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What More Is Mankind Than Nature's Parasite? Reflections on 'Herzog: The Collection'

For Werner Herzog, man’s tug-of-war with nature is not a present imbalance but a lost cause, the barbarous beauty of nature made mere barbarism by humankind.

Like Gustav Mahler, Werner Herzog emerged as an almost fully-formed artist early on, perhaps to his detriment. Just as Mahler’s First Symphony presages the orchestral colors, invocations of nature, and contorted folks songs varied and developed in later symphonies, so do Herzog’s earliest films, especially Fata Morgana (1971), augur the surreal landscapes and deceptive confrontations between man and nature that mark his auteurism. I’d stress the “deceptiveness” of these confrontations not merely because Herzog’s relationship with romanticism is ambiguous, but because we know the man-nature binary, whether applied literarily or bio-evolutionarily, is empirically false. Though conditioned and corrupted, man stills embodies nature in his pulse and perceptions, in his arteries and neurons, and whether Herzog’s heroes are hubristic (as represented by Klaus Kinski) or innocent (as represented by Bruno S.), they all succumb to unsparing entropies at once naturally predestined and socially derived.

Herzog may in fact despise both man and nature, or, at least after the tribulations of Fitzcarraldo (1982), imply that man’s foolhardy ambitions are preferable to nature’s terrific beauties. Undoubtedly, what he loves most is cinema, in its technology, its aura, and its ability to reframe chaotic landscapes as rationally composed ruminations. Close-ups are rare for Herzog, and his landscapes are uncanny—often to the point of quiet horror—rather than objective or godlike. Drawing inspiration from the grotesquerie of Bruegel and the mist-shrouded landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, Herzog appoints the image a primal position that supersedes even meaning itself.

As Herzog says: “…let me tell you: [my] ideology is simply the films themselves and my ability to make them. This is what scares those people who try so hard to analyze and criticize me and my work. I do not like to drop names, but what sort of an ideology would you push under the shirt of Conrad or Hemingway or Kafka? Goya or Caspar David Friedrich? I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today's civilization... The biggest danger, in my opinion, is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials.” (Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin, London: Faber and Faber, 2002, 80)

Watching Shout Factory’s Herzog: The Collection, a set of blu-rays that traverses his career from 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small to 1999’s My Best Fiend, one sees clearly, maybe too clearly, the landscapes that repeatedly enthrall his vision. Semioticians often speak of the “symptomatic” (that is, neurotic) character of the auteur, and when watching Herzog’s films out of chronological order, his obsessiveness and circularity become all the clearer. Nevertheless, Herzog’s works always have a deliberate sense of groping incompleteness. Whereas Ingmar Bergman, for instance, tends to repeat himself fully, with each new film building up from scratch what he’d said two years before, Herzog’s spiraling eternal return seems only a partial sign of a single vision that has yet to imagine a coherent whole.

There's something oddly encouraging or reassuring in Herzog’s commercial success. His static, pensive imageries provide no crowd-pleasing narrative thrust, and unlike Fassbinder and Wenders, he has little to no interest in paying homage to Hollywood genre filmmaking. (Herzog’s single essay in Americanist genre, 2009’s sardonic Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, happily decorticates the policier, revealing its underlying social psychoses.) Logically, he should be no more popular with mass audiences than was Tarkovsky, as each of their transcendentalisms is signified by hypnotic, gorgeously composed stasis. But Herzog is also a shameless self-promoter, selling his auteurism at every turn and even appearing on The Simpsons (can you imagine Tarkovsky or Bresson as a self-parodying cartoon?). An image-maker in love with cinematic artifice, Herzog is himself an imagistic creation; in this, he remains a Romantic in the truest sense of the word; not as a naïve glorifier of nature but as an artist who creates himself through art.

By remaking Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Herzog might seem to embody or inherit the legacy of expressionism, but his 1979 homage has greater relevance to Herzog’s own body of work than to the history of German silent film. If Herzog’s canon is sui generis, belonging to no genre but his own, his “not inadequate” images also defy monolithic categories, even if specific compositions echo the montane landscapes of Friedrich (as in 1976's Heart of Glass) or the stark lighting effects of the Dutch masters (as in 1979's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht). Though he defers to Büchner’s proto-expressionism in Woyzeck (1979) and the affected chiaroscuro of German silents in Nosferatu, Herzog’s aesthetic of “lyrical grotesquerie” (for lack of a better term) is not in itself expressionistic, at least not in the psychologizing sense of the term.

For the fin de siècle expressionists of Die Brücke, many of them schooled in architecture, expressionism was a tool that exteriorized and exposed the angst beneath bourgeois, modern façades. With the possible exceptions of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977), however, Herzog’s canvas is one of uncanny, mannerist surfaces that conceal no repressed psychologies. If anything, his fictions are anti-expressionistic, or perhaps post-impressionistic, to the degree that his characters are not agents protruding angularly from their environments but hapless cyphers enrobed and colored by pulsing landscapes.

Herzog himself has often insisted that his anti-romantic tendencies are stronger than his romantic ones; certainly, his haunted landscapes, alternatively apocalyptic, fanciful, dreadful, and impenetrable, reject the quainter aspects of naturalism. Indeed, his landscapes overbear the insignificant lives that inhabit them; Herzog’s human characters are largely parasitic, transitory, pathetic, and ultimately out of sync with the universe. The animals that populate his landscapes are parasitic too, but appear as ill omens, swarming primevally and signifying the destruction a cruel nature brings.

Consider the plague-bearing rats in Nosferatu, the mindless monkeys that finally surround doomed Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), or the hermit crabs that overrun the colonial outposts of Cobra Verde. When removed from their proper, natural places, Herzog’s animals seem even more absurd, as do Fitzcarraldo’s aristocratic horses, which are fed champagne at the opera house. Only in Aguirre, The Wrath of God does man strike back at his animal competitors—but when, in the middle of the film, Klaus Kinski literally smacks down an obstinate horse on a floating barge, he already realizes nature en masse has bested him, and striking the horse is only a frustrated, buffoonish protest.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

If Herzog nests within the romantic process of self-creation, Klaus Kinski’s demented colonialist in Aguirre, The Wrath of God attempts his own creation myth, and in the final fatal image he announces to his collected monkeys, “We’ll stage history as others stage plays.” Surely, this is a standard Herzogian claim: art and history are interchangeable insofar as each is ideally a willed creation. Yet the nature that intervenes between these two elements in Aguirre, The Wrath of God is merciless and overwhelming, reducing any sense of idealized will to hubristic comedy.

The film famously opens, as do so many Herzog films, with cloud-shrouded mountains, as Popul Vuh’s haunting synthesized score—arguably the group’s masterpiece—mimics the sound of heavenly choirs. But Aguirre, The Wrath of God’s conquistadors, from a distance looking like a pathetic trail of halberd-wielding ants, will know no heaven. Indeed, the treble voices of the heavenly choir soon give way to lower baritones, intimating the sinister side of undiscovered countries. Seeking the chimerical El Dorado, the colonialists, both savagers and victims of nature, are picked off by unseen natives lacking the humanity of the aboriginal peoples of Fitzcarraldo or Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). The natives, embodying a fantastic justice, are ironically the wrath of the title, reducing Aguirre’s mad dream to nothing more than himself, alone on a raft with monkeys unconverted to the cause of his new, incestuous Reich. As Aguirre, replete with Richard III humpback, travesties history, the dirge-like qualities of Popul Vuh’s score become clearer, as if its open-mouthed choir were becoming more and more agape at the hero’s hubris.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

The plays Aguirre can never stage are innocently reborn as the operas -- bel canto, no less -- that the eponymous hero of Fitzcarraldo wishes to bring to the uncivilized jungle. Though Herzog believes he’s too disillusioned to be deemed a Romantic, Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo more or less embodies Herzog’s own aesthetics, for what he seeks diegetically is what Herzog does extra-diegetically whenever he imposes soundtracks of Wagner or Gounod onto primeval landscapes. Before watching this high-definition transfer, I hadn’t seen Fitzcarraldo in many years, and sadly, it’s even more awkward and lumbering than I’d remembered, almost a self-parody of Herzog’s “legendary” obsessiveness.

But at least a happy ending awaits Fitzcarraldo’s incarnation of Kinski, to whose characteristic madness we’ve become too inured, and who’d always ranked acting below whoring in the list of respectable professions. After all, whores sell only their skin and nerve endings, but actors, tortured by vanity, sell their emotions and souls and every other ingredient necessary to some Method. The actor-whore’s dilemma is central to the documentary My Best Fiend (1999), which reveals an embittered, stage-bound Kinski berating a paying audience assembled to witness his misanthropic antics. At the height of his fame, Beethoven would literally spit upon the decadent audiences gathered to see him concertize, and eyewitness accounts claim that they lapped up the maestro’s oral baptisms gratefully. Kinski, presumably, was born a century-and-half too late, in an era that thinks far too politely of genius.

More compelling both scenically and dramatically than Fitzcarraldo, the lesser-known Cobra Verde (1987) allows Kinski one of his most manic portrayals, filled with spite and well-earned spittle. Here his Third World adventurer is neither the fascist of Aguirre, The Wrath of God nor a quixotic, operatic soul but an ignoble 19th century savage, a barefooted, friendless bandit who tries to outwit the aristocratic slave-traders who employ him. Threatened by Kinski’s ambition, his masters make him an ad hoc lieutenant and send him away to the Kingdom of Dahomey (what is today Benin) to restart the slave trade outlawed by the British in the early 1850s.

The obvious imperialist commentary is overshadowed, however, by Dahomey’s bloodthirsty king, who dreams of thatching roofs with enemies’ skulls and believes himself the brother of the English Queen. Though Herzog paints the kingdom in vibrant, stunning saffron and crimson, Cobra Verde provides Herzog’s least sentimental vision of primitivism, in which tribal society is by turns submissive and sadomasochistic—and, it turns out, even more cunning and deceitful than the machinations of oppressive colonialists.

Given Herzog’s vested interest in uncivil savagery—the same savagery that so maddens him in Les Blanc’s documentary Burden of DreamsCobra Verde ultimately disappoints by denying the audience the dramatic spectacle of Kinski leading his army of Amazons on the king’s fortress and the king’s subsequent ritual strangulation by his own wives. Herzog is wrong to leave these scenes offscreen. One wishes he would abandon tastefulness and heed the advice of David Cronenberg, who has openly rejected Hitchcock’s (unfounded) premise that what remains offscreen, and thus gestates in our imaginations, shocks more than what filmmakers can visualize.

It's worth mentioning that Cobra Verde’s frustrations also extend to the film’s own precarious soundtrack, which exists in no definitive version. Toggling back and forth between two soundtracks—one dubbed in German and one partly filmed in synchronized English and partly overdubbed—one misses the directly recorded sounds integral to Herzog’s unusual naturalism, and any authentic experience of the film is banished to the imagination, much like the king’s demise.

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