Werner Herzog: on the verge of madness and genius [en]

Self-taught director, conqueror of wild spaces, crusader, discoverer and cartographer, on September 5th, Werner Herzog turns 81.

Working at the junction of feature and documentary films, Herzog has been erasing boundaries for half a century: between a myth and an act, a dream and a reality, truth and staging,proving each time that these divisions are superficial and useless. He has built a truly impassioned and adventurous career, shooting his movies on all continents with unprofessional actors, Australian aborigines, Peruvian Indians, penguins and mutant crocodiles; in German, English and Spanish, in sign language, underwater and underground, in a burning desert, in the jungle, at the pole, in the middle of a civil war and in African prison. He hypnotized actors and chickens, was bitten by rats and monkeys, tamed bulls at rodeos, jumped into cactus thickets, made a pilgrimage walk from Munich to Paris in the attempt to save the life of a dear friend, had a fever and ended up behind bars. He is a virtuoso of found footage and the embodiment of the idea that everything can go into action, from NASA filming to a dead man’s video diary. Today we will remember two films often regarded as Herzog’s masterwork: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972): voyage along the lost mind

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is Herzog’s first fiction masterpiece that nowadays looks more mesmerizing than ever. Filmed in 1972 for only 350 thousand dollars, it instantly brought Herzog recognition, captivating audiences with the director’s unique storytelling style, alongside the ability to capture the complexities of human nature.

In the center of the plot is a haunting story of a 16th-century ruthless Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre – the epochal role of Klaus Kinski – who is rapidly losing touch with reality, sinking into intoxicating madness and self-destruction during an expedition to Peruvian jungles in search of the mythical golden city of El Dorado.

A frame from the film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Klaus Kinski as Don Lope de Aguirre.

The story of the filming of Aguirre has something of the fatal voyage of the conquistadors: the feature was shot in the rainforest and in the tributaries of the Amazon, where the group endured extreme heat paired with immense physical exhaustion, and Herzog himself almost shot Klaus Kinski, while the latter, in his turn, during one of his fierce tantrums and irritated by the noise, repeatedly fired with a Winchester rifle in a crew’s hut, resulting in one of the bullets taking the tip of an extra’s finger off.

A frame from the film Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Fitzcarraldo (1982): naturalism on the verge of insanity

Herzog’s most ambitious and complex film – so far! – owes its sonorous name to the 19th-century traveler and Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, whom the director considered an inventive adventurer, worthy of appearing on the screen under the name of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald – the character of Klaus Kinski, part-time muse and part-time nemesis of the director – who dreams of constructing an opera house in the jungle and inviting the great tenor Enrico Caruso to sing at the premiere production. The team consisting of a blind captain, a drunken cook and a Rimbaud mechanic complements the semantic canvas of the film. To realize this outstanding project, Herzog hired over half a thousand Peruvian Indians, who manually dragged a real 340-ton steamship up a muddy 40-degree slope in the jungle, from one river to another, turning a road movie into an off-road movie, a movie of impassable roads that combines a charismatic  opera-loving madman and individuals rejected by society with the world of merchants, white burghers, opera singers and pagan rituals.

Long plans of sunsets, density and humidity of the atmosphere, wild landscapes and urban life – the oversaturation of the background captures the viewer, but often takes him beyond the canvas of the narrative. Herzog did not translate the indigenous language – the viewer here, like the main character, is in complete darkness and feels the risk of a spear approaching his face.

A frame from the film Fitzcarraldo. Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald.

The outstanding story of the making of Fitzcarraldo is told in Burden of Dreams (1982), a truly captivating documentary created by Les Blank that can be considered the best picture about Werner Herzog, not shot by Herzog himself. Everything there happens in the middle of the jungle, among Kinski’s hostile rants – leading indigenous members of cast to offer, as a favour to Herzog, to kill the actor – and the endless misfortunes befalling the troupe, including the director being accused of exploiting indigenous people, which resulted in their rightful strike, unprecedented weather conditions, poisonous snakes whose bites led to a crew member chainsawing his own foot, and the raid of a hostile neighboring tribe.

Despite the fact that Burden of Dreams includes a good half of Herzog’s cinematic mythology, Les Blank does not focus exclusively on the director’s personality and approach to work, now and then switching to long shots with huge ants or conversations with native Indians – just in the spirit of Herzog himself.

A frame from the film Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog is difficult to fit into the cinematic context, even of German cinema of the 1960s and 70s – he himself suggests that if anyone influenced his style of shooting, it was the romantic artist of the XVII century Kaspar David Friedrich or the music of the late Middle Ages. Constantly exploring resisting spaces, doomed rebellions, truth, madness and dreams, German director is primarily interested in heroes with a versatile and exceptional perception of reality. That’s why his universes are filled with madmen, dreamers and travellers, and there are so many exotic features in his works: local tribes, fierce natural forces, various folk beliefs and cults. Jungles for him is more than just scenery: it is the embodiment of emotions, dreams and nightmares of the characters. Everything familiar and conventional to him is estranged, and to this day he continues to stay a true poet of chaos, unbounded human’s subconscious and inner drives.

Cover image: Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo.

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