Bright Lights Film Journal

Hearts of Darkness, Lights of Madness: Herzog: The Collection (16-Film Blu-ray Collection)

I decided to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence, and truly it’s been a long, soul-warping, awe-inspiring yet deeply troubling, at times maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.

The story of Brando and Francis Ford Coppola colliding in the Philippine mud making Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Hollywood myth and true cautionary tale: Coppola lost his fortune, sanity, and filmmaking genius (even he admits it) as shooting delays led to typhoon season washing away sets, real-life rebel activity stealing helicopters, Martin Sheen having a heart attack, Dennis Hopper gibbering like an incoherent coke fiend, and most of all – Marlon Brando arriving late, overweight and befuddled, earning millions just to come down there and admit he couldn’t be bothered to read Conrad’s short story or even the basic outline of the script. And this fat befuddled mumbler was supposed to top the plethora of already-witnessed madness.

Brando’s unpreparedness and all the other disasters making the film took years off Coppola’s life, and his film choices have tended toward the safely set-bound ever since. Never in a million years would he work with Brando again, let alone bring him to another green inferno for Apocalypse Now 2. Werner Herzog’s choice to work with his Kurz, Klaus Kinski, no less than five times, is indicative of a personality that would have thrived in the madness that consumed Coppola. Kinski starts at the destination Brando couldn’t quite reach. Still, it would take a strangely masochistic filmmaker, one for whom the miseries on the set of Apocalypse Now would be a welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German “sanity,” to work with an erratic maniac like Kinski more than once.

In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)their first collaboration and the film that put Herzog on the mapas a wayward conquistador searching for El Dorado, Kinski doesn’t just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the king himself and sails ever onward, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys. While the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, he’s making friends with the insects, practicing camouflage by imitating the movements of wind through the fronds. His giant frog eyes dilating and seething and lolling back like a tide of bipolar narcissism, Kinski is eternally a-trip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex. A genuine psychopath, Kinski is truly magnetic, tragic, and terrifying; it’s almost like he can see us watching him from across time and media formatting.

And now, thanks to Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog’s existential sanity and Kinski’s foam-at-the-mouth madness colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind: Herzog: The Collection gives us 16 films (on 13 discs) on stunning Blu-ray, covering a 30-year period – from his black-and-white cult slice of mayhem Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to 1998’s My Best Friend, Herzog’s documentary about his five films with Kinski (all of which are included in the set), a 28-year-spanning Götterdämmerung of low-key brilliance, including fictional films, documentaries, and cinéma vérité semi-documentaries. It’s also one of the most well-constructed sets I’ve ever seen – no annoying slipcases or crackable plastics – all beautiful thick pages with the DVDs fitting perfectly within thick paper pages. The dark natural images perfectly capture the moody existentialism and Germanic emotional peaks and crevasses of Herzog’s style, the intentional blurring of the line between documentary reality – with himself onscreen as narrator and shaper – and historical or other fiction. And each fiction movie is likely to be half a documentary of its making, its own DVD extra in a matter of course. The lush tropical green photographs that bleed the margins reflect this bleeding over between documentary and fiction in his best work.

Maybe you’ve seen some dusty PAL or VHS, but these Blu-rays are a whole different world; we can now make out every blade of grass and every dirty fissure in Kinski’s extraordinarily expressive, madman face. Challenging, maddening, sometimes downright boring, watch them all and feel your senses slow and widen and dilate to better behold God’s all-seeing blindness. And through five classic films, Kinski’s willingness to throw himself off the cliff of his own sanity at the drop of a hat provides the perfect orbit for Herzog’s implacable grounded sanity, his gentle insistence and seemingly inhuman patience. These films set the mood for the documentaries and other films – including several with his other star, who also needed hours of screaming before he could work successfully, the super-tragic Bruno S., including 1974’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (a true story of an abused man with eerie parallels to Bruno S.’s own dark childhood of beatings, institutions, and Nazi experiments), and Stroszek (1977). According to imdb:  “He was very difficult to work with, though, sometimes needing several hours of screaming before he could do a scene.”1 If anyone was going to be able to work with him, Herzog’s the man.

Needless to say there are copious extras that dovetail into the films themselves in ways unique to Herzog, and maybe Godard. (My Best Friend is practically a DVD extra for the five Kinski movies included). DVD commentary tracks (some in German and not always with subtitles, alas) and extras add to the self-reflective post-modern sense of dreaming and waking up beyond normal waking.

Two more locally filmed masterpieces with Kinski followed one after another in 1979: Wocyzek is a far more effective horror film for my money than Nosferatu, which seems airless and claustrophobic, with Herzog unwilling to abandon his beloved docu-realism and finding settings to expand on the expressionism the tale so clearly demands (and Kinski’s snake fangs are just goofy). Nosferatu was shot on location in Bavarian and Romanian towns where years of whitewashing have preserved the slate walls of old cottages and town houses and castle interiors but given them a dead museum air. But there’s none of that when Herzog is outside Europe. Put the man on European soil and he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts atop dislikable German faces and costumery apparently borrowed from some closed stage play from the 1930s. But Isabelle Adjani (below) is a great expressionistic Mina in Nosferatu – with her darkened eye rings and pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of – not Murnau’s original, but Cabinet of Caligari or some ancient lost Fritz Lang Mabuse.

Having previously only seen Aguirre and Nosferatu of Herzog’s fictional works, and having found nearly everything he’s done to be boring at least in parts, I decided to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence, and truly it’s been a long, soul-warping, awe-inspiring yet deeply troubling, at times maddeningly boring, 25+ hours of jungles and paranoia. Sometimes opening out on vast expanses, sometimes shrinking into claustrophobic tedium best endured with one eye on a cell phone. I’ve always been put off by some of Herzog’s more jokey titles, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, not to mention the subject matter, the former seeming exploitative, the latter masochistic (as an ex-POW recreates his tortures on location in moments recalling William Devane’s demonstrations to his wife’s boyfriend in Rolling Thunder) and yet at the same time boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Dwarfs could pass for something by Alejandro Jodorowsky or a drunk Buñuel.

But Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot ever to escape his captors and be rescued in all of the Vietnam war. Shot down over Laos and held prisoner for two years, suffering terrible tortures at the hand of the Viet Cong until he made a great escape through the uncrossable jungles, with Herzog in tow, Dengler revisits the locations, and in one great scene puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer, the look in that guy’s eyes is so profound it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. A bit like Herzog himself fused with William Devane in Rolling Thunder, Dengler is a bit larger than life via his sheer gratitude to be free and continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors.

As Herzog’s camera follows, Dengler talks us through his ordeal in modulated perfect flow of English, cascading over the rocks and trees. He never seems to need to take a breath; it just flows. Through it all, Herzog – bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle – watches and learns of nature’s bloody initiation that opens the gate to wonder, the vision of horsemen angels and Death rolling toward him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching. As Dieter goes on, one realizes he’s a great writer – it’s all facts and re-creations, no wasting time with describing emotions or feelings, and when he mentions his dreams and hallucinations, they’re described in the same matter-of-fact style, and through that one discovers the root of Herzog’s genius. Physical reality is just the eventual manifestation of the unconscious, twisted up as we are, raw and full of mysteries. Herzog eventually did a more dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale, but it’s Dieter that perhaps packs more punch for being such a gentle, forgiving film in image and speech, conveying at the same time such deep horrors and inhumanities on both sides.

Another example of this unique documentary approach is the 50-minute Lessons of Darkness (1992, above), which shows the horrors of Kuwaiti oil fires in the weeks after the (first) Gulf War, the oil blackening the sky and pillars of flame illuminating everything in all directions. He lets the faces of Kuwaitis and the amniotic droning of the music and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration guide our response only, as it were, to the precipice of meaning. At the end, having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, Herzog doesn’t concern himself with getting to the rationale behind their bizarre actions, only narrates them, looking for his own answers to, like all his questions, the nature of dreams, madness:

“Two figures are approaching an oil well.
One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to?
Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content.
Now there is something to extinguish again.”

My own favorite moments in these films all star Herzog himself either onscreen or off narrating, as when he’s driven to deep crazy distraction by the delays and tantrums of his wild-eyed star in the behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Fitzcarraldo (from Burden of Dreams) shown in My Best Friend (1999)or when he goes on and on about the misery of the jungle, how the birds don’t sing but scream in pain, how the jungle is evidence god hates his creations, it’s prehistoric: “There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

I myself hate the jungle, but I share Herzog’s abiding love for the magnetic charisma inherent in many forms of megalomaniacal insanity, for narcissism or messianic complexes in charismatic geniuses are the gasoline that fuels all the great artistic engines. I’ve followed such people off many a cliff, so part of me admires the way Herzog never falls in after them, only scales patiently, even tortuously, down the ravine. He never follows the ego so closely he’s burnt when it flies into the lightbulb. Instead, wherever he goes Herzog makes friends with the locals. He gets the Hovitos of Peru to act in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, and the Aborigine elders to deliver stunning work in Where the Green Ants Dream (below), a kind of Last Wave of the outback, starring Bruce Spence as a geologist who comes to fall in with the mystic moods of the Aborigines blocking his mining encroachments on their sacred spot, home of the green ants, of whom Herzog makes a great image parallel with the inscrutable movements and stillness of the elders, as few but the “out there” directors have successfully done (Peter Weir in Last Wave and Nicolas Roeg in Walkabout). But only Herzog seems so removed he doesn’t even condemn the white encroachers, but illuminates the roots of the British Commonwealth, their own mythology, of the ancient principles of land ownership declared by the first settlers. At least they try to appease and be as fair as possible, with the Supreme Court doing its best to incorporate the tenets of Aborigine dreamtime into valid testimony.

Perhaps this is Herzog’s rarest gift, the kind of instant rapport only anthropologists and true artists have, the freedom from judgment and condemnation, the roots of our own collective downfall. Artists like Herzog are creatures out of time, in the end, able to bridge the chasm between white settlers and the indigenous populations, one smile at a time.

Maybe this patience and sympathy has something to do with being German, a country after all, that was one of the great losers in the European colonizing of the third world. When the lines were drawn after the First World War and then the Second, the English kept most of their colonies, the Dutch had their South Africa, the French North Africa and Papa New Guinea, and the US got Hawaii and any undeclared country they could CIA topple, and Germany got nothing. That hurt at first, but it’s led to Germany’s great freedom now. They don’t owe the third world anything, no inpouring of third world refugees, or immigrants from lands they’ve pillaged and drained. In fact, they fought the same people – the British, French, and Dutch.

At the end of Where the Green Ants Dream, Spence visits the one white guy who lives in a shanty studying the Aborigine culture and defending it against white encroachment. It’s kind of a trite ending, but it’s key to the German mindset. They may be technically first world, but they too have been trod under heel, know the sting of being a two-time loser, of having walls cut their country in half, of begging for food and scrambling through their bombed-out towns after the dropped cigarettes of rich North American conquerors. Herzog’s narration in the documentaries makes no attempt to understand if there’s a valid reason Dieter Dengler was bombing Laos or being starved by his captors; he doesn’t judge the oil workers lighting the gushing untapped oil back up after working so hard to put it out; he doesn’t judge the mining company finally winning the right to blast the green anthills apart. He doesn’t judge the madness, merely watches with a relaxed curiosity. He is far beyond mere doves and hawks, simple answers. He knows how to recognize any judgment as his own prejudice or that of others; the camera finds its own poetry and truth when free of imposed meaning’s blinders, and in these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet, playing Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Funeral March” along as if he’s a representation of all humanity gamely and measuredly stepping into the pyre, refusing to judge the flame as it consumes him. Get this set, and wade in to there with him. Before the long and grueling march through these 16 films has ended, you will see the darkness after the light at the end of the tunnel, and within that darkness, the heart that Coppola could not catch.

* * *

Note: This review appeared originally, in different form, on the author’s superb blog Acidemic. Reprinted with his kind permission.

  1. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0754165/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm []