Sunday, July 30, 2017

Grizzlies, Aguirre & Fitzcarraldo: The Genius of Werner Herzog

One of the most interesting and unusual interviews I've read recently was journalist Erik Hedegaard's one-on-one with the enigmatic German director Werner Herzog that appeared in the March 24th issue of Rolling Stone.

While film has been a passion of mine for years, it took me awhile to appreciate the work of this truly unique visionary artist.

My first experience seeing Herzog's work was watching the award-winning 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.

A visually and emotionally stunning film that exponentially expanded my perception and understanding of what the documentary genre could be, Grizzly Man was actually recommended to me as a must-see film by director Bryan Singer back in 2007.

Bryan went to my high school and is one of the few actual geniuses I've known personally, obviously I have enormous respect for his knowledge of film so I immediately ordered the DVD on Netflix.

As an animal lover who grew up watching zoologist Marlin Perkins examine animals and their behavior in their natural habitats on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on television each week, as well as National Geographic specials and nature programs on PBS and Discovery Channel, Herzog's Grizzly Man offered a piercing look into both grizzly bears, and the documentary's subject Timothy Treadwell.

If you've never seen it, Grizzly Man is a fascinating examination of the controversial life and gruesome death of Treadwell, an environmentalist, bear-enthusiast, author and documentary filmmaker who spent 13 years of his life in Katami National Park in Alaska during the summer following and photographing grizzly bears.

Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard 
An eclectic and stubborn renegade who was often criticized by animal researchers and park rangers for disregarding the danger that grizzlies represented, Treadwell claimed that observing the bears in their natural habitat had helped him to overcome alcohol and heroin addiction.

Herzog's documentary uses some of the hundreds of hours of video and still photographs that Treadwell captured during his years of bear observation and study.

And it famously examines the horrifying incident on Sunday October 5, 2003 when both Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked, savagely mauled and eventually eaten by a large male grizzly at their remote campsite dangerously close to an area of thick underbrush criss-crossed by bear trails known as the "Grizzly Maze" on Kodiak Island near the shore of Kaflia Bay.

Male bears there can grow up to 11 feet in height and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

As Ned Zeman wrote in a 2004 article on Treadwell for Vanity Fair, just a few weeks before he and Huguenard were killed, Treadwell wrote a friend:

"My photographs and stories are looking to the deep and secret world of bears that I do not believe any person has ever witnessed. One day I'll show this work to the public. Until then I'll keep living it."

Werner Herzog's documentary wrestles with the terrifying truth that Treadwell endured hardship, ridicule, suffering and an agonizing death for what he felt was his calling in life.

After reading Erik Hedegaard's revealing Rolling Stone interview with Herzog, I think it's that sense of totally devoting one's self, and dying for, one's passion that drew Herzog to Treadwell's story - and compelled him to write and direct a documentary about his life.

It's a theme he's explored in many of his more than 70 documentary and feature films.

Actor Klaus Kinski as conquistador Aguirre 
As Hedegaard notes, while Herzog has been making films since 1962, the two which really established his reputation as one of the most important figures of New German Cinema (and filmmaking in general) are "biopics" loosely based on the lives of real historical figures, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).

After ordering both films on DVD via Netflix, Aguirre, The Wrath of God in particular makes it clear why French New Wave director and film critic Francois Truffaut (director of such masterpieces as The 400 Blows) considered Herzog, "the most important director alive".

The film, hastily written by Herzog over a two-day period after he read about the subject in a book lent to him by a friend, is a fictional story loosely based on the exploits of the real-life Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, (pronounced Agear-aay) a greedy, violent, power-hungry figure nicknamed "The Madman" who died in 1561 after a failed attempt to proclaim himself the "Prince of Peru" in defiance of Spanish king Phillip II.

Herzog's film is based on Aguirre's part in a failed 1560 expedition down the Amazon and Maranon Rivers in search of the mythical kingdom of El Dorado by 300 Spanish soldiers and hundreds of native Indians who served as porters and laborers.

The brilliant opening scene of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is like pulling back a curtain on time and looking back into the distant past.

A long single-file line of Spanish conquistadors and natives descend down a steep, treacherous path along a mountain that slopes down into a mist-covered jungle valley that looks as foreboding as it does beautiful.

The conquistadors, attired in heavy, long-sleeved clothes, steel helmets flaked with rust from the humidity and armor, and lugging pikes, swords, arquebus (primitive rifles) and large cannon, look totally out of place in the thick green jungle as they laboriously make their way through the unspoiled wilderness with the help of native Indians (some chained) hacking aside the plants, trees and vines to make a path.

Pizarro orders a detachment to scout ahead
Exhausted, lost in almost impenetrable jungle forest and running low on supplies, the film really starts when the expedition's leader Hernando Pizzaro decides to send a detachment of soldiers and natives ahead to scout along a nearby river and report back on what they find.

The film follows the doomed attempts of the detachment as they construct rafts and set off down river where one disaster after another befalls them and disagreement over how to proceed sparks infighting between the soldiers.

One faction is loyal to the detachment's appointed leader Pedro de Ursua, and the other group is led by Aguirre; who uses his dark charisma to persuade them that they can all get rich by finding the fabled lost city of gold and carving their own kingdom out of the jungle.

With the help of his men, Aguirre eventually plots and overthrows Ursua, once under his leadership, the journey becomes a descent into madness, violence and terror that stands in contrast to the beautiful cinematography captured by Herzog during a grueling five-week shoot in the jungles of Peru.

Like Grizzly Man, the theme that dominates Aguirre is 'Man Versus Nature' and it's easy to see why the 1972 film influenced Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece about the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now.

It's also pretty evident that Herzog, like Coppola, was also influenced by Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's story about a man's journey up the Congo River deep into the African continent and his growing obsession that was first published in three parts in Blackwood Magazine in 1899 and later published as a novella in 1902.

Herzog would explore that same premise of a man (some might consider mad) obsessed by a singular vision taking a treacherous journey down a river through the heart of the jungle ten years later with the widely-acclaimed film Fitzcarraldo released in 1982.

Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo
In some ways, Fitzcarraldo struck me as a more "personal" film for Herzog.

He is a prolific director of opera as well as films and this film opens with his main character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald arriving in a Peruvian city in the late 19th century after journeying hundreds of miles from the jungle interior to see an opera performance.

Fitzgerald is played by the star of Aguirre, Wrath of God, German actor Klaus Kinski - recognizable as the chained Russian prisoner in the rail journey sequence in David Lean's 1965 epic film Doctor Zhivago.

In Fitzcarraldo, the main character (based on real-life rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald) aspires to make a fortune by transporting rubber from large tracts of nearly inaccessible Peruvian jungle using steamships - but he must first find a passable river route to make it possible.

He also dreams of bringing opera to the rough-and-tumble remote jungle town populated by rubber barons, civil servants, workers, sketchy characters, locals and indigenous peoples - it's like an old western boomtown set in the jungle.

With the help of a loan from his girlfriend played by Claudia Cardinale who owns a brothel, Fitzgerald purchases a shallow-bottomed steamship that can traverse rivers and after fixing it up, he hires a crew and sets off down the river deep into largely uncharted jungle territory inhabited by hostile natives.

After most of his crew abandons the steamship before they get too far into hostile territory, Fitzcarraldo is forced to persuade a tribe of indigenous Indians who speak no English or Spanish he encounters to help him.

Klaus Kinski plays opera in Fitzcarraldo
This film is marked by a surreal voyage along a jungle river with Fitzcarraldo occasionally playing opera on a portable record player to try and ward off hostile natives playing drums while concealed behind trees.

While (for me) the story is somewhat less compelling than Aguirre, the intense cinematography is once again simply amazing and Kinski's performance is genuinely compelling.

If you enjoy film, you must see Fitzcarraldo for the sequence in which Fitzgerald persuades the native peoples to lift the steamship out of the water and transport it over a mountain covered with thick jungle in order to launch it into a nearby river that runs roughly parallel to the river on which they set out in order to find the route he is searching for.

Quite simply it has to be seen, as Herzog literally took weeks filming an actual 340-ton steamship being dragged up the side of a mountain and down the other side - in the film they used a complex system of pulleys along with utilizing the ship's engines to power a cable system that helps pull the ship up the mountain-side.

You've really got to see it to believe it.

With August coming up and many people taking some vacation time, if you haven't seen either of these films I highly recommend you rent Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo for a night on the couch, not just for an escapist film experience.

But to to appreciate two of Klaus Kinski's most intense on-screen performances and the monumental filmmaking effort it took for Werner Herzog to bring these visions to the screen shooting in such remote jungle locations.

Herzog has directed over 70 films, so I'm definitely looking forward to making my way through some of his other documentaries and features - it's a privilege and a creative learning experience to have the chance to explore and appreciate the work of one of the most driven and visionary filmmakers of modern cinema.

Need a break from CGI-laden superhero films lavished with explosions, special effects and gratuitous violence? Herzog is your guy.

He doesn't shirk from portraying violence on screen, but it's always in service to the story - and part of his lifelong effort to probe the darker aspects of the human psyche.

Which, I'd venture, is Herzog's own personal grizzly.

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