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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 29, 2011 at 5:21AM

Few filmmakers have had as varied, or colorful, a career as Werner Herzog. A man that Francois Truffaut, who should know, once called "the most important film director alive," Herzog has been knocking out classics, in both the fictional and documentary worlds, for over 40 years now. Perhaps still best known for his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog produced many of his very best films, the director's oeuvre goes far beyond those five, from minor classics to eye-opening documentaries, from classics of German cinema to a star-driven remake of an Abel Ferrera film.
10

"Nosferatu The Vampyre" (1979)
Remakes always have a stigma attached to them before they're even out the door, with fans holding certain films tightly to their bosom as if they were delicate, precious offsprings. If there was one production that was not only completely bereft of those feelings, but instead lathered with excitement, it'd be this Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski joint. Taking cues from Murnau's classic, the filmmaker makes a masterpiece of his own by neglecting the "Dracula" source material and cracking open the silent film to see what made it work. This newer version contains the same premise, following estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) on his visit to see Count Dracula (Kinski) in order to settle a property sale. After a few perturbing nightmares (also shared by his wife Lucy, played by Isabelle Adjani, back home), Harker discovers he's a vampire and will use the land to reek terror on the surrounding area. Unfortunately, Dracula takes off in the night to claim his newly purchased land, leaving Harker locked in the castle and everyone else completely vulnerable. Herzog's powerful command of the material elevates it above your standard vampire fare, allowing the gorgeous locales of Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands to devour every frame. The story is told both quietly and distantly with an undercurrent of foreboding dread, something that is immediately snapped once Kinski's confident possession of Dracula sneaks onto the screen. A highly successful union between a genre picture and an epic, "Nosferatu the Vampyre" is such an engrossing and satisfying experience that it makes the director's newer, more satirical romps that more disappointing. [A]

"Woyzeck" (1979)
A surprisingly faithful adaptation of George Büchner's play (or as faithful as you can be for a play that only survives in fragments, which can be performed in more or less any order), photography on "Woyzeck" began only five days after filming wrapped on "Nosferatu The Vampyre," and the exhaustion certainly shows on its star Klaus Kinski (a last minute swap for "Kasper Hauser"'s Bruno S) -- the actor might have specialized in madness, but he never looks quite as close to the edge as he does here. But somehow, Herzog doesn't seem cowed -- the film was shot in a mere 18 days, and edited in 4, and that pace is reflected in the finished film, which is one of the director's briskest and tightest. But it's not one of the best, unfortunately. The performances are certainly striking -- Eva Mattes deservedly won Best Supporting Actress at Cannes for her performances as Woyzeck's mistress -- but the film's a slave to its form, never quite escaping a certain stagy quality, while also failing to really dig into the heart of the play. As ever with the director, however, it's never uninteresting, and, while it might be a minor work, has plenty to recommend it -- particularly the unforgettable ending. [B-]

“Fitzcarraldo” (1982)
From cast illness, recasts (Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were the leads originally), re-shoots, budgetary shortcomings, "Fitzcarraldo" must have been one of the trickier film shoots on record, particularly considering that it lensed in the unpredictable Peruvian jungle, and starring an even more unpredictable Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, AKA Fitzcarraldo. The story behind it is one of a man who despite being penniless, is obsessed with building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, and is a story seemingly tailor made for its director's own preoccupations. The fact that it involved moving a 300-odd ton ship up and over a mountain without the aid of special effects was just a bonus and is still today one of the most infamous tasks in film making history - and another case of Herzog defying nature, and common sense, in pursuit of his own vision. The parallels between the protagonist and Herzog are impossible to ignore as they both share an unshakable dedication to seemingly impossible pursuits. Kinski puts in one of his most charming performances as the enthusiastic and sincere Fitzcarraldo, adding tender notes, to his obsessive venture against the odds. "Fitzcarraldo," it turns out, is Herzog’s own style of mash note to obsessive love and went on to win him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. [A]

"Cobra Verde" (1987)
The last collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, and the film that finally dissolved their always-tempestuous relationship, is also the least-praised, and the least well-known -- it wasn't even released in the U.S. until 2007, remarkably. But it's something of a hidden gem among their team-ups. Based on Bruce Chatwin's novel "The Viceroy of Ouidah," it's very much a companion piece to "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo," casting Kinski as a Brazilian rancher-turned-outlaw who becomes involved in the slave trade in Africa. As ever, the star is extraordinary, even if he's particularly unhinged here, verging on becoming an animalistic force of nature at times, and at times, Herzog matches him in the gonzo stakes -- the rush of imagery, somewhere between a spaghetti western and "Apocalypse Now," is brutal, yet beautiful. The film teeters so close to the edge that it frequently risks toppling over, so it's never quite as satisfying as its earlier counterparts -- the plot never really coheres, and, while it's arguably the most political of Herzog's films, feels a touch pat when it does touch on the slave trade. But there's also more brilliance on display here than in 90% of films, and it certainly deserves reevaluation. [B+]

This article is related to: Feature, Werner Herzog, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Retrospective


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