want us to not just empathize with its protagonist but to outright root for him. Other characters mock or dismiss his grandiose plans but the movie never does anything to suggest that they’re right to: even when his passion gets the best of him and lands him in jail or gets him thrown out of a party, our sympathies always lie with Herzog’s strange dreamer. And when a surprise twist of fate foils Fitzcarraldo’s plan to transport the rubber back to civilization and thus precludes any prospect of building his beloved opera house, there is indeed a momentary sense of loss but it quickly gives way to triumph. Using the funds he gains from selling the now-weathered Molly, Fitzcarraldo hires an opera company to perform on the ship as they sail back, accomplishing his dream of bringing the music he loves to Iquitos after all.

Herzog’s revisionist take on classic Hollywood adventure films, Fitzcarraldo is an epic toast to the human spirit whose production is almost as incredible as its story.


Grizzly ManGrizzly Man (2005)

No discussion of Herzog’s oeuvre would be complete without at least one of his documentaries, with the one included here being 2005’s Grizzly Man. Originally conceived as a television special about environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, Herzog retooled the project as a full-length movie when he was brought onboard. Tracking the life of the controversial environmentalist, the movie is perhaps most remembered for its coverage of Treadwell and his girlfriend’s shocking death in a rogue bear attack. This is all the more extraordinary because, – although audio of the attack was recovered from the couple’s videocamera – we never see or hear it out of respect for the victims, with it hanging over the film like a bad dream you only vaguely remember. It is directorial decisions like this that led critics like Roger Ebert to hail Grizzly Man with acclaim upon release and even today, just under 20 years later, it is cited by sites like Forbes’ and The Hollywood Reporter as one of the best films of the century.

As the subject of the film, Treadwell cuts a curious figure: with his soft voice and blonde surfer haircut, he hardly comes across as the Olympian personality you’d expect someone who seeks the company of wild animals (of bears, no less) to. Indeed, his earnest, almost-childlike nature makes it hard to tell if you want to feel bad for him or laugh at him. Some scenes, like one where he off-handedly alludes to his troubled history with dating women and speculates that things would be “a lot easier” if he was gay, suggest viewers are supposed to feel both. Acting as a much-needed counterpoint to Treadwell is Herzog himself, narrating the film and offering his own take on his subject’s words and actions. Delivering his narration in that strong yet soothing voice we’ve all come to know and love, Herzog’s cautious, sober attitude is as far from Treadwell’s untrammeled optimism as it gets.

Predominantly made up of archival video recorded by Treadwell himself, the film offers a first-hand look at his travels across the wilds of North America. This gives the audience the chance to view Treadwell’s adventures (or misadventures, if you prefer) the way he wants us to see them: that is, as the brave quest of a “kind warrior” (as he humbly calls himself at one point) to protect and understand the bears and other creatures he encounters. Yet again though, Herzog counters this with footage of his own. Interviewing friends and family of Treadwell as well as critics of his activities, the picture that emerges is a man who was regarded as a harmless nuisance at best and a threat to himself and others at worst. The most important interview segment, however, has to be the most sympathetic to him, when Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak allows Herzog to hear the recording of the bear attack. Quietly listening to the audio over headphones, Herzog lifts them from his ears and tells Jewel to burn it, with his words telling us far more than simply playing the audio ever could.


“The most important interview segment, however, has to be the most sympathetic to [Treadwell], when Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak allows Herzog to hear the recording of the bear attack. Quietly listening to the audio over headphones, Herzog lifts them from his ears and tells Jewel to burn it, with his words telling us far more than simply playing the audio ever could.”


Indeed, it is what Herzog has to say about his subject (rather than what his subject has to say about himself) that makes the film so potent. Treadwell tried to present himself as someone with a deep love and reverence for nature but the film makes a convincing case that, in truth, he neither respected nor understood it. Instead, he seems to have projected his own hopes and beliefs onto the animals he encountered and the lives they lived, which the film in turn suggests was motivated not by love for them but by frustration toward his fellow humans and antipathy toward civilization itself. We see this when Treadwell is confronted with the side of nature that doesn’t comport with his hippie dippie moralizing – such as the remains of a bear cub killed and eaten by its mother – with him struggling to downplay the barbarity of this sight and the act that led to it. We also see it in an extended scene of two grizzly bears fighting not quite to the death but pretty damn close to it. Brutal, bloody, and presented without commentary by either Treadwell or Herzog, this singular scene is a ferocious rebuke to the idea that nature and her works always align with our hopelessly human morality and values.

Telling as much about the limits of our relationship with nature as it does about its troubled subject, Grizzly Man is an engrossing, eye-opening documentary as only Herzog could direct it.

Fitzcarraldo screens Tuesday, June 4th.
Tuesday, June 4 – 7:30pm

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