Monday, September 19, 2011

The Wrath of Herzog

The career of German director Werner Herzog has been a fascinating one to unveil. Well-known today more for his eccentricities and distinct accent as well as his ever-loopy films and well-received nature documentaries, Herzog is a director I find maddens as much as he endears. And, let's face it, given the type of films he makes, "maddens" is very much a word I am sure Herzog would appreciate. I can't say I've been a fan of his two films from this year - Cave of Forgotten Dreams and My Son My Son Look What Ye Done - but even his failures are unique and hold a place in the man's career that deserves discussion. The albino crocodiles wouldn't be too happy otherwise.

I feel like I've barely been able to scratch the surface of Herzog's career, but this year I've managed to see two of his most famous titles: the twin Amazonian titles of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The former of which I have already discussed, but the latter I just got around to watching during last night's wild and windy thunderstorm. It felt like appropriate whether. Both use the Amazon river and its surrounding rainforest as stunning muse to tales of folly by men who fall deeper into madness the further they progress. Star Klaus Kinski gives a performance here that feels like the very sort of fever dream his Aguirre characters begin to suffer from late into the film. The way his face contorts and his eyes pierce, it's no wonder Herzog cast him in his own remake of Nosferatu!

The film is sumptuously lensed by Thomas Mauch in lush greens and browns, the Amazon certainly looks as amazing as you expect. However, what I found particularly fascinating about the cinematography was now smoothly the camera floated around the proceeding despite the terrain. There's one early scene amongst a rocky enclave that I thought was impossible to be as delicately handled as it was, and yet the footage clearly speaks for itself. The music by Popol Vuh is hypnotising with its swirling and atmospheric combination of synthesisers, guitars and traditional pan pipes. I was impressed most of all by the immaculately realised costume work (by whom I am not sure, there doesn't appear to be a designer credit for the film) that looks both cheap and community theatre-esque, but also beautifully authentic. Rustic - and suitably rusty - is a great way to describe the armor worn by the conquistadors, but I also loved the tattered, rich velvet worn by the two women of the cast (Helena Rojo and Cecilia Rivera) as well as the traditional Peruvian garb worn by the "slaves". Seeing this designs floating around Mauch's stunning photography really did make Aguirre feel like it was from another era before filmmaking was even invented.

More than anything, however, I felt Aguirre: The Wrath of God was a mood piece. It drifts about with some scenes playing out with no dialogue, whilst others feel like dream sequences. It is both epic - that opening march sequence down the cloud-cluttered mountain is like something from Pressburger & Powell's Black Narcissus, but without matte or modern day CGI - and intimate. There's a romance to it, as it washes over a viewer like liquid. I didn't too much care for the stuff with the animals, especially since it's hard to accept that Herzog had anything close to an animal safety act to work by, but it's nice knowing Herzog put his actors through as much as he did that beautiful horse or those adorable monkeys (there's a whole story about those monkeys on the film's Wikipedia entry).

There are moments during Aguirre that I actually thought of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, what with the ways they look at nature and the way we connect to it. There is a shot involving butterflies in here that reminded me of Life so much that I thought Malick may have borrowed it. Both films tell quite small, intimate tales yet do so on a grand scale. Difference is that Herzog's film doesn't bloat the running time, but instead keeps it to a rather boutique 93 minutes, thankfully resisting the urge to turn this into an E-P-I-C. Herzog defies the expectations with Aguirre: The Wrath of God and in doing so crafted a truly beguiling experience that is almost unlike anything else. If I continue to navigate the rocky terrain that is is Mr Herzog's filmography, I can only hope to find more films like this. B+

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