Werner Herzog's German Comeback Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury

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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."

Uncontrollable Force

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.

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symewinston 02/12/2010
1. welcome back
I am a fan of his. He really goes over the top.The combination of him and Kinski, the father of that gorgeous Natassja,was explosive. Both of them madmen, but creative madmen. My favourite film of his is of course, "Aguirre, the wrath of God". The opening shot of the ant file of 'conquistadores' climbing the jungle mountain is unforgettable. It is an extreme long shot, something John Ford would have appreciated, for it shows how diminute, how insignificant man is, and how grandious his delusions. The shot forecast the end, these little ant like figures haven't got a chance. Of course, the Spaniards conquered most of the Americas, excluded Brasil, which was allocated to Portugal. A handful of them secured Mejico and California and Texas and Florida for the Spanish crown. Other conquistadores reached to the south of Chile. Herzog, shares their spirit
BTraven 02/15/2010
2.
Zitat von symewinstonI am a fan of his. He really goes over the top.The combination of him and Kinski, the father of that gorgeous Natassja,was explosive. Both of them madmen, but creative madmen. My favourite film of his is of course, "Aguirre, the wrath of God". The opening shot of the ant file of 'conquistadores' climbing the jungle mountain is unforgettable. It is an extreme long shot, something John Ford would have appreciated, for it shows how diminute, how insignificant man is, and how grandious his delusions. The shot forecast the end, these little ant like figures haven't got a chance. Of course, the Spaniards conquered most of the Americas, excluded Brasil, which was allocated to Portugal. A handful of them secured Mejico and California and Texas and Florida for the Spanish crown. Other conquistadores reached to the south of Chile. Herzog, shares their spirit
I do not think that it was his best “Amazon”-movie – “Fitzcarraldo” who tried to appease native people blocking the waterway so his boat could not continue with a Caruso record much more interesting. Perhaps the “Teatro Amazonas”, one of the most attractive operas in the world, inspired Herzog to make the movie.
symewinston 02/16/2010
3. kinky
Zitat von BTravenI do not think that it was his best “Amazon”-movie – “Fitzcarraldo” who tried to appease native people blocking the waterway so his boat could not continue with a Caruso record much more interesting. Perhaps the “Teatro Amazonas”, one of the most attractive operas in the world, inspired Herzog to make the movie.
I agree that “Fitzcarraldo” is a different movie. The hauling of the steamer up the mountain and later the climax of the ending make terrific cinema. This is pure Herzog. The combination Herzog-Kinski was certainly mad but artistically mad. One thing for sure it was bigger than the sum of the parts. “Aguirre” is the kind of tragedy Shakespeare could have written. It is a more profound movie than “Fitzcarraldo” although the latter is so crazy. Kinski in the movie is a madman but a madman with a plan, or too many failed plans. It is the audacity, the grandiosity of the enterprise, the dedication that makes his madness attractive to the character played by Claudia Cardinale. Maybe the Indians also admired his craziness and hence helped him. Kurt in “Heart of Darkness” goes crazy because of circumstances, he goes native. But Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo’ doesn’t need help from the jungle. He is a madman and the only place wild and crazy enough for him to act out his grandiose failures (all his plans end up in failure) is the Peruvian jungle. The other characteristic of Herzog is that his movies are for ‘real’, no extras to speak of, no sets or special effects. The steamer is real and they really pushed it across the mountain, the river is real and Kinski the actor and Kinski the person were one and only. I saw once a German documentary about Kinski and one of the people interviewed in it was of course Herzog, he told many anecdotes of their lives together and why they bonded in this crazy manner. Hard to believe “Fitzcarraldo” was shot so long ago, in 1982.
BTraven 02/22/2010
4.
Zitat von symewinstonI agree that “Fitzcarraldo” is a different movie. The hauling of the steamer up the mountain and later the climax of the ending make terrific cinema. This is pure Herzog. The combination Herzog-Kinski was certainly mad but artistically mad. One thing for sure it was bigger than the sum of the parts. “Aguirre” is the kind of tragedy Shakespeare could have written. It is a more profound movie than “Fitzcarraldo” although the latter is so crazy. Kinski in the movie is a madman but a madman with a plan, or too many failed plans. It is the audacity, the grandiosity of the enterprise, the dedication that makes his madness attractive to the character played by Claudia Cardinale. Maybe the Indians also admired his craziness and hence helped him. Kurt in “Heart of Darkness” goes crazy because of circumstances, he goes native. But Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo’ doesn’t need help from the jungle. He is a madman and the only place wild and crazy enough for him to act out his grandiose failures (all his plans end up in failure) is the Peruvian jungle. The other characteristic of Herzog is that his movies are for ‘real’, no extras to speak of, no sets or special effects. The steamer is real and they really pushed it across the mountain, the river is real and Kinski the actor and Kinski the person were one and only. I saw once a German documentary about Kinski and one of the people interviewed in it was of course Herzog, he told many anecdotes of their lives together and why they bonded in this crazy manner. Hard to believe “Fitzcarraldo” was shot so long ago, in 1982.
Kinsky was not his first choice, originally he planed to give the chief part Mick Jagger who travelled to Manaus and even produced a scene (the one on the spire where Kinsky rings the bells frantically) together with Herzog, but later decided it would be better to leave because of the feeling all went a bit crazy. So Kinsky was engaged. I think “Fitzcarraldo”, despite all the craziness, is much more human. Perhaps Herzog wanted to show us that it is possible to conquer a country respectively to make virgin parts of earth urban without brutality and the satisfaction of lowest needs of natives which settlers were able to arouse when they, for example, offered Indians some cheap pearls. The weapon used here is music, Caruso to be more precise. “Aguirre” is about fanatic, degenerated and cold Spanish conquistadors who are eager to find El Dorado.
symewinston 02/22/2010
5. El Dorado
Spanish 'cold' ? We are always labelled : passionate, hot headed, loud, sentimental etc but 'cold' ? Germans are said to be 'cold'. I think Germans are romantic and the British cold.
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