Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Madness of Werner Herzog

I realized tonight as I tried in vain to describe the plot of Aquirre, der Zorn Gottes (or, Aquirre, the Wrath of God) over dinner to my dear friend Cassandra, that Werner Herzog has become one of my personal heroes.

For those unfamiliar, Herzog was born Werner Stipetić in 1942. Although his parents were Croatian, Werner was born in Munich and after his father abandonned him and his mother shortly after returning from WWII, she and Werner moved to Austria. At the age of 12, Herzog moved to back Munich and shared an apartment with Klaus Kinski. He said, "I knew at that moment that I would be a film director and that I would direct Kinski."

Embarking on a film career with a stolen camera and working nights as a welder, Herzog went on to direct some of the finest films of the last three decades, and to become a major player (if not the player) of German New Wave Cinema. While his films have won many awards and been recognized in many ways, he is perhaps best known in the states as the director of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.

I was fortunate enough to see Aquirre, der Zorn Gottes in a TAG class I took in the 9th grade called "Film Criticism and Techniques." It was the first film class I ever took, and to this day, it remains the best film class I ever took. Aquirre was the first film assigned to us. After a struggle to locate a copy in Roswell, Georgia, my mother finally found one at a Blockbuster in downtown Atlanta. Home sick one day, I decided I would do some schoolwork by watching the movie. By the time it had ended, I was more ill than I had been and ended up taking another day off class.

For those of you who have seen Aquirre you know that it is not just a film about an insane meglomaniacal conquistadore set loose in the Amazonian jungle in search of gold. The film is also famous for the story behind it, and the lengths to which the cast and crew had to go to complete it. The first of five films Herzog would make with his best friend and arch nemesis Klaus Kinski, the incredible stories about the making of Aquirre that have since surfaced are endless. Kinski was a complete lunatic, ranting and raving during the entire process about the elements, scaring the hell out of the extras (who were natives of the area) and at one point firing a gun into a crowded hut which resulted in the loss of a crewman's finger. But the most insane story is supposedly, when Kinski threatened to leave the shoot out of frustration and anger at Herzog, Herzog threatened him with rifle, saying, "If you turn around and walk off this set, before you reach that boat I will put a bullet through your head." To which Kinksi replied, "You wouldn't dare." Herzog, steadying his aim simply replied, "Test me." Kinski finished the shoot.

Since then that story has been rebuked by Herzog in interviews. He claims it never happened. But I like to believe that it did. And certain extras have testified that they witnessed it.

As if that little ditty weren't enough, Herzog would go on to make Fitzcarraldo again working with Kinski, the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who dismantled and carried a 30 ton steamer over an isthmus so as to not lose time in a shipment of rubber. Herzog, in his insanity, decided to adapt Fitzgerald's story, except in Herzog's version the boat weighed 320 tons at three stories tall and remained intact as it was pulled over the isthmus (which in Herzog's case, of course, becomes a mountain). Yes, ladies and gentleman, Werner Herzog made a movie about an incredible feat but he made his movie even more unbelievable when he literally filmed this even larger boat being pulled over a mountain without special effects. In addition to this complete and utter insanity, Herzog insisted on shooting from inside the ship as it crashed through perilous rapids, endangering his life and injuring three crewmembers. All of this and more is documented in Herzog's film about his relationship with Kinski called, appropriately, My Best Fiend. I highly recommend it.

The madness rages on.

Once, Herzog bet a young American film student he would never finish his film. As incentive, he said, if you finish your film, I will eat my shoe. The two sealed the deal and the film student, Errol Morris, went on to complete the film in question, Gates of Heaven. True to his word, Herzog hired a French chef to cook his boot, and sat down and ate the entire thing with a fork and a knife. The event is documented in Les Blank's film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

In 2005, as he was conducting an interview for his documentary Grizzly Man outside the theater, a sniper opened fire on Herzog. He simply said, "someone is shooting at us." He was hit by one of the pellets, which turned out to be plastic. The interviewer (who was from the BBC) understandably moved to end the interview. Herzog brushed himself off and insisted that they continue.

Recently, Herzog published a small book which he claims is his journal from 1974, when, upon hearing that his mentor, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was dying from cancer, he simply walked out of his house in Munich and walked all the way to her house in Paris (a distance of over 500 miles) because he claimed he knew that if he walked to see Lotte she would not die. Lotte did in fact live eight more years after Herzog's visit.

I have come to the conclusion that Herzog's films, Aquirre in particular, were the first films I ever saw that made me realize that film could have an intense physical and emotional effect on its audience, almost as if the director had intended the experience of viewing the film to be tortorous. Knowing more about Herzog I know that there is no "almost" involved. The intention is purely torture. And I thank him for opening my eyes to an entire world of cinema that I would not have developed an appreciation for if I had not seen Aquirre at age fifteen.

I will leave you, then, with a quote, from a complete madman who I admire for his endless, manical dedication to his art.

"[On Fitzcarraldo the investors] said to me, 'Well how can you continue, can you . . . do you have the strength, or the will, or the enthusiasm, or so . . . ?' And I said, 'How can you ask me this question . . . it is . . . if I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that: I live my life or I end my life with this project.'"


clara said...

thanks for this overview of/tribute to herzog's work! i keep hearing his name, and i did see grizzly man, but i've never had a broad understanding of all the acclaim surrounding his name.

i'm going to put both Aquirre and Fitzcarraldo in my netflix queue now!

m said...

verner herzog is a crazy person. also: entertaining.

this makes me wonder when the next criterion showing is?

Snobber said...

oh my pleasure. if i can bring more herzog into your life, then i've done my job.

em, it's thursday night, didn't you get my e-mail?