The Madness of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog has forever been a maverick of modern cinema and certainly never one to work within the constraints of the so-called €˜normal cinema€™. A man who would rather forge his own path straight up the middle of the rock face of filmmaking, ignoring the easier Sherpa led routes on either side of that particular furrow. Werner Herzog, the director of many classics of the left leaning art house cinema scene, including Aguirre The Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). Not forgetting his most well known work Fitzcarraldo€™ (1982) which emerged victorious from the epic struggles of which it was born, deep within the dark recesses of the Peruvian Jungle. It€™s Herzog€™s innate sense of persistence and drive which lends his films and Fitzcarraldo in particular a slight air of madness. You get the feeling that no matter what, Herzog€™s projects will be finished even if that means threatening to shoot his leading man dead in the middle of the rainforest. So let€™s take a look at the man who has arguably produced some of the most interesting and compellingly insane pieces of cinema of the 20th and 21st centuries and focussing on what in my opinion is his best work. Fitzcarraldo. Where to begin with such a man? If you do any research on Werner Herzog you€™re left with a veritable feast of philosophies and myths that have grown up around him. The man apparently never made a phone call until the age of 17. He saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash. He was famously shot by a sniper with a BB gun when being interviewed by the BBC€™s Mark Kermode and supposedly walked from Munich to Paris (around 500 miles) to prevent the very sick film historian Lotte Eisner from dying. She of course went onto to live for a further 8 years. So what of the man who€™s main piece advice when asked by the writer Paul Cronin was the same as hotel magnet€™s Conrad Hilton and I quote €˜whenever you take a shower, always make sure the curtain is in the tub€™. Good advice indeed. Born in 1942 in Munich and then moved to the small village of Sachrang near the German-Austrian border, the young Herzog led a very secluded and simple life. He didn€™t know what a Banana was until the age of 12 and lived in a house with no running water or heating and would often wake up in the morning with a thin layer of ice on his quilt. But it would seem that this allowed the young Herzog to develop his imagination and his own worlds which would later inform his filmmaking whilst playing in the burned out buildings of post war Germany. €˜It was anarchy in the best sense of the word€™ says Herzog, to the point when one day out playing in the forest he came across a submachine gun and tried to use it to shoot a bird to eat. When he did this he was thrown down by the recoil of the gun. His mother showed him how to load, clean and use it and then demonstrated its power by shooting it into a log. Herzog was horrified by the destruction caused and was instantly cured of his attraction towards it. I mean how many of us can say we had such an experience at such an age? (Apart from those of us who have grown up on particularly grimy housing estates) Probably not many and it would seem that Herzog€™s life is full of these strange vignettes. So it€™s easy to see why what others would call madness is simply pure normality to Herzog. It€™s these experiences of the harsh difficulty of life which make him so driven towards his projects. €˜If I had to climb into hell and wrestle the Devil himself for one of my films, I would do it.€™ So when a young Herzog saw his first films when a travelling projectionist came to town he was amazed at the art of filmmaking and that such an end product was possible. Watching movies Herzog felt he was watching a reality or documentary and it wasn€™t until he noticed that the same shot had been used twice for an action scene that the images were being edited to inform a narrative. So of course at the age of 17 like any other normal 17 year old boy he started up his own production company. Adults of course failed to take him seriously and the set backs and failures of trying to find anyone to finance his ideas opened up his eyes to the harsh realities of the film business. Recalling a particularly embarrassing moment where a producer who had liked a proposal that Herzog had sent him laughed him out of the office because of his age and the fact his voice had not broken properly, he knew from then on he had to produce his own films and not rely on anyone but himself. In order to do this Herzog became a factory worker at night and a parking attendant during the day. In fact Herzog cites these forays into working life as the formative influences in his early career and where he learnt what real life was all about. Herzog urges people to avoid office work and put themselves in places and positions that make them interact physically and mentally with the world around them. €˜Get a job as a Bouncer in sex club, a warden in a lunatic asylum, walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft that has nothing to do with cinema.€™ It€™s this manifesto if you will that Herzog used and finished his first short named Herakles (1962). When asked about what his ideal film school would be like, it sounds more like a mad boot camp than a seat of film academia. Herzog himself says that he learnt all he needed to know about the practice of film making from the first 15 pages of a text book, the rest from life experience. The entry requirements for the Werner Herzog film academy would be, to have walked a distance of 5000 kilometres and to have written a diary everyday of your journey and apparently this would give you more knowledge than 5 years of film school. And do you know what? I€™m inclined to agree with him. Not only this but once qualified for the school itself, students would be required to box everyday and put themselves in situations that would make them encounter real physical pain, so as they would learn never be afraid. Along with this magic lessons would be taught and of course the obligatory language lessons. As Herzog himself says €˜Academia is the death of cinema, knowledge is the very opposite of passion.€™ And it€™s with this passion and burning desire to overcome by physicality and pure will that allowed him to pull a paddle steamer over a mountainside. Fitzcarraldo would be the ultimate test of all of Herzog€™s philosophies, dreams and utter madness. Fitzcarraldo (1982) tells the story of an opera mad Caruso fan Brian €˜Fitzcarraldo€™ Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) who wants to bring the opera to the town in Peru in which he lives. In order to do this he needs money and lots of it and so he becomes involved in the lucrative rubber plant business. After leasing some land that has a crop of rubber plants from the government, and with help of his brothel owning friend Molly, (Claudia Cardinale) he buys a steamer to gain access to the crop. However the only problem being the crop is cut off from the Amazon by some treacherous rapids and the only other way to them is to sail the boat up another tributary that intersects with the rapids. And with the help of the local native Indian population haul the boat over a hill which will allow him access to the crop. Mad? Yes. Herzog says he was inspired to make the film after a trip he made to France where in Brittany he found himself in a field full of prehistoric stone formations that had been moved there by the inhabitants. Intrigued by how the blocks (some 30 feet high) had got there Herzog bought a book that said even modern science couldn€™t work out how they had come to rest in this particular place. Herzog told himself he was going to figure out how they had been moved and worked out a theory. He realised that it must have taken around 2000 disciplined men and a system of trenches and tree trunks to lay out the stones onto and then slowly move the stones via a slow elevation of around 12 meters. Once they had got the stones to their new destination, the stones would have to be tipped into the hole with the light end of the stone at the top. It was this insatiable urge to know how these stones had found their way to their new home mixed with a desire to make another film in the jungle. He just needed a story. And found one he did, although the real Fitzcarraldo was a fabulously wealthy real life rubber baron who commanded a private army. And instead of hauling the boat over a mountain side he had the boat taken apart and carried it over the hill and put it back together again once it had reached its parallel river. Herzog was to take this detail and make the man pull the boat over the hill instead. The detail had become the film. Pre-Production on the film had taken a long time, boats had to be found bought and repaired as a few were needed to be shot on river and to be pulled up the hill and one to be destroyed by the rapids. Also Twentieth Century Fox had become interested in making the film, but obviously thought the idea of actually pulling the boat up the side of a mountain was preposterous and they tried to convince Herzog to use a model boat and a model mountain, and that was never going to happen whilst Herzog was in charge. So the film stalled for a while whilst the money, crew and extras were found and a camp built for 3000 in the town on Iquitos was erected. When I say stalled, it took 3 years. And then shooting did take place but the first leading man who was going to take on the part of Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robbards was taken ill and could not come back, and Mick Jagger who was to play Fitzcarraldo€™s retarded actor friend, had to leave production due to a Rolling Stones commitment. Things were not looking good. Jagger€™s role was written out of the script as Herzog deemed him irreplaceable and actually states that not working with Jagger was one of his greatest regrets in his career. After considering playing the lead role himself Herzog turned to his old friend and enemy, the cantankerous and some would say mentally unhinged actor Klaus Kinski to see if he would play the role, he agreed, but Herzog said he knew he would be in for a tough time when the actor saw the immense task that was ahead of them. €˜He was convinced it could not be done and later became the strongest negative force on the film.€™ It was this sense of pure epic will that not only pushed Herzog on through the production of this film, but also turned his crew, actors and what seems like everyone against him at some point of the production. He was constantly asked to re-write the script and cut out the task of moving the boat, but of course he would not, he could not and the madness started. A crew member had a crazy fit and burnt down Herzog€™s Hut that he was living with whilst making the film, then a nomadic tribe who lived in the forest who had repelled all attempts at outside contact moved down stream due to one of the driest periods in the history of the forest to hunt for Turtle eggs. They attacked three locals of the Aguarunas tribe who where extra€™s and worker€™s on the film by shooting an arrow through the neck of one and into the abdomen of another. Herzog helped in the 8 hours of emergency surgery that followed by holding up a torchlight and spraying repellent into the clouds of mosquitoes that were attracted to the blood. There were also two plane crashes, and an accident with a canoe where one of the extras drowned (a lot of the Indians couldn€™t swim). But it didn€™t stop there; assistant camera man Rainer Klausmann was left on a rock for a day and a night after having been put there to capture some shots of the boat being smashed by the rapids. The boat (after the shots were captured) ran aground on a sand bank so the rest of the crew had to free it, this obviously took time and when they returned to camp that evening they realised they had left the poor cameraman on the rock on the river. He was obviously not pleased by the time they went and got him back. And if to make matters worse the same cameraman lost the top part of one of his toes when swimming in another part of the river, a Piranha had bitten it off, he had to walk on crutches for six weeks. It was also during this scene that 3 other cameraman (who where on board the boat at the time) injured themselves, one broke a few ribs, the other got a concussion and Thomas Mauch was thrown through the air when the boat impacted on a rock and split his hand open between his fingers. Of course there was no anaesthetic left because that had all been used in the surgery to help the attacked Indians. Needless to say the production was fraught. And this is without gong into the endless political wrangling of the various Indian tribes who did not want the film crew to be there because they thought Herzog to be involved with the military regime, and believed they were their to €˜rape their women and use their bodies as grease.€™ This was then exacerbated by a French political activist who began showing the Indian population photos of Auschwitz victims and that this was how all Germans treat people. Of course it was never reported that Herzog had asked the local inhabitants and the Aguarunas community in particular for their help with the moving of the boat for which they were more than happy to do and Herzog was paying them double what they would get working for the lumber companies and the work was less dangerous. In fact it turned out that the factions of Indians who were against the shooting of the film were from separate factions of Indian communities that lived nowhere near where the film was being made film at all. Things were getting hairy and would get hairier still, the build up of troops on the border near where Herzog€™s crew were filming was getting larger and in one event when the crew was sailing past an army encampment, some shots were fired over the heads of the production team. It was then that Herzog evacuated the first camp and moved the production further inland. And then there was Kinski. Herzog calls him an outright egomaniac who always had to be the centre of attention and often acquired this by having stupendous screaming fits, so much so, that the Indians who dealt with problems in a silent more considered way did not know how to react to the insane Kinski. In fact they actually offered to kill Kinski for Herzog, but he told them not to as he needed him for shooting. However Herzog claims that with one nod from him they would have done it. Kinski saw himself as the centre of the universe during production. When a lumberman was bitten by a snake whilst cutting a down tree, and decided to cut off his own foot rather than die from a cardiac arrest caused by the poison. Kinski threw a fit and refused to come out and do a scene that was needed. After the plane crash (that was mentioned previously) Kinski was obviously no longer the most important person around and threw a tantrum claiming that his coffee was too cold. Screaming and shouting in Herzog€™s face whilst Herzog and the rest of the crew were trying to listen to the radio to hear reports of the crash to see if a search and rescue party was needed, but because of Kinski€™s antics they couldn€™t hear what was going on. So Herzog not knowing how to shut the lunatic up went to his cabin and got a piece of chocolate (something very rare and that someone would kill you for if they knew you had it) and ate it right in front of his face. Needless to say it worked. Kinski€™s particular brand of madness can be seen here in Herzog€™s documentary of their relationship My Best Friend (1999) But throughout this turmoil, the problems and the pure madness of the project, the film was completed and the boat was pulled over the hill using a complex system of pulleys all anchored to a dead post that was buried at around 30 feet into the ground, Herzog calculated that a weight ten times the amount of the boat they were pulling could have been sustained by the dead post. With this system in place as well as the help over around 7000 Indians who provided the pulling power by moving the 10,00 transmission winches, inch by inch the boat creaked and hummed up the side of the mountain, and what arises from it is one of the most Iconic scenes in cinema. Fitzcarraldo is a triumph of will and spirit. It is a dual tale of two men, Herzog and Fitzcarraldo battling against the forces of nature, situation and their own dreams to force an outcome that no matter how crazy, insane and against all odds. It is absolutely beautiful. As Werner said: €˜Had I allowed myself the privilege of hesitating for a single minute, or panicked for even a split second, the whole project would have come tumbling down around me immediately.€™ And thankfully he didn€™t.


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