Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

Germanic Episodes

The world of filmmaker Werner Herzog

A. S. Hamrah


Scenarios:

Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Every Man for Himself and God Against All; Land of Silence and Darkness; Fitzcarraldo

by Werner Herzog

translation by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg

Univ Of Minnesota Press

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“This animal sleeps its whole life away. It’s never really awake.” The Spanish conquistador and mutineer Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) thus describes a sloth in the 1972 West German anti-epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The same lethargy cannot be ascribed to the film’s director. Werner Herzog’s unceasing activity as filmmaker, author, lecturer, world traveler, actor in other people’s movies, and rescuer of strangers on the highway makes the paltry accomplishments of other human beings look inadequate and lazy by comparison. He gives the impression of a tirelessness that does not allow for rest, of any kind.

As Herzog catalogues man’s inhumanity to man and nature, he seems to peer nonstop into the abyss—Into the Abyss, in fact, is the title of one of his recent documentaries. The last scene of Aguirre—with Kinski adrift on a raft in the Amazon, a conqueror of nothing—is the quintessential Herzog synthesis, combining vainglory, cruelty, and madness. Those are the coordinates at which Herzog geolocates humanity. In the end, he seems to say, we will alienate everyone with our mania and our crimes, and then drift into a sea of nothingness, beset by spider monkeys.

Yet Herzog’s films somehow buoy us. Their coming-into-being, the fact that he made them at all, is a challenge to the entropy they describe. If Herzog’s persona has eclipsed his filmmaking accomplishments, it is largely because we now inhabit a world in which the actual achievement of grand, worthwhile ambition seems impossible. To gently and lovingly mock him cuts him down to size. Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, in which Blank interviewed Herzog on location in Peru while Herzog was making Fitzcarraldo, is the standard-bearer for making-of docs, but it gave audiences the definitive dour, gloomy Herzog, a German in a rugby shirt, khakis, and white Adidas sneakers pronouncing on risk, death, and the indifference of the universe.

“Nature here is vile and base,” Herzog tells Blank. “I would see fornication, and asphyxiation, and choking, and fighting for survival, and growing, and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.” If Herzog overstates, his intensity is effective. “We, in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle,” he continues in Burden of Dreams, “we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel.” To drive home this experience of insignificance in the Amazon, Herzog eventually published his diary of the making of Fitzcarraldo, which he called Conquest of the Useless.

Herzog, of course, did manage to drag a three-hundred-ton steamship over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo, proving that his worldview was effective as more than just rhetoric. That film came out after other ambitious films had helped end a period of serious, self-consciously heroic auteur cinema. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) are notorious examples (Coppola’s film was influenced by Aguirre).

Maybe Herzog replaced Wagner’s Die Walküre with Bellini’s I puritani in Fitzcarraldo because Apocalypse Now had beaten him to the punch. In any case, it was a wise choice given the film’s theme of one man’s work ethic conquering nature before he loses what he’s gained in favor of art. In the 1980s, producers turned away from grand projects like these in favor of studio-controlled blockbusters, keeping the scale without the vision. Herzog’s films resisted the meddling of producers by the way they were made. In the ’70s and early ’80s, before the digital age, producers couldn’t send notes into the jungle.

Nor could they have controlled Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s on-screen alter ego, a raving maniac on set and in his personal life. Kinski’s existence (he died in 1991) as an actor and as what is now called a “public figure” made Herzog look sane and reliable. Herzog’s documentary about Kinski, My Best Fiend (1999), memorializes their collaboration over five films, during which the two men were often at each other’s throats. Kinski called Herzog “the llama killer” for the unsafe conditions on his remote film sets, but it was Kinski whom the native bit players and extras wanted to kill.

The new book Scenarios collects the treatments (these are short narratives, not screenplays) for Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo along with those for Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)and Every Man for Himself and God Against All (1974), which was originally released in American theaters as The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser and then on home video as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. That film reminds us that the nonactor Bruno S. was as much Herzog’s alter ego as Kinski. In Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Bruno S. plays an adult foundling in nineteenth-century Germany, a young man who has been kept in a cell his entire life. When he is released, he is a total blank slate, a man who knows nothing, has had no experiences, and to whom all human activity is strange and alienating. Bruno S., possibly autistic and definitely a victim of childhood trauma, was a street musician Herzog sought out after seeing him in a short documentary. “Why is everything so hard for me?” asks Bruno S. as Kaspar Hauser (“his mind completely engrossed in realms of twilight,” says the director). Kaspar is Herzog in the raw, a character who could easily ask, as Herzog does in Conquest of the Useless, “Has anyone heard rocks sigh?” It is this Herzog we should remember whenever he signs the back of a check from AT&T or American Express to fund another film, just as Kaspar Hauser was forced to learn to sign his name by the “Unknown Man” who held him captive in Every Man for Himself and God Against All.

Click to enlarge

Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo, 1982.

When Herzog takes a stroll down Main Street, USA, he ends up making something like Stroszek (1977), also with Bruno S., the film Ian Curtis watched before he hanged himself. In Stroszek, which Herzog shot in Wisconsin and North Carolina, he reduced life to the repetitive circular movements of automata—chickens on display in arcades dance and play miniature pianos, a truck without a driver goes around in circles until it catches on fire. With its insistent look at lower-class degradation within the American landscape, Stroszek seems to recapitulate and combine, and then pulverize, the recurrent obsessions of Herzog’s New German Cinema rivals, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. In Stroszek, Herzog reduced his themes and the themes of his contemporaries to a zero of triviality, pitting his obsessions against American banality.

Despite Herzog’s self-awareness, cutting his pretensions down to size is an American pastime dating to the release of Fitzcarraldo. In 1983, the novelist Cathleen Schine wrote a parody of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo diary for the Boston Phoenix. In her version, Herzog makes a film about a man obsessed with bringing professional hockey to Westport, Connecticut. To fund his dream, he will drag a commuter train fifteen miles between two towns. “There is no hockey in this place,” writes Schine’s Herzog. “If there were hockey here, it would be wanton, monstrous hockey. . . . There are no butterflies in this place, only moths. There are no flowers, only pollen. No joy, only death and chaotic sneezing.” Such swipes at Herzog continue. The Twitter account @WernerTwertzog adopts Herzog’s persona to deliver reflections such as this: “Jello is made of pulverized animal bones. Shots made from it are memento mori.”

One of Herzog’s most recent documentaries, last year’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, was produced by NetScout, a software developer. The star-driven feature films he makes these days with Nicole Kidman and James Franco are barely released in the US. Nonetheless, the indefatigable Bavarian auteur soldiers on, a Thomas Bernhard who has made peace with a shrinking world. He lives in Los Angeles now, but he once walked from Munich to Paris because he thought doing so would save the life of Lotte Eisner, the German film historian and critic, who was ill at the time. Herzog completed that journey, Eisner lived another nine years, and he published a diary of his cross-continent trek, called Of Walking in Ice. When he’d passed through the town of Sontheim, Germany, Herzog had written, “Spending the night is going to be difficult, the area is bad. Industry, smells of sewage, silo fodder, and cow dung.” A German Romantic but also a realist to the core, Herzog knows that epic journeys stink. He makes them because, as he told Les Blank in Burden of Dreams, “We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be cows in the field.” The sentiment calls to mind the sights and smells of his earlier trip more than what he found in the Amazon. In his films, as in his life, Herzog has crisscrossed vast distances to avoid bovine complacency and its associated stench.

At fourteen pages, the transcriptions from the documentary Land of Silence and Darkness barely qualify as a scenario. Made the year before Aguirre, this disturbing, heart-wrenching film is one of the prime examples, with Fata Morgana, of the kind of unconventional documentaries Herzog was making at the time. This film about people who are both blind and deaf does without the murky grandiosity of Herzog’s Amazonian films. The deaf-blind in Land of Silence and Darkness can’t see the plants and animals around them. At a petting zoo or a botanical garden, they can touch the spines of a cactus and feel the hair of a goat or a deer, but their relationship to other forms of life is tender, not exploitative, as it often is in other Herzog films.

The phrase “out of touch” reclaims its original meaning in Land of Silence and Darkness. Isolated by their condition, even when sitting right next to someone else, the deaf-blind might as well be thousands of miles away from any other person. Out of disgust with sentimentality, Herzog gave many of his other films from this period a harsh and unflinching quality. In Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog found subjects who allowed him to be poignant. The trade-off was that they also had to allow him to present the human condition as opaque and impenetrable. He says of the deaf-blind, “What they understand as ambition, hope, or happiness will always be a mystery to us.”

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1.

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