Werner Herzog's German Comeback Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury
Part 2: Confronting Nature
When Herzog made his first documentary films and feature films in the 1960s, he was seen as part of the New German Cinema, a movement of auteurs who rebelled against the conservative cinema of the 1950s. But if there is one thing that makes Herzog uncomfortable, it's the idea of being part of a movement.
"I never really felt that I was a part of the New German Cinema," he says. "The only thing we had in common was that we were the first generation after the Nazi atrocities that spoke out independently. I never had an affinity for student revolts. They usually involved upper-class kids who were supposedly speaking for the working class, but who had never worked a single day in a factory."
Herzog didn't make the slightest effort to criticize the German status quo in his films. He shot his movies in such far-flung places as the islands of Crete and Lanzarote, Tanzania and Peru. By the time he had made his first feature film in Germany, the student revolts had ended. He was dismissed as a hopeless romantic, someone who fled into nature to escape civilization.
Indeed, Herzog the director is in his element in nature. The raging rivers on which his characters fought to survive, in films like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) and "Fitzcarraldo," are in a sense longer and wider versions of the creeks he played in as a child. For Herzog, nature is always a force against which he must measure his own strength.
The Destructive Power of Nature
In his magnificent 2004 book "Conquest of the Useless," his journal of the two years he spent making "Fitzcarraldo" in the rainforest, he describes how "stunned" he is by "the incredible power and fury of the rapids." The river has a will of its own, and yet Herzog refuses to bend to it.
There is no such thing as dead nature in Herzog's world. In "Encounters at the End of the World," he listens, spellbound, to the eternal ice, hoping to hear the sound of a calving glacier. Herzog is the only director who would be capable of a remake of James Cameron's 1997 movie "Titanic"(1997) -- from the perspective of the iceberg.
Herzog repeatedly portrays the destructive power of nature, as he does in the new film "Bad Lieutenant." In some scenes, New Orleans looks like a sunken city that has just emerged from the floodwaters. But Herzog doesn't direct the eye of the camera to the supposed achievements of civilization, like computer and mobile phones, but to the alligators and lizards that unexpectedly crop up in the plot.
"My relationship with nature is fundamentally unromantic," Herzog stresses. "I used to argue with Kinski about it. 'It's all so erotic!' Kinski would call out in the middle of the jungle. 'No,' I replied. 'Nature isn't erotic, it's obscene.' And Kinski, as if trying to prove how erotic nature is, put his arms around a tree and started copulating with it."
In Klaus Kinski, Herzog found the same uncontrollable, elemental force that had always attracted him to the wilderness. He made six films with the actor between 1970 and 1987. In his "Fitzcarraldo" journal, Herzog often switches from his descriptions of the jungle to Kinski's fits of rage. The actor, who was the subject of Herzog's 1999 documentary "My Best Fiend," was "Herzog's great unrequited love," says Thomas Mauch, the cinematographer on "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo."
Kinski berated Herzog as a "dwarf director." During the filming of "Fitzcarraldo," Kinski went into such fits of rage that the indigenous people who were working as extras on the film offered to kill the actor on Herzog's behalf. SPIEGEL reporter Fritz Rumler wrote about the filming at the time that Kinski had "acquired, through shouting, the nickname 'Adolf' in the camp." Nevertheless, Kinski was at his best under Herzog's direction.
"As I stand here before you," Kinski says in one of the most famous scenes from "Fitzcarraldo," "I will bring great opera to the jungle one day! I am in the majority! I am the billions! I am the spectacle in the forest!" These sentences, uttered in a voice of controlled rage that only Kinski was capable of, are Werner Herzog's manifesto.
In his films, Herzog has always sought out protagonists who feel like God's loneliest human beings: the ski jumper Walter Steiner, who stands at the top of the jump and then appears to fly across the world; the blind and deaf Fini Straubinger, who can neither see nor hear her fellow human beings; the art-obsessed Fitzcarraldo, who is determined to bring opera into the wilderness; and the constantly strung-out lieutenant Terence McDonagh, stumbling through the world as if anaesthetized.
If one believes his narratives, Herzog is often alone, and yet he is always in the majority. In the "Fitzcarraldo" diaries, he often points out how lonely he felt. "He was in fact the only person who believed that it is possible to haul a steamship over a mountain," says Mauch.