“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”- Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams (1982).
Always one to accept a challenge I sit here and wonder how to describe perhaps one of the most immersive home video experiences of the year- and words (almost) fail me. I am talking about the latest BFI release The Werner Herzog Collection– an 18 film, 8 disc collection (on blu-ray and DVD) release that has been widely anticipated and I am pleased to report does not disappoint. The only way I can possibly approach this review is on a personal level, as Herzog is one of those directors that speaks to my personal adoration for people watching. The heart and soul of the director’s work is about life, and people- regardless of what subject he is tackling, there is always a soul and honesty to his work that often makes, what might seem on face value even the most trivial of subjects, seem absorbing. This is a director who knows life and lives it to the full, infecting his broad tapestry of work with that sentiment. In any other lifetime Herzog could be one of those people who travels from town to town, meeting new people in bars and regaling them with his interesting stories about the people he has met on his travels and the curious experiences he has had. This is what I see in his films, what attracts and fascinates me- an organic style of film making that can only come from the heart, storytelling in its purest and most entertaining form. To achieve that without needlessly incorporating sentiment to manipulate audiences makes for an enriching experience. For there is no manipulation here, not in the conventional sense- of course the director evokes reaction- but when you trace that back to its roots, you see this comes from Herzog’s never-ending fascination with the world around him, with spectacular landscapes, and curious characters. So it is, for me, that Herzog represents our inner child- the dreamer, the bold explorer, with a thirst to know the world and everything in it.
With this BFI set, the viewer does not just receive Herzog’s films, but valuable inclusions that help the viewer get to know the director just that little bit more. On this level the box set takes on mammoth proportions as a viewing experience, it has taken me over a week of solid watching to get through, and even now I am trying to digest it all.
The Feature Length Films.
It is good to see that all the major work Herzog did with the infamous Klaus Kinski comes included in the set, and respectfully upgraded to high definition. The only Kinski related omission is the documentary My Best Fiend (1999)– which was made eight years after the actor’s death. We have already reviewed the stand alone releases for Aguirre Wrath of God (1972) here and Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979) here– this set includes the same spectacular prints used on those releases.
Fitzcarraldo (1982) is perhaps one the purest examples of art imitates life. This gargantuan epic of monstrous proportions carries such a flavoursome background that the two tales go hand in hand for full appreciation. Thankfully the BFI has also included Les Blank’s evocative documentary on the filming of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams- that makes for the perfect companion piece. The film stars Kinski as opera obsessed Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (nicknamed Fitzcarraldo), a man who on a personal quest to bring opera to his local town, sets out on an adventure in the wilds of the Amazon to exploit unchartered areas where rubber may be farmed. As with a lot of Herzog’s stories, this man must first overcome hardship- in this case by raising a ship over a mountain- to achieve this dream. As it is, Fitzcarraldo is not just an adventure film, it is a film that conveys the spirit of dreams. A film that sends out the message anything is possible, if you are tenacious and strong enough to keep those dreams in sight whatever the obstacles. Kinski displays such a subtle madness as Fitzcarraldo, a man whose pursuit in achieving his one dream manages to, to a point, defy nature. This is in opposition to the frightening proportions of sinister madness Kinski displays in Aguirre Wrath of God (1972), and the frail, sympathetic nuances of madness he portrays in Woyzeck (1979) or the defiant lunacy of his character in Cobra Verde (1987). It is fair to say, in journeying through the Herzog/Kinski collaborations ‘madness’ was a key feature, but then given the actor’s background, and the energy between both him and director, this only seems fitting.
The backstory to the film is just as inspirational. The director in order to make the film had to follow Fitzcarraldo’s path and hoist that ship physically over a mountain. Regardless of disaster after disaster- including personal threat bred from local political unrest, down to financing, loss of cast members, health and safety issues, Herzog and his team weathered the storm and the film was eventually finished. The completion of Fitzcarraldo demonstrates that Herzog is a man of both vision and action- a worker, and fearless spirit, who does not see problems, only finds solutions. For anyone who has ever had a dream, this is essential viewing.
Woyzeck (1979) was a film made directly after Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979) and is based on a play by Georg Büchner. Kinski is again cast in the role of an unstable individual as the lamentable Franz Woyzeck, a low ranking army officer, whose life is unravelling in front of his eyes. This is a man carried to the brink- and beyond- and on this basis the film carries a powerful tone and tragic subtext. Although this is not to say, the film takes the stance of being overly moral or sentimental about its subject matter. What is appealing is the skill in Kinski’s performance as matters gather momentum. The character of Franz is a doomed soul right from the start. He takes part in degrading medical experiments with a local doctor to earn more cash- like living on a diet of peas- and is dominated by his commanding officer at work. The only positive in Franz’s life is his lover, Marie (Eva Mattes), and when local gossip threatens to undermine his relationship, Franz starts to lose the plot- speaking to the earth, and apparently receiving disturbing messages which equate to voices in his head- this results in tragic consequences. In contrast to the wild imaginings evoked in the epics, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, there is something very down to earth about Woyzeck. The backdrop of life in a vintage European small town and approach to filming scenes without cutting or using multiple cameras or editing gives the entire piece an intimate feel, the viewer is pulled effortlessly into the narrative, and once there the film becomes an absorbing experience.
Cobra Verde (1987) was the last film Kinski and Herzog collaborated on. Kinski was especially problematic on set, and cameraman Thomas Mauch famously walked out, leaving Herzog to find a replacement in Viktor Růžička. Not that any of this shows on film. Kinski is slave trader and rebellious soul, Francisco Manoel da Silva—in a film that takes on epic proportions, adapting Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Kinski evokes yet another persona that is living on the edge, his performance incorporating- at times- pure, unadulterated grit and drive that forces him to the borders of madness. The film- shot on location in Brazil, Columbia, and Ghana- looks like National Geographic cover, especially in high definition, the colours and settings summon a wild landscape, which is both beautiful and evocative. Within this natural beauty the story Herzog crafts delivers such a savage edge, I would be hard pressed to find anything that comes close to this. Made just four years before Kinski’s death, the film demonstrates the end of an era, although the actor left a questionable legacy in regards to his personal life, it cannot be argued that he did not possess raw talent and an inimitable screen presence that many would find impossible to follow. Under these terms Cobra Verde can be considered Kinski’s swansong, and a fitting tribute to the cinematic legacy he left behind.
Kinski was a prominent muse for the director, the two opposing energies apparently clashing yet attracting in a blaze of creativity. However, there was another actor who although not prolific did make two outstanding features with Herzog that come as part of The Werner Herzog Collection. Bruno Schleinstein (credited as Bruno S.) was a man who attracted the attentions of the filmmaker when he was featured in a documentary talking about his difficult life in Nazi Germany . Bruno as a person was, as with most things, and people, associated with Herzog, just as interesting a subject off screen, as he was in the roles he undertook. A man who had lived a harrowing life- being imprisoned by the Nazis, institutionalised, and abused for many years (sadly the actor passed in 2010 but you can read more about him here). Bruno S. was perfect for the lead role The Enigma of Kausper Hauser (1974). The story behind the film was built on the real life tale of a young man in the 19th century who was discovered after being set free from incarceration that had lasted his entire life up until that point. Unable to talk, and knowing nothing about the world or society the real Kausper Hauser became something of a mystery, with researchers debating his origins, or if indeed his story was true. Whatever the real facts, Herzog uses the basic foundations of the tale and builds it into something entirely different. Using Bruno S. as the focus- with the actor’s use of non-expressive communication, and the aura of vulnerability he exudes, it makes perfect sense that he would be cast in the lead for the film. Bruno as Kausper elicits the feeling of true isolation, someone shut out from society and left to live on the margins of something he tries and fails miserably to understand. It is a heartbreaking film, and yet again one which does not present as overly sentimental- instead invoking the feeling of authenticity and honesty, even if the story does not fit the facts of the underlying inspiration.
Bruno S. would go on to star in another film for Herzog that comes part of this package, a film that again takes on the position of a character study which raises thought-provoking questions- Stroszek (1977). The story builds its foundations around the real essence of the actor involved. So it is that Bruno plays a self-titled role, based on a character who after leaving prison attempts to settle back into life at home. He picks up prostitute Eva (played by Eva Mattes) in the process, saving her from her violent pimps, and the two together with nutty neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Schietz) travel to America in an attempt to carve out new, successful lives for themselves. Many have stated this film is making an anti-American statement- something the director has persistently denied. The film does contain a woeful rendering of themes that hark on shattered dreams. The fact that despite all their efforts our protagonists seem doomed to fail from the outset to achieve ‘The American Dream’ perhaps does not give the country the best advertisement for anyone wanting to migrate. Although it could be argued that it is not geography the characters need to escape, but their own inner natures, and no matter how far they travel, nothing will change until they start walking a different path inside themselves. All this aside Stroszek is an astounding film. Again the plot comes delivered with brutal honestly; it is heartbreaking, and yet wrapped up in wonderful layers of dark comedy- especially surrounding the character of Scheitz and his weird conspiracy theories. Herzog captures his locations in a way that breathes authenticity into the every frame. It has to be said, for me, Stroszek is one of my favourite pieces by the director. It carries an odd resonance that is difficult to capture in words and is something that stays with you, long after viewing.
The set arrives with the inclusion of two wild cards so to speak. Firstly, Heart of Glass (1976), perhaps one of Herzog’s strangest features- strange because he saw fit to hypnotise the bulk of the inexperienced cast while shooting their scenes, minus the lead Josef Bierbichler as Hias. The main characters give off unnatural performances, this giving the overall picture a peculiar aura that is difficult to define. The story follows what happens after the owner of a local glass factory dies and takes with him to the grave the secret of how to make precious ‘ruby glass.’ The local Baron is in a state of despair and gradually goes mad in his quest to find the secret, while the rest of the town drift around like sheep that have lost their shepherd. In amongst this Hias arrives, a character plagued with prophetic visions- seeing dark times on the horizon he tries to carry his message as a warning to the townspeople. This falls on deaf ears, and when things start to come true, all the villagers can do is treat this new arrival with suspicion, seemingly unable to wake themselves from their apathy and move themselves from crashing along on their current course of fate. Set in 18th Century Bavaria- although Herzog uses other locations to present his story in his inimitable style- the film takes on the tone of a warped traditional fable. It is a miraculous piece of cinema, and one of a kind. Although some of Herzog’s usual themes pop into the narrative, it is also a film that takes on a different tone to the bulk of his work- an ethereal film, that echoes far beyond its bizarre narrative structure.
Last, but not least, is the bizarre and trippy Fata Morgana (1972). This was one of Herzog’s earliest features- his first feature length. The film, which had initially been planned as a project with sci-fi leanings, does in some part pay legacy to its inspiration by presenting landscapes that will appear almost alien to many. Filmed in the Sahara, Herzog and his all-seeing camera treks across this bleak and exotic landscape. The main stay of the feature comes in the form of tracking shots taken from Herzog’s jeep as it speeds along. On this basis Fata Morgana becomes less of a film and more of a visual experience, and at times the viewer feels like a passenger on a surreal and alien road trip, watching the ‘action’ from a car window. The director is focusing on the miracle of the desert, and paying homage to the film’s title which translates as a form of mirage, by capturing this naturally occurring phenomenon. At other times, the camera pauses to focus on manmade relics that the crew encounter, like the wreckage of a plane in the middle of nowhere, or scrappy towns and locations, that lends the piece a unique feel of being almost post-apocalyptic in its vision. Twin this with a narrative that recites Mayan Creation Myth- from The Popul Vuh, and you have a fairly surreal experience on your hands. It is fair to say this will not be for everyone, but it is quite a remarkable piece of cinema all the same. For those who want to lose themselves for just over an hour, Fata Morgana is well worth the patience if you go into it with the right state of mind.
It is far beyond the scope of this review, unfortunately, to explore every little angle of this set in detail. I will however try to give a little information on the documentaries featured here. Kicking off with Handicapped Future (1971) a film that the director tends to outline as a contract piece in interviews, but is nevertheless fairly engrossing as it explores the lives of handicapped children for the main part, expressing their views on life, and exploring attitudes to disability at the time. Herzog’s working on the aforementioned documentary did however lead him to a much more personal piece- Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), Herzog focuses on the plight of Fini Straubinger, a deaf blind woman, who after losing her sight as a teenager, and ability to hear, was left bedridden for thirty years. The film takes place after Fini has become an advocate for the deaf/blind and explores her universe as she sets about reaching out to others who are in a similar position. Fini can communicate through a unique touch based sign language, and she discusses her thoughts and feelings on the situation. Land of Silence and Darkness is wildly provocative, and heart wrenching, it makes the viewer question what it must be like to live in a world where they would be unable to communicate or exist without the aid of others. Fini becomes an inspirational figure, who, above all odds has managed to escape her sphere to some extent and make her voice be heard.
Communication is a key statement in many of Herzog’s work. This feature comes threaded through pieces like How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) which is also included here. This documentary looks at the language of American auction traders- where language is delivered at such a force and speed it takes on a rhythm and almost poetic context. The film focuses on one such auction and will not be to everyone’s taste, over half the running time the camera just focuses on dealers speiling off their hyper-fast narrative as part of an auctioneer competition. Herzog’s camera hangs on the event with fascination, and the film serves as a perfect example of how the director gets wrapped up in his subject matter. Another film included here that follows the same path, is Huie’s Sermon (1980), a piece which concentrates on Huie Rogers delivering his words to his Brooklyn based church congregation in real time, only occasionally cutting to scenes of the neglected neighbourhood outside. This film, like How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, is not immediately accessible, but it is one, that with patience, pays off to a certain degree. As the sermon moves on Huie becomes more animated in delivering his themes to the audience, and the piece takes on an over the top, theatrical quality that some may find as equally fascinating as Herzog obviously did.
God’s Angry Man (1980) provides an alternative illustration of Herzog’s curiosity with communication. The film follows self-professed ‘misunderstood’ TV Pastor Gene Scott, intersecting portions of Scott’s live show, and behind the scenes footage, with interview material. The self-styled guru of Christian faith is seen eliciting audience members to phone in with cash donations- using a number of methods to get them, including (mostly) ranting. There appears to be little religious message delivered here, other than ‘part with the cash in the name of the Lord.’ The subject in question is one whom Herzog found captivating. However, the director also admits in the book Herzog on Herzog (2002, Werner Herzog, Paul Cronin) he did not like the man very much. It is easy to understand why, Scott is clearly consumed and driven in his quest and exhibits some quite impressive oratory skills. What is interesting are the interview segments where- although constantly contradicting himself- Scott attempts to elicit sympathy by carving out the character of a man who has good intentions. The Pastor attempts to extract sympathy by harping on the point that he lives in loneliness because no one understands him- of course the fact he rides about in a company limo it is difficult to give him any sympathy. There also appears to be little to misunderstand in his demanding requests for money on his show. In good old, there’s no business like show business tradition and proving the man will resort to anything, at one point Scott even brings out a band of toy monkeys as a focus to illicit cash pledges. The subject content in Herzog’s capable hands becomes somewhat riveting.
One of my personal favourites of the collection is The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1975), a documentary piece Herzog filmed for a German TV network; a film about Walter Steiner a record breaking skier and carpenter. I will be honest and say the prospect of watching this from the synopsis did not immediately grab me. However from the opening shot which shows Steiner defying gravity to fly through the air on his skis- the tone of the shot supported by an outstanding score by Popol Vuh (this same music also appears in Aguirre Wrath of God , although does not appear on the official soundtrack)- I was mesmerised. What unravels is not so much a tale about the logistics of skiing- although Herzog did have a strong interest in the subject at the time- but it takes on a higher meaning and becomes a film that centres on aspirations and dreams. As stated by Herzog on a number of occasions, this film aligns with the metaphor in Fitzcarraldo, because despite his obvious fears Steiner just wants to fly and has dreamt of doing so since he was a child. The film is especially poignant and reaches far beyond its sports centred narrative, to encompass something on a far more spiritual level.
In addition to all the aforementioned the collection also comes with Herzog’s three early shorts- The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreutz (1967), Last Words (1968) and Precautions Against Fanatics (1969).
There are some tasty extras included on the set, including commentaries from Herzog on some of the main features. Les Blank’s behind the scenes documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams (1982) is utterly essential viewing. While The South Bank Show: Werner Herzog (1982) is again critical for fans of the director. Also included is Les Blanks’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe(1980) , in which Herzog undertakes the cooking and then eating of a shoe, after failing on a bet that director Erroll Morris would not complete the documentary Gates of Heaven. For those wanting to know more about the director, there is an audio only Guardian lecture with Herzog that makes- as expected- riveting listening.
The package also comes with a glossy booklet, packed with exclusive writing from Laurie Johnson, which comes illustrated with original film stills. The booklet makes for a worthy companion piece for something of this magnitude.
All the films here have been given faithful and top quality restorations into high definition for blu-ray. The BFI has a strong reputation in this field and do not disappoint. Care and attention seem to have been given to each title, and in doing so each film retains its relative look and feel with regards to texture and grain. Colour presents as properly saturated, and naturalistic on skin tones where applicable- the colours in Aguirre Wrath of God and Cobra Verde look spectacular in high definition. The prints do not appear to have lost detail in the DNR process, and look beautifully defined when appropriate. What is more there are no flaws, relics of the digital process, or damage to the prints to be detected anywhere in the set. All in all, this is another top quality release in the BFI’s history of bringing out superior upgraded releases to a high definition age.
For fans of the director this is one hell of a collection, the prints, the extras, the package, make this a fantastic set for collectors. For those with an interest in independent cinema, who have yet to sample the delights director Werner Herzog has to offer, this collection is the perfect starting point to begin your journey. What is more, the price is fantastic when you consider everything on offer here, this is a very worthy purchase, and comes highly recommended by me. You can get more details on how to buy here.