Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Werner Herzog: The Pursuit of Madness (Part One)

The first annual Herzogathon, hosted at Studio Six in Bristol, PA on January 1st, was a modest success. Although the turnout was small the response was emphatic. It’s no easy task to sit still and in one place for twelve consecutive hours of anything, let alone the work of a director whose cinematic preoccupations can politely be described as idiosyncratic. But the films of Werner Herzog are unique. Special. His is a cinematic language that transforms a world once familiar and renders it new, alien, bizarre but often awe-inspiring, populated by people better suited for a back-alley slum, traveling circus or asylum than the big screen; a world observed with such a level gaze and reverent sincerity it’s impossible to turn away from once under the director’s peculiar spell. Even those who dislike him never forget having seen (or endured) one of his films.

This sense of the spellbinding is no coincidence. Herzog once hypnotized an entire cast for Heart of Glass (1976), the story about a small Bavarian village whose economy relies largely on the work provided by a local glassmaker and the production of a precious and one-of-a-kind “ruby” red glass. When the secret method to the glassmaking is lost with the death of its inventor the town slowly falls into despair, despite the warnings of a prophet who lives in the hills and implores the townspeople that they must seek a pragmatic solution to their crisis or face the destruction of the community. Herzog believed that by having the cast perform under hypnosis he could accurately convey the sense of mysticism surrounding the reclusive glassmaker and his unique creation, the power of an esoteric craft when introduced to a society unable to understand it and the cult that it can create as a result. He also expressed a desire to have himself appear onscreen before the start of the film to perform the same process of hypnosis used on the actors on the audience. But this, Herzog ultimately reasoned, was perhaps taking the idea a bit too far, even for him.

If there is a unifying theme to the program that was exhibited (other than that the six films shown are personal favorites) it’s the idea of the individual or group driven so completely by the single-minded pursuit of something so unattainable that the mere attempt to attain it leads to madness and extinction. This certain “something” can be a physical object but in Herzog’s universe it’s often ideological; he has little use for the materialistic. Now this is a very general description of a large body of work that is both adventurous and prolific, and Herzog finds elements of his fascination with the megalomaniacal, the outcast and the mad, in many different places. In Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), the first and perhaps most challenging film of the series, a group of dwarfs detained in some kind of institution or forced-labor camp (it’s never specified) rebels against their captors and sets about wreaking havoc and destroying everything within the confines of their prison; the individuals formally in control of this unidentified place presumably have been forcefully overthrown, detained or killed.

Herzog seems less interested in the causes of the revolt in the film than the specific details of the characters run amok. There are virtually no scenes involving the directors of the institution or the display of force and repression that might justify and help us better understand the reasons for the dwarfs’ campaign of carnage. Instead there are extended scenes of stone throwing, plant burning, animal cannibalism and a crucified monkey marched in a makeshift procession around a littered and torched courtyard that make up most of the film’s ninety-six minutes. A passengerless truck endlessly drives in circles and seems to be the film’s central metaphor, an image Herzog repeatedly refers to. Not knowing what the characters are fighting for we’re not quite sure what they achieve, if anything. But perhaps chaos and destruction are what liberate the eponymous dwarfs from a life of oppression and limitation (their final crazed and desperate stand for independence), even if not forcefully imposed by some external authority but inherent in their condition simply by nature of their own debilitatingly small statures. This is a world that has no place for them so they set about making it uninhabitable for anyone (or anything) ever again. The film ends with the main character Hombre, the smallest of the small people, laughing maniacally at a camel unable to stand on its own four legs. Whether paralyzed because of a physical injury or paralyzed by fear we’re not sure, but it’s a painfully sad impairment that Hombre can’t seem to get enough of as the beast towers over him and he very nearly cackles himself to death.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) can be seen (in a way) picking up where Dwarfs leaves off, as a group of displaced people wander aimlessly through a foreign and hostile country in which they are ill-equipped to survive. It is the 16th century and an army of one thousand Spanish conquistadors descends from the mountains (with armor, canons and sedan chairs in tow) into the wilds of the South American jungle. This is one of Herzog’s most striking and memorable images. He opens his film on a cloud of fog, faint and indistinct, and slowly as the camera pans down to reveal the jagged contours of the mountainside, out of the mists walk single-file the members of this doomed expedition, dotted like ants against the extraordinary grandeur of the surrounding landscape. If the dwarfs started small then these adventurers are at an even greater disadvantage: lost in an inhospitable world, they desperately try to gain control of a situation that was hopeless from the outset.

Their mission is to locate the city of El Dorado, rumored to be located in the heart of the Amazon jungle, and claim it in the name of the homeland. The expedition is led by Gonzolo Pizarro, who elects a small reconnaissance team to break from the large group and explore the regions surrounding the Amazon River. Don Pedro de Ursua is chosen to lead this auxiliary team, with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second-in-command. Ursua and Aguirre are instantly at odds, and Aguirre very quickly betrays his secret ambition to be the one in charge. When a third of their party gets stranded on a raft in a whirlpool in the middle of the river and murdered by natives in the night, Aguirre seizes his opportunity for power, successfully convincing the men of Ursua’s incompetence and thus turning them against him. His idea is to set out for El Dorado on his own, seducing his compatriots with promises of untold riches: they will secede from Pizarro’s group altogether and when they find El Dorado claim it for themselves, free from the bondage of their home crown.

Aguirre appoints a proxy through whom he commands with the reliable tactics of fear and intimidation. They draft a declaration of independence, signed by the hapless Don Fernando de Guzman, the titular new king of the future nation of El Dorado. Guzman weeps, but soon enjoys the benefits of his new post. Ursua is hanged, despite being granted clemency by Guzman when Aguirre orders his death, while Guzman himself only survives a few days longer after consuming most of the expedition’s food and abandoning their only horse (an alien beast in the wilds of the jungle and very valuable because it frightens the natives and as a last resort can be consumed when no other food rations remain); an offense that gets him assassinated. As their situation becomes increasingly dire, Aguirre pushes the crew on, driven by greed and lust for his daughter with whom he hopes to establish the purist of royal dynasties. Silent arrows fly from the thick of the surrounding jungle and pick off the men one by one. Most die or simply disappear, but Aguirre remains, steadfast in his madness and fevered dreams of a golden kingdom that is always just around the next bend of the great river.

It is impossible to discuss Aguirre without mention of its star, the incomparable Klaus Kinski. This is the first of five collaborations between Herzog and the oft-rumored volatile actor, and arguably the best. Kinski has the uncanny ability to convey authority, menace and desperation in a single glance, all of the qualities that make Aguirre the compellingly deranged character that he is. When he speaks, it’s often softly as he stalks about his company like a snake that always seems ready to strike but never does. The power is all in Kinski’s eyes, his curious limp and the way he carries his deformed body so that one arm always seems slightly longer than the other. Despite the stories of his over-the-top character and legendary on-set rants, his performance here is surprisingly low-key. It’s Aguirre’s silence that makes him scary: he speaks and acts only when he needs to and when there’s nobody else around to do it for him. It was the poster art for this film that first drew me to it (still one of my all-time favorites) and the shot of Kinski’s face. Having never before heard of Herzog or Kinski the film was an incredible gateway into the extraordinary worlds they created together and their infamous working relationship that eventually became the subject of its own film (more on My Best Fiend will be discussed later in the essay).

In Klaus Kinski Herzog found the perfect instrument for his stories about madmen set loose upon a world they try and recreate in their own images. If Kinski was by definition a method actor, then his method was megalomania. A perfect match. With Bruno S., the subject of his film Stroszek (1977), Herzog plays in an entirely different key. Semi-autobiographical, Stroszek follows Bruno upon release from prison and chronicles his tortured attempt to reacclimate himself to society. The son of a prostitute who abused him as an infant, and in-and-out of various mental institutions for most of his youth, the real-life Bruno S. was a street musician in Berlin like his character in the film (he’s basically playing himself). Herzog first spotted him in a documentary about musicians and hired him to play the lead in another film called The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), or as it’s alternately titled, Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Stroszek, written in just four days, was specifically tailored for Bruno.

It’s not essential to know the backstory of the film to understand and enjoy it. However, like most Herzog productions, the stories about their making are often just as fascinating as the films themselves, often blurring the line between fiction and reality; this has the inevitable effect of provoking the audience to question the validity of what they are seeing. Herzog is notorious for using this approach in his documentary work as well. Not content to simply distinguish between what is truth and fabrication, he constantly mixes the two to get at what he likes to call the “ecstatic truth” of a story, dismissing out of hand the mere “accountant’s truth” by way of banally recounting a list of facts about a person or situation. To continue the music metaphor, in Herzog’s hands the facts are used as notes that are often rearranged, modified or amplified to serve some greater philosophical purpose.

Most of the performers in Stroszek are non-actors, from Bruno’s ancient and frail old neighbor Clemens Scheitz to the pimp Wilhelm von Homburg, who torments him and his friends. The only seasoned performer in the mix is Eva Mattes, who plays Eva the prostitute. Eva and Bruno are friends, and she seeks refuge in his apartment from the seemingly daily beatings at the hands of the “Prince” of Homburg. Bruno spends his days busking in the streets and back-alleys of Berlin. Accompanied by an accordion and glockenspiel, he sings the story of his life. When the trouble later follows Eva home Herr Scheitz, Bruno and Eva decide that their situation is no longer safe and they must flee before one of them gets seriously hurt. Herr Scheitz has a nephew who lives in Wisconsin where they are invited to live. He owns a garage where he works as a mechanic. Scheitz convinces them that it’s a good idea: Bruno can work as his nephew’s helper and Eva can find a job as a waitress at a nearby truck stop. The great new world beckons them and they’re soon off to fulfill the promises of the dream life it offers.

In Wisconsin things barely go as planned. Eva finds a job as a waitress but hardly makes enough money to support the three of them. Bruno is hopeless as a mechanic and instantly falls into depression; away from his home and music and not able to communicate in the new language or express himself in any way he becomes sullen and more withdrawn. They very quickly fall behind on the monthly payments for the brand new 40-ft mobile home they purchase, and unable to understand or negotiate the terms of the mortgage it is soon repossessed by the bank and resold at an auction. Eva returns to prostitution, finding plenty of new business at the highway-side restaurant, and eventually hops a ride with some truckers to Vancouver.

Bruno, displaced and alone, doesn’t know what to do. His performance is haunting because it tragically conveys his worst fears about himself, society and his lack of place within it. Bruno is either out of step with the world, or the world is out of step with him. It doesn’t matter. He has his own interpretation, and when he holds up a small twisted sculpture to Eva and explains his inner torment by saying, “here you see a schematic model I have made of how it looks inside Bruno. They're closing all the doors on him, and oh, so, politely", it’s about as clear and precise a statement as anybody has made about what has happened. Herr Scheitz on the other hand suspects that there is a conspiracy against them and decides to act. Bruno goes along with it. What else can he do? With shotgun in hand they drive to the bank that has taken their home. When they find it closed they run into a neighboring barbershop and hold up the owner for a few bucks. Then they run into a food market across the street where Bruno buys a turkey with the stolen money. The police quickly seize upon the store and arrest Scheitz. Bruno, hidden in a different aisle, gets away

Bruno drives on. With no clear destination he winds up at a bizarre roadside American Indian-themed tourist park. He sets his truck ablaze and to driving in circles (just like the dwarfs did in the earlier film). Bruno hops onto a ski lift and rides it around and around, alone. The movie ends with an image of a dancing chicken, started by Bruno through a coin-activated machine that forces the chicken to hop in place because of a vibrating metal plate at the bottom of its cage. Supposedly the film’s crew was so repulsed by this contraption they refused to participate in shooting it. So Herzog had to film it alone (or so he claims) believing that the dancing chicken was a “grand metaphor” and the perfect image with which to end his film. A metaphor for what you might ask? He’s still not sure.

To be continued…


Editor’s note: Every once in a while, it happens to all of us. We’re sailing along through life, happily pointing out how people can be very rude, selfish and downright dickish when: BAM! We find ourselves acting like dicks. Well, I’m pretty embarrassed to note that, in regard to this piece, I acted like a dick by continuously allowing it to fester on the backburner while its author, the very well-spoken and insightful Mr. Chris, waited patiently and silently for me to post it. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is quite good. I hope that our readers enjoy it as much as I did and that we will see some more of Chris’s writing in the future.


1 comment:

  1. Great article, thanks for writing it. I own a VCR tape of Herzog's movie "Fitzcarraldo." What a movie! It's the only Herzog movie I've seen; I liked it a lot, have always wondered about the director's other films, and am consequently glad to have had the opportunity to read your insights and summations of some of his other movies. Have you ever seen the William Friedkin movie "Sorcerer?" It sort of ties in with Fitzcarraldo, in its theme people on an almost hopeless quest in an forebodingly difficult natural environment.