Lebenszeichen (1968) (aka Signs Of Life)
Werner Herzog
German

“Dammit! This place is full of roaches. They’re not harmful. They are the most repulsive things on earth. They don’t even bite.”

Signs Of Life

German master Werner Herzog has made more than 50 feature films and he is as intriguing as ever. His films, though he has requested people not to read too much into them, have made us raise so many questions about the world we live in. His first feature film Signs Of Life(1967) holds as many questions for us as does his recent Oscar nominated documentary Encounters At The End Of The World. Herzog’s natural affinity for documentary filmmaking shows as he presents the film in a cinema vérité style employing low-lying camera angles and without a soundtrack for most part of the film.

Signs of Life, at first glance, seems like an extension of his short film, The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967), which also followed a group of soldiers trying to take down a bunch of non-extant enemies. Here, Herzog presents us a soldier, Stroszek, who has been injured in war and has been relocated to a quieter place in Greece’s countryside for recuperation. He is put in charge of the defense of an isolated fortress housing 50 tons of ammunition along his Greek wife Nora and two other soldiers Becker andMeinhard. He spends the nights guarding the fort against nothing and the day time lazing around.

This radically new environment has variegated effects on the psychology of the three people who are used to bloodshed and constant unrest in the battle fields.Meinhard seems to rip apart every critter that comes his way and conjures up contraptions and techniques to eradicate the lesser creatures. Stroszek is petrified as he desperately looks for signs of life. He tries to invite a passing gypsy into the fort but is stopped by the probable-misanthrope Meinhard. He looks at Meinhard’s “victims” with childlike curiosity and even goes on to mentally animate the wooden owl that the gypsy presents him. And between these two people is the well-read Becker who tries to adapt himself to the milieu and stay flexible unlike the other two.

In the short film, the soldiers mention that it is an obligation for the enemy to attack and a defensive stance is equated to cowardice and desertion. They say that a state of passivity is just an illusion of peace and a delusory cover for barbarism that is to be unleashed. The soldiers in Signs of Life find themselves in a similar state of mind. They are supposed to guard an arsenal that they cannot use. The town that surrounds them is either made of toddlers or old men. The animals in vicinity are passive insects and lazy pets. Even the landscape is pacific yet carries a sense of foreboding with it. The walls of the fortress they defend are decorated with artifacts resembling human body parts (which may have been real human parts, considering what Becker tells us about the ancient Greeks). It seems like almost an insult to the soldiers that they have to defend the fort against dead partisans and a peasant crowd. And Herzog’s B&W cinematography adds to the barrenness of it all.

Why Signs of Life is all the more surprising is that the themes that would haunt the director and his works in the decades to come not only show their roots in this film but establish themselves with as much conviction as their descendants.Herzog translates his cynical view of Mother Nature and the inherent savagery that it conceals with its beauty using the landscape of the environment and of his characters’ mind that manifests itself through the bizarre acts they perform. We regularly see flora and fauna obstructing our view of the characters as if devouring them. There are bugs flying around he household irritating the soldiers.

It seems like Herzog is suggesting that humans and perhaps even the whole of nature is self-destructive to the core and would perish if not controlled by a higher order. Like the “cannibalistic” chicken in Even Dwarves Started Small(1970), Stroszek seems to be celebrating self-mutilation as he tries to hold explosives in his hand while they go off. This rage for self-destruction escalates to the point where he threatens to blow up the whole town with the stack of explosives under his control. This pervasive need to constantly expose oneself to danger may perhaps be the reason he opens fire at random in the first place. Now, once Stroszek is rendered a threat for the greater part of the human community, it is up to higher establishments of the society – Law and Science – to bring him down and save the town. Is Herzog suggesting that slavery is the only way of survival? Are we all subconsciously Darwinian in the way we tend to trivialize the lives of lesser beings? I don’t know, but Herzog sure does know the knack of both entertaining us and making us think.

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.

Jag Mandir: Das Exzentrische Privattheater Des Maharadscha Von Udaipur (1991) (aka Jag Mandir)
Werner Herzog
German

“Culture in India is a basic life-sustaining force “

 

Jag MandirJag Mandir is a quiet and often overlooked film in the vast oeuvre of Werner Herzog. Apparently, 20 hours of footage was shot that covered the whole fest and the film hardly presents us a twentieth of that. A native walking into the film in between may well fail to immediately realize that it is his country that is being shown and these are figures from the mythology of various sections of his nation. You might take if for a scene from a procession in Thailand or a sketch from festival from Africa or even a snapshot from the gala celebrations in Brazil. Such is the diversity it presents that it reminds us of those clichés about Indian culture.

Werner Herzog’s Jag Mandir begins with an extended take of André Heller giving an introduction to the project (on which the film is based). He recollects his experiences organizing the folk-art festival called for by the Maharana of Udaipur, who the wishes that the succeeding prince sees the artistic diversity of the country before it succumbs to “mcdonaldization”. This is a mesmerizing section and Heller’s monologue contains observations that will leave you ruminating for a long long time. Being a native, I am always skeptic of westerners’ cursory probing of the country and the life-changing-experience it seems to give many. But Heller’s piece, though romanticized, gives everyone something to think about the way we live. The speech lasts for well over seven minutes and dissolves into the titles. Herzog then takes us back to the actual events which unfold without any demarcations between reality and fiction, as always with the director, The greater part of the film presents us footage of performances that run the gamut.

You have classical dancers in unison, street players wielding everything from swords to artificial horses, a man who lifts weights with his eyelids, a woman who balances a kid standing on a ten foot pole on her chin, a little girl who swings blazing torches with nonchalance and what not. It is highly likely the average Indian today hasn’t seen any of these folk art forms. The saddest and the most surprising part is that it looks like many of these art forms and skill sets aren’t seen around in the country today and may even have gone into oblivion without a trace. May be the Maharana’s nightmares have indeed come true.

P.S: Call it an obsession with a man obsessed with obsessions, but you’re going to be seeing more of Werner Herzog’s name on this blog. Trolls beware.

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Ryan Andrew Evans, Werner Herzog

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Documentary category

The Run: Werner Herzog’s name

Encounters at the End of the World

The Grand Inquisition

If there is only one film from 2008 you are allowed to see, it better be Encounters at the End of the World. Not because it is easily the best movie made that year, but because it is so deep in its ideas, so uncompromising in its execution and so shattering in its discoveries. Werner Herzog has been making films for years and his filmography is probably the definitive stop to learn how profound documentaries can be.

As with most of Herzog’s films, Encounters at the end of the world is not just satisfied with the content it gives us. Herzog examines how the film is so important to him as a filmmaker and us as citizens of the earth. But by no way is this a didactic documentary about the “ecocalypse” nor is it about bonding between “fluffy penguins”. Herzog takes up a theme that has always fascinated him – about the nature of nature and the inherent savagery it exhibits. Why is it that some creatures are meant to be slaves and some masters? Why do some beings digress from the rest of their species? Why can’t man leave some part of nature unexplored or mysterious? Is nature like the Schrödinger’s cat that changes when observed? Through a multi-layered approach, Herzog studies how life goes on in the arcane world of Antarctica. There is considerable humour involved when we discover the stories behind the very many faces that have arrived at this edge of the planet. All this only questions us about how much we know about ourselves while we are studying the intelligence of single-celled organisms. “Hearing the universe’s cosmic harmonies through our ears and witnessing the universe’s glory through our eyes” answers one of them.

Encounters is a special film for me as I saw it amidst a Herzog retrospective. The most relentless filmmaker of our times after Godard, Herzog is the best example of how independent a filmmaker can be. Over 60 now, Herzog is everything a traveler, an artist, an adventurer or a roadie could ever hope to be. And Encounters is a gem with the master at the top of his game, as ever.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola
English

“The Horror, The Horror.”

 

Apocalypse Now

The name Francis Ford Coppola has become synonymous with The Godfather (1972). The Coppola-Puzo-Brando-Rota quartet had indeed pulled off what many could not even have dreamt of. But a film released a few years after the lionization of Don Vito Corleone, Apocalypse Now (1979), may arguably be Coppola’s real masterpiece. Fraught with stars such as Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now has the raw power to top the list of best (anti-)war movies.

Captain Willard (Sheen) lies on his bed in the interiors of Vietnam. He is fed up by the war yet is unable to detach himself from it. He tries to vent out his frustration physically. Note that many things here were completely improvised including the mirror shattering. He is called for action by his superiors and learns that he has to go in search of a man called Colonel Kurtz (Brando), who has deserted the army and had taken a course of action on his own somewhere in the neighbouring country. Willard is asked to “exterminate him with extreme prejudice”. Here begins Willard’s journey of discovering Kurtz and hence himself.

Coppola’s masterful use of imagery is at its peak in Apocalypse Now. The film starts with bright light and sparse locales. As the film progresses and as Willard ventures into his own dark psyche, the lights dim and the surroundings descend into thick impenetrable jungles and raging streams. By the end of the film, nothing but silhouettes is visible and Willard has discovered that he and Kurtz are one and the same by now. Though visibly inspired by Werner Herzog‘s astounding Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) in the use of landscapes, Coppola’s work has enough horsepower to be considered a standalone classic. Herzog’s film had a very fantastic setting and contemporary themes whereas Coppola’s is a more Americanized and hostile version rooted in reality.

The film’s relationship with Aguirre does not stop there. Very much like the trouble between the lead and the director in Aguirre (Herzog had made Kinski act at gunpoint!), Apocalypse Now, too, marked the souring of relationship between Brando and Coppola. First off, Brando refused to read Joseph Conrad‘s book as was needed by Coppola. Furthermore, Brando had accumulated lots of flak from the industry for supporting the cause of the natives and hence the Oscar refusal. He had become apathetic towards Hollywood and had become quite irritable by now. The epic documentary Brando (2007) provides some nice insights to the making of the film. Interestingly, Brando refused to share the screen space with Hopper stating that the latter hadn’t had a bath for days.

Primarily, Apocalypse Now depicts the variegated impact of war and violence on the minds of men and how a small perturbation can increase alarmingly into madness. Kurtz went awry, the photographer succumbed to it and Willard breaks away. If it was the mellifluous and grand waltz of Nino Rota, it is the aggressive and unmitigated freedom of The Doors. Right from the first minute with “This is the end”, their soundtrack embodies what could be called the zeitgeist of the 70’s. Master DOP Vittorio Storaro captures the escalating fright and savagery of the protagonist and the environment with equal vigour and provides an unparalleled showdown for this unparalleled war movie.

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.”

 

Aguirre

At 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, with severe restrictions on the funds and large scale noncompliance from his crew. Yet, after all the distress before and during production, Herzog had survived and how. His third film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, is seldom left out in any dissection of the German cinema history. Such was the impact of the film on the styles of the existing legends in the business.

The film is set in the sixteenth century when a large group of Spaniards, along with a army of slaves set out into the interiors of Southern America in search of the city of gold – El Dorado. At a point in their journey, the leader of the group decides to send further just a group of men who whose fate would decide the next move of the group. This team, consisting of Ursúa, Aguirre, his daughter, a team of soldiers and other vital persons, set out on limited resources, with no clue about the perils are about to face. Mentalities change, personal interests surpass the mission objective and savagery becomes the backbone of the agenda.

Each character in the journey has its own motivations to undertake it. The locals are fuelled by greed, the soldiers by fear, the priest by his religious ideologies and Aguirre by his own visions and narcissism. Aguirre – a man swallowed by his own ambitions – does not stop at anything and sacrifices everything for the attainment of the ultimate goal, much like Daniel Plainview of There will be Blood (2007) or Howard Hughes of Aviator (2004). Additionally, there are hints to argue that Aguirre believed himself to be placed in a superior race (a la Adolf Hitler) and it was his responsibility to fabricate a new world – a world ruled by the descendants, purely of his blood, even if that means an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Herzog cleverly lets imagery take the driver’s seat rather than verbalizing the complex diffusion and delirium of the mind. He uses the gorgeously lush yet singularly disturbing jungles and the seemingly clear stream to dictate the inner conflict of the titular character. As the stream grows wild and descends into the thick interiors of the savage forests, Aguirre’s “obsession” escalates into the point of hallucination and even absolute detachment from reality. This innovative style of harnessing landscapes to underscore the characters’ mentality would later be lapped up by Coppola in the extraordinary war epic Apocalypse Now (1979). Redoubling on the power of the imagery, Herzog also makes the film light on plot and dialogues. There is minimal conversation in the film and when it does appear, it makes a tremendous impact.

It is not rare that we see great films being made on a minuscule budget, for it is the fresh minds that bring in new ideas to the industry and are (hence) antonymous to sponsors. Aguirre, too, was made on a very small budget and the devastating filming conditions in the rainforests of Peru did no good. What is, perhaps, more interesting than the film itself is the hilarious and shocking bundle of tales behind its filming that deserves screen appearance, all by itself. Comparisons are unavoidable between Kinski and Aguirre himself and one does wonder how the pair worked for many more films after all that chaos during the shoot. Furthermore, it is stupefying how the team constructed shots such as the final one and the famous “ship on the tree” shot.

Aguirre: the Wrath of God is more of a psychological study of progressive insanity than an event oriented film. Its measured pace and direction induce a kind of trance into the involved viewer that one finds difficult to detach from. Do check out the Americanized version, Apocalypse Now, along with the film if you haven’t. The twin films powerfully complement each other and reveal the influence of internal and external crises on the minds of men.