Werner Herzog in later life seems to have attained a minor celebrity status that few arthouse directors have attained, his lugubrious voice and features appearing in such unlikely works as The Simpsons and as Jack Reacher’s nemesis in the Tom Cruise vehicle of the same name. Add to that the success of documentary Grizzly Man and his recent more commercial works, such as his reinterpretation of Bad Lieutenant and Christian Bale headed Rescue Dawn (itself based on a Herzog documentary), and you have a late flourishing renaissance that has eluded the likes of his fellow countrymen, such as Wim Wenders.
What we have with the BFI’s mammoth 18 film box-set is the full strength Herzog, at times wayward and pretentious, but always single minded and with a visionary and unique directorial style that courts magnificence in the mundane and vice versa. His single-minded approach reaches its apotheosis in Fitzcarraldo, possibly the boldest and most obsessive work of cinematic alchemy, one that stands with Apocalypse Now as the finest meeting of directorial hubris and cinematic brio.
This box-set, over eight discs, comprises features, documentaries and shorts, the most well known of which - Aguirre, Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre and the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo - are all present in beautiful restorations. The Les Blank documentary, Burden of Dreams, on Herzog’s Amazonian folly is also included, which as well as adding contextual information on the making of and scenes from the abandoned first attempt with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, also provides an insight into the full extent of the stress and strains of making his epic. The film itself has an ageless quality, and a depth and richness that would be impossible to achieve in today's risk-averse society. There is a real element of danger, to both the film and its performances, that is infused by the whims and changes to the environment of the Amazon.
Aguirre, Wrath of God, the first in a trilogy of historical epics with Kinski, in this context feels like an athlete in training for his epic, like a keen runner preparing for a marathon. Focusing on the possibly insane ambition of one man to bend the environment to his will, it's a visual splendour, full of quietly sinister moments and impending doom, as a 16th century Spanish expedition sets out to find the fabled El Dorado and its corrupting riches. In many ways it's a more disciplined work but less spectacular, though still a major work in the Herzog oeuvre.
The third in the historical triptych, Cobra Verde, stands as something of a disappointment. After his earlier excesses, this feels like playing it safe. Like Herzog on the 5:2 diet, this is full of visual riches but in depth of storytelling it's very much a famine. There is arresting imagery that some directors would kill for - a crew of workers caked in mud like a vision of hell, a floor covered in crabs - and a visual panache that makes it almost Werner’s Spaghetti Western. As a discourse on the slave trade it, like the sugar barons perpetrating these atrocities, is a little cold and emotionless. The restoration does a marvellous job of restoring it to its former glories, and it may well be the most accessible film in the collection, but it feels like a lecture in pulp clothing.
Herzog’s work is always of interest, but Nosferatu the Vampyre and Heart of Glass are the two lesser works in the collection. The reworking of the Murnau classic is uncertain in tone. The make up may be the equal of the silent classic but Kinski gives an uncertain performance. The romance angle has been played before and the attempts to make this a vampiric pied piper of Hamlyn are not completely convincing. As a director, he may understand the horror that lies in the heart of man, but is less convincing exploring the heart of his titular horror. It aims for fairytale but hits stilted melodrama.
Nosferatu may be weak but Heart of Glass is, to be honest, a slog. Boldly experimenting by having his cast hypnotised, Herzog does create a strange, foreboding atmosphere, like the black lodge in Twin Peaks, eerie in small doses but not somewhere you would want to set a whole film. It has a painterly tableau, vivant style in its composition, but the story of the mythical ruby red glass and the death of the factory's master blower is opaque to the point of distraction, like the factory's attempts to replicate it just as it looks like it will coalesce, it breaks down. This is Herzog at his most pretentious and unwieldy, a noble failure with a singular vision.
The two films starring Bruno S find the German director at his most whimsical and humane. Stroszek, the tale of a simple-minded ex con and a prostitute, sounds like the stuff of film noir, and moves from a bleak picture of suburban alienation to a more open-hearted road movie as they move to Wisconsin. Told with a foreign eye for America, this shows the weirdness under the soil, be it feuding farmer on tractor holding an entente cordial with firearms, or the delights of dancing chickens and jazz ducks, if at the climax it shows that you can’t escape your past no matter how far you travel. Bruno S's performance is brilliant. In real life in and out of mental institutions and a musician by trade, it is a performance without guile, at once both deeply odd and incredibly moving.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a true story of a man devoid of all human contact, who one day is left in 19th Century Nuremberg. Bruno S may be older than the 17 year old real life Hauser, but his otherworldly mannerisms and delight and fear ring true. Like Lynch’s The Elephant Man, it tells a deeply sad and strange story, but filtered through the very particular rhythms and feel of the director. Herzog is not one for trite sentimentality, so the peculiar emotions the film stirs up always feel well earned.
Of all the films in the collection, Woyzeck is ripe for rediscovery, a blackly comic look at the institutional battery meted out to the titular character, a low ranking soldier in a German provincial town. Beneath its picture book setting pumps a rotten heart. The title character is abused and beaten down by his superiors, and forced to live on a diet of peas as part of an experiment by the army's doctor. Klaus Kinski’s harried and broken performance is exemplary, as is Eva Mattes' as his mistress and mother of his child. Based on an unfinished play, the parallels between the blackly comic narrative and Nazism are all too clear. It is evil as carried out by bureaucrats, as Woyzeck’s brain, body and heart are assaulted until broken in a final act of tragic bloody retribution. Shot quickly in 18 days, it is a spry, energetic work that should be more widely known.
Herzog has run a parallel career as an incisive documentarian, and this release covers a wide range of his earlier work. Handicapped Future and Land of Silence and Darkness are both searingly angry but intellectually incisive works, dealing with the treatment of disabled children in Germany and Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind woman, respectively.
Huie’s Sermon and God’s Angry Man deal with religion. Both are frankly hard work, the former literally a sermon conducted by Huie Rogers, a black gospel preacher, with no commentary other than two cuts to inner city degradation that work as a counter-punch to the faith being preached. The latter looks at TV evangelist Gene Scott, and is made almost unwatchable by having the American’s dialogue translated into German by Herzog and then subtitled, making it more an effort in concentration than understanding. It does feature an amazing scene of Scott sulking his way towards getting a financial target that is at once disturbing and deeply silly.
The other documentaries of note are The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, about ski jumper Walter Steiner, whose single minded obsession and need to beat the odds put his life in danger. It is the best of the short form works on here and in Steiner, Herzog has clearly found a kindred spirit. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck is a minor entry, looking at the cattle auctioneering world championship. Like watching a rap battle taking place between two drunk aliens, it is both baffling and hypnotic. It must have made an impression, as two of the auctioneers feature in Stroszek.
BFI has produced one of the most valuable box-sets on bluray for this and any other year. Presentations are universally good. Planet Herzog may sometimes be an arid, hard scrabble place but it's one well worth visiting, as he's more than just the hangdog miserabilist of German cinema. There is much to enjoy here, both odd and wryly amusing, but always serious of purpose. If you take film seriously you have to own this.
You get director commentaries on key works, trailers and stills galleries. You also get an archive edition of The South Bank Show, which works as a nice counterpoint to Burden of Dreams, as well as Les Blank's short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Laurie Johnson also provides a booklet essay, which is a worthy read. Although the docs are listed as extras on the disc, I have included them in the main text. Picture and sound quality are all excellent, although there are a few artefacts on some scenes shot with lower grade film stock.
By Jason Abbey