Talking Movies

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

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May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

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