Woyzeck (1979)

January 17, 2009

Herzog showed great courage in composing a film almost entirely of lingering static shots where the main players and action frequently moves off camera or into the camera.  I have spoken before about Herzog’s manipulation of the viewer, how he uses the camera to assimilate the viewer into the crowd in Aguirre: Wrath of God for example, and here he is foregoing the possibility of doing this.  Herzog is reliant upon the abilities of the players to provide sustained and forceful performances (most of the scenes are single-shot takes of four minutes or more) which compensate for the lack of movement or cutting to which the 1979 film audience would have become accustomed.  And the performances he required were provided for him in reciprocation for his trust- Eva Mattes as the sultry, conflicted wife and Josef Bierbichler as the unfeeling, solipsistic drum major especially provide solid support for Klaus Kinski (in the title role) to show again the extraordinary depths of torment and emotional angst he is able to convey on-screen.

Friedrich Woyzeck is a simple, well-intentioned soldier of the lowest rank who is bullied, insulted, threatened and pressurised in every aspect of his life.  He is weak and preyed upon.  In the title sequence, we see him subjected to brutal punishment by a superior officer and- in the context of what follows- this is clearly both unwarranted and habitual.  That Herzog chooses to accelerate the footage gives the action a comic edge, we are not to pity Woyzeck too deeply or too soon.  Throughout what follows Kinski portrays Woyzeck as a restless bundle of nervous energy, the inner turmoil he suffers from is reflected in his outward uneasiness and lack of control- his inarticulate utterances are empty and profound in equal measure and the sometimes tortuous delivery of them speaks loudly of a man struggling manfully to retain his sanity.  There is a proud stoicism played off against a pathetic submissiveness and the contradiction therein echoes the conflict between a man and his nature or is destiny.  Watching this is an exhausting and challenging experience as we Kinski draws from within himself a pain which strains every sinew and seems to risk implosion.  In the film’s undoubted high-point, the slow-motion murder scene, I genuinely began to fear that the bulging veins in his forehead would fail him, such is the choking intensity with which Kinski responds to the act.

But for all of that, the film still fails to satisfy.  I have praised the decision to restrict the action to a single view, but as well as brave it was a self-defeating decision.  The film fails to arrest the viewer in a way that Herzog would never have allowed in his more tightly directed pieces.  The drab but authentic settings drain the life from the scene with the amount of unbroken screen exposure they receive- to a lesser degree in the outdoor shots and most specifically in the field scene where Woyzeck’s sanity is finally broken.

The other reason may be the script itself.  Woyzeck is a famous and traditional German play which addresses many things culturally which do not cross borders easily.  Indeed Herzog himself said, I believe, that the film was almost impossible to translate into English.  What I read as clunky, unsatisfactory and unrealistic dialogue is, I hope and believe, more intensely profound and poetic in the original form.

And so, for me, this is a bold, but doomed experiment.  Herzog has handicapped himself unnecessarily and the result is a sometimes dull and surprisingly unaffecting movie featuring some heavily emotional performances and an excellent score. 6/10

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Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

January 13, 2009

I am on such a run of great films that it’s in danger of getting a little tiresome to record my thoughts on here.  Another wonderful film, how predictable!

But this IS  a wonderful film.  Being a retelling of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, this film has to be special simply to avoid being a failure and is.  Herzog brings to the film a visual intelligence and a mastery of atmosphere which never wavers.  From the bright and airy opening in the Harkers’ home to the run down, austere isolation of Dracula’s castle, Herzog controls the viewer experience down to the nearest detail.  These are not images which are obvious or border upon self-parody, they are real and ground the viewing experience.  For stretches of the film, there is an almost dreamy mysticism about what we are seeing (at one point Harker states that he feels as though he was in a nightmare from which he cannot awake) but this is never achieved through simplistic, surreal imagery.  The film is built upon the atmosphere which Herzog creates through simple visual storytelling, with minimal but timely support from the soundtrack.  The meeting between Renfield and Harker is unsettling visually and disturbs all the more as a result, the scenes within the castle are claustrophobic and oppressive, the handheld footage of Harker’s journey takes us with him through breathtaking but ominous scenery and when finally we arrive at the castle the introduction of the vampire is sudden when film-watching conditioning prepares us for a tension-building, drawn-out wait.

When Harker (Bruno Ganz, a fine actor) first encounters Dracula (Klaus Kinski) the viewer is thus taken aback.  Suddenly, from trepidation we are confronted with the stark, cold presence of Count Dracula.  There is a chilliness which emanates from the screen and- though he looks very similar to Max Schreck in the original- Kinski’s appearance at the door retains the power to shock.

A word about Kinski at this point.  Having recently seen his seething, unhinged portrayal Aguirre it would not have been a stretch to imagine his Dracula being equally malevolent in tone.  It is not.  Neither does he settle for Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi’s more urbane and charming depiction of the vampire.  Kinski’s Dracula is racked with remorse at his condition, he is soft-voiced and almost effeminate but racked with self-loathing- his stealthy movements and bat-like countenance are at odds with his awkward stance and almost pitiful reluctance to act like the monster that he is.  His inner torment is present in every anguished movement, every syllable is tormented- when he is rejected by Lucy Harker (an impressive, and almost vampiric-looking Isabelle Adjani) he responds not with fury or force but with the anguished whimper of a whipped cur and a sorrowful retreat into the night.  To portray a grotesque fantasy figure of such widespread fame as real and believable, is both courageous and unexpected.  Kinski, again, proves himself to be a preconception-shattering actor of depth and resourcefulness.

Every scene here is shot through with a thorough attention to detail, the work that has been done to achieve this has been painstaking, there are scenes which would today be achieved through CGI and would look impotent but here are authentic and hard-hitting (most notably the rat-infested feast of the plagued).  Every aspect of the film has been tightly controlled, it is shot through with a purposefulness and an intent of supporting the whole which is monumental.  Herzog intended every second of footage to have precisely the effect that it does.  This is masterful scrupulous direction.

And it is in this way that Herzog is able to frame his film as a faithful but nevertheless non-derivative retelling of Murnau’s tale.  Kinski’s almost feral movements allow the key scenes featuring him to work in near-silence, his ghostly pallor allows the footage to become almost monochrome.  A tremendous achievement – 9/10.


Aguirre, Wrath of God / Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)

January 3, 2009

This is powerful and intense stuff.  90 minutes inside one man’s descent madness and a group’s descent into starvation, treachery, fear, panic and damnation.  The film depicts a trek through South American jungle by river-raft in search of El Dorado (a mythical city of gold) by Spanish conquistadors.  Their motive is blind greed.  Greed for money and greed for power.

The cinematography is fantastic with a constant contrast between handheld cameras amongst the actors, literally inside the action (in several orations to the group, actors speak directly into the camera as though the viewer was with them) and longer shots of the jungle which surrounds and dominates them on all sides.  Indeed the opening shots of the entire party (over 1100 men) from above as they follow a single track through the jungle growth, give a sense of the scale of the expedition.  And of how difficult the film must have been to complete.

The film is tranquil for stretches before sporadic bursts of violence that end as suddenly as they start. interrupt.  We are conveyed into the world of the conquistadors who are bored, afraid and starving, drifting in absolute silence for hours awaiting an attack from an enemy that they cannot see or slay.

Whilst the attention to detail, painstakingly authentic direction and bare, powerful script are also key to the film’s success the cornerstone of the movie is the central performance of Klaus Kinski as the title character.  He seethes, literally seethes with irrationality and a burning lust for power.  Kinski is awesome.  His contorted frame and maniacal breathing, his timing, his very awareness of what his eyes are conveying are phenomenal.  His bloodless reading of key phrases such as “I am the wrath of God, who is with me?” or “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees… then the birds will drop dead from the trees” make compelling viewing.

This is a tale of folly and madness, rendered truer than any literal depiction by the claustrophobic atmosphere and pervading air of desperation.  A magnificent achievement.  10/10.