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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Herzog and Kinski: 5 Films

Cinema has been filled with memorable director/actor collaborations, think of the famous Scorsese/De Niro or more recently Scorsese/Di Caprio, or perhaps Kurosawa/Mifune or Kurosawa/Nakadai.
And although each of these collaborations have produced not just one but several masterpieces of Cinema, none of them were as explosive, as contradictory, as inspired as the work produced by the creative partnership between German director Werner Herzog and German actor Klaus Kinski.

If you've seen the excellent and informative documentary Werner Herzog made about his professional and personal relationship with Klaus Kinski, named My Best Fiend, then you will already know that their relationship was a troubled one.
Arguments, violent clashes, and even death threats abounded. Much of the cause was the fact that Kinksi was possibly clinically insane. And yet he is easily one of the most terrific actors, each of his performances is mesmerising, but none more so than the work he did with Herzog.
they complemented each other perfectly and through their collaborations, made five astounding films. Some greater than others, but all worthy of consideration by any serious film buff.

Herzog is a director I greatly admire. Few can rival his genius in my opinion, and every time I see one of his films, or documentaries for that matter, I feel all the more driven to make films of my own.
Few directors can capture the beauty of nature, the folly of man, and the little oddities of life better than Werner Herzog.

Klaus Kinski was a simply ferocious actor. All the characters he portrayed in Herzog's films were insane to some degree, it is obvious his deranged mental condition off screen had a string effect on the characters he played on screen. However, despite his problems, or maybe because of them, he remains one of the finest actors ever to have lived. No one does near animal ferocity, combined with a scary intelligence quite like Klaus Kinski.

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God - 1972

When it comes to choosing the best of the Herzog/Kinski collaborations, I'm always torn between Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, which are two films that have had considerable impacts on me and that I would place very highly amongst my favourites.
Aguirre is a mesmerising, terrifying and beautiful film that, like most of Herzog's work, feels entirely different to any film you've seen before. It's as if Herzog's work belongs in another genre entirely, not because it's hard to pin down what the film is, but because it his work is so unique and unconventional.
But as beautiful as Herzog's work on this film is, and as haunting as the score by Popol Vuh is, and as original and fascinating the script is, the film would not be half as mesmerising as it is without Klaus Kinski's performance as Aguirre, a man who begins the film on the edge of insanity and quickly topples over and falls into complete and utter delusion. There is a certain animal intensity and ferocity to Kinski's performance that is amazing to witness; he is on a completely different level than teh other actors, who are obviously "acting" wheras he seems to be "living" these events, feeling every injury and relishing every victory.
It's a film about the folly of men, in particular that of the white man in the Americas', but it also contains one of Herzog's favourite themes, that of man vs nature, he does not look at nature with an idyllic eye not does he purposefully create beautiful shots like directors such as Terence Malick do, instead he attempts to capture the wild, dark and threatening side of nature, coupling it with a sense of awe and creating a view of wild nature unlike any I've seen put onto film before.
It's a film that demonstrates all that I love about Cinema and when I have my doubts about the medium, I just look to this film (amongst others) and it reassures me.

Nosferatu - 1979

This is a remake of the classic silent film of the same name made by F W Murnau is 1922 and based on the book Dracula written by Bram Stoker.
With this film, Herzog isn't attempting a retelling of the story, nor is he attempting a modernised version, instead it is a tribute to Murnau.
I may be one of the few that actually preferred this version over the original film. Of course they are both entirely different from the books, but Herzog goes to great pains to recreate many of the classic scenes of the original and in my opinion surpasses the original in doing so.
Herzog creates a film that is as clsoe as possible to the original, despite the fact that he made it in 79 it's dialogue is sparse and the film relies rather on it's visual elements to tell the story as the original did. However I found that Herzog's film had a far creepier atmosphere that draw me into the film far more than the original.
Furthermore Klaus Kinski's performance was horrifying and spellbinding. With a shaved head, bat like ears and rat like teeth he is the scariest incarnation of the famed vampire I have ever seen put on screen. Herzog originally filmed the film in two languages, German and English at the same time which is a feat few directors have ever attempted as it means filming two films at once. But it does take away all the problems that arise from dubbing. However I had heard that Kinski's performance was better in the German version (which is understandable as it is his mother tongue) so I viewed that version.
Isabel Adjani gives a performance that is perfectly in tune with the nostalgic atmosphere of the film as it seems to be drawn straight from a Silent film. In fact, Nosferatu could well be called "a silent film in colour with sound".
As much as this is a tribute to Murnau in which Herzog is obviously channelling that directors style in favour of his own, he still manages to fit in a few typically "Herzogian" scenes. Such as the wave of rats that swarms over the city, a scene for which Herzog had to release several thousand live rats in order to get the right shots. It's is impressive and unpleasant in equal quantities, as I can't help but wonder what happened to all those rats when shooting was finished.
All in all Herzog's Nosferatu is a rare example of a film surpassing it's original, it is creepy and atmospheric, with a suitably gothic soundtrack and great performances from Kinski, Adjani and Bruno Ganz. But most interestingly of all, it recreates the silent film style to perfection.

Woyzeck - 1979

It may surprise you to hear that Herzog and Kinski made another film the very same year as Nosferatu, one would think they would need a while to rest after that shoot. But instead Kinski used his exhaustion to his advantage in his performance in Woyzeck. A film based on a German stage play, telling the tale of a man at the bottom of the hierarchy. He is a lowly soldier who also volunteers for experimentation to the local doctor.
This leads, directly or indirectly, to his mental deterioration, speeded up by his jealously when it comes to his young wife, who is far from trustworthy.
His life seems to be collapsing in on him, as he is stuck in a kind of limbo in a small, uneventful village, he hears voices and shows other signs of insanity but no help is offered and he is treated as nothing more than a curiosity by the doctor.
This bleak and odd premise makes for a very strange film, it's stage origins are evident throughout, as much of it takes place in doors between a relatively small amount of characters. Herzog's camera work is restrained and not up to his usual standards, possibly because he was still recovering from Nosferatu, furthermore I found the lighting to be very problematic, it was to bright and complete unnatural.
Klaus Kinski gives one of his finest performances, in fact his performance is the most interesting aspect of the film, which on the whole is surprisingly flat and uneventful.
It all hinges around the murder sequence that takes place towards the end of the film. All is but build up towards this sequence, the insanity, the jealousness etc... But I still found the end to be strangely anti climatic.
Overall it's an intriguing film, with a fantastic performance from Kinski, but it definitely ranks near the bottom of Herzog's body of work as it's premise promises much, a tale of insanity perhaps, and is ultimately rather disappointing.

Fitzcarraldo - 1982

This marks a definite return to form for the Herzog/Kinski partnership. Fitzcarraldo is the only film the two made that could rival Aguirre.
Fitzcarraldo is similar to Aguirre in many ways, but is in my opinion greater from a visual point of view as well as from an acting point of view. However it does lack some of the rawness an d ferocity that made Aguirre so compelling, Fitzcarraldo is more toned down and more subtle.
But subtle may not be the right word for this film, as it involves a man dragging an enormous ship over a mountain. Herzog famously dragged an actual ship over the slope, despite being told it was impossible by many people. And as he himself said "I suppose it's a metaphor for something, but I don't know what", it's a film that speaks to you on a very deep level, but to put it into words is almost impossible, as even the director cannot sum up all it represents. It seems that Stanley Kubrick was right when he said "A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later."
This sums up the film perfectly, there is no point trying to analyse it or verbalise it, as it represents Cinema at it's most artisticly pleasing.
Fitzcarraldo is a film that never ceases to amaze me and has ranked amongst my absolute favourites ever since I first saw it. Kinksi is at his frenzied best, Herzog is at his poetic best and the film is one I would recomend to all films buffs. Of course the fact that the story is minimal may leave the film open for criticism from those that find such films "boring" or "pointless", but honestly, if you can't even appreciate the cinematic merit of this film (even if you don't "like" it) then you should probably cease to call yourself a film buff.

Cobra Verde - 1987
And now we come to the film that, in my opinion, is the most disappointing of the lot.
 This film had such promise, Herzog and Kinski had made masterpieces before, and this one seemed to be some kind of Aguirre set in Africa. But sadly it is terribly disjointed and almost incomprehensible. It feels like half a film, the transition between scenes is sudden and often disconcerting.
Of course it isn't without it's merits, Kinski is great as usual, and Herzog incorporates some beautiful shots of Africa and some very impressive shots on a great scale but the narrative is almost non existent and appears to be little more than a series of vaguely interconnected scenes. I found this problematic because mainly because there is at times evidence of a strong story driving the film but it loses sight of it's aim many times and wanders considerably.
Everything just seems rushed ad poorly thought out, the magic that existed between Herzog and Kinski is all but gone.
 This isn't surprising really, for their relationship off screen was deteriorating rapidly as well, they went away from this film on bad terms and never worked together again. The film is very much representative of this as it seems like it's trying to summon up the greatness that existed before with such films as Aguirre, but ultimately it fails.
I haven't much more to add on Cobra Verde, it's an interesting subject, but Kinski's performance and the great imagery does not make up for the failure of the story and it's unclear nature.

To conclude I shall say that while Herzog and Kinksi may not be the most prolific director/actor collaboration, nor are they the finest in terms of quality, as Kinski's enormous ego often got in the way and did Herzog's stern stubbornness, which created a kind of "unstoppable force meets immovable object" kind of situation. I still believe that from thsi conflict sparked great creativity of a kind that has never been present in Cinema before or since. Two great and highly original artists whose work is certainly highly uneven, but when it's good, it's almost unsurpassably good. 

Finally, I'd recommend all five of these films to all those who haven't seen them yet. Although they certainly have their ups and downs, I personally feel I learnt a lot from them, how a collaboration of geniuses can lead to such great works or to deeply flawed works, depending on how they work together.

On a final note (the last one), I would greatly appreciate any recommendations for some of Kinski's films other than the ones listed above of course.
Has anyone seen Kinksi Paganini - 1989 for example? It is his final film and his only directional effort, sounds fascinating but I'd like to hear some other people opinions on it.

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