My favorite film director is Werner Herzog. There is no director working to day with such versatility, creativity, incessant curiosity, and willingness to take risks than Herzog. His early films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Kaspar Hauser, and Nosferatu – are brilliant in conception, design, and production. The first scene of Aguirre where Herzog shoots with a long lens a foot-caravan of Indians making their way down a high Andean mountain, sometimes disappearing in the mist, is hypnotizing. The simple lines of the electronic score of Popul Vuh, his frequent collaborator, are as sinuous and mysterious as the Indian caravan.
These three films have similar quiet, measured, graceful performances; and that of Klaus Kinski as Dracula is a perfect example. His slow, controlled movements; and the ballet of his elegant, long, and tapered fingers are an integral part of the overall feeling of the film. In Herzog’s early films there is no hurry, no quick cuts, no impatience. Dracula’s silent, long seduction of Lucy as she tries to keep him until the cock crows, is a masterpiece of dignity and grace. There is little dialogue in Kaspar Hauser but the pantomime of him in his prison cellar is as brilliant pantomime as that in Nosferatu.
In all three films nature is not a backdrop, but a character in the film. As Jonathan Harker makes his way through the Transylvanian mountains, Herzog films the movement of the clouds for minutes (an eternity in modern cinema). The landscape is brooding, frightening, and warning, and thus adds to the anticipation of and creation of a sense of evil that is just beyond the pass. In Aguirre, the jungle and the mountains are even more central to the story than the wild, eccentric Aguirre, played also by Klaus Kinski. Nature has a similarly prominent role in Heart of Glass, White Diamond, and Grizzly Man. The first, hypnotic scenes are of the rolling of cloud banks over the mountains, and they set the tone for the rest of the film whose actors have all been hypnotized by Herzog.
Kaspar Hauser is the story of a wild child, locked in a cellar his whole life, then mysteriously released at left alone as a young adult by his captor in a town square in Bavaria. It is a beautiful story of innocence, intelligence, insight and humor, following the development of Hauser from that first moment of total ignorance of the world to a wise and perplexed adult, and then to his tragic and unexplained death. The actor who played Kaspar, Bruno S., was chosen by Herzog because he, too, had been locked in a cellar for years. His performance, much of it without words, is expressive, interpretive pantomime. The scenes of him just before release from his cellar, playing with his one diversion, a toy horse, grunting and snorting as he pushes it back and forth, show his frustration, and numbing isolation.
There are many silent, long shots in the movie. One of the most striking is when his captor has taken him out to a grassy promontory, overlooking a misty valley. He has dressed him for the first time and is teaching him how to walk. When the attempt is over, the captor, dressed in a black cape and hat, sits with his back to Kaspar who is lying motionless and exhausted behind him in the grass. The camera is on them for at least a full minute or more – an eternity in modern film. This technique, as we will see below, is characteristic of Herzog.
As he gains words and “civilization”, he is perplexed by what he sees. The scene with the Methodist minister who tries to educate him in Christian thinking is hilarious. The Minister cruelly presents Kaspar with a problem of logic, which he assumes Kaspar will not be able to answer. Kaspar does answer it, but not within the precise bounds of logic. “That is the wrong answer”, shouts the Minister. “It is not the logical answer”. Kaspar turns his head in amazement and disgust.
Although the film is quiet, with little dialogue and much silence, it is never staged; and the bits of dialogue from Kaspar as he is learning language from the young girl in the house where he is staying are hilarious. Most of the actors in the film are non-professionals, but Herzog elicits sensitive professional performances.
Aguirre is the story of Pizarro’s expedition through the Amazon to find the treasures of the Incas. Like Herzog’s other movies, there is little dialogue; but Kinski’s twisted, half-crippled, mad movements and expressions are enough. He and his crew are totallyalone in the vast, dense jungle. The only sounds are the whistling of jungle birds and the movement of water. Aguirre becomes totally mad, and the final scene on the raft, floating down the river with hundreds of rats crawling over it and him is a silent display of Aguirre’s madness and the power of the jungle. One of the most striking and unforgettable scenes of Nosferatu is the scene where Dracula has let loose thousands of rats and they scurry all through the town square as people are dancing, eating, and drinking knowing they will soon die of the plague. Herzog actually bought the rats, colored them all white for the effect he wanted, and negotiated with the town assuring them that he would control the animals.
Nosferatu is perhaps my favorite films, because it brings together all the themes and film techniques for which he is known. The performance of Klaus Kinski is remarkable. There are many versions and retelling of the Dracula myth, and Herzog wanted to make his Dracula very human; and Kinski relates the loneliness of never dying, the sexual desire that is never satisfied, and the personal intimacy and friendship he craves. Of course, Herzog is true to the myth and Dracula is evil, but Kinski’s interpretation adds dimension and feeling. It is all the more remarkable that Herzog got such a measured and controlled performance from Kinski who, Herzog describes in his film My Best Fiend, is crazy. His rants on the jungle sets of Fitzcarraldo so provoked the Indians who were acting in the film, that they went to Herzog and asked him if he wanted them to kill Kinski. Herzog in his film admits that he thought about it.
Fitzcarraldo is best remembered for Herzog’s hauling a river steamer over the mountains from one Amazon river to another. The scenes in the movie – like all Herzog’s – are not staged or manipulated. The Indians hauling this enormous ship up a steep incline in dense jungle were real. The movie is also about another of Herzog’s themes – eccentricity, vision, ambition – that he illustrates in this documentaries (White Diamond, Grizzly Man). Fitzcarraldo wants to build an opera house in the jungle, and the movie is about this illusion, ambition, and desire. Aguirre had the same drive and mad ambition. Dracula is an a way cast from the same mold. The relationship between Kinski and Claudia Cardinale was central to the movie, and in fact helped to hold it together. Kinski the wild man had never had such a professional relationship – he was as mad as the characters he played – but he and Cardinale found something very intimate in their relationship and that helped to calm the roiled waters of the restive Indians and the constant fighting between Kinski and Herzog.
Heart of Glass is based on a myth that Herzog had heard growing up there:
The setting is an 18th century Bavarian town with a glass blowing factory which produces a brilliant red "ruby glass." When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost, and the town gradually sinks into disorder and madness. The main character is Hias, a seer from the hills, who speaks prophecy to the townspeople. – Wikipedia.
For the film Herzog hypnotized every actor (all non-professionals, typical of Herzog’s films) except the seer, and the result exaggerates the dullness and ignorance of the peasantry that Herzog wants to illustrate. The film is therefore about an eccentric and visionary; has nature as a central character (see above); and has the same quiet, often silent passages that give Herzog’s film eloquence.
A technique that Herzog uses in his early films to highlight character development, mood, and theme, is to have long, unedited tracking shots. His shots can go on for over two minutes, an eternity for modern film-making. In Nosferatu, when Jonathan Harker and his wife walk along the beach before he sets off to Transylvania, Herzog films them from behind, walking away from the camera. Herzog does not follow them, but lets them recede into the distance; nor does he ever cut to a frontal view. The emptiness of the cold, Northern beach, their solitude and slow walk shows clearly their love, her fear, and their intimacy. Herzog’s opening shots in Heart of Glass of the rolling cloud banks are also long and unedited, and as above, set the tone for the hypnotic feel of the film. In fact, Herzog in his commentary said that he hoped that these long opening shots would hypnotize the audience. Long shots of the mountains and clouds in Nosferatu are also essential to the story. There are many such long shots of Kinski in Aguirre (and one where he does the “Kinski Turn”, where the actor pops up into camera range quickly and suddenly from below the camera. This theatrical trick helped, particularly in Aguirre to illustrate his growing madness)
Herzog’s documentaries of people – most importantly White Diamond and Grizzly Man – have both the themes of eccentric ambition and obsession and the importance of nature as a character. Dorrington, the inventor/engineer of Diamond is a good man – he appears honest, sincere, and dedicated; so his eccentricity is presented within a very human frame. The depth of that humanity is revealed by his account of the death of his partner in an accident where a balloon of his crashed – an accident for which he holds himself responsible. His obsession to fly, therefore, is always framed in the guilt that he feels, so the tension and conflict is always apparent. As a result, the film is very complex. Nature and Indian life, featured in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are also shown in Diamond. Herzog, perhaps with a bit too much self importance (one of my few negative comments about him, but which applies to his later documentaries as well) when he refuses to show the inside of the caves along the sheer walls of a cliff which supposedly house the spirits of the Indians he is filming.
The story of Timothy Treadwell is well-known. For years he spent summers in Alaska living “with” the grizzlies; and ended up getting eaten, along with his girlfriend, by one. He was less careless than obsessed with his conviction that with enough proximity and understanding, he could actually become a bear-human. He felt that as he grew closer to them, the danger would be less. On the other hand, he talks to the camera of the true animal nature of the bears who would kill him in an instant. It is this conflict and the illusions that sustained Treadwell which make the film compelling.
His films Land of Silence and Darkness, about deaf and blind people; and Even Dwarfs Started Small are another documentary form Herzog has with the unusual forms of human beings. They are short, sensitive, a bit self-important, not my favorites, but essential to understanding his whole body of work.
His lyrical films – especially Lessons of Darkness, shot in Iraq after the first Gulf War, but also Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which I have not yet seen) are all but silent. Lessons shows the burning oil wells of the desert, the oil slicks, and carcasses of bombed vehicles with a visual poetry; and Encounters does the same with the translucent beauty of the Antarctic. These films are totally unlike his others, except for the centrality of nature and/or the natural world. In Encounters this world has been distorted by the War, but in it Herzog finds beauty and poetry. Both are incredible films.