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Special ReporT: Werner Herzog

Hi, Everyone—

Werner Herzog
What did you all think of Werner Herzog last night? I thought that he and Stephen were fascinating together, because Herzog’s romantic sensibility—a cult of feeling and imagination–met Stephen’s playful and very different sense of “gut over facts” in a delightful way. Just think of Herzog talking about “intensification, and Stephen saying “I intensify every night…I’ve made up crazy stuff and I don’t care if they know what’s what.” Or Herzog’s distinction between the correct and the artistic: we do not know anything when we check all the correct entries in the phone directory.” Frankly, Stephen seemed pretty stupefied by Herzog’s line about ”inventing God,” because he clearly was going to query it and then switched gears. (“You think these people were actually creating…” I think he wanted to say “God,” but then changed to art.)

For those who may not know much about Herzog, or German cinema, here is a little bit of background on the man and the film culture from which he comes.

As part of what is generally called the New German Cinema—which notably included the prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders–Herzog helped renew a national film industry that had once been one of the world’s finest. During the period when film was still silent, just after World War I during the Weimar era, German expressionist film emerged. This genre, with its stunning use high-contrast lighting and focus on creating a environment that seemed to mirror the character’s state of mind, had an enormous impact on cinema.  Without its stylistic innovations, American film noir—crime films mostly from the 1940s and 50s, such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, could never have existed. (By that time, many German filmmakers, such as Billy Wilder and Douglas Sirk, had fled to the United States to escape Nazism, bringing their skills to Hollywood.)  In Germany, however, the rise of Nazism brought a steady diet of propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will, anti-Semitic screeds, and the nostalgic “mountain film,” which idealized the “pure” Bavarian, Aryan German and the German landscape.

But Nazism left a legacy of shame, and a society not quite sure how to talk about its history. Beginning in the late 60s, the New German Cinema began to grapple with these issues in political, innovative, and often low-budget works. Many date its start from 1962 and the Oberhausen Manifesto, signed by a group of young filmmakers, who “declare[d] our intention to create the new German feature film”—one free from commercial considerations and old-fashioned rules. (Herzog was not one of them. He was just 20 when it was written.) This was a cinema that, in varying degrees, poked and probed the wounded national psyche. It also was a cinema that did not produce cookie-cutter films; the lens each of the directors turned on Germany showcased a radically different vision. Even the uninitiated could never confuse a Herzog film, with its emphasis on nature and madness, with a Fassbinder movie, which drew from theater and melodrama and often dealt with sexual identity. (Fassbinder was openly gay.)

Herzog’s very first work, Signs of Life (1968), announced his twin obsessions: it dealt with three soldiers, one wounded, pulled from combat during World War II and left to recuperate in a small Greek community by the sea. There, you had not only nature, but nature that seemed to weave its spell over humans, driving them mad.  Herzog would return to these two themes over and over, elaborating on them, shifting them, but rarely leaving them. A perfect example, and one of my two favorites, is Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about a Spanish conquistador in search of El Dorado. Based on truth, but not at all wed to it, the story illustrates the high price of obsession. Nothing deters Aguirre from his quest, including the lush but unforgiving jungle and fierce river that always stay prominent in the image. Featuring an amazing, intense performance by Klaus Kinski, it is the Moby Dick of cinema, perhaps the finest illustration of a man who destroys himself and others in his relentless search. For those interested in a fuller analysis, complete with video clip, here’s A.O. Scott’s in The New York Times. You’ll find this same trifecta of nature, madness, and destruction in Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, and many other of his works.

Aguirre - Klaus Kinski
A particular favorite of mine, one closely examines society from a slightly different perspective, is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, or Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Set in the 1800s, it’s also based on a true story, but this time Herzog hews a little more closely to the facts as he tells the tale of a man locked away and chained for most of his young life.  (The hero seems older in Herzog’s version, as the actor was in the 40s. The real Kaspar was in his late teens.) Never having had human companionship, except for whoever must have fed him, he could not speak. The unknown person who imprisoned him ultimately frees him and leaves him alone in the middle of a street, where he found. This is the age of enlightenment, when what distinguished man from animal was a major source of philosophical discourse. Someone shielded from culture and society naturally became a source of fascination. He’s poked, prodded, and queried, but constantly displays an off-center sense of logic that in many way seems to make more sense than the people questioning him. If you see the film, pay special attention to the “tree frog” sequence when Kaspar confounds his interrogator by refusing to either of the  “multiple choice” answers .

I have seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and I highly recommend it, in 3D if you can. It’s visually spectacular (although the people sometimes look as if they’re set in a diorama). I’m not so sure about those albino crocs, and sometimes Herzog’s romantic point of view is superimposed on the paintings in a way that perhaps twists their meaning. Of course, since these paintings remain as inexplicable and distant as the truth about Kaspar Hauser’s past…who knows? A little spark of mystery always remains—one of the wonderful, compelling things about Herzog and his work.

Recommended Books:
From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film by Thomas Kaes
New German Cinema
by Thomas Elsaesser
The German Cinema Book (BFI Modern Classics) edited by Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Gokturk

  1. Roseha
    June 8, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    Fascinating post karenatasha! I haven’t seen all of Herzog’s films but just from seeing “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo” I am a hard-core fan. As I mentioned in the episode post, the interview was my favorite segment last night, precisely because of the way Herzog and Stephen connected. I don’t know if Herzog has actually watched TCR or just quickly figured out the show once he got there…

    Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see Stephen play a role in a Herzog film?


  2. susan209
    June 8, 2011 at 10:50 PM

    Really wonderful, Karenatasha. Thanks so much for posting this. I remember seeing Kaspar Houser and thinking how fascinating it was, but I was too young at the time to really appreciate it. You have motivated me to now see it again! The way you’ve described it here, I wonder if the film “Being There” was in any way inspired by the Kaspar Houser story.
    I wonder if anyone else saw, when Stephen shook Werner Herzog’s hand at the end of the interview, just as they were cutting away with the mics off, you could lip read Stephen saying, “That was lovely.” I thought that was so sweet.


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