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"A penniless man has no use for morals in the world",
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This review is from: Herzog / Kinski Box Set [DVD] (DVD)
I came to this set under false circumstances. I was after a copy of the `Kaspar Hauser' film and saw that it was included in a Herzog set (review pending at the time of writing). I also noticed that a set of Herzog/Kinski movies was also available at a very reasonable price and bought this latter set on a whim. I am so glad I did. Apart from `Fitzcarraldo', I had not seen any of these films before, but now I see why they often appear in so many lists of top films.
All (apart from `Woyzeck' and the documentary) come with a helpful director's commentary, but one must also be on one's guard against falsehoods, exaggerations, and poor memory. For example, Herzog says `Aguirre' was filmed using one stolen camera, yet a second camera is credited. There also seems to be some confusion as to whether Kinski or Herzog himself wanted the former to do both `Nosferatu' and `Woyzeck'. And the final scene of `My Best Fiend' sees Kinski enjoying a butterfly, which seems to contradict what we are told about the actor's supposed aversion to the animal world.
For each film, there is always some shot that remains vividly in the memory, whether it is the opening descent of the mist-enshrouded mountain of `Aguirre'; the silent plague-ridden ship entering the harbour in `Nosferatu'; the conveyance of the steamship over the hill in `Fitzcarraldo'; or the polio victim on the beach at the end of `Cobra Verde'. Whilst I praise these movies on a number of heads, there is also nevertheless an unfortunate testimony to the poor treatment of some of the animals used in the films, such as the horse in `Aguirre', and the monkey and cat in `Woyzeck'.
AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972) is the first and earliest of this bunch. Filming in the Amazon jungle brought logistical and financial problems that would scare most directors, but Herzog also had to cope with the loose cannon of Kinski, a modern version of Shakespeare's Richard III. Floods, fevers, hundreds of native extras, and the need to write dialogue off the cuff, appear to have made Herzog thrive.
From the famous and fantastic opening shot, I was hooked. Filmed like a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the traumas faced by a missing Conquistador expedition, the descent down the Amazon is a descent into madness, dreams, and despairing messianism. Some events are crude, such as the questioning of the two natives arriving in their canoe, but this quasi-amateurism only adds to the reality of the documentary style.
NOSFERATU (1979) is Herzog's homage to Murnau's 1920s version of the Dracula tale, a film that the director considers "the best German film ever". Filmed in Holland (Delft), Moravia, and eastern Slovakia, this is a rare attempt by Herzog at a genre film, but Kinski's Nosferatu is not frightening; rather, he is a sad and lonely figure. Herzog thinks that the scene between Dracula and Lucy is the best love scene he ever shot.
There are very effective transformations on screen between the real world and that of Nosferatu using landscape, light, and music. The film has a great atmosphere but some inconsistencies, and a not too stringent seeking for period detail betray the lack of a high budget. And, yes, there is some poor direction too: often, only one take was made. As well as the commentary, this film contains an added extra: a thirteen-minute contemporary featurette, narrated by Herzog, in which he claims, "All my films come out of pain. That's the source. Not pleasure." No wonder working with Kinski was so fruitful!
WOYZECK (1979) sees Kinski as the common man used in his ignorance by his so-called betters. (Woyzeck's claim that, "A penniless man has no use for morals in the world", could conceivably apply to all of Kinski's roles in this set.) But another way is to see Kinski the actor and Woyzeck the part as two sides of the same coin: a tormented and troubled visionary unable to cope with his jealousy. Look at his face when he commits the murderous deed.
Again, there is effective use made of music in the score, from folk band to classical. The urban setting of the film is perfect, but the extras are often too wooden. And the long takes could effectively have reduced the story from its seventy-seven minutes to only sixty.
FITZCARRALDO (1982) saw a return to the Amazon. It is of greater interest because Kinski was not Herzog's first choice; Jack Nicholson, Jason Robards - and Mick Jagger as FItzcarraldo's sidekick - were all considered first. And if Kinski wouldn't do it, then Herzog himself would have played the part. It was also shot in English, although the director thinks the German dubbed version - both are available on this disc - is culturally the more authentic. Legends were made about the superlative logistics involved in this production - the transporting of the ship across the hill is only the most well-known, for arson, piranhas, snakes, plane crashes, and the police authorities likewise took their toll. And all this on top of the problem that is Kinski! In the commentary, Herzog elaborates on all these issues.
COBRA VERDE (1987) was filmed again in South America, but also in West Africa, thus linking effectively the slave trade between the two continents in the eighteenth century that is the basis of the tale. Given his previous experience of Kinski, one is dumbfounded to hear that Herzog planned from the start for the actor to play the title role. Beautifully shot on both continents, portraying in turn dire working conditions and authentic regal pageantry, the film lingers but never loses its interest to the eye and mind. Herzog revels in the fact that Hollywood would never have told this story, and would never have told it in the way he did.
MY BEST FIEND (2000) is Herzog's affectionate demolition job on Kinski, who died in 1991. Herzog revisits some of the sites of his film creations, but also the house in Munich that he shortly shared with him when the director was only thirteen: "From the very first moment, he terrorised everyone", says Herzog. "I never thought it possible that someone could rave for 48 hours." Of course, stories of the making of the films themselves also intrude with plenty of behind-the-scenes shots, and this documentary is - intentionally and unintentionally - as much about Herzog as it is about Kinski. Full marks to the director for including other takes on Kinski that differ from his own.
This is a fantastic set; I am so glad I purchased it.