The International Lens: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (dir by Werner Herzog)


Once upon a time, in 19th century Germany, there was a young man who was known as Kaspar Hauser.

No one was really sure what Kaspar’s original name was or where he even came from.  He was found, in 1828, wandering the streets of Nuremberg.  He carried an unsigned letter with him, one that said that he was 16 yeas old, from the Bavarian border, and that he had been raised by someone who taught him how to read and write and about “the Christian religion.”  The note also stated that the boy had never been allowed to step out of the house before being taken and abandoned in Nuremberg.  He carried a second letter, which was supposedly from his mother and stated that the boy’s name was Kaspar and that his father had been in the Cavalry.  Some people who saw the two letters felt that they had both been written in the same handwriting, leading to speculation that Kaspar may written the letters himself.

When he was first found, it was believed that Kaspar could barely speak.  He knew the word for “Horses!” and he often repeated the phrase, “My father was cavalryman!”  As time progressed, Kaspar’s vocabulary expanded and he said that his earliest memories were of being locked away in a room.  His meals were brought to him by someone who always wore a mask.  Some people felt that Kaspar may have been the kidnapped child of a nobleman or an unacknowledged member of the royal family.  Others felt that he was a charlatan and that he was faking the entire thing.  Briefly, Kaspar was a celebrity as people from around the world wondered who he was and where he had come from.

In 1828, he was found with a cut on his forehead.  He said that he was attacked by a mysterious stranger who announced, before cutting him, “You have to die!”  The stranger was never found and there was even some speculation that Hauser had cut himself.  In 1830, he was found with another wound on his forehead, this time claiming that he had been grazed by a bullet after a gun accidentally went off.  Again, some felt that Hauser was intentionally injuring himself for the attention while others felt that the people who had held him prisoner were again trying to kill him.

Hauser was found wounded one last time, in 1833.  This time, he was found with a deep cut to his chest.  He claimed that he had, again, been attacked by a mysterious stranger.  A note was found where Hauser claimed that he had been attacked, a cryptic letter that claimed that the attacker was the same man who had previously cut Hauser’s head.  By this point, there was a lot more skepticism about Hauser and his stories and it was generally assumed that he had stabbed himself and injured himself worse than he ha intended.  It’s said that when Hauser died of his wounds, his last words were, “I didn’t do it to myself.”  Assuming that Hauser was born when the note from his mother claimed that he was, Kaspar Hauser was 21 when he died.

The mystery of Kaspar Hauser is an intriguing one and it’s one that’s explored in Werner Herzog’s 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  The film sticks fairly closely to the known facts of Hauser’s life.  For instance, Herzog does not show us the final attack on Hauser.  Instead, he just has Hauser tell us about the attack, leaving it to us to decide whether or not Kaspar is telling the truth.  At the same time, the film starts with footage of Kaspar being held in a small room.  We watch as a dark-clad stranger carries Hauser to Nuremberg and, after showing him how to walk, then abandons him on the streets of the city.  Herzog accepts Hauser’s claim that he was raised in a locked room but he leaves it to us to decide why Hauser was in that room and why he was eventually abandoned in Nuremberg.

Kaspar Hauser is played by an actor named Bruno S.  Bruno S. was a nonprofessional and he was 42 year-old when he played the 16 year-old Hauser.  And yet, Bruno S. has such an unconventional screen presence that he seems perfect for the role.  With his wide-eyed stare and his tentative movements, Bruno S. is poignantly believable as someone who is discovering the world for the same time.  As the film progresses, Hauser develops a sharp and cynical wit, all of which Bruno S. captures perfectly.

Hauser is another Herzog protagonist who, because he’s on the outside of regular society, has developed the ability to see the world in a way that no one else can.  While he lays dying, Hauser has visions of nomadic Berbers in the Sahara Desert.  Why?  Why not?  That’s the enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  As in all of his best films, Herzog embraces the questions without trying to manufacture answers and the end result is a haunting film about one of Germany’s most enduring historical mysteries.

The International Lens: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (dir by Werner Herzog)


Take a moment to picture this: Klaus Kinski, drifting by on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.

There’s a lot of memorable scenes in Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God.  However, for me, this will always be the film where Klaus Kinski ends up on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.  It feels like an appropriate fate for Aguirre, the Spanish conquistador and proto-fascist who Kinski plays in this film.  After spending 90 minutes listening to Augirre rant and rave about how he’s destined to conquer South America and how he will always be known as “the wrath of God,” it’s easy to look forward to him being reduced to being a somewhat pathetic figure, commanding a raft full of monkeys.

And yet, what’s odd, is that Aguirre never quite become as ludicrous a figure as you’re expecting him too.  Even though he’s obviously been driven mad and the Amazon rain forest is closing in on him, there’s nothing desperate about Aguirre.  He still believes in himself.  He still believes in his destiny.  He still believes that every decision that he’s made has been the right one.  It’ll take more than a bunch of monkeys to defeat Aguirre!

Filmed on location in South America, Aguirre, The Wrath of God claims to be based on a true story.  We’re told that the film was adapted from a journal that was kept by a 16th century priest named Gaspar de Carvajal.  And while it is true that a Dominican missionary named Carvajal did publish several accounts of his journeys to the New World and while the film itself is full of people who share their names with actual historical figures (Pizarro, Pedro de Ursua, and Lope de Aguirre, being just three examples), the film’s story is itself fictional, though plausible.  This is one of those stories that may not have happened but the viewer can’t help but feel that maybe it should have.

The film deals with an expedition of Spanish conquistadors making their way through South America, searching for the fabled country of El Dorado.  The conquistadors, whio are first seen awkwardly climbing down a huge mountain in their full armor while dragging along cannons and treasure chests, are led by Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés).  Pizarro orders 40 members of the expedition to scout ahead by taking a raft down the Amazon River.  Pizarro places Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge of the scouting expedition while naming Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second-in-command.  The hope is that the scouting expedition will return in one week with news of what’s ahead.  Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.

Aguirre is Klaus Kinski’s signature role.  Herzog, who knew Kinski when the latter was a young actor renting a room in Herzog’s family’s apartment, specifically wrote the role with Kinski in mind.  Aguirre would be the first of several legendary collaborations between Herzog and Kinski.  In Kinski, Herzog found the perfect actor to embody his belief that chaos was the determining factor of the universe.  And, in Herzog, Kinski found one of the few directors who truly knew how to harness his manic acting style.  They were a perfect match and, of course, they often hated each other.  During the filming of Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski reportedly argued so frequently over how Aguirre should be portrayed that Kinski threatened to leave the jungle at one point.  Herzog responded by saying that, if Kinski tried to leave, Herzog would first shoot him and then himself.  It was not the last time that Herzog would threaten to kill Kinski.  In fact, after Kinski’s death, Herzog made My Best Fiend, an entire documentary about their difficult but often worthwhile collaboration.

Kinski reportedly wanted to play Aguirre as a ranting madman while Herzog wanted a subtler interpretation.  Judging from the end results, they agreed to meet somewhere in the middle.  From the first minute we see him, it’s obvious that Aguirre holds everyone and everything around him in contempt.  He hates the other members of the expedition.  He despises the jungle that surrounds them and the river that he’s soon be floating down.  Even when he’s dealing with his own teenage daughter (Cecilia Rivera), he never smiles or shows anything resembling affection.  He glares at the world with distrustful eyes.  And yet, everyone follows him because he seems to be the only member of the expedition who is not intimidated by the river or the jungle.  He promises his followers that they will be kings and that they will be rich and he says it with such authority that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask how he can be so sure.  Even when it starts to become apparent that Aguirre is losing his sanity, he’s too intimidating a figure for anyone to try to stop.  When one member of the group starts to complain about Aguirre’s leadership, Aguirre chops off his head.  (The head continues to talk for a few seconds before falling silent.)  As the film progresses, Aguirre grows progressively more and more unhinged.  By the end of the film, he’s come to stand-in for fanatics through history.  Every dictator, the film seems to be saying, started out as an Aguirre.

In fact, the only things that’s not intimidated by Aguirre is the jungle that is continually threaten to swallow up the expedition.  In typical Herzog fashion, the jungle is both lushly beautiful and also home to all sorts of unseen threats.  As more than a few people learn as they float along the river, stopping to admire the jungle is a good way to get hit by an arrow.  Amazingly, no matter how many times the expedition is attacked by the potent combination of nature and angry natives, Aguirre never seems to get a scratch.  It may be that, in the end, only the insane can survive in a world with no rules beyond random destruction.

Aguirre was Herzog’s first big hit and it remains perhaps his best-known film.  It’s certainly features some of Herzog’s best work as a director and Klaus Kinski’s best performance as an actor.  In the end, you’ll never forget Aguirre and the monkeys.

The International Lens: Even Dwarfs Started Small and Fata Morgana (dir by Werner Herzog)


After making his feature film directorial debut with the well-made but somewhat predictable Signs of Life in 1968, Werner Herzog followed up with two of his most unconventional films to date, 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and 1971’s Fata Morgana.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

I watched Even Dwarfs Started Small a few days ago and it was …. well, I’m not really sure what it was.  This is one of Herzog’s more enigmatic films.  It’s easy to imagine that the film has some incredibly deep meaning.  It’s also just as easy to imagine that the film was Herzog playing an elaborate practical joke on everyone who thought they were going to see another low-key film like Signs of Life.

The film takes place in an institution of some sort.  It’s implied that it’s a prison but it could just as easily be a mental hospital.  Everyone in the film is a little person.  The inmates are apparently rebelling against the warden.  While the warden sits in his office and waits for some sort of help to arrive, the inmates run around the grounds of the asylum and break things.  A van ends up driving in circles with no one at the wheel.  Chickens get into fights.  Piglets suckle on their dead mother.  (We don’t actually see the inmates kill any animals but there’s still a lot of very uncomfortable references to animal cruelty.)  Two blind inmates are taunted by the others.  We’re never really sure who anyone is or why they’re in the institution.  All we know is that their society appears to be crumbling and there’s no help on the way.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

It’s not a very pleasant movie to watch, though I do understand that it has its devoted fans.  (Director Harmony Korine has called it the greatest movie ever made because of course he would.)  You probably already guessed that my feelings about the film are mixed.  On the one hand, it was a very unpleasant viewing experience.  On the other hand, I do respect any artist who sticks to his vision, regardless of the risk of alienating his audience.  Herzog presents a portrait of Hell in Even Dwarfs Started Small and he doesn’t waver from it so I have to give him credit for that.

Incidentally, the smallest inmate is named Hombre.  He laughs nonstop through the entire film.  I have never more wanted to see a random asteroid just fall from the sky and crush one character.

Even Dwarfs Started Small was such an unpleasant experience that, after I watched it, I nearly gave up on watching any more films that night.  But, the fact of the matter is that I love movies and I like Werner Herzog so I decided to follow-up Dwarfs by watching Herzog’s third film, Fata Morgana.  And I’m glad I did!

Fata Morgana

Admittedly, Fata Morgana has even less of a plot than Even Dwarfs Started Small.  For the most part, Fata Morgana is made up of long tracking shots of the Sahara Desert.  Herzog reportedly spent 13 months, off-and-on, shooting footage in Africa.  At the time, he didn’t have any plans for what he was going to do with the footage, beyond perhaps using it to tell a science fiction story about a dying planet.

Fata Morgana

Instead, Herzog edited the footage together in such a way that the viewers feel as if they’re being taken on a trip across the Sahara.  Though the early part of the film features a voice narrating the creation myth of the Mayan people, little context is provided for the starkly beautiful images that Herzog captured in Africa.  Instead, it’s left to the viewer to determine what it all means.

Fata Morgana

The end result is a fascinating film, one that leads you pondering life’s mysteries.  The combination of Herzog’s footage and the atmospheric musical score leaves you feeling less like a viewer and more like an explorer.  Fata Morgana is a film that makes you want to get out and explore every corner of the world for yourself.  It’s also a film that reminds us that, after we’re gone, all of our possessions and works will just be mysterious artifacts for future explorers, like an overturned car sitting in the middle of the desert.  It’s one of Herzog’s best.

Fata Morgana

After these two films, Herzog would direct one of the films for which he is best know, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a masterpiece that was predicted by both the ominous beauty of Fata Morgana and the disturbing insanity of Even Dwarfs Started Small.  

The International Lens: Signs of Life (dir by Werner Herzog)


The 1968 German film, Signs of Life, is a deceptively simple film.

In fact, the story that it tells is so simple and so seemingly straight-forward that I’m sure some people would be surprised to discover that this was Werner Herzog’s first film.  When most people think of Herzog, they think of Klaus Kinski ranting against the Amazon and maybe Herzog himself talking about how he feels that chaos is the only governing principle of the universe.  Signs of Life, on the other hand, is a rather low-key and almost gentle film.  That said, the film does contain several of the themes that would show up in Herzog’s later film.  Even with his first feature film, Herzog already had a fairly good grasp on what he wanted to use cinema to express.

The film takes place in World War II and it deals with three German soldiers who have suffered from minor injuries in the war.  Deemed unfit for combat, they’ve been assigned to guard the munitions that are being stored at an ancient fortress on the Greek island of Kos.  It’s not demanding work.  The villagers are largely passive and, for the most part, seem to be just waiting out the war.  The leader of the soldiers, Stroszek (Peter Brogle), has recently married a Greek woman named Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and she is living with him at the fortress.

The film celebrates the beauty of Kos.  Herzog’s camera finds poetry in the simple sight of white linens hanging out to dry.  One of the soldiers explores the local cemetery and Herzog encourages us to ponder the long history of both the island and the people who live there.  In perhaps the film’s best known scene, Stroszek and Nora look down on a valley full of windmills and the beauty of it is a bit overwhelming.

As would often happen in later Herzog films, the soldiers never quite appreciate the beauty of the world around them.  While the audience is taking in scenes of breath-taking beauty, the soldiers are going a bit stir crazy.  Could it be that, as men of war, they’re incapable of appreciating the peaceful surrounding?  Perhaps but, then again, it could just be the fact that there’s not much to do on Kos other than ponder the mysteries of life and, in Herzog’s films, that often leads to insanity.  Stroszek ends up threatening to blow up the munitions dump but it must be said that, as far as Herzog lunatics are concerned, he’s no Klaus Kinski.

The plot of Signs of Life is largely secondary to the images that Herzog captures.  Watching Signs of Life, you get the feeling that Herzog simply fell in love with the island and that the film’s storyline is just something that he came up with so he’d have an excuse to share that love with the rest of the world.  Signs of Life is an exercise in pure cinema.  It’s not a perfect debut film but, at its best, it shows tantalizing hints of the great filmmaker that Werner Herzog would soon become.

Future Winners: 6 Directors Who I Hope Will Have Won An Oscar By 2030


We’ve looked at actors.

We’ve looked at actresses.

Now, let’s look at directors.

But first, a word about David Lynch.  The Academy gave David Lynch a special award for his cinematic contributions back in October.  It’s not the same as a competitive Oscar but it’s probably the best that a boldly idiosyncratic filmmaker like David Lynch could ever hope to get from the Academy.  Normally, I would list Lynch below.  I’m not doing so this year because, realistically, Lynch has said that it’s doubtful he’ll ever make another theatrical film.  That said, I hope to God that someone gives David Lynch a blank check and allows him to make at least one more movie.

With that in mind, here are 6 other directors who I hope will have finally won an Oscar by 2030!

  1. The Safdie Brothers

The Safdie Brothers deserved a nomination this year for their work on Uncut Gems.  Unfortunately, that film was a bit too anxiety-inducing for the Academy.  The Safdies are exciting filmmakers and I hope that someday, the Academy will realize what everyone who has seen Good Time and Uncut Gems already knows.

2. Sofia Coppola

She was nominated for Lost In Translation.  She deserved to be nominates for several other films.  Sofia Coppola is consistently one of the most challenging and interesting (if often criminally underrated) filmmakers working today.  No other American director captures existential angst with quite the style of Sofia Coppola.

3. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has emerged as one of the most influential directors of the 21st century.  With The Dark Knight, he revolutionized comic book films.  With Inception, he created one of the greatest fantasy/action/sci-fi hybrids of all time.  With Dunkirk, he paid tribute to one of the most heroic moments of World War II.  Every recent film with a jumbled timeline owes a debt of gratitude to Christopher Nolan.  Nolan seems destined to win someday.

4. Denis Villeneuve

Speaking of being destined to win, that seems to also be an apt description of this visionary Canadian director.  Some people think that Villeneuve will be an Oscar contender this year with Dune.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  That said, Villeneuve seems destined to win at some point in the future.

5. Andrea Arnold

You might not recognize the name but Andrea Arnold is responsible for two of my favorite films of the last ten years: Fish Tank and American Honey.  She deserved to be nominated for both of those films.  My hope is that, between now and 2030, she’ll finally get the recognition that she deserves.

6. Werner Herzog

You know it would be the greatest acceptance speech ever.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let us know in the comments below!

 

International Horror Film Review: Nosferatu, the Vampyre (dir by Klaus Kinski)


Agck!  The rats!

Nosferatu, Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the F.W. Murnau’s classic silent vampire film, may be best known for Klaus Kinski’s feral performance of Count Dracula but, for me, I’ll always remember the rats.

When Dracula first comes to the city of Wismar, he travels via a boat.  Spending the day in his coffin, he arises at night to kill the crew of the ship.  (Eventually, the captain’s dead body ends up tied to the wheel to ensure that the boat’s course is not altered.)  In order to keep the people of Wismar from realizing that they have a vampire in their midst, Dracula travels with thousands of rats and forges the ship’s log to make it seem as if the crew has fallen victim to the plague.  When the boat docks at Wismar, thousands of rats flood into the streets.  When Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) later walks through the streets of the Wismar, it becomes obvious that the rats have conquered the city.  The remaining people are too busy burying their dead and preparing for the end to do much about the rats.  One group cheerfully eats a lavish meal while thousands of rats wait behind them.  Later, the rodents have taken over the table.  The people are gone but the rats remain.

Werner Herzog has often cited the original Nosferatu as one of the films that most inspired him as a young filmmaker.  His remake is both a respectful homage to the original film and also a uniquely Herozgian work.  Much as the Spanish expedition at the center of Aguirre, The Wrath of God ended with the raft being conquered by monkeys, the city of Wismar is conquered by both rats and mythology.  Even towards the end of the film, when it becomes obvious that a vampire has come to town, the people refuse to believe it.  Some wait for God to save them.  Some just decide to celebrate the end.  But only Lucy, who we are told is pure of heart, is willing to sacrifice herself for the people of Wismar.  And yet, the film leaves us wondering if that sacrifice would really be worth it.  Are the people of Wismar worth saving?  This version of Nosferatu suggests that perhaps they’re not.

 

Lucy is the wife of estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz).  As with almost every version of Dracula, Nosferatu opens with Harker traveling to Dracula’s castle, dismissing the claims of local villagers are being mere superstition, and then eventually meeting the count himself.  Klaus Kinski may be made up to look like Max Schreck from the original film but he still turns Dracula into a uniquely Kinski-like creation.  Kinski’s Dracula has little of the old world charm of Bela Lugosi or even Christopher Lee.  Instead, he’s like a feral animal, hissing out his dialogue and almost always hiding in the shadows.  It’s been such a long time since this Dracula was human that he no longer knows how interact with them.  Instead, like an abused animal, he cringes when Harker attempts to speak to him.  There’s a loneliness to this Dracula and an unexpected sadness in his eyes.  Asking him to control his thirst for blood would be like asking a wild animal not to obey its natural instinct to kill.  The only time that this Dracula doesn’t seem to be full of self-loathing is when he’s actually hunting blood.  Then he moves like a calculating predator.

As one might expect from a Herzog film, Nosferatu moves at its somewhat odd but deliberate pace.  (Harker’s lengthy journey to reach Dracula’s remote castle will remind you of Klaus Kinski trying to conquer the Amazon in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.)  The imagery is surreal and dream-like.  I already mentioned the rats and the scene of Kinski stalking the captain of the boat feels like it was taken from a filmed nightmare.  It’s also impossible to forget the images of black-clad men, marching down the streets of Wismar and carrying coffins on their shoulders, all ignoring Lucy as she begs them to understand that there is something even deadlier than the plague at work in Wismar.

Both the original and the remake of Nosferatu are classic vampire films.  I suggest watching both.  Herzog shot two version of Nosferatu, one in German and one in English.  Though both versions are essentially the same, I recommend the German version just because, in the English version, it’s obvious the actors are occasionally having trouble performing in a foreign language.  The German version feels more authentic.  Since the film is basically a visual poem, it’s effective even if you’re watching it without subtitles.

 

Film Review: Rescue Dawn (dir by Werner Herzog)


Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) has been obsessed with flying ever since he was a child in Germany.  Towards the end of World War II, while his native country burned around him, Dieter would stare up at the skies and watch the American planes fly overhead and he knew that was not only what he wanted to do someday but also who he wanted to do it for.  Jump forward two decades, to 1966.  Dengler is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, an always smiling optimist who is considered to be something of a wild man.  When Dengler is reported as having been shot down over Loas, his fellow pilots are not only convinced that Dengler survived but that he’ll also eventually escape captivity.  Why?  Because they now Dieter Dengler is not the type to give up.

And they’re right.  Dengler not only survives the crash but he also survives in the wild.  After growing up in the rubble of Germany, Dengler is confident that he can survive anything.  Even when he’s finally captured by communist rebels, Dengler remains optimistic that he’ll make it back home.  When he’s told that he can go free if he signs a statement denouncing the United States, he refuses.  Dengler’s not going to turn on the country that allows him to fly.  Dengler soon finds himself being held in a POW camp with four other men, including two other Americans (played by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn).  The guards are determined to break Dengler but he’s just as determined to escape.  Hearing that it’s impossible to do so only makes Dengler more determined.

The story of Dieter Dengler and his eventual escape from captivity was originally told, by Dengler himself, in Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.  That Herzog saw Dengler as a kindred spirit is evident in the fact that, 9 years after the documentary, Herzog again told Dengler’s story in the 2006 film, Rescue Dawn.

On the face of it, a story about a group of Americans escaping from a POW camp might sound like an unlikely topic for a Werner Herzog film but it doesn’t take long for Herzog to put his own distinctive stamp on the project.  As played by Bale, Dengler is another one of Herzog’s obessessive heroes.  Dengler’s obsession is not just with flying but also with being free.  For Dengler, that’s what being an American means and that’s why he would rather be tortured than sign a simple piece of paper denying the existence of that freedom.  Much as how Grizzly Man portrayed Timothy Treadwell as being a man who would rather be eaten by a bear than live a life that’s been dictated by others, Dengler would rather suffer than betray his adopted country.

Rescue Dawn also centers around another common Herzog theme, the pitilessness of nature.  Watching Dengler trying to make his way through the jungle, we’re reminded that nature will always win in the end.  In Herzog’s world, neither nature nor the universe as a whole has any ideology.  Long after every warrior has died, the film tells us, nature will still be there.  The one thing that the POWs and their captors have in common is that they’re all at the mercy of the chaos of nature.  Just as the jungle threatens to swallow up Dengler and the other prisoners, their captors are slowly starving to death due to a drought.  As filmed by Herzog, the jungle is both beautiful and overwhelming.  Even at the film’s triumphant conclusion, it’s hard not to feel that, for all the planning, Dengler’s escape and survival was due to the random chaos of the universe.  How much can we control and how much must we simply leave up to the whim of nature?

Bale, Davies, and Zahn all give excellent performances and Herzog keeps the story moving quickly.  It’s probably one of his most emotionally accessible films and it’s impossible not to shed a tear at that final scene.  That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s a good deal of controversy about the way that Rescue Dawn portrays Gene DeBruin, the POW played by Jeremy Davies.  The film often contrasts Dengler with DeBruin.  If Dengler is always hopeful and determined, DeBruin is portrayed as being unstable and unreliable.  However, by most accounts — including the one given by another one of the prisoners — DeBruin was actually the exact opposite of how he was portrayed in the film.  Instead of being selfish, he was a source of strength for the POWs and he actually refused to take advantage of a previous chance to escape because it would have meant abandoning the rest of the prisoners.  Herzog has said that he wasn’t aware of DeBruin’s heroism when he wrote and directed the film and that he now regrets the way that DeBruin was portrayed.  (DeBruin’s brother has said that Herzog refused to talk to the family while the film was in poduction.)  Rescue Dawn is a well-made and wonderfully acted film and it’s one that always brings tears to my mismatched eyes but, while watching it, it’s impossible not to regret the injustice that was done to Gene DeBruin.

Film Review: Cobra Verde (dir by Werner Herzog)


Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog were a legendary team.

Klaus Kinski was the infamously intense German actor who was always in demand because of his talent but who was also reportedly impossible to work with.  So legendary was Kinski for his bad behavior that it’s actually been the subject of two documentaries — My Best Fiend and Please Kill, Mr. Kinksi.  

Werner Herzog is the famously obsessive and experimental West German director, the brilliant filmmaker who specializes in features and documentaries about men battling nature.  Inevitably nature always seems to win.

Along with directing the previously mentioned documentary, My Best Fiend, Herzog made five films with Klaus Kinski.  Herzog often described Kinski as being one of his first muses.  Herzog’s obsessiveness found the perfect reflection in Kinski’s intensity.  Together, they made films about four madmen and one vampire.  As much as Herzog sometimes hated him, he also considered Kinski to be a key part of his early success.

Klaus Kinski, for his part, often threatened to murder Herzog.  There’s a famous photo that was taken during the making of 1987’s Cobra Verde.  In the picture, an enraged Kinski appears to be attempting to drive a machete into Herzog’s neck.  In My Best Fiend, Herzog stated that he believed Kinski was just acting for the cameras.  The photographer, on the other hand, states that Kinski was definitely trying to kill his director.

 

(Herzog, it should be pointed out, often threatened to kill Kinski as well.  In My Best Fiend, Herzog tells a story of nearly burning down Kinski’s house, just to be scared off by Kinski’s dog.)

Cobra Verde was the fifth and final film that Herzog made with Kinski.  Reportedly, it was during this film that Herzog decided that he could no longer deal with Kinski’s erratic behavior.  (Interestingly enough, Cobra Verde was made around the same time that Kinski made Crawlspace, the film that inspired Please Kill, Mr. Kinski.)

In Cobra Verde, Kinski is cast as Francisco Manuel da Silva, a 19th century Brazilian rancher who is forced to take a demeaning job with a mining company.  When Silva decides that his abilities are being exploited to make his boss rich, he reacts by murdering his boss and going on the run.  (Interestingly enough, Kinski often complained that Herzog used him to get rich.)  Silva becomes a bandit known as Cobra Verde and eventually finds himself working as a slave overseer on a sugar plantation.  When Silva ends up impregnating all three of his employer’s daughters, he’s sent to West Africa on a mission to re-open the slave trade.  Silva’s employer figures that Silva will either be killed in Africa or he’ll end up sending him so many slaves that the sugar plantation will become the most successful in Brail.

Silva ends up becoming not only a very successful slave trader but also something of a powerbroker in Africa.  He arranges for one king to be overthrown and another one to elevated to the throne.  But, even as Silva finds success, he starts to grow increasingly obsessive and megalomaniacal.  He’s built himself a kingdom in Africa but he knows that, as soon as soon as the slave trade ends, so will his power.

It’s a bit disappointing that this was Herzog and Kinski’s final collaborations because it’s not only one of Herzog’s weaker films but it’s also one of Kinski’s least interesting performances.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  It’s evident what Herzog was going for, showing how a man went from being exploited to becoming the exploiter.  And, even if it’s not Kinski’s performance, he’s still always watchable.  But, when watching the movie, you get the feeling that, on his way to making an important statement, Herzog got lost and the story got bogged down.  Oddly, Herzog doesn’t seem to be quite sure how to get Silva from one point of his story to another and, as such, the film has an uneven quality.  We never get the feeling that we understand what’s motivating Silva.  In some scenes, he’s a cynical but committed rebel.  In others, he’s a comical libertine.  And then, in others, he’s a fanatical slave trader.  None of the different sides that we see of Silva ever seem to come together to form a whole.  Of course, Herzog and Kinski were apparently at each other’s throats during the making of the film so perhaps that explains why the end result seems so disjointed.

And yet, it’s a Herzog film so, of course, there are isolated moments of brilliance.  An early scene where Silva meets a young man in a room illuminated with candles is dream-like and shows that Kinski could be a subtle actor when he wanted to be.  Another scene, where Silva exhausts himself trying to push a boat to the ocean, takes on an obsessively self-destructive grandeur.  Littered about, there are moments of beauty and unforgettable mania.  It may be a disappointing film but it’s still a Herzog/Kinski film, after all.

Scenes that I Love: The Iguanas On The Coffee Tables From Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans


If you’re in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, please be sure to keep an eye out for the iguanas.

Ever since Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was first released, people have debated the symbolism of the iguanas on the coffee table.  Are they just a sign that Nicolas Cage’s bad lieutenant is totally high or do they have a deeper meaning?  Myself, I’m not even going to try to guess.  All I know is that the lieutenant eventually came to appreciate their presence.

Film Review: Queen of the Desert (dir by Werner Herzog)


Last night, I finally saw the latest Werner Herzog film to be released in the United States, Queen of the Desert.

Queen of the Desert has actually been around … well, I was going to say forever but actually, I first started to hear about it in 2014.  It premiered (to less-than-enthusiastic reviews) at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2015 and was released in Germany later that same year.  Originally, it was going to get a wide release in America but then IFC acquired the distribution rights and ended up sitting on it for two years.  (During that time, Herzog went on to direct another film, Salt and Fire.)  Only last month did Queen of the Desert finally get a very limited theatrical and VOD release here in the United States.

Despite all of the bad things that I had heard, I was still looking forward to seeing Queen of the Desert.  Why not?  Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors.  The star of Queen of the Desert, Nicole Kidman, is one of my favorite actresses.  Of course, there was also the Franco factor.  I knew that Queen of the Desert featured James Franco in a small role and, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, y’all know how I feel about James Franco.

Having now watched it, I can say that Queen of the Desert is not the disaster that so many have been insisting.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a great film or even a good film.  It’s a very middle-of-the-road film, one that is too well-made to really be a disaster but, at the same time, is never as memorable as it should be.

Queen of the Desert tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), who abandoned a safely comfortable but restrictive life in turn-of-the-century Britain so that she could explore the world.  In the film, Gertrude falls in love twice and, following the unhappy (and tragic) conclusions of those affairs, she always returns to the Middle East, where surviving the harshness of the desert and exploring the ruins of past civilizations brings her peace and gives her life a greater meaning.

That’s a theme that should be familiar to anyone who has watched any of Herzog’s documentaries or feature films.  The problem is that, as told in this film, there’s no real spark to the story or to Gertrude as a character.  Herzog’s best work has often dealt with people driven to the point of madness by their obsessions.  Think about Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  Think about Timothy Treadwell, obsessively living with the grizzlies until one them ate him in Grizzly Man.  Consider the introverted eccentrics who explored The Cave of Forgotten Dreams or even Christian Bale’s refusal to allow himself to be broken in the POW film, Rescue Dawn.  Think about Klaus Kinski in just about every film he ever made with Herzog.  For that matter, just think about Werner Herzog himself is Les Blank’s documentary, The Burden of Dreams.  Nicole Kidman would seem like an ideal choice for Gertrude and she does a good job with the role but, as written, Gertrude never has that touch of madness.  Unlike Aguirre, she’s not looking to conquer nature.  Unlike Fitzcarraldo, she’s not trying to bring “civilization” to the isolated spot in the world.  Unlike Timothy Treadwell, she’s not even trying to literally become one with nature.  Instead, she’s just someone who deals with heartache by going on a trip.  I do that every time I spend the weekend up at Lake Texoma.

(The real-life Gertrude Bell died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, of an overdose of sleeping pills.  Whether it was suicide or an accidental overdose is not known.  In the film, the circumstances of her death — which seem very Herzogian, to be honest — are glossed over by an end title card that simply informs us that she died in 1926.)

As I said earlier, Queen of the Desert is disappointing but it’s not terrible.  Visually, it’s quite stunning and the scenes of the sand blowing in the desert are often a hundred times more interesting than the film’s storyline.  Whenever Herzog is letting his camera focus on the desert or glide over the ruins of an ancient palace, you can understand why Herzog wanted to make this film.  But, unfortunately, the film keeps returning to a story that’s about as middling as an old soap opera.

Nicole Kidman does a good job as Gertrude but she runs into the same problem that she ran into with Grace of Monaco.  She’s stuck with a script that repeatedly tells us that the lead character is fascinating without ever really giving her a chance to prove it.  (Before I get any angry comments, I know that Grace Kelly was fascinating and I’m sure that Gertrude Bell was too.  I’m merely talking about the way that they were portrayed in their biopics.)  As the men in her life, James Franco and Robert Pattinson are both ideal but Damian Lewis is a bit on the dull side.

All in all, this is not one of Werner Herzog’s best but, with all that said, I’ll still follow him anywhere that he chooses to go.