Saturday, May 1, 2010

Stemming The Tide (Part 1)

"If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that: I live my life or I end my life with this project." -Werner Herzog (during the filming of Fitzcarraldo)

When Werner Herzog was 14, he stole a 35mm camera from Munich Film School.

"I don't consider it theft—it was just a necessity—I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with."

It is appropriate that Herzog's entry into film was a bit of a struggle from the beginning. He was not old enough for film school, neither could he afford it. But he was ready to start learning. So he took what he saw as his. In differing ways, Herzog has been doing this ever since.

Most of his films are on some essential level about the struggle of Werner Herzog to make the movie you are watching. It is not easy. Nor I think as Herzog sees it, should it be, if it has a chance to be great.

"Today's films are cowardly. They do not venture into the jungle to photograph it. They create it all in a computer and make cartoons."

Messianic might be a fair word to use to describe Werner Herzog. And maybe obsessive compulsive.

And it is this; his audacity, that makes him the great director that he is.

Two of his best films came out of this obsession; Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and Fitzcarraldo.

Both movies were filmed in the Amazon jungle because that is where the story was set. The difficulty was not a topic of discussion, as was the fact that Herzog and his crew pulled a 360 ton boat over a muddy hillside, for Fitzcarraldo. Why? Because it was what the title character does in the movie. And if Herzog had used any special effects, he knows you could tell.

That is the thing about watching Herzog. That is really a boat being crashed about in the rapids. Three of the six people on the boat at the time were injured.

That really is a boat you see in a tree in Aguirre, not a special effect. The horse that falls over on the raft in Aguirre, was drugged. Herzog did not have to worry about the Humane Society 500 miles from the closest city.

Herzog uses nature as effectively as anyone this side of Terrence Malick. But he has no love for it.

"It's a land which God, if he exists, has created in anger."

"Nature here is violent...there is a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain.

It's like a curse weighing on the entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this, has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here."

Herzog can not be blamed for being a little miffed by his surroundings. He shot Fitzcarraldo for 4 months with Jason Robards playing the lead. But Robards contracted amoebic dysentery and flew home, forbidden by his doctors to return. Mick Jagger also had a small role but he had to return to civilization and begin a tour. His part was written out.

Herzog then cast Klaus Kinski. They first worked together in Aguirre. The two are now defined by their work together.

Was working with Kinski, difficult? During Aguirre, Kinski blew off an extra's finger while randomly shooting a gun in anger.
The Amazon Natives, Herzog used in Fitzcarraldo, offered to kill Kinski for Herzog. Herzog explained to them, he still needed Kinski for some more scenes.
Other natives shot arrows at Herzog and his crew, from the forest. The hired engineer, resigned during the film, telling Herzog there was a 70 percent chance that the cables connected to the boat would snap and dozens of lives would be lost.

A crew member, bitten by a deadly snake, saved his own life by instantly cutting off his foot with the chain saw he was holding.

And there was always Kinski. Constantly threatening to walk away, Herzog silenced Kinski by telling him he would kill him if he left, and then kill himself.

So was it all worth it?

Robards was a fine actor. Surely Herzog could find another fine actor, one not off his rocker, like Kinski. Robards would be playing an obsessed man of questionable stability. Kinski just needed to wake up to nail that role.

Herzog and Kinski would make 5 films together. In addition, there would be two documentary films showing their working relationship. As difficult as it is was to work with Kinski, Herzog had to know why it worked. They were two sides of the same coin.

Two men this intense on a film shoot, do not a fun time make. But you have to admire the determination.

My Best Friend (German: literally My Dearest Enemy)

"We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other's murder."

-Werner Herzog
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