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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

by The Playlist Staff
April 29, 2011 5:21 AM
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“Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972)
It’s never about the destination in a Herzog movie, but rather, the journey. And no descent into madness has been as meticulously captured on film quite like the mental breakdown that is the darkness of Lope de Aguirre. As the maniacal explorer hellbent on finding the lost city of gold, Klaus Kinski gives a performance powered almost entirely by the fever dreams of a maniac, as his unhinged conquistador leads his charges into almost-certain death, pursuing not riches, but the absolute power a man can hold in his fist. It was the first of several near-deadly collaborations between the memorable duo, though if you knew nothing of their volatile relationship, you would feel this film showcases their final team-up. Shot in dangerous real life locations in the Peruvian rainforest, “Aguirre” feels less like a movie and more like the experience of walking on a tightrope over jagged shards of glass, the push-and-pull between Herzog’s single-minded absorption into the elements (accompanied by a haunting Popol Vuh score) and Kinski’s terrifying all-timer of a performance creating a lightning-in-a-bottle greatness no other filmmaker-actor team could begin to accomplish. [A+]

“The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser” (1974)
It’s a story told fairly often -- that of the wild child found in the wilderness, soon domesticated -- but leave it to Werner Herzog to add a whole new spin. Never judgmental, Herzog’s approach is to illuminate his actors and characters in the same distanced, peculiar way. Kaspar Hauser, chained to the floor inside a cell, is soon lured outside, where the camera studies both this unhinged societal newcomer and the circus (both literal and figurative) in the same curious, awkward manner. As Hauser evolves, he becomes the least peculiar element of his own lifestyle, as Herzog’s focus makes Hauser’s tribulations seem mundane, and the activities of the “civilized” at a dance even more alienated. “The Enigma” seems to be Herzog’s fascination with how some standards are accepted if unexplained, and how some values that we instill on each other to appear “normal” are arbitrary and meaningless, with Kaspar at the center of what ends up being an auteur’s attempt to rationalize the irrational world that surrounds him. [A-]

“Heart of Glass” (1976)
By now, many of the director's bizarre methods and stories concerning his films may be more more widely known than the actual film itself. Such is the case with "Heart of Glass" -- set in 18th century Bavaria, a local community is thrown into disarray when the only glass blower holding the secret to producing their life-blood "ruby glass" passes away. The big story here is that Herzog, in order to get trance-like performances of a society declining into insanity, shot the entire film with most of the cast under hypnosis. But let's not get carried away with the bits of the process, let's focus on the end product: while it hasn't got the swiftest pacing, the entire film has a strange tenseness running through it, and the camera's fascination with the process of glass blowing is absorbing. There's also the insanely dark, moody cinematography -- it's sometimes feels like a terrifying alien planet, making Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" seem light by comparison. It's not a perfect film and definitely rough around the edges, but it, like most of his oeuvre, is a one-of-a-kind experience that can't be found anywhere else nor by anyone else. [B]

“Stroszek” (1977)
While the early work of Werner Herzog tends to be marked by bizarre outréness ("Even Dwarves Started Small," "Kaspar Hauser") or madmen-like performances (the Klaus Kinski years), the German filmmaker's "Stroszek," is a relatively quiet, nuanced and quite effective drama about a trio of Germans trying to make it in America and quickly learning the land of opportunity is not simply paved with gold for the picking. Herzog's beloved Bruno S. (the idiot savant star of "Kaspar Hauser"), stars as Bruno, a former mental patient who falls in with a prostitute who is being abused by her hirsute pimps. Also taking a beating for keeping company with her, Bruno, Eva (Eva Mattes) and an old man decide to set out for America to escape their woes, but soon foreclosures, bankruptcy and the realities of life come crashing in. A dark and pessimistic comment on the illusion of the American dream, "Stroszek," is still an empathetically-made chronicle of hopes and dreams dashed, and by the end, the comical absurdity of it all. [B+]

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  • Frank Joseph Baran | May 3, 2011 7:06 AMReply

    I have to agree with Mr. Arkadin, but considering the significance of the subject matter, there is a definite obligation on Herzog's part to present the work in a straight forward, non partial manner. Luckily, in spite of this, his prints are littered all over the last third of the film. And to Herzog's credit, once he is able to ditch those stuffy archeologists, he enables the gravity of the art and the sheer scope of time to become tangible in a way the first portion simply could not manage.

  • James Bond | May 1, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Hi All,
    Werners documentaries are the best because of his ability to both wonder off topic and his interest in the people as much as the specific subject. White Diamond was a work of true genius.
    If you are in need of a Helium sniffing laugh try my Gasbags site for the worlds only lighter than air comedy web site.
    Regards JB

  • Mr. Arkadin (eating his delicious shoe) | April 30, 2011 1:26 AMReply

    I think you have to be in the right state of mind to fully experience and enjoy "Fata Morgana". I know I did back in the day...

    needless to say I love this guy and this is a nice little retrospective (RWF next, ja?)

  • Christopher Bell | April 29, 2011 12:08 PMReply

    I enjoy his previous three films, but they really don't hold a candle to his older work. Obviously.

    "Cave" was pretty great, methinks, though it did have several moments of PBS-inspired dryness... but I just chalked that up to the head-honchos allowing Herzog to do the film so long as he included a couple purely informative and straight forward scenes.

  • alphabet | April 29, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    enjoyed this piece - Herzog is a giant - cheers gang.

  • Erik McClanahan | April 29, 2011 10:39 AMReply

    I'm with Kevin on Bad Lieutenant. Not a fan. It feels really rushed in execution, and even though Cage is good fun in it, it's a huge mess.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | April 29, 2011 9:58 AMReply

    I'm down. It's one of the most overrated films of the last half decade and definitely overrated when it comes to Herzog's usually awesome body of work. I love the dude, but he's in danger of becoming a parody of himself. Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a snoozer and like note-by-note Herzog documentary.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | April 29, 2011 9:50 AMReply

    Nic Cage getting drunk and arrested in New Orleans in real life was more entertaining than "Bad Lieutenant."

  • Gabe Toro | April 29, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    I, too, am not onboard this Bad Lieutenant review.

  • Kevin Klawitter | April 29, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    " but if it had gone straight-to-video and wasn’t directed by Werner Herzog would anyone have even given a shit?"

    If it wasn't directed by Werner Herzog and went straight-to-video it wouldn't have even been close to the same movie.

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