Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #4: "Fitzcarraldo"

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: Klaus Kinski was a piece of shit. And, as always, I write my articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie I’m writing about...so SPOILERS.

Moving on, this week I’m writing about Fitzcarraldo, which is usually discussed along with the documentary Burden of Dreams. Unfortunately, that documentary is not included in the Herzog/Kinski collection, and I don’t own it separately. I’ve seen it, and I comment about it a bit in the article, but it probably should be included as part of the collection since the behind the scenes stories from this film are so interesting. I’ll get into more in a bit, but I don’t think the behind the scenes stuff is better than the movie, but it does enhance the experience if you know what was going on between shots. Normally, I would say a movie stand on its own, but I think Herzog and Kinski are the exceptions to this, mainly when they worked together. That said, I’m not rewatching Burden of Dreams for this article, but it’s definitely required viewing of any Herzog/Kinski fan.

The behind the scenes story is arguably better than the narrative of the film.

About an hour into Fitzcarraldo, I started to wonder why I claimed to love this movie so much. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing special. It’s just Kinski bumbling around trying to make money so he can bring the opera to the jungle. It’s interesting to see Kinski play a happy crazy person, but it’s not that special. Then they decide to haul a boat over a mountain, and I remembered why I loved this film.

When the boat segment gets going, I stop thinking of the movie as fictional and start watching it like it was a documentary. A big reason for this is that I know they actually did this. So what I’m seeing is them actually attempting what is deemed “impossible” in the film. If this was a typical film, and I knew the sequence was done with special effects, then I would find it a little boring. There are lengthy moments of the boat slowly being pulled up the mountain. Without knowing that it’s real, it’s not worth dwelling so long on. But knowing it’s real, the lengthy scenes are justified. Leave it to Herzog to turn a narrative film into a documentary for a bit.

That documentary feeling is extremely beneficial to the viewing experience. I felt detached for the first hour, but after that segment, I was much more involved. It’s truly special when a film can draw you in like that.

From a cinematic standpoint, the image of a boat traveling up a mountain makes for some of the best visuals of Herzog’s non-documentary career. My personal favorite image is Kinski just hanging out in the foreground as a steam ship lumbers up a mountain in the background.

Aside from the boat actually being dragged up a mountain, there is a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes here (why else would this film have its own documentary, like my other favorite jungle movie, Apocalypse Now?). There are a lot of questionable things done to the natives. Overworking them, displacing them, poor living conditions, etc. It taints the viewing process, for sure. Herzog seems the most like his main character with this film: obsessed with accomplishing his goal no matter the means.

On a lighter (yet darker) note, apparently the chief of the natives offered to have Kinski killed. In typical Herzog fashion, he claims he turned down the offer only because he needed Kinski to finish the film. This happened around the time of the dinner scene, in which Kinski looks truly unsure of his safety as the natives surround him. It’s one of my favorite scenes because Kinski didn’t have to act.

The rest of the behind the scenes stuff is pretty amazing. Herzog made nearly half the film with his original stars: Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. Robards got dysentery (something tells me your chances of getting dysentery increase dramatically when you sign on for a Herzog film) and had to return to America, and his doctors would not let him return. Once Kinski signed on, the scheduling forced Jagger to drop out, as well, and his character was completely cut. That’s the kind of thing that would end a film, but Herzog persisted. This film is so interesting because it’s not just about a character trying to do something nearly impossible; it’s also about a director doing the same for a film. It adds together to make a special cinematic experience.

This isn’t to say the movie on its own doesn’t have something to say. The overall story is one of art over money; that there is no price for beauty and even tribes in the Amazon deserve things like the opera. Personally, I love this movie because of all the behind the scenes info, but it’s compelling on its own, as well.

Kinski is...kind of normal and happy? Oh, only onscreen. That makes sense.

I already mentioned that the chief of the tribe offered to have Kinski killed, so his typical behavior was going on between takes. That’s expected at this point. His character on screen, however, is different than usual.

Sure, Fitzcarraldo is crazy. He keeps making terrible business decisions in an attempt to raise money to build an opera house in the jungle. That’s his end goal. And he goes to extremes to try and accomplish it, putting his own life, and the lives of many others, on the line. And people do die in the process. Is opera in the jungle that important?

But unlike Aguirre, who is pretty much a psycho from start to finish, Fitzcarraldo begins relatively happy. He’s disappointed in his efforts, but overall he’s upbeat. And even when his obsession gets the best of him, he seems more jubilant than crazy, and he never seems evil. In fact, nearly the only time you see him angry is when he has to deal with the rich rubber barons who seem to control everything. But he doesn’t kill any of them or anything.

Perhaps the biggest difference with this character is that things sort of work out for him the end. Seeing Kinski happy is refreshing...and off-putting. But despite all the baggage that comes with a Kinski performance, I was still happy for the crazy bastard in the end.

Would I own this if it wasn’t part of the collection?

Yes. And I wish I had it on blu ray instead of DVD, but I’ll likely settle for this version. I do wish Burden of Dreams was included. I’m not going to buy it, but I’ll find a way to watch that again. And I believe I’ll revisit Fitzcarraldo in the future, too.

Random Thoughts

And we're five minutes in and a horse is being fed champagne.

Kinski's hair in this is its own character.

Conquistador of the Useless. What is the point of it all. Ice in the jungle. Opera in the jungle. Money in the jungle. Beauty is all that matters.

I love the painting of Kinski and Cardinale.

Aguirre might still be my favorite…I’m not sure yet. I’ll settle it by the time I’m done with the set.

Pretty sure Deep Roy modeled his performance in Eastbound & Down on Huerequeque.

Accused of exploiting natives...I can see it.

His insanity is contagious.

“Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” (One of Kinski's lines about halfway through) Could be an alternate title.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #3: "Woyzeck"

*As always, there will be SPOILERS throughout this article. And also remember, despite my praise of these films and Kinski’s performances, he was still, very much, a piece of shit.

This is the second film (of two) in the Herzog/Kinski collection that I had not watched until I decided to write this series of articles. It’s interesting that I skipped this and Nosferatu since they have quite a few similarities. They were both made in 1979. They were both based on German classics. And they feature, in my opinion, the least interesting locations. I ended up liking both of these films, but I think I would appreciate them more if I was more of a Germanophobe (is that a thing?). I have no special place in my heart for Nosferatu and I didn’t even know Woyzeck was a play until I did a little research. Still, both are good, interesting films, and Woyzeck in particular is impressive for the speed with which it was made. Next week, however, I get to return to one of my favorites: Fitzcarraldo. But this week, it’s Woyzeck, the film about the tortured soldier who may or may not be acting crazy as the result of a doctor’s “all pea” diet.

A tired Kinski is an efficient Kinski.

Werner Herzog made this film just five days after completing Nosferatu, using the same crew. It took eighteen days and was edited in four. The entire eighty-minute film consists of twenty-seven takes. That efficiency, coupled with the existential plot, quite possible makes it the most German film ever made.

The back to back nature of the two films was probably just Herzog being as efficient as possible, mainly because of his typical method with Kinski. Kinski, according to Herzog, typically wanted to go big with his performances while Herzog wanted a more subdued take. So Herzog would let him go big, and he would argue with him behind the scenes to wear him down. If Herzog was to make a film quickly, he wouldn’t be able to do that...unless he just kept going. So Kinski was burnt out from Nosferatu, making him easier to work with for Woyzeck.

It’s such a silly way to work, but you can’t argue with the results. Woyzeck is meant to be a disturbed, beaten down man, and Kinski embodies that. Partially, that’s due to his own talent, but I imagine a big part of that was the scheduling of the two films back to back. It makes for a truly uncomfortable performance, and I did not like having to look at Kinski’s face throughout the film. I think that’s the point, though. We’re watching a man being attacked on all fronts be driven to murder. That cannot be a fun watch.

Herzog’s German classics double feature of 1979.

I knew Nosferatu was a classic German film (or just plain film, really), but I had no idea what Woyzeck was. After doing some research, I can see why Herzog was drawn to the play. Though unfinished, it deals with plenty of Herzog mainstays: madness, manipulation, existentialism. But since the play is unfinished, it leads to a disjointed film. At times, I found the quick, seemingly unconnected transitions annoying, but as the film went on, and Woyzeck became more and more disturbed, it seemed fitting that all the pieces didn’t fit together nicely. When I make an argument like that (claiming choppy editing is actually a positive), I always feel like I’ve just drank the Kool-Aid, and I’ll praise anything. But that’s really not the case. Herzog may be a filmmaker that does not plan things out, but he knows how film works, and everything he does is intentional, no matter the source material.

The unfinished aspect helps out thematically, but the story overall is interesting as well, with its focus on the common man and everything that conspires against him. Most of Woyzeck’s plight is relatable to the common man. He feels inconsequential and unworthy. His poverty drives his every action. He is absent from home trying to make money which drives his wife to another man. He is beaten and derided by his superiors. There’s plenty to relate to there, but when the doctor appears, things get weird.

Apparently to make extra money, Woyzeck is the guinea pig of a delusional doctor who appears to simply enjoy performing random experiments on Woyzeck, then passing off the results as evidence of some hypothesis he has. In the main scene with the doctor, he is strangely angry with Woyzeck for peeing on a wall, and he references his prescribed diet of nothing but peas, which will then transition to nothing but mutton. None of it makes sense, and it isn’t meant to. The doctor is an example of the upper classes using the lower for their experiments and/or amusement.

All of this leads Woyzeck to hear apocalyptic messages from the earth itself, which eventually leads to him killing his unfaithful. It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but more than that the film is a boiling pot, and it’s almost a relief when he finally kills his wife. Herzog presents the scene as a catharsis, presenting in in slow motion to a resounding score. It’s as if to say, “What else could this man do?” Once again, this is possibly the most German thing I’ve ever watched.

Perhaps the most German thing about the film is that it’s presented at times as a comedy. The scenes with the doctor and the captain are certainly goofy, and the beginning sequence is comedic as well, presented in fast forward and focused on Kinski’s comically stressed face. It’s a very Herzog, and German, thing to find some bit of comedy in such misery. It’s kind of the point of it, I guess. What else can you do but find some humor in this shitty world? Oh crap, did I just become German?

Would I buy this if it wasn’t part of a collection?

No. It’s just one of those movies I would never want to see again. As with Nosferatu, I’m glad it’s part of the collection, but it’s not very rewatchable, in my opinion. I prefer my Herzog/Kinski films to be a bit more grand, which is why I’m looking forward to Fitzcarraldo next week.

Random Thoughts

I can't think of a worse person to shave someone… That whole sequence made me nervous. Could you imagine Kinski erratically shaving your neck and face? I get chills thinking about it.

Some of the most German lines I noticed:
“If we made it to heaven they'd make us work the thunder.”
“You look hunted.”
“Why does man exist?”
“All things of this world are evil.”
“Even money decays.”
“You should have an economical death.”
“Dance, sweat, and stink. He will get you all in the end.”

I seriously wonder if Mike Myers watched this movie and was inspired to create his Dieter character for SNL.

Kinski really seems to like the carnival. Happy Kinski bothers me.

It wouldn’t be Herzog/Kinski without some animal abuse! I doubt the carnival animals were well kept, but it’s the cat being thrown out the window that would probably anger animal rights groups. I don’t know which is worse for the cat: being thrown out a window or being caught by Kinski.

Never go on an all pea diet…

Monday, July 9, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #2 - "Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht"

*As always, I wrote this article with SPOILERS throughout. But who doesn’t know all the spoilers for a Dracula movie at this point?

This is a unique entry for me because I’ve owned this movie for years, but I have never watched it. You would think a site called “Why Do I Own This?” would be about movies I have already seen, but that’s not the case. I have rarely purchased a movie without watching it first (I did buy Alien: Covenant without watching it because I’m a huge fan of the franchise and knew I’d at least slightly like it [I did]). But when I buy sets of movies, sometimes a movie or two is included that I haven’t seen. For instance, I haven’t seen a few movies in the Mel Brooks collection I bought a while back (which probably means I’ll be writing about that collection soon). With the Herzog/Kinski set, there were four (of six!) that I had not seen, and two I did not watch until I decided to write these articles. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is the first of these films (Woyzeck is next).

So why would I buy a set of films that I had not watched entirely? First off, this was bought at a time when I felt required to buy a movie a week (I started this site to make myself watch some of my too large collection to justify its existence). Second, and more importantly, I loved Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo so much that I knew I would like everything Herzog and Kinski produced. So far, I am correct. We’ll find out for sure next week. For now, here’s Herzog and Kinski’s version of Nosferatu.

I’ve seen this before...but not done by Werner Herzog.

I don’t have a good excuse for why I skipped this one for so long. I like vampire movies, especially adaptations of Dracula (even if this one is unofficial just like the original Nosferatu). But perhaps that’s also why I skipped it. It’s a story I’ve seen many times, and I can’t imagine liking a version more than Coppola’s. (I am a huge fan of that version and watch it at least once a year; I don’t even consider Keanu Reeves’s casting distracting.) That’s still the case, but I should have known Herzog would do something unique with the story.

The most surprising element is the lack of blood. For a film about a vampire, there is almost no blood (compared to Coppola’s fountains of blood). It’s odd, but I honestly didn’t think about it until near the end of the film. It’s as if Herzog gave himself a challenge, but looking through his career, he is not a gory filmmaker. His films contain violence, but they never revel it it. His focus here was to create a mood, and he certainly did that.

The use of music and some great exterior shots set the otherworldly tone for this film. But what elevated it for me the most was Herzog’s focus on death. Nosferatu brings the plague with him, and the second half of the film becomes a straight up plague movie culminating in a great sequence of hysteria that comes with mass death. The character of Lucy stumbles through a chaotic scene of caskets, bodies, and insanity. It’s much more interesting than watching a vampire sneak into a bedroom over and over again. Herzog is more interested in what the vampire represents, and what that would do to an entire town.

Herzog is also one of the first directors (as far as I know; I’m no Dracula film scholar) to humanize Dracula by making him unhappy with his immortality (an idea that Coppola ran with). Kinski makes for one of the most disturbing versions of the villain, yet you still sense a scrap of humanity left within him.

I’m a bit embarrassed that I’m just now seeing this film. I think if I had seen this before Coppola’s version, then it might be my favorite. But Coppola’s version is burnt in my memory as the version of Dracula. But Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a close second because it is so different while also staying the same.

Kinski, the animal.

Even though Herzog humanizes Nosferatu a bit (and even claims Kinski made the character more human-like in the commentary), it’s hard to watch Kinski and think of a creature in human form. His physical performance is very unsettling, and when you finally see him feed, it’s sickening in it animality. (By the way, I just realized “animality” is a real word; I hope it means what I think it does.) And even though Herzog claims this version is more human, he later states that he asked Kinski to move like a crab, just as he did with Aguirre. Perhaps the key to their creative relationship was that one direction: “Move like a crab!”

Kinski is already a strange looking man, but add the makeup and prosthetics and he truly becomes a monster. But it’s the way he skulks around, the way he stares, and the way he makes use of his claw-like hands that make the performance. He is worthy successor to Max Schreck, and is arguably more frightening.

As for the typical Kinski shenanigans, there really aren’t any. Apparently, Herzog used the Aguirre technique, in which he let Kinski play it big for many scenes and argued with him between and before scenes to tire Kinski out to get the subdued performance Herzog wanted. And subdued it is. There is a lack of energy to Kinski’s Nosferatu, but it somehow makes him more frightening.

As for Kinski’s offscreen issues, I couldn’t find any aside from comments about him being difficult in general. There is no gun story with this film. Funnily enough, my first thought when I saw Kinski was, “What did that poor makeup artist have to endure each day?” Apparently, I’m not the only person to think this as IMDb’s trivia section’s first entry states that Kinski was surprisingly well-behaved for the make-up sessions and became friends with the artist. But don’t forget, Klaus Kinski is (probably) a piece of shit.

Would I buy this if it wasn’t part of the collection?

No, but my criteria for purchasing has gone up just a bit. Years ago, during my must-buy-at-least-one-movie-each-week-no-matter-what phase, I would have bought this. I used to rewatch movies a lot more back then, though. These days, I had to make a website to make myself watch movies from my collection. So something has to really speak to me for me to buy it. (That written, I still add at least twenty movies to my collection each year.)

I did really enjoy Nosferatu, though. But Coppola’s Dracula will always be my favorite vampire movie, and it will likely be the only one I rewatch with any regularity. Although I do find myself watching Dracula 2000 (I don’t know why, but that movie really worked for me) Dracula: Dead and Loving It (the enema jokes and fountains of blood crack me up), and Interview with the Vampire (I’ve read all the Anne Rice novels and thought the movie was a faithful and entertaining adaptation). So there’s just no room for Nosferatu, but I’ll always have it just in case.

Random Thoughts

Renfield gets on my fucking nerves, which might be the point, but still.

The music, thought repetitive, is very effective.

Okay, maybe Malick did rip Herzog off. Nature shots as a character witnesses a new place set to Wagner’s “Rheingold"? That's pretty much every other scene of The New World.

Kinski’s disembodied head in one of his first scenes is unsettling.

Lines of coffins like slithering snakes. Herzog is still in the jungle.

An apocalyptic Dracula film.

Bruno Ganz is pretty great in this. It’s a shame this is the only film he made with Herzog.