Werner Herzog
Beat Presser
JOVIS/ARTE Edition, 2002
 

werner-herzogLast month, the Goethe Institute – Max Mueller Bhavan, Bangalore organized their biggest film event since the Michael Ballhaus/Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective in June last year. This one was a photo exhibition titled “Werner Herzog: film has to be physical” followed by a ten film retrospective of Werner Herzog (eventually pruned to nine). Jovis Publication’s book Werner Herzog serves more or less as a collection of these photographs and as an excellent coffee-table book if you are planning to start a cinema themed restaurant. With translations in both German and French placed alongside the English text, the book cleverly positions itself to cater the home crowd, the “cinema people” and the rest of the world.

The book is completely photographed and edited by Beat Presser, who has collaborated with Herzog on multiple films as a still photographer. The book (and the exhibition) predominantly presents photos from three of Herzog’s films in which Presser worked – Invincible (2001), Cobra Verde (1987) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) – though there are quite a few snapshots from some of his other films too. With almost an equal number of monochromatic and colour photos (some spanning two sides too), the collection is a visual treat that not only takes us back to the experience of watching the director’s films but one that enhances the mystery that surrounds Herzog and his work.

Interestingly, the photo-exhibition at the Goethe Institute, Bangalore was the same one that Herzog himself visits in his documentary My Best Fiend (1999) as he chats away with Presser. And the book retains most of these photos in good resolution. Unfortunately, the best few photographs of the exhibition (including one from Stroszek (1977) that clearly stands out among the pictures in the collection) that oozed brilliance with their eye for the dynamic and static components of the photographic image are left out. But not all the photographs grab your attention. There are some seemingly offhand pictures – dull and unimaginative to say the least – that seem like fillers alone. But barring those, the photographs in the book clearly indicate the physical energy that Herzog summons upon his set during the shoot (Herzog himself is captured holding mining and trekking tools many times).

It is common knowledge that Herzog believes that film making is the stuff of brawns and not brains. That an atmosphere, an event or a visual force has to be personally experienced before it can be filmed. With a perspective of cinema (and life) that straddles probable lunacy and profound wisdom, Herzog’s working methods and ideas have often been elusive. What remains clear is his unassailable belief on the physical over the metaphysical and his support for the experiential over the theoretical. This book (and the exhibition at the Embassy) attempts to elaborate upon this principle of Herzog using the photographs. In these pictures that alternate between spontaneous and posed, we see Herzog himself performing the very many physical acts that occur in the three movies that the book covers. Be it the lifting of beer barrels like Zishe of Invincible or the running around during the shoot of Cobra Verde or even the interaction with his actors, one can easily see how this conviction in the physical realm is very important for Herzog when he films something.

The Arte Edition intersperses these photographs with prose and anecdotes written by people who have lived and worked with Herzog. There is Lena Herzog’s short yet fantastic section “Werner” that tells about the minor incident that sprang up (two years after Fitzcarraldo hit the screens) when the couple were shifting houses. Apparently, the guys from the moving company – The Starving Students Movers – upon seeing the couple’s names on the front door asked if they had to move a boat! Then there is playwright Herbert Achternbusch’s bizarre write-up “In the Beginning was the Word” about his reverence for Herzog for the way his life has shaped up. And then there is Peter Berling’s articulate section “Memories of Working with Werner Herzog” that recapitulates his experience during the shoot of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). But all these essays play second fiddle to the paradisiacal images that occur regularly in the book.

This is the only photo-book I’ve read – based on cinema or otherwise. So I can’t exactly say how this one fares in comparison to similar books based on other celebrities. If you really want to know about the director and his methods, this is clearly not the book for you. However, if you want to program a cinema event of sorts based on Herzog’s films or to be the ultimate fanboy of the director or just to decorate your film library, this one might be a very good option. Oh, I haven’t given you the killer yet. This coffee-table book is generally priced at $35. In view of the exhibition and the subsequent retrospective, the Embassy offered the book for $3. Now that’s what I call a steal!

 
Verdict:
 
P.S: Thumbnails of some of the pictures here at Kinski’s site.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Werner Herzog
German

“It’s only the dreamers who ever move mountains”

 

FitzcarraldoIf the judgment criteria for a film included the way it was made and the circumstances under which it was pulled off, Fitzcarraldo (1982) perhaps would rate as the best movie ever made. The Reason? Take a look at the outstanding documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo – Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) – and see if you can believe it. Watching the making of Fitzcarraldo is like watching Picasso paint in Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956) as we practically witness the work of art take shape through an array of improvisations and brainwaves and burst out into its moment of glory. One begins to wonder if the final product alone is sufficient while assessing an artist or if the tools and means of its creation should be considered too.

I may sound like appreciating the making of the film more than the film itself. But that in no way takes the credit away from Fitzcarraldo as a standalone piece. Some consider it as Herzog’s best film. Clearly, it is up there with the likes of Stroszek (1977), Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and a few others. Fitzcarraldo follows the titular character’s larger-than-life quest to harvest rubber from a practically isolated plantation in order to make money to build an opera house. The central activity involves the towing of a gigantic ship from one Amazonian tributary onto another with the help of the supposedly savage natives. The story and the one behind it are legends by themselves and I would like to just add whatever we see on-screen is indubitably autobiographical – not in the physical sense, but the emotions underneath.

Fitzcarraldo is clear evidence that Herzog has this natural inclination to stage operas. Even though he would argue against bringing ideas of opera into cinema and vice-versa, Fitzcarraldo comes out as a grandly staged opera with its own exhilarating crescendos and chilling decrescendos. Herzog direction percolates into as far as his locales that seem to have taken a demonic life of their own. The ever-shocking Kinski in tandem with that element of Herzogian mystery are sure to haunt you long after the film has ended.

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (1972) (aka Aguirre: The Wrath Of God)
Werner Herzog
German

“I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I’ll found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.”

 

AguirreAt the time when Rainer Werner Fassbinder was churning out a film in every two or three months, his contemporaries had to struggle to make a mark on the international arena. Things weren’t any better for Werner Herzog, a budding director just two films old… Read More