These notes were written in early December 2001 to form part of the set of Herzog weblinks on the Showroom cinema's educational links pages - however all responsibility for the content and opinions here is my own. I have not duplicated links here that are on the Herzog page, so please go there for more detail on some of the points raised below.
"Kinski says [the jungle] is full of erotic elements. It's not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there's a lot of misery, but it's the same misery that's all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of harmony. It's the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It's not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."
(from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams - more Herzog quotes)
The sight of Werner Herzog delivering these lines to camera in his haunting resigned-but-still-fighting clipped German accent, with the South American jungle at his back, is one of the most memorable moments in cinema for me. I'd been told the story of Fitzcarraldo by a friend in Germany two years previously, and had also seen Where the Green Ants Dream, but neither of these prepared me for the experience of seeing Burden of Dreams and Aguirre, Wrath of God in a double bill that started at 11pm. Emerging from the cinema between 2 and 3am into the back alleys of Cambridge, the world didn't seem the same any more. (Coincidentally, while researching the Showroom's Herzog links page, I discovered that Brian Eno had recorded a similar experience.)
This same clip of Herzog is also featured in his own film of his relationship with Klaus Kinsk, My Best Fiend (sic, yuk, etc). When I saw this film at the 1999 Sheffield International Documentary Festival, it was presented by one of the filmmaking team (the producer? I forget) who made specific reference to this sequence. Herzog, he said, regarded what he had saidhere with simple equanimity. He was apparently unaware of why anyone might find it unnerving, and completely unbothered about how people might question his mental balance in the light of this and some of the other things he has said in Burden of Dreams, My Best Fiend and elsewhere.
It's very easy to collect stories and quotes about Werner Herzog that conjure the image of a wild Romantic with a purity of vision and an über-will of iron, and this image may subsequently infuse your reaction to everything he does. I remember reading a review of his staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream in a clearing in the Brazilian rain forest, running to coincide with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. You almost don't need to see the production: just the brilliant conceit of the context, combined with Herzog's name, is enough to imagine an experience possibly more magical than the performance really was.
Frankly, it's all a bit too easy, and if you keep on looking, you get the feeling that something here doesn't quite add up. For as the review of Burden of Dreams on Les Blank's site puts it, "Actually, Herzog's talk about the jungle is much more uncomfortable, and persuasive, than the visual grandeur of Fitzcarraldo." There's no getting away from the fact that Burden of Dreams is the better film. That despite Herzog's tributes to Kinski's screen presence, he's not averse to the potential of sequences such as that at the head of this page to upstage his old sparring partner.
As I researched the web resources for the Showroom's Herzog weblinks, I became intrigued and increasingly charmedby what you might call the counter-rumours of a self-mythologising trickster with a mischievous sense of humour. The 'Mad Genius' link feature starts it off by quoting a 'friend and collaborator' of Herzog who argues that Les Blank's portrait of a scary, reckless, autocratic directory misrepresents reality (although of course Herzog 'understands why he [Blank] did it'). In fact Herzog is 'the consummate professional.'
Klaus Kinski also misrepresented Herzog in his account of their relationship, says the latter, now that Kinski is dead. Herzog relates his complicity in looking up pejorative adjectives in the dictionary, which Kinski could in turn apply to Herzog in his autobiography, because Kinski argued that, "Nobody is going to buy the book if I say nice things about you, Werner." It's a good story. As is the one Herzog tells about him once making the 500 mile Munich-Paris journey on foot when visiting a sick friend, because the spirtual act of walking would help heal her. In the article of his I've put on the links page, Derek Malcom alleges that the friend met Herzog off the train — and anyway he had an ulterior motive for going to Paris. (Postscript, 2003: last year I shelled out the £30 required to get a second hand copy of Herzog's long out-of-print Of Walking in Ice, his journal of that walk. I guess there must be some kind of truth to his story.)
According to the report of a talk Herzog gave at Rice University, he cheerfully admits to fabricating the Blaise Pascal quote that opens his film Lessons of Darkness - a documentary about Kuwaiti oil fields after the 1991 Gulf war - because, he says, "I need something for the audience to step into the film at a high [intellectual] level."
It all makes you want to speculate whether other more 'serious' elements of the film are based wholly in fact, such as the boy who (in a parallel to Kaspar Hauser) has not spoken since witnessing some of the atrocities of war. Coming from Herzog, the story is again entirely believable, so perhaps it doesn't matter.
Certainly Herzog's is pronouncements suggest he is not bothered about dotting the factual 'i's. In his 'Minnesota Declaration', he writes, "...the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants... Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones... There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization" (my italics).
The last sequence in Lessons of Darkness is a chapter called Life after Fire. Two firefighters are standing in front of a jet of black oil from which they have finally extinguished the flames. Herzog narrates as one of them throws a burning torch into the jet, setting it alight all over again. "What madness is this?" asks Herzog in horror. But at the same time he surely expects us to speculate that this is the same impulse that makes a film director drag impossibly large boats up very steep hills. For all we know, the firefighters were acting under Herzog's direction.
(Postscript, 2003: in this
Herzog describes how he staged a sequence in another documentary.
Postscript, 2004: Herzog on Herzog sets the record straight with regard to the firefighters by clarifying that there was a practical reason for re-igniting the oil, and Herzog asked them to let him know when they were going to do it, so he could film it. "I am a storyteller, and I used the voice-over to place the film — and the audience — in a darkened planet somewhere in our solar system.")
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