Tag Archives: Werner Herzog

CAPSULE: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Walter Ladengast, Willy Semmelrogge

PLOT: After nearly two decades growing up in a basement cell, Kaspar Hauser is abandoned in the town square of a nearby village. Illiterate and knowing virtually no words, the man is adopted by the townsfolk, first by the town jailer and then by a local professor who finds him on display at a fair. As his awareness of this new world grows, Kaspar becomes increasingly disenchanted with his surroundings.

Still from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the story is based on an historical oddity that morphed into something of a legend, the movie structure, flow, and presentation are conventional. The tragedy of Kaspar Hauser is rather weird, but Herzog tells his tale through traditional storytelling methods.

COMMENTS: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser proves that the young Werner Herzog had the golden touch. It could be argued he single-handedly launched the volatile to art-house superstardom with the success of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Right on that movie’s heels, he cooked up a heartwarming tragedy for the then-very-unknown street performer, Bruno S. In the titular role in  Kaspar Hauser, Herzog directs the non-actor in a performance that is moving, amusing, and, most impressively, believable.

Herzog took the historical but semi-legendary story of Kaspar Hauser at face value. The movie begins, as with so many Herzog pictures, with shots of mesh-enveloped nature. As in Aguirre, an informative title card is presented to provide the viewer with background—in this case, ironically, to introduce him to the protagonist’s lack of background. Having spent all his formative years from birth locked in a dimly lit cellar, with only one man’s company (limited to feeding time and perhaps cleanings), Kaspar Hauser has no basis for experience other than four walls, a straw covered floor, bread, water, and a wheeled toy horse. For unknowable reasons, one day the captor releases Kaspar and then ditches him, standing in a daze with a letter in hand, in the center of a prosperous 19th century German town.

The truly blank slate of Kaspar allows Herzog to force the audience to observe mankind from the character’s detached perspective. The town is bewildered by Kaspar’s presence and lack of interactivity. The authorities, one of whom is an excitable clerk keen on getting everything recorded in his reports, are officious, slightly suspicious, but ultimately kind. The children of the jail keeper teach Kaspar all they can. When the town government are irked at the stranger, they force him to act as one of the “Four Riddles of the Spheres at a town fair. Kaspar engineers an escape for himself and the three other “riddles,” only to be found later in an apiary by a kindly professor. Things do get better for Kaspar, but also worse.

The movie is sprinkled with amusing moments, largely observational oddities from the unworldly Kaspar, but it is ultimately a tragedy. Throughout, Herzog’s camera digresses into gossamer fields, dunes, and water. These signature shots ably convey Kaspar’s sense of wonder, but also his detachment from the world in which he finds himself. Near the beginning, he lightly sobs to the jail keeper’s wife,  “Mother, I am so far from everything”; later, he remarks to the professor, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.” At a sort of “coming out” party put on for a visiting prat of a nobleman, he glibly tells the assembled bourgeois gawkers that life was better for him in his cell.

Kaspar Hauser has many moments of quiet beauty to behold, and Herzog further demonstrates his mastery of his craft with this addition to his oeuvre. The reality it creates is as wondrous and sad as the reality Kaspar experiences when he finally gains his bearings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy… The last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEART OF GLASS (1976)

Herz aus Glas

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Josef Bierbichler, Sonja Skiba, Stefan Güttler

PLOT: A Bavarian town at the beginning of the 19th century loses its master glassblower, the creator of a prized ruby-red glass. As the town’s lifeblood dissipates, the population goes mad, with a shepherd the only voice of reason remaining untouched by the malaise.

Still from Heart of Glass (1976)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In Heart of Glass, Herzog captures the effect of an entire town losing its mind. By hypnotizing virtually every actor, the dreaminess of the shots melds with the action of the citizens, creating a dark, dreamworld effect. The most grounded character, Hias, is a seer of visions both immediate and far flung—and he is the village’s only grip on reality.

COMMENTS: This pensive movie begins with a rear-shot of a man looking over a herd of cows. His first words are in voiceover, played against grand scenes of waterfalls and nature: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come.” This seer (Joseph Bierbichler) is named Hias, and he is a shepherd of a nearby Bavarian village. A group of townsmen come to him with words of fear: “the time of giants has returned.” Their town has just lost its legendary glassblower, and as the seer predicts, the end comes to them before the day is out.

Herzog’s Heart of Glass maintains the unearthly, disconnected tone that is set up in the opening shots throughout. Under the spell of hypnosis, the actors portraying the townspeople all behave as if they are several shifts from reality. The worst affected is the town’s magistrate, a man of means who, used to the great wealth the glass export brought in, crumbles when it is lost. First, he insists the glassblower’s house be dismantled and foundation dug up, just in case the secret formula is hidden therein. He demands the seizure of a davenport that the craftsman had given to his mother, in case the solution is to be found inside. He laments, “the untidiness of the stars makes my head ache.” The tragedy has no explanation in earthly logic, and the whole town faces their doom with such disbelief that no one can now seem to think for himself.

Events take an increasingly desperate turn. As predicted by Hias, one of a pair of friends dies breaking the fall of the other. A plan is hatched that all the remaining ruby glass is to be thrown into the lake, to make it turn red. Eventually there is murder and arson as the magistrate—the throbbing head of the hive-mind that’s taken over the populace—goes to greater and greater extremes to bring the secret back from the void into which it has slipped. Hias sees this, and laments, but cannot stop what occurs. During an enigmatic scene in the village tavern, he sits flanked by a white hen and a dancing simpleton, and prophesies far into the future, seeing World War I, World War II, and eventually nuclear annihilation: “…where the black box drops, green and yellow dust arises.”

Heart of Glass ends on an allegorical note. Having fled the doomed town, Hias returns to his beloved woods. Traveling through the primordial forest, he seems at one with it—until he peers into a dark cave. He goes into a fit and, upon recovery, has another of his visions. He sees two islands, “on the fringes of existence,” that have no other human contact, and do not know the earth is round. After years of spying the horizon, a man and his followers take off on a tiny craft to head toward the abyss. “It may have been seen as a sign of hope,” Hias intones, “that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” Change is terrifying, but it is also the only way forward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The elusiveness of ‘Heart of Glass’ makes it something of a disappointment. But it is too mysteriously lovely to be regarded as a failure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STROSZEK (1977)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz

PLOT: When his elderly landlord suggests that he, recently-released prisoner Bruno, and their mutual friend Eva escape to America, the trio head to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin; there, they start living the American Dream, only to have it reposessed.

Still from Stroszek (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The unlikely plot, combined with the unlikely locales (Berlin and the fictional “Railroad Flats”), further combined with unlikely leads (mostly non-actors) results in a strange story—but not-so-strange a movie. The tale being told is a weird one; the movie itself is a (commendably) straightforward telling of it.

COMMENTS: As road movies go, this one is quite the odd duck. This is, of course, to be expected from one of the great oddball directors of the ’70s and ’80s (the reliably offbeat Werner Herzog) who concocted this film specifically for one of the great eccentrics of the last century, the vagrant/street-performer/poet/musician/non-actor known as Bruno S. Like the lead, most of the characters are played by people who did not act for a living, and as such they give their story a layer of truthfulness.

In fact, much of the movie has a documentary vibe. Straight-forward mise-en-scène, realistic lighting, medium shots, and even occasional glances at the camera from Bruno all combine to provide a sensation one is watching, as it were, a “movie-movie” as it flows in and out of a “documentary movie”. Various avenues are explored by this non-documentary: alienation, family, emotional and physical survival, but most of all, the American Dream. The simple joys of this dream, however, quickly give way to the grinding vexations of bleak reality. Toward the end of the movie, Bruno makes a telling remark as he listens to an English conversation he doesn’t understand. He mutters, “I’m really pessimistic about all this.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a man seemingly transplanted from another time (if not another world), Bruno S. copes with his surroundings as ably as his innocence allows. The audience first meets him when he’s being released from jail, imprisoned for unspecified “alcohol-related crimes.” He has only two friends: his landlord, Clemens Scheitz, who not only kept Bruno’s room as he left it but also watched after his Myna bird; and Eva, a much-abused prostitute who may or may not be Bruno’s lover. In Berlin, their lives are semi-tragic but comfortingly mundane. Once in America, Bruno doesn’t so much eventually “lose it” as much as he realizes as there isn’t really any place for him to quietly exist. As events unfold, his American experiences become increasingly strange, until everything unravels. His home is repossessed by the world’s friendliest banker, his old friend goes around the bend and gets arrested, and he himself ends up being hunted by the police. His escape through the most crudely conceived tourist attraction imaginable—which includes not only a “Fire Chief” rabbit but also two (2!) musical chickens—stands as one of Herzog’s stranger set-pieces.

Both location and society seem out to get our endearing protagonist. In the film’s first half, his environment conspires to force him to flee his home; in the film’s second half, it conspires to take away the only people he cares about. Somehow, Herzog makes great swaths of the movie either hilarious or just plain delightful to watch. While a happier trajectory for the film would have been enjoyable, Herzog’s nuanced cynicism makes the film, for all its eccentricity, feel very real.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the oddest films ever made.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies series

CAPSULE: AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Del Negro, Ruy Guerra

PLOT: 16th-century Spanish nobleman Aguirre convinces an Amazonian scouting party to turn against their commander and continue a futile trek down the river in search of the fabled city of “El Dorado”; privation, massacres, and death ensue.

Still from Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is certainly atypical, but the only truly weird thing about it is that it is one of the few movies featuring Klaus Kinski in which his role is not overshadowed by his ding an sich.

COMMENTS: There are any number of good things to say about this movie, and I’ve little doubt that most have been said already (by reviewers far more experienced and informed than I). Still, for what it’s worth, I’ll boldly take the stance that, yes, this movie is amazing, and anyone who considers him or herself a cinephile should watch it, and that no, it does not qualify for the auspicious (dubious?) honor of being “Certified Weird.”

The two factors that would have most likely planted this movie firmly in the “weird” category in conjunction, somehow, preclude that possibility. A young Werner Herzog directs a young Klaus Kinski, filming in the middle of a Peruvian rainforest. The story concerns the mishaps of a clutch of very misguided conquistadors who, defying all logic, continue on a suicidal mission to find “El Dorado”, until they meet a very grim fate indeed. So far, so promising. However, the whole prospect of “weirdness” gets derailed within the first five minutes, as things quickly become very real and very grounded in a believable depiction of the febrile hardship that would necessarily come of such an ill-equipped and poorly planned expedition.

The opening shot invokes something close to Heaven, as the audience sees tall mountain peaks obscured by vaporous clouds. Popol Vuh’s choir-like score enhances the detachment from the world below. The next cut brings the action back to earth, as a serpentine procession of Spanish soldiers and Indian slaves trickles slowly down. Weapons, armor, cannons, and food are all being laboriously maneuvered down the narrow path, along with two cumbersome sedan chairs for the ladies in the group. The red uniforms make a zig-zagging crimson line, slowly flowing from the top of a peak down into the lush, tropical mire below.

Foreshadowing comes quickly, as Pizarro and Aguirre confer by the river’s edge. “No one can get down that river alive,” Aguirre asserts. “I tell you, we can do it,” replies Pizarro, “From here it will be easier.” Aguirre retorts, “No. We’re all going to go under.” In this brief bit of dialogue, the rest of the movie is laid out, and the movie becomes no longer concerned with what’s going to happen, but with how it’s going to happen.

The minimalist camerawork provides a sense of documentary footage for a great deal of the film. Characters are observed as they stare blankly at the water, or stare blankly at the surrounding jungle, or even as they stare blankly at the camera. The action is disjointed, but linear, as various forward jumps occur, typically narrated with a specific date. The merciless crunch of time weighs on the viewer, as he sees the terrible state of the men, only to find in the next scene they have somehow survived another four weeks of this torment. And while they are all either starving, collapsing from fever, or being stealthily murdered by hostile natives, they are under the watchful eye of the nobleman Aguirre.

Kinski provides his signature otherworldly presence in his depiction of Aguirre, but the effect does not come across as jarring. On a number of occasions Aguirre refers to himself either as “God” or “the Wrath of God”, and often has a habit of looking over those around him as if they were some sort of insects. The Aguirre “vibe” is one of megalomaniacal narcissism (if that’s redundant, it is appropriately so), and no actor other than Kinski could have delivered the look and temperament required of so zealous a leader.

This adds up to a movie that is a) narratively comprehensible, b) credible, and c) troubling, but appropriately so. See it by all means: the performances are all top-notch, the pacing is incredible (Herzog somehow manages to squeeze just the right amounts of madness and tedium in a 94-minute movie), and the sound and visuals will knock your socks off. Were this site “366 stunning movies.com”, Aguirre would be first on the list (and not only because of the title…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, then hallucinatory.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies

(This movie was nominated for review  by Eric, who correctly asserted “whether [this] make this list or no, nobody’s time watching [it] will have been wasted.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: WERNER HERZOG’S NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)

‘s Nosferatu (1922) rightly ranks on nearly every historian’s list of the greatest films to emerge from the silent era (as does his Sunrise). Murnau’s concept of the vampire manages to embrace its absurdities and simultaneously repel us. Probably as much “Varney The Vampire” as Dracula, Murnau’s demonic, Victorian count is more a diseased, toothsome, carnivorous rat than a crepuscular Valentino. Murnau, who served as his own cameraman, artistic director, designer, and editor, and did his own lighting, filtered this greatest of all vampire films through his perfectionist sensibilities (only ‘s 1932 Vampyr has a comparable, but contrasting beauty.

Of course, the vampire genre became increasingly ludicrous. Worse, Dracula and his cohorts became dull, repetitive, and insignificant. The Lord of the Undead became so tame that producers tapped Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian-tinged “Carmilla” (repeatedly) in an attempt to reinstate an edge, which suited the 1970s sexual revolution. Despite mixed results, it worked to a degree (We have yet to see buxom lesbo vampires selling breakfast cereal, but give it time).

Just when we thought the masculine bloodsuckers had given up the ghost to their more interesting female counterparts, , of all directors, gave new vitality to a very old story by doing something out of the ordinary with his 1979 homage to Murnau, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).

Herzog’s Nosferatu boasts a startling aesthetic with stained hues and bizarre, cool pacing. Petrified interiors strikingly contrast stony exteriors seething with grey life. Cinephiles wax endlessly about Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive use of sterile whites to parallel opaque reds. Herzog utilizes greys, browns, and whites much differently. Lack of color conveys something seething with life, but not life as typically defined. ’s whitened, fleshy count pierces the bluest skies and greenest forests.

One of Herzog’s motives in making the film was a chance for a second collaboration with Kinski (they first teamed up for 1972’s Agguire: The Wrath of God, while Woyzeck immediately followed Nosferatu in the very same year). Due to copyright restraints, Murnau was unable to use the names of Bram Stoker’s cast of characters. Fifty years later, Herzog did not have to contend with the author’s estate, and although he utilized the familiar names, Herzog took liberties with the story.

Still from Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)Kinski’s is a surprisingly sympathetic performance that still manages to convey grotesque mania. Kinski’s Dracula is as inimitable as Max Schreck’s in the 1922 original. Although both actors took the count-as-a-rodent approach, Kinski’s arouses a pronounced degree of empathy. Playing opposite Kinski’s bleached bat is the gossamer  as Lucy. Mina is jettisoned completely. Apparently, Herzog felt Lucy was a more compelling character (Sadie Frost, as a concupiscent Lucy, validated that point in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, wholly dismissing ’s waxen Mina). Adjani is in every way Kinski’s equal. You can’t take your eyes off of this enlivened, spectral figure. Unlike Murnau’s Greta Schroder, Adjani is no dormant sacrificial lamb. It is she, not Harker (Bruno Ganz) or Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), who is the film’s protagonist.

Herzog reinstates the novel’s contrast of the sacramental with the Satanic (Schreck’s count is an anti-Semitic caricature preying on Schroder’s German virgin). Lucy actively tracks down Dracula’s heterodox sanctuary, eradicating it with the Eucharist. 

Paradoxes abound: White rats (thousands, millions of them) gift the vivacious breath of disease. The Transylvanian aboriginals (echoing the populace of Aguirre) contrast with urbane Londoners. Humor pierces a milieu of soulful solemnity when Dracula, in chalky voice, says: “I thought he’d never leave,” after his sole encounter with the raving Renfield (). The redemptive goal is offset, in the film’s climax, with cynicism.

As expected, Herzog is too authentic an artist to produce a mere fan film. Nosferatu The Vamypre is stamped with the artist’s personal aesthetics, giving at least some credence to the occasional claim that this homage actually surpasses Murnau’s original.

CAPSULE: JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Evan Neumann

PLOT: Scenes from the life of schizophrenic Julien and his bizarre family.

Still from Julien Donkey-boy (1999)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made between his startling debut Gummo (1997) and his acerbic comeback movie Trash Humpers (2009), Julien Donkey-Boy is the Harmony Korine experiment that falls through the cracks. Sure, it’s got its fertile weird moments—Korine puts Werner Herzog in a gas mask and has him swill cough syrup—but its indifference to narrative or structure makes for a lot of dry patches, resulting in a frequently dull movie that’s of interest to hardcore Korine-ophiles only.

COMMENTS: Switching from familial underwear wrestling matches to hidden camera thrift store excursions to snippets from a freakshow talent contest, with all the footage apparently shot by a drunk and edited by a psychotic, the movie Julien Donkey-boy is as schizophrenic as its protagonist. Julien himself is ably, if unpleasantly, portrayed by Scottish Ewan Bremner, who drools and slurs ridiculous monologues from behind a grill of gold teeth (presumably the source for the “donkey-boy” title reference). Julien’s brother is an aspiring wrestler; his sister practices ballet in her room at night, but she’s in her third trimester. Lording over this motley brood is pop Werner Herzog; he swigs cough syrup (from a slipper), listens to Dock Boggs and occasionally wears a gas mask. He has given up on Julien and his sister and focuses all his hopes and attention on their athletic brother. We absorb these relationships slowly as the movie weaves from one improvised incident to another. Julien spies on his sister dancing, then takes a bath and gibbers out a prayer, then the family has dinner and Herzog discusses the false-teeth cleaning habits of famous people, and so on. Other scenes are simply impressionist camera experiments, with out-of-focus, seasick handheld shots and experimental lighting. Korine keeps up his obsession with grotesqueries and freaks, finding ways to shoehorn a dwarf who plays drums with his feet, a rapping albino, and a human ashtray into the story. One bizarre, disconnected scene shows a nun masturbating. The deliberately undisciplined technique of stitching together sketches shot in various styles is carried over from Gummo, but the collage approach doesn’t work as well for painting a portrait of an individual as it did for a town. By repeating words like mantras and babbling nonsense syllables to fill in the empty spaces in his monologue stream, Julien’s speech resembles a real schizophrenic. But, like a real schizophrenic, although you feel sorry for him, you also don’t want to spend a lot of time with him. The character manages to be simultaneously irritating and boring, which are not the defining characteristics you want in a movie protagonist. In a key scene, Julien proudly recites a poem at the dinner table: “morning chaos eternity chaos midnight chaos noon chaos eternity chaos…” It goes on for several stanzas before Herzog interrupts, explaining he doesn’t like the poem because it’s too “artsy-fartsy.” He then describes the climax of Dirty Harry as his idea of great art. Korine seems to be mocking the public preference for meaningless exploitation over artistic ambition, but the irony is that anyone would consider Dirty Harry a greater achievement than Julien’s nonsense poem. Julien Donkey-boy emerges as the least interesting of Korine’s experimental features, which is a shame because it’s also his most humanistic pictures, and the only one where he seems to truly like his characters (Julien was based on Korine’s uncle). The scene where Sevigny pretends to be Julien’s dead mother while talking to him on the telephone is unexpectedly touching, and the shots of the pregnant blonde meandering through a golden field of sunlit grain while singing hymns counts as the most legitimately beautiful thing Korine has ever filmed. It’s too bad these few sympathetic moments are drowned out by a cascade of babble.

Julien Donkey-boy starts with a certificate (signed by ) proclaiming that the movie was produced in accordance with the Dogma 95 movement. Dogma was a set of rules set forth by von Trier and other Danish filmmakers intended to make filmmaking more naturalistic: i.e. there should only be handheld cameras, no music added, only natural lighting, etc. In practice, almost no Dogma film ever followed all of these arbitrary rules (although, as Armond White incisively pointed out, almost every amateur porn movie did). Julien Donkey-boy includes a non-diegetic musical score and lots of optical trickery that should have precluded it from being certified as a Dogma film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Korine emerges more clearly this time as a filmmaker exploring the territory where the circus sideshow meets the avant-garde.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who rhapsodized that it was “frickin’ weird… Korine’s finest/weirdest accomplishment to date.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading 109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

CAPSULE: CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: Granted unprecedented access, Werner Herzog takes his camera crew into the Chauvet

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

caves of Southern France to capture images of the oldest artwork ever discovered—Cro-Magnon paintings that date back approximately 30,000 years.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s essentially a very sober and serious documentary on an important subject, with the presence (and odd musings) of ultra-eccentric director Werner Herzog supplying the only weird connection.

COMMENTS:  There are two things to keep in mind about Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  One is that those of us who missed it in its theatrical run will probably never get the opportunity to experience the film as it was intended to be seen.  Cave was originally shot in 3D, and for maybe the first time in film history, there was actually a reason to access that third dimension.  The Chauvet paintings were drawn on rocky walls, and the artists incorporated the bulges and ripples into their sketches (Herzog comments on how, in flickering torchlight, the horses and lions drawn on the craggy walls might appear to move—comparing the cave itself to a sort of proto-cinema).  The second thing to keep in mind is that this is an Important work; which is not to say that it’s not also Interesting, just that Herzog takes his responsibility to document these previously unseen caverns very seriously, and if it comes down to a choice between being Interesting or Important, he errs towards the latter.  The Chauvet caves, which were hidden by a rockslide and preserved away from prying eyes for millennia before being accidentally discovered by spelunkers in 1994, are considered of such scientific and historical importance that only a small number of the world’s top scientists had previously been granted access. The crew was forced to film under restrictive conditions: they were only allowed access for a few hours each day, were confined to a two foot metal walkway so as not to disturb any of the primeval footprints or animal skulls littering the cavern floors, and could only use handheld cameras and low-heat lighting elements that they could carry with them.  Since there are only a few painted panels of interest to amateurs, Herzog fills up the running time with interviews with scientists who gave us background on the caves and on Paleolithic man.  While he does pick a few colorful characters to interrogate—most notably a guy who dresses in deerskin and serenades us with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” piped on a vulture-bone flute—these scarce quirky digressions aren’t as gonzo as some reports might have you believe.  The focus remains on the artwork.  Herzog passionately believes that when we look at these mysterious scrawlings of battling rhinos and half-buffalo women we are peeking at the first stirrings of the human soul, though through a cloudy window.  In the quiet finale the camera lingers over the detailed panels depicting cave lions and horses, remarkably rendered figures etched one on top of the other to suggest movement, while Ernst Reijseger’s mystical score of cellos, flutes and a droning choir plays an imaginary primordial liturgy.  It’s an intense tribute, and even a little trippy.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a Herzog film without at least one totally incomprehensible moment.  This time it occurs in a head-scratching epilogue.  After finishing his tour of the cave, Herzog takes a trip to a nearby experimental biosphere where a tropical climate has been created using heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor.  There, he films some albino alligators and proclaims them our doppelgängers, wondering how they would react to the caves.  It’s an obscure personal metaphor that provokes an almost universal response: “huh”?  But perhaps it’s the best way to end the documentary: we can’t completely understand what Cave‘s paintings meant to artists separated from us by 30,000 years of evolution any more than we can completely understand the peculiar vision of Werner Herzog.

Herzog made two documentaries screened in the U.S. this year, neither of which have been shortlisted for Academy Awards.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which certainly deserved a nomination, was ruled ineligible because it received a limited screening in 2010.  His other film, Into the Abyss, concerned interviews with three unrepentant Texas death row inmates, did not make the shortlist of fifteen features despite excellent reviews.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a journey to prehistory that’s simultaneously wondrous and tedious, profound and completely nuts — which is to say, quintessential Herzog.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, National Public Radio (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, , Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier,

PLOT: The story of a young man’s mental breakdown is told in flashbacks as friends and family are interviewed by a detective outside the home where the killer is holed up with a couple of hostages.

Still from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s twice as weird as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s other 2009 offering, but only half as entertaining.

COMMENTS:  No movie in the world that could live up to the promise of the credit, “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film.”  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is among those movies.  Based on a real-life case with the details changed drastically, the film begins with a gruesome murder then proceeds to explain the mystery through flashbacks and trips inside the diseased mind of the killer.  The main problem with the movie is that the answer we get for the slayer’s motivation amounts to little more than “because he’s nuts.”  There’s a top-notch weird cast here, but the performances are uneven.  With his intense eyes under a lowering brow and odd non-sequiturs, Michael Shannon (last seen ’round these parts as the paranoid insectophobe in Bug) is credibly crazed.  In fact, Shannon’s been acting so off-kilter since returning from a kayaking trip to Peru that fiancée Chloë Sevigny and pal Udo Kier don’t appear at all shocked to find themselves being interviewed by homicide detective Willem Dafoe outside the flamingo-pink home where the madman has holed up with two hostages.  Kier, who’s just replaced Shannon in his avant-garde production of the Oresteia because the actor was getting too excitable when asked to play the scene where he murders his mother, is more an outside observer of the man’s madness than a participant, so his cool, politely dismayed reaction to the tragedy is understandable and even a little amusing. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out why Sevigny is going full steam ahead with honeymoon plans after Shannon tells her he sees Continue reading CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)