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Entries in Herzog (4)

Friday
Apr142017

Fitzcarraldo

At almost precisely the halfway point of this film, the crew of the Molly Aida espies a small black object floating down the Pachitea (an Amazon tributary) towards their large white vessel. It is revealed to be an umbrella, the only remnant of an extremely ill–fated mission to the Jivaros tribe, and, one would think, a logical appurtenance to take into a rain forest. The first mate of the ship, knowing the ways of these "bare-asses" (as they are referred to the entire film), selects for his carry-on luggage a much more appropriate invention from that most civilized of Europeans. Perhaps because he understands that, ultimately, mother nature will be the least of the expedition's obstacles.
 
Although the titular character (Klaus Kinski) insists that his name is a lazy indigenization of "Fitzgerald," the story is remotely based on that of a real rubber baron, a ship, waves of overtaxed natives, and a mountain (even Cortés himself is said to have tried such a stunt). His predecessor had the good sense, however, to dismantle the craft before obliging the local tribesmen to do his dirty work. But Fitzcarraldo has no such sense, nor is he really a rubber baron at heart. His passion is and always will be opera, specifically Verdi and more specifically Caruso (whom he travels hours to hear in the opening scene). By becoming rich off the last unclaimed rubber parcel in the region, Fitzcarraldo hopes to build an opera house that will attract the greatest voices from around the world. Yet there are, one might imagine, some very good reasons why that parcel has remained unclaimed. One reason are the Jivaros, plague-ridden for over a decade and insular since the dawn of time. We are told with the opening credits that they await the advent of an alleged messiah, a "great white God." A second is the parcel's location, between two rivers and rapids such as those that actually swallowed up Fitzcarraldo's namesake. The only way around is, well, over a mountain.
 
The allegorical Ahabian elements are certainly present, Herzog does recycle some stock characters (the brooding and mysterious first mate, the drunk and carefree cook, the captain constantly warning Fitzcarraldo of his impetuous folly), and the Molly Aida (Molly is Mrs. Fitzgerald, and thankfully for her, not along for the ride) is a "great white vessel," a bit bigger than a whale, but still comparable. Yet for all his monomania, Fitzcarraldo's quest is the benevolent pursuit of an aesthete. The only things whiter than his ship and his suit are his teeth. When the cook, who is also the interpreter, tells him that, "they know we are not gods," Fitzcarraldo is more worried about his opera house than his own stature. His hubris has a good end in mind, and maybe that will entice the gods to spare him the disasterous fate that should rightly befall such a ridiculous venture.  
 
Much has been made of the difficulty of filming Fitzcarraldo, and, like it or not, both Herzog and Kinski are shackled together in eternal infamy for their parts. That the two Germans overcame their differences and the easy critique of colonialism to make it into, at times, an amazing artistic achievement, speaks volumes about the film's vision, inevitably ratcheted down into the movie poster of Fitzcarraldo pointing at the ship as it heads uphill. But scenes such as the natives' first contact with ice (for which, the cook says, they have no word) really make the film: after holding then sniffing this fantastic object for a while, the puzzled chieftain turns to his people triumphantly. He is on a deck three stories above them and that much closer to these gifts from heaven.    
Thursday
Jan152015

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht

Unexpectedly perhaps, we begin this film in a crypt of mummies. These are not the stoic regents of Ancient Egypt who know they will rule in the afterlife as they have on earth. No, these relics seem to have suffered horrible and painful deaths before their unwilled preservation. They are filmed in ascending age to show that death does not distinguish between old and young. Indeed, apart from their physical size the only differences among these cadavers is the unique agony shrieking across each face. Even the most ignorant moviegoer knows what type of beast has borne the moniker of nosferatu for more than a century, but we are not dealing with vampires. That is to say, we do not believe our mummies the victims of those bloodsucking fiends whose sleekness, pallor, and hunger have catapulted to new heights within the last ten years of young adult fiction (vampirism being an apt cautionary allegory for sexual desire). We will learn, however, that they are and they aren't Dracula's victims. The ageless Romanian Count has become synonymous with a far greater scourge: that of the Black Plague itself.

One amendment: we do not know whether this Dracula (an iconic Klaus Kinski) is actually Romanian or even a proper nobleman. True, he resides in a gloom-laden Transylvanian castle, surrounded and perhaps somewhat abetted by another set of outcasts, the Roma. Yet he is more the shiftless ghost than the dashing Byronic predator who has dominated the innumerable variations since Stoker's novel, imbuing them with sex appeal and courtliness untenable in Herzog's version. As with all first-rate works, Nosferatu's aim becomes clearer in retrospect. Multiple viewings enrich the film because there is so much to notice apart from what actually propels the thin dinghy of a plot forward (a first viewing will also inevitably distract those who have seen the original). So is it with the struggle between Dracula and our ostensible hero, Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz). Harker may have an English name, but he is German in speech, manner, and residence, his home Wismar closely akin to the Wisborg of Murnau's production, complete with canals and Hanseatic primness. Dreams of a giant bat plague his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), who is visibly upset when her spouse announces a business trip to Transylvania that, he snickers, will be teeming with "wolves, bandits, and ghosts." Right before he leaves, they go to the beach where they first met and Lucy confesses that she is overcome by "a nameless, deadly fear." This would all be perfectly acceptable dialogue in any lesser film about impending atrocities, and Ganz and Adjani are, as always, excellent and subtle actors – but this is quite beside the point. What awaits the Harkers is evil, fathomable but unstoppable evil, although not tinged with glamour or seductiveness like so many modern-day children of the night. Herzog has no abiding interest in Gothic romance. His monster simply possesses irresistible power, most evident when Dracula approaches his victims, who can only stare back in horror like snake-bait rodents. There will be no enticement to collaborate with these dark forces, nor will anyone wonder long about the residue of humanity in the Count's soul. That he still assumes the general contours of a human will be understood as more of a convenience than a true reflection of his essence.

Does that mean that Harker is our knight, brazenly determined to thwart a thousand-year-old dragon (Dracul's meaning in his alleged native tongue)? Not quite, or, I should say, not at all. As opposed to other portrayals of Harker, Ganz's law clerk has nothing in the way of charm or elegance in his manners; in fact, all of him screams petit bourgeois (he longs "to buy Lucy a bigger house" even though they have no children and plenty of space). Like his adversary, Harker has only traces of humankind: his role is plain, simple, and terrifyingly banal. He will represent 'life' as understood by a mindless Philistine who has never really lived; Dracula will represent death as someone not allowed to die. He observes that Renfield (Roland Topor), the solicitor who dispatches him to Transylvania and the one person who appears to have been in contact with the Count, is at best mischievous and scheming, and at worst homicidally deranged, but accepts the task anyway for the money involved. Critics have commonly emphasized the loneliness – not so much the humanity as the pathos – of Kinski's vampire, a marvelous deception of directorial genius amplified by Harker's development. This contrast, coupled with the shift from vampiric infection as a means of enlisting an army of monsters to its allegorizing the Black Death, has fooled reviewer after reviewer into believing Herzog wished to portray a more human Dracula "who could not die." It gives nothing away to reveal that, towards the end of the film, Wisborg has been ravaged by the plague, and many of those afflicted decide to banquet publicly with friends and family, living out their last few days in full as an accelerated version of life itself. It also gives nothing away to mention that what Harker experiences in Castle Dracula has nothing of the Gothic nightmare and far more greatly resembles modern horror. Harker's steps become bold because the castle's inside is awake, white, and fully lit, like a gleaming skeleton. Vast cobwebs strangle chairs, recalling the Count's dagger-like fingers clutching at a hapless victim. As it becomes more obvious that he will never escape unharmed, Harker begins a journal to Lucy, whom he cannot reach by normal post. His confessions are tempered by a thick tome he receives in the inn at the foot of the castle's mountains that will also be passed down to her, a text about the whole legend that has become reality. And what is his reality? One identical to what screaming young victims encounter in contemporary slasher films: being trapped in a hideous maze with a madman whose only wish is to make you suffer for as long as your soul and body can endure.

In a very artistic way, Herzog ranks among the most political of directors (witness his turn in the last twenty-five years towards 'real life' documentaries) but his politics do not adhere to any ballot or banner. His champions are neither underdogs nor the gods of genius. What he enjoys is oddity, difference, and originality, even if, as in many of his duller non-fictional pieces, the fine line between originality and triviality is blurred. No one had ever bothered to make the Dracula legend into a severe indictment of life's randomness and meaninglessness, because that is not how the figure lives on in the popular imagination, a realm that Herzog openly despises. Herzog's accomplishment is to take the material completely seriously, without the slightest indication of kitsch (apart from the goofy silence of the gypsies in the inn, although that may be imputed to his fondness for non-professional actors). The fundamental problem of the Dracula legend, however, remains unsolved. No one, as it were, not even Stoker, has ever satisfactorily clarified why Dracula wishes to leave his ghastly ancestral home in the first place. Coppola's gorgeous version suggests the move is Dracula's destiny so as to reunite him with the love he lost hundreds of years before, the love that led him to forsake his faith. But all we find in Nosferatu is death. From the magnificent coffin gathering in the town square, to Dracula's appearance in Lucy's bathroom, to the oddest of scenes, that of a ghost ship sloshing into the canals of Wismar, we have no hope for redemption. Is that why, at one crucial point, we cannot but notice a stone high-relief frieze (a Romanesque carving of what appears to be a Barbary ape) by the fireplace precisely between man from vampire? A very odd form of evolution indeed.

Monday
Nov032014

Herz aus Glas

A casual observer will notice that the average filmgoer's attention span is commensurate with the time it takes for a variegated, exciting movie poster (seen from afar) to be approached and understood (seen at arm's length) as yet another ensemble of preposterous gags. Yes, we are all drawn to the gaudy and outlandish – they would hardly exist otherwise – and that brief moment is enough to lead the more impulsive among us to purchase a ticket, download a song, or enter a store with a mission. In a world filled with near-equivalents, we are naturally attracted to what involves an idealized partner, location, or version of ourselves (no nonsensical psychology classes required to come to that conclusion). Thus the least successful advertising campaign, a staunch effort at sabotage, might boast heaping doses of dreariness, ugliness, and mystification. Who would want to see such a film, and, more importantly, who would want to make it? The same small segment of mankind that can appreciate a conceptual endeavor if the images correspond to the motifs. To wit, if from that murky mystery something profound and artistic can be derived, which brings us to this highly unusual production.

Our setting is Germany and our time is around 1800. These details, we note, are gathered simply from the language spoken and the attire worn; nothing in the way of context is afforded the viewer. We begin with a shepherd gazing at some misty cows, then, much more sensationally, at lush hills that appear and disappear as the mist wends around their girths. When a ruthless cataract becomes the camera's subject, a voiceover expresses some pseudo-philosophical concerns ("I begin to feel the cataract. It pulls me down. Death pulls me down"), yet we are still uninformed as to why we're looking at these nature shots at all. After several minutes in slow preamble, our lens focuses and we follow our herdsmen whose name is Hias. Hias is probably short for Matthias, and the basis for this character, as well as for another character called Mühlbeck, may well be this alleged soothsayer (Mühlhiasl and Matthias Stormberger seem to be separate accounts of the same person), the "prophet of the Woods." Whatever one may think of such folk heroes, if one such figure is the cornerstone of your film, you are interested in neither realism nor straightforwardness. And indeed, once Hias retreats to his herd, he is besieged by villagers who claim they have seen a giant. Giants "break our trees and slay our cattle," they lament. "Did you not," he chides them softly, "pay attention to the position of the sun? Otherwise you would have seen that it was the shadow of a dwarf," which is where our film distinguishes itself from many other allegorical tales. Most films would not have gone the extra step and added "dwarf" (the elongated shadow of a normal-sized man would be frightening enough), yet Herzog underscores that what we are watching is not only a nightmare, but a nightmare destined to come true. One day, dwarfs will indeed walk like giants. But for the time being the villagers face a more immediate crisis: the death of Mühlbeck, the glass factory foreman.

Mühlbeck is never shown on-screen, augmenting his legendary status as the only villager privy to the formula of the red glass, the lifeblood of the village's economy. I should say, the lifeblood of the wealth of the factory owners, an unnamed father and son complacent and paranoid in their mansion as the rest of the town drudges through hand-to-mouth squalor. Upon the foreman's death panic strikes the locals, most of whom are employed in the factory. Protracted scenes of attempted glass-blowing and actual craftsmanship remarkable in their simplicity and beauty are interwoven with the melodramatic worries of the nobles. "Will the future see the fall of the factories just as we have understood the ruined fortress as the sign of inevitable change?" the son tells his pint-sized butler, Adalbert. Yes, the butler is a dwarf, and the son claims he will die if the secret of the red glass is not discovered ("I need to put my blood in the Ruby glass or it will trickle away"). The father, whose laugh suggests insanity, has not left his armchair for twelve years, the last time he put on his shoes and inspected the factory and the outside world. With the image of the factory owners more fully defined, it is not difficult to imagine what is really going on, especially after Hias, renowned for his prophecies, states: "Those with smooth hands will all be killed." What is being predicted is an overthrow of the ruling elite – the means of production has literally changed hands – but the villagers seem to be the last people to know. In fact, it would not be surprising if the events in this little isolated hamlet postdated this notorious period, and Hias's visions were both prescient and things of the recent past.

Many critics have detected in Herz aus Glas not only the advent of the French and October Revolutions, but all the future of mankind. While it is not my place to belittle such assumptions, it might be better to restrict our ambition to the era in question: that is to say, the general upheaval, unification, and democratization of nineteenth-century Germany. As such, we could describe some of the minor characters: the lobotomized exhibitionist who seems to live in a convent; the sexually repressed, destructive maid Ludmilla; Mühlbeck's deaf-mute mother, garbed like a Corsican widow, who sees her son's favorite Davenport sofa torn up and restored as the nobles' search team ferrets around for the secret; the two mates, Ascherl and Wudy, who are told by Hias that one will end up dead on top of the other and decide to drink their sorrows and fears away (every time a beer mug is picked up, we assume it will be downed in one gulp); the endless assortment of clownish and clueless extras, some of whom appear to be wearing lipstick. Who are all these characters? Most of them are parodies of standard figures from German folktales, whose heyday is coming to a screeching halt. It may also help to know that Herzog, in an unprecedented move, hypnotized the entire cast apart from Hias. The herdsman then became the sole bastion of reason and, consequently, slightly aloof and disdainful of everyone else ("If nothing changes," he says to them with disgust, "you think it's a blessing"). Since Herzog has a long and vivid history of casting locals with little or no theatrical experience, it is impossible to determine what kind of performances he could have elicited had his charges not been as sleepy-eyed and sluggish. The film's best scene takes place when the sofa is actually delivered to the nobles' house. "I am excited about this letter," the young noble tells Adalbert. He then requests a letter opener, slices open the sofa as if it were a piece of daily correspondence, finds nothing except springs and padding, and declares, "when a letter's words are scrambled, it makes you think." One would hope so. One also wonders what the young nobleman thinks when Hias whispers: "You will never see the sun again and rats will bite your earlobes." And we haven't even mentioned what Hias does to that bear.  

Saturday
May032014

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

In the morning I read mass and then we descended through the clouds.

                                                                                                                        Gaspar de Carvajal

The folly of many colonial expeditions was exposed well before the last century, where anti-colonial sentiment rightly replaced the silly arrogance of Westerners who believed it their holy duty to reform the ruffians who stalked jungles darker than they could have ever imagined. Throughout history critics, oftentimes silent or silenced, were aware of what was transpiring, an evil so far from God's will that one almost shudders. Now I for one am all for the spread of Good News, provided it is offered and not spoon-fed. Yet more important than any creed or system of belief is the notion that we are all brothers, regardless of what we worship as long as our divinity believes in good, in redemption, and in tolerance. The ignominy of what the Spaniards and Portuguese did in the New World in the sixteenth century needs no summarizing or rhetoric. So we would do better to focus on one of their most preposterous searches, that of the Gilded Man, and the brutal mockery of that search in this film.

Our initial screen shot informs us that what the Spaniards are pursuing, El Dorado, is a myth devised well after their landfall; whether this was clear at the time to the emissaries and assassins of Spain is not ours to worry. We venture into the Peruvian highlands on a jungle march of master and slave, the masters easily being distinguishable by their weapons and skin color. One native carries a wheel; another a crate of chickens; a third leads wild boars on a leash; a fourth is burdened only with the icon of the Virgin. We look upon the animals in consort and know they are no less doomed to die and be consumed than any other member of the party. And when an Inca lies collapsed on the ground out of exhaustion or disease, we know not a single Spanish step will lose its pace. After the march has depleted the expedition's reserves, Gonzalo Pizarro – the conqueror's brother and trusted aide – appoints a new party to head out on rafts, ostensibly as scouts against possible enemy attacks, although everyone seems to understand the assignment as a death sentence. Everyone, that is, except one man. That man is Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a feral blond skeleton of a Spanish mercenary who has little respect for his superiors or the Crown he allegedly serves. When his eyes are not gazing upon his beloved teenage daughter Flores, their glint bespeaks nothing less than mutiny. A complex but typical series of power transfers takes place, with Pizarro's choice for the secondary expedition being a man of some dignity by the name of Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), who also happens to have brought along his radiant mistress, Doña Inez de Atienza (Helena Rojo). Ursúa will endure, even after being shot and reduced to a mute captive, as Aguirre's bloody conscience for most of the film. That Aguirre's conscience and guilt are drowned out by the indigenous sounds of the tightening cage makes Ursúa's participation all the less likely.

For better or for worse, we know precisely what will happen to most if not all of these miserable men. What is odd is that they know it as well. The first raft comes back littered with corpses and arrows, all in close conjunction; a day later the tides wash away rafts and other useful items, so more must be built. Aguirre predictably infects his comrades with ideas of the glory that Cortés attained in Mexico, then anoints a fat and pasty nobleman, Don Fernándo de Guzmán, Emperor of El Dorado – at which point Guzmán's days officially become a matter of whispered wagers. The narrator throughout most of the journey is a Franciscan monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, who flashes piety and goodness but evinces his true colors in a wicked last-act confrontation with an Amerindian couple. And as the only European women for miles around, Doña Inez and Flores tend to each other's grooming and occasionally make the priest think he's in the wrong line of work. As the river flows and the difficulties mount, we regularly stumble across a Spanish corpse. It is one of the nameless minions of the bloated Emperor, and death has invariably arrived in the form of a poisoned arrow – although the bow and archer are never revealed. The arrows fly in from the most unexpected angles, or at least that's what a brief examination of the cadavers would lead us to believe, as if the perpetrators were invisible or suspended behind a cloud. All the while we see and hear the whip of Aguirre's tongue as he urges his troops on, slaps a horse into the water, and generally acts as if the only thing that mattered were the discovery of something in which no one believes.   

A cynic would be almost right in concluding that, in format, there is little to distinguish a film like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (as it were, a self-proclaimed epithet) from any slasher vehicle in which a batch of stupid, pretty people are numbered and destroyed in sequence. Yet that similarity speaks more deeply about the patterns of our nightmares than its engagement in true philosophical conjecture. When you hear Herzog's film labeled as a forerunner to this later work, you may think the comparison valid until you compare Aguirre's quest for eternal life and wealth to Willard's contract killing. And anyway, Aguirre and his thugs may be soldiers, but we are not dealing with war, devastation, or ruin. What informs the entire picture is greed, greed for something that cannot possibly exist, greed for taking advantage of nature in every way imaginable to obtain a treasure that, once found, would probably be impossible to defend. None of this occurs to Aguirre; nothing in his beady eyes suggests any awareness of the fact that he alone cannot keep all this money and all this land. Even when he gets to share his thoughts with the monkeys that assault his craft towards the end, no one pays him too much attention. Not even the people behind the clouds.