Announced in February 2014, The BFI's Werner Herzog Collection has been the subject of great anticipation from those who hold his work in high regard. This maverick German director, actor and writer has been responsible for some of the most challenging and provocative features of the last 50 years since his first short film 'Herakies' in 1962, and has also directed operas and written books.
This BFI collection is an essential purchase for anyone with a passion for his films, and includes valuable supplementary material which serve to make his accomplishments all the more astounding.
Owing to high demand for these titles, my review discs include DVD versions for the 'Nosferatu, The Vampyre' and 'Aguirre, Wrath Of God' discs which offer visually splendid versions of the films. The other discs in my review are all Blu-ray.
Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)
The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser
Land Of Silence And Darkness. 1971
"If there were another world war, I wouldn't even notice it".
As a child, Fini Straubinger could see and hear perfectly well, but an accident caused gradual deterioration of sight and sound, leaving her deaf-blind before she reached 20. Fini's tragic condition resulted in her retreating to her bed for almost 30 years, with the world passing by unheard, unseen. This is not so much a documentary as snapshots of Fini's life which includes helping people with the same extreme afflictions and exploring everyday life by touch. It's humbling to share her joy - and that of her companions - during a trip in an aeroplane, and to witness her can-do attitude when it comes to teaching others how to cope with the challenges they face every day and every night. Part of 'Land' also captures the plight of young children who were born with this condition, making it an even tougher watch, though undoubtedly 80 minutes that everyone should experience.
How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck 1976
A 46 minute documentary which takes us into the rapid-fire world of Livestock auctioneers, where the men who can conduct cattle auctions at breakneck speed. Herzog was present at the world championhip in the village of New Holland, Pennsylvania, and his cameras capture many of the 53 competitors (including, for the first time, a woman) who vye for the title with a new kind of language which Herzog finds both frightening and fascinating. I know just what he means, and would also reflect on the audience who need trained ears to follow the frantic speed-talking. Viewers can choose between German or English language versions here.
Bruno Stroszek's (Bruno S) last few hours in jail contain good wishes from his fellow inmates and warnings from the authorities about the dangers of reverting back to alcohol and his bad old ways. The feeling is strong that Bruno would rather stay where he is than re-encounter a world that has never done him any favours, but an old friend named Eve (Eva Mattes) seems to offer him a shot at salvation. Soon, Bruno and Eve are sharing a flat, though the violent attentions of a couple of local heavies threaten to end any hope of happiness. The pair are inspired by the plans of a friend (the wonderful Clemens Scheitz) who elects to move to America and grasp the many opportunities to be found in the land of the free. As events grow ever more violent, Eve raises the cash through prostitution, and the trio emabark for America and a new life.
Heart Of Glass 1976
A very strange film set in Bavaria, where the death of a glassmaker named Muhlbeck takes with him the secret of how the valuable ruby glass is made. The townsfolk are already living with the prophecies of the prophet Hias, and are gripped by madness as the hunt for written instructions on how to make the percious glass reaches a frenzy, resulting in violent death. With the exception of the prophet, every member of the cast performed in states of hypnosis, which gives the film an eerie trance-like quality that is slow-moving and utterly absorbing.
Once again, Herzog delivers a commentary track moderated by Norman Hill, and this one is very personal.
We learn about the director's formative years; how and why he hypnotised his cast after dispensing with the services of an expert and his despise of storyboards. He refers to himself as " a good soldier of cinema", and 'Heart Of Glass' is solid endorsement of that description.
Aguirre, The Wrath Of God 1972
Aguirre was loosely based on the diary of a monk named Gaspar de Carvajal, and dates back to the year 1560 when a group of conquistadores and their native helpers journeyed down the Amazon river in search of the fabled El Dorado. The expedition is led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repalles) who makes the decision to send a party of men to replenish their dwindling supplies, and establish the exact whereabouts of hostile natives. This elite group is under the command of Ursua (Ray Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his lieutenant. Soon, the party encounter a largely unseen enemy who pick off the group one-by-one, resulting in the decision to abandon their search and return to base. Aguirre, however, has other ideas, using his imposing character to spark a mutiny, which leads to further death amongst a group who are clearly terrified of their new leader.
Herzog and Hill return for another commentary track that discusses the arduous 5 week shoot - altitude sickness and all - the fact that most of the story was fabrication, and the challenges posed by the low $370,000 budget; a third of which paid for Kinski's salary. There are also anecdotes to savour, including memories of Kinski, his Winchester rifle and a tent full of drunken extras.
The Unprecedented Defence Of The Fortress Deutschkreutz 1967
A 15 minute b/w short, which unfolds as a satire on the state of war and peace. The fortress used to be a psychiatric hospital, and was occupied by Russian soldiers during the war. Herzog takes a group of local youths who dress up in discarded uniforms, arm themselves with rifles and don gasmasks to stage an eerie re-enactment of life during wartime. It's an interesting little piece, with the homeguard defending against an imaginary enemy, and further eveidence of a fertile imagination at work.
Last Words 1969
A curious short concerning the last man to leave an abandoned island that was formerly a leper colony. Shot in 2 days, Herzog's film uses several characters who tell the man's story, constantly flitting back to footage of the subject declaring he'll say nothing and next appearing in a bar playing the lyre. This is a wholly experimental piece and well worth a look for the eccentric central character.
Precautions Against Fanatics 1969
Herzog's first project was filmed at a harness racing track near Munich, and features a man who claims he protects horses against over enthusiastic racing fans. We also encounter a 'doper' who feeds horses three pounds of garlic before races, and watches them go like lightning and another strange individual who seems to spend most of his time telling all and sundry they have to leave. It's a brisk outing to be sure, but eminently watchable and absurdly funny.
Fata Morgana 1971
Originally pitched as a sci-fi movie, 'Fata Morgana' uses long tracking shots and handheld camera to explore the visually desolate splendour of a world most of us have never experienced. From the Sahara Desert to Algeria and Kenya, lands of mirages, sandstorms and barren plains are explored with narration by Lotte Eisner and music from Popol Vuh. There's the harsh beauty of the desert - look out for the amazing sight of a 3 decades-old plane wreck - the introduction of human beings who populate some of these far-flung locations and structures that seem to serve no apparent purpose. "It's not the way a Hollywood film would do it, but so what!" says a defiant Herzog.
Franz Woyzeck's (Klaus Kinski) view of the world is one of nature turned upside down. He's a man ruled by others, whether it be his contradictory army captain; his doctor who enforces a 3 month diet consisting solely of peas, or wife Maria (Eva Mattes) with her roving eye for a man in a uniform who better fulfils her idea of someone who can elevate her from a self-imposed 'poor girl' status.
Handicapped Future 1970
A moving documentary examining the lives of handicapped children, and their thoughts on life and the challenges they face. We meet Dagmar: a little girl unable to walk who imagines what life would be like if she could. We also spend time with the families who try to shield their children from the cruel reactions of able-bodied folk; the teachers who talk of the learning process designed to culminate in a career, rather than a life of pity, and the fit and well children who mostly display positive attitudes towards their disabled friends. A thought-provoking work that everyone should see.
The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner 1975
Herzog's cameras record some beautiful footage of Steiner in flight, and also captures his sheer mental fatigue as event organisers at Planica use the competition to push contestants to the limit, risking life and limb in the process. With 50,000 spectators eager to witness record breaking jumps, Steiner overcomes injury and memory loss to emerge as very much his own man. An extraordinary documentary, and another example of Herzog's attraction to people who dream big.
Huie's Sermon 1981
Huie's Sermon was made for television in 1981, and for most of its 43 minute running time, focuses on a sermon delivered in a Brooklyn church. Huie Rogers - backed by a gospel choir - is quite exhausting to watch as he takes a big stick and proceeds to whack us around the head with a verbal onslaught that will leave you reeling just a few minutes in. Herzog was clearly attracted in part by the physical performance on view, and Rogers in full flow is a sight to behold, though perhaps not an experience you'll wish to repeat any time soon.
Disc 6 Fitzcarraldo 1982
"It's only the dreamers who ever move mountains"
Presented here with the option of viewing either the English or German language versions, I plumped for the latter, which Herzog in his accompanying commentary track states is the most authentic in his opinion. Klaus Kinski turns in another stunning performance, this time as the titular character who switches his entreprenurial energies to the Amazon jungle where he intends to bring opera to the human inhabitants. Inspired by his hero, Enrico Caruso - who he rowed a boat for 2 days and nights to see - Fitz raises the finance for the expedition from the income earned by his partner's brothel (Claudia Cardinale). The purchase of a steam ship takes him a step closer to his dream, but the intervention of local natives and the gargantuan task of hauling the ship up and over a steep hill in order to evade an unfriendly stretch of river threaten to put a premature end to his journey.
Herzog's commentary track reveals he had trouble "keeping the flock together" during numerous weather-related shutdowns. He talks about his determination to enable the audience to trust their own eyes, with no special effects trickery going on, and gives cast and crew background info. He also has much to say about Kinski whose behaviour was "unspeakably terrible", adding to the many problems Herzog faced. As the splendidly moving finale plays out, the director expresses his sadness that Kinski is no longer with us, and remarks he lives forever in those films. it's a lovely note to end on.
Burden Of Dreams 1982
Being Les Blank's documentary on the making of 'Fitzcarraldo'. We get to see footage of Jason Robard's and Mick Jagger; the former being replaced by Kinski, while the latter had to leave for Rolling Stones duties, and on-set footage that reveals in visual terms exactly how much of a struggle it was to shoot this picture. There's some amazing footage of the 300 ton ship and it's journey up and over the hill, coupled with attempts to negotiate the fierce Peruvian rapids, and the growing sense of sheer frustration as delays meant the rainy season necessary to move the boat had passed them by. In fact, Herzog and his cast and crew could do nothing but sit back during the longest dry spell in recorded history when their boat became stuck.
'Burden Of Dreams' also records the politics involved during this arduous shoot, along with the attempts to discredit Herzog by certain outside parties. It's quite a journey, delivering a warts-and-all account of one man's vision and his determination to see it through.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe 1980
Directed by Les Blank, 'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe' is a fine dining experience as Werner dons his apron and cooks footware for 5 hours, using salad dressing and sauces to transform the flavour. Herzog had previously told fellow director Errol Morris that he would eat his shoe if Morris' 'Gates Of Heaven' film reached completion.
Herzog wished to help his friend and inspire the audience, and he succeeded on both counts. It's a weird and wonderful sight to see Werner tuck in and, in many ways, utterly sole destroying.
South Bank Show: Werner Herzog 1982
A 55 minute documentary focusing on the great man and his attitudes and approach to filmmaking and also to life.
There are so many highlights here, it's perhaps a little unfair to highlight anything in particular but the contributions of the late Lotte Eisner and Herzog's wife at the time, Martje, are moving in the extreme. Picturesque locations and memories from the director's childhood are included - hidden war weapons and all - along with his views on German cinema; his inability to make a film about a central character he didn't like, and the fact that he has no target audience, sometimes feeling it may take 20 years for a particular film to be accepted.
Cobra Verde 1987
Once again, German and English language versions are available. I chose the German option.
Based on Bruce Chatwin's novel 'The Viceroy Of Ouidah', 'Cobra Verde' marked Klaus Kinski's final collaboration with Herzog. Kinski plays a dishevelled barefoot bandit, whose appearance causes people to flee, and who becomes a major player in the slave trade when he becomes overseer on a sugar plantation. His employer decides to despatch him to Africa where no white man has returned alive in the last 10 years.
Herzog and Hill again team up for a commentary track, in which the director talks about Kinski's behaviour - "completely bonkers and out of control" - and recalls his lead actor "brought something to the film I didn't much like". He admits his film is not politically correct, and that he has no problem with that, and of his time spent with Kinski: "I don't regret a single moment. Not one."
God's Angry Man 1981
Guardian Lecture: Werner Herzog In Conversation With Neil Norman
Herzog fans will be delighted with this boxset, and for those who have only caught a couple of his films, it represents the chance to undertake a voyage of discovery with all manner of visual and thematic delights to savour. Picture quality is outstanding with the encoding duties reaching the highest possible standards, and the extras providing great insight into Herzog's world of wonder. Name such as Kinski, Bruno S, Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz, cinematographers Thomas Mauch and Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, editor Walter Saxer and Les Blank are just a few individuals who re-appear on and off-camera, forming patterns within the films. Stills galleries and theatrical trailers are available to peruse for selected titles and the boxset also comes with a booklet that includes stills, full credits and an excellent essay by Laurie Johnson.
As far as UK home video releases are concerned, this release will occupy top slot in countless 'Best Of The Year' slots, and with good reason.