Showing posts with label Werner Herzog. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Werner Herzog. Show all posts

Friday, 25 January 2013

Even Dwarfs Started Small

The second feature film from acclaimed art-house Director Werner Herzog, 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small is an extremely weird metaphor for Western Society set in a world in which everyone is a dwarf. On a remote Mediterranean Island sits an asylum in which the inmates have taken control. With their leader held hostage by the Director inside the building, the inmates cause havoc outside, gleefully smashing windows, killing animals, burning plants, teasing the two blind inmates and abandoning a van which drives around and around in circles.

I’m a big fan of Herzog’s but haven’t enjoyed all of his films. Even Dwarfs Started Small is an example of a film that I did enjoy but I’m not totally sure why. My mouth was agape as the strange actions unfolded and it makes for compelling viewing. The fact that every actor is a dwarf helps to add to the strangeness but even had the actors been of average height, this film would still rank as one of the craziest and unusual films I’ve seen.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Jack Reacher

The popular Jack Reacher series of novels had its film rights snapped up soon after the release of the initial novel in 1997. Fifteen years and seventeen books later, the first film has finally made it to the screen. The ninth book in the series Long Shot forms the basis of the film Jack Reacher. A lone sniper sets up shop in a parking garage before training his sights on people across the river. In quick succession he fires six shots, killing five random people. A trail of clues left at the scene leads to his arrest and after failing to confess he asks the police to get him Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), an ex Military Policeman and drifter. By the time Reacher gets to the scene of the crime the accused has been beaten into a coma. Believing the culprit is guilty based on a previous encounter; Reacher is nonetheless hired by Defence Lawyer (Rosamund Pike) and begins to uncover a deeper plot.

 I’ve read just one Jack Reacher novel and enjoyed it but not enough to rush out and continue with the series. Even though I’m not a die hard fan I raised my eyebrow at the casting of Tom Cruise as what has become a distinctive and well loved character. Having seen the film, to me the casting now fits perfectly. Cruise may lack the height and physical presence of Reacher but he more than makes up for it in screen presence and overall there are very few areas in which I can fault the film.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The White Diamond

Werner Herzog once again goes back to the South American Rainforrest, the setting of his feature films Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. This time Herzog is in Guyana, one of the less known countries of the continent. A small country, with just 700,000 inhabitants, Guyana shares more in common both historically and culturally with the Caribbean Islands than with its giant neighbours to the south. Herzog is in Guyana to meet Dr Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer who is in the jungle to test his latest airship. The story is tinged with sadness though as in a previous test ten years earlier, Dorrington’s cinematographer Dieter Plage was killed.

The film begins with a brief history of aviation and in particular the history of the airship. Herzog discusses the rapid rise and fall of the popularity of airships before and after the Hindenburg disaster. Herzog first meets Dorrington in his lab in London. He is an excitable and intelligent man with grand ambitions of soaring above the jungle canopy, capturing its unspoiled beauty and collecting samples that could be used in the Pharmaceutical Industry. Dorrington is eccentric but focussed and it is obvious how much the expedition and test means to him. The tragedy of ten years earlier is only briefly mentioned and leaves the viewer hanging.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Rescue Dawn

After making the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about German-American Navy Pilot Dieter Dengler, Herzog also wrote and directed a feature film version, based on the real events, which was released ten years later. The film begins with shocking real footage of low level bombings over Laos before we meet the protagonist. Dengler (Christian Bale) a Navy Pilot is shot down on his first combat mission over Laos in February 1966. After surviving the crash and the next couple of days in the jungle, Dengler is captured and tortured by the Pathet Lao and ends up in a prison camp. Already in the camp are three Thai, one Chinese and two American prisoners who have been there for over two years. Degler decides immediately that they must all escape and begins planning. The planning and execution take many months however and getting out is only the first of many hurdles.

There are Herzogian themes all over the place in this film. There is a strong man vs. jungle theme, men overcoming almost impossible adversity and a study of madness. All of these things have been major parts of previous and subsequent Herzog films such as Fitzcoraldo, Grizzly Man and Aguirre. You get the feeling from watching the film that the actors were put through some extremely tough situations and this is another Herzogian trait. The jungle is almost impregnable and the actors are covered with live leeches and forced to eat live maggots. All of this helps to make the film feel very real.

The story, based mostly on fact is incredible. Without wanting to give away everything, it is incredible what the men did in order to stay alive. And even before the escape attempt, the section in the prison is very tense and interesting. The three main western actors are all excellent. Christian Bale, known for transforming his body between films here transforms before our eyes from a slightly podgy Navy Pilot to an emaciated, almost skeletal figure. He also has an unnerving quality to him, almost like he isn’t taking anything seriously. It’s a strange but compelling performance. Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan, LOST) looks as though he has stepped out of Auschwitz. His body is shockingly thin and he is incredible as the slightly mad Gene DeBruin. Steve Zahn (Treme) produces a different type of madness to Davies and is also excellent.

If I had one complaint about the film then it would be the poor CGI in the early stages. The one scene in which Bale and co. are flying over Laos looks very poor but the film cost only $10m and it only occurs once. In an otherwise excellent film, this is my one solitary complaint.

Overall the film is on a par if not better than Herzog’s earlier feature work. It is a study of madness, desperation, compassion and survival and features three excellent performances.  


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary finds him in Antarctica where he meets the people who call the frozen continent their home. Herzog announces at the start that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins but will explore the dreams of the people working in this landscape. The entire film crew consisted of Herzog and Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger who spent seven weeks on the continent, interviewing the people who live and work there.

Shortly after arriving, Herzog is in full on grumpy mode as he is stuck in the largest settlement on the continent, McMurdo Island. He is shocked to discover that it looks like a dirty construction site, is criss-crossed by JCB diggers and has a bowling alley and an aerobic studio. Herzog makes it clear that he wants to escape the confines of the settlement as soon as possible. 

Herzog meets many different people in his seven weeks on the continent. Some people, like a geologist Herzog meets sound like poets when describing Ice Burgs the size of countries while others are particularly annoying. A survival instructor being the most irritable person Herzog encounters. We meet an array of weird and wonderful characters from an ex banker turned bus driver to a woman with a beard and another woman who travelled through South America in a sewer pipe on the back of a lorry. Their stories and experiences are rife with philosophy and wonder.

"Through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witness to which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence."

Herzog’s ability to put into words what he sees is unrivalled and he sounds like a poet when he speaks. His accent along with the way he conveys himself are a joy to listen to. Herzog takes us into the mind of the people he meets and tries to understand why they are here, what bought them here and how they have adapted to their environment. Herzog also tires to get inside the mind of a suicidal penguin in a very funny but odd moving encounter.

Towards the end of the film, Herzog focuses on the future of Antarctica and the future of us as a species; hypothesising that when we are gone a race of alien archaeologists will study our ruined cities and try to understand why we were in the Antarctic. While there they will uncover the only completely intact human settlement, preserved in the ice. It is a unique and vivid Herzogian vision.

As with all Herzog documentaries, I felt that watching it on Blu-Ray on a large TV was sufficient. Herzog captures great beauty in Antarctica but is also unafraid of filming the uglier sides. To me, his documentary makes Antarctica feel a bit like Prague. It is incredibly beautiful but kind of spoiled by Americans. The film features some wonderfully unique and interesting people and I'd have been more than happy to watch at least another half an hour. This is a charming documentary which goes further than the traditional wildlife documentaries you will have seen before and is a joy to watch.    


For more Werner Herzog films check out my reviews of Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss and Aguirre Wrath of God

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

"I am the great traitor. There must be no other"

Werner Herzog’s 1972 Adventure-Drama stars his regular collaborator, Klaus Kinski in the role of Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre who in 1561 while on an expedition in search of the mythical El Dorado, mutinied and took control of the expedition after which time all involved lost their lives, either at the hands of natives or of starvation. Though based on fact and on the life of a real man, much of the story is a fabrication and is only loosely based on real events.

The film’s central themes of lust for power and riches as well as madness and delusion are fully explored in this sparse and bleak film. Kinski can be seen delving deeper and deeper into a frenetic, maddened state as his followers become more disillusioned and his situation becomes more desperate. It is shot in such a way that it often feels like a documentary. There is very little dialogue, plenty of beautiful shots of the Amazon and its surrounding jungle and many of the characters look directly down the camera lens as though they are talking directly to the audience. 

Klaus Kinski in the central role is superbly menacing but understated. In fact the entire film is understated and eerily calm. No fuss is made about a death or even an explosion. It is as if the cast treated these incidents as though they were happening to someone else. Everything feels distant.

While I enjoyed the film, it is not something I would recommend to most people. It is extremely slow and will not be to most people’s tastes. It also suffers from an unfortunate dubbing problem. It was filmed in English as that was the only common language of the cast, but then dubbed into German. As a result, the dialogue never matches up to the audio.

Unfortunately for the film as with so many of Herzog’s Feature Films, the story behind the making of the film is more interesting than the actual film. You can really see the effort that went into making it. Every inch of inhospitable jungle that the cast and crew trekked was real and there are stories of Herzog directing Kinski with a gun to his head and of Kinski, in a rage, shooting off the finger of an extra. Many of the problems that the production faced were actually incorporated into the film!
Herzog’s ability to capture a madman on the precipice is unmatched and he has done it time and time again. This is one of his best examples of that. Aguirre has been placed on many ‘Top Film’ lists and while I didn’t like it enough for that it will be a treat for any Herzog fan and the sort of film that people should try if they are feeling on the adventurous side.   


Click for reviews of the great Herzog documentaries; Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Grizzly Man

"I will protect these bears with my last breath"

Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss)’s 2005 Documentary takes the footage taken by Timothy Treadwell, who lived with and was killed and eaten by bears in Alaska in 2003 and tries to assemble his reasons for doing what he did. Although the film has the look of a nature documentary, it is in fact the study of a man and perhaps mankind as a whole. Herzog compiled the film from 100 hours of footage, shot by Treadwell over the thirteen summers he spent studying and living with the bears.

Many of Herzog’s feature films carry the theme of an obsessed man who sets off on high risk journeys in order to accomplish seemingly impossible feats. This trend continues in Grizzly Man. Treadwell even has a similar haircut and manner of Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo in the film of the same name. Treadwell openly shuns the outside ‘human’ world and believes it is his duty and right to live with and protect the bears. He feels as though he is the only one who can save them despite the fact that they live on protected park land. It is obvious from the film’s outset that Treadwell is much more at home in the wilderness, surrounded by bears than in human society and it often comes across in his footage that he believes he is a bear or can, at the very least understand and be understood by them. Herzog states that he believes Treadwell was wrong in this respect and sees in the bear’s eyes nothing but the disinterested look of nature.

Herzog does not use footage of Treadwell’s death in the film, instead allowing the story to be told by a mixture of friends, relatives and experts. These interviews allow us to get to know Treadwell and help us to understand why he shunned humanity in favour of a dangerous life with bears. Herzog is seen on camera listening to the footage of Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard’s deaths and is seen to break down, asking for the audio to be stopped. In this emotional and deeply distressing scene he then tells Treadwell’s friend Jewel Palovak never to listen to what he has just heard and urges her to have the tape destroyed. In the next scene we see footage taken by Treadwell of two male bears locked in an incredibly ferocious fight in which fur is ripped from their skin and floats away on the wind. This scene is perhaps as powerful as if we had heard the footage ourselves as the bears’ strength and ferocity is obvious to behold. Their power is terrifying yet Treadwell stands just feet away. It is a chilling and upsetting scene.

Amie Huguenard, the woman who died by Treadwell’s side is somewhat of an enigma. To maintain the idea that he was alone in the wild, she only appears on camera on two occasions, both times with her face quite eerily but unintentionally covered as if she never wanted to be seen. Her reasons for staying with Treadwell despite her open fear of bears and need to get back to LA for a job remain one of the many mysteries of the film and of Treadwell’s life as a whole.

Herzog delves into Treadwell’s psyche and provides opinions about his subject. He comes to the conclusion that Treadwell may have had a death wish towards the end of his life, a theory that is supported by some of Treadwell’s piece to camera footage. What is clear is that Treadwell was a deeply disturbed man who had a belief that it was his job to protect and even befriend the bears despite the obvious danger they posed to him. He also had a quite obvious hatred of humanity and its excesses.

The film is quite a shocking study of two people’s demise. From the very first minutes you can tell that it is only a matter of time before Treadwell is attacked. The whole world can see it but him. He was blinded by his love of the animals and believed wrongly that they loved him in return. Herzog does a fantastic job of presenting Treadwell’s footage, some of which contains great beauty but much of it, great sadness. There are obvious parallels between Herzog’s obsessions and Treadwell’s which gives the film an extra angle with which to view it. This is a somber piece but one that I’d recommend wholeheartedly.    


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A tale of death, a tale of life looks at the issue of Capital Punishment in America and specifically at the case of the convicted murderer Michael Perry who in October 2001, along with Jason Burkett, murdered three people in Conroe, Texas.

Unlike his last documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in which Herzog provided much of the commentary in his hypnotic Bavarian monotone, in Into the Abyss he allows both the perpetrators of the murder and those that it affected to provide the majority of the dialogue save for some discerning and hard hitting questions and the occasional voice over from Herzog himself. This allows the story to be told from a first hand perspective and gives great insight as to the motives and consequences of the crime as well as the surrounding circumstances. One thing that the film uncovers is that not one person within the story, whether victim, perpetrator or those in the wider community has lived a happy or trouble free life. It uncovers a kind of underclass within the town of Conroe that perhaps runs through the rest of the country. It seems that everyone Herzog talks to has either been in jail, has had experience of violent crime or has experienced great tragedy. This was an eye opener for me and my girlfriend, coming from middle class families in the UK. It feels a million miles away from the America of the movies.

The film also skirts around the cycle of violence and the fact that you are more likely to commit crime and go to jail if other members of your family have. Jason Burkett, who escaped the death penalty but was given a life sentence, grew up in a house without his father who was and still is in jail for murder. His brother was also in jail. Toward the end of the film, Herzog discovers that Burkett has smuggled his seamen out of the jail and has impregnated a woman who he met after he was convicted. The cycle continues.

Herzog makes it quite clear at the beginning of the film that he is against capital punishment and I suppose I should also lay my cards on the table and state that I agree. I completely understand the arguments for; justice, financial reasons, deterrent, making a person pay the full price, an eye for an eye etc but I personally believe that a state/country loses its moral high ground when it murders its own citizens, for any reason. I don’t think any state has a right to murder. I also believe that it doesn’t act as a deterrent as when you compare crime statistics you discover that the USA has a murder rate of 4.8 per 100,000 with Capital Punishment in place compared to 1.23 in the UK, 1.16 in Australia and 0.84 in Germany. Despite Herzog’s belief, the film remains pretty balanced and gives both those for and against an opportunity to state their reasons. My stance didn’t change but I definitely hated the two men the film documents and thought that the world would have been a much better place without them.

The film is very good at creating tension. In one particular scene, Herzog’s camera passes through the corridor towards the death camber, passed the cell in which an inmate spends their last night, passed a stack of bibles and two tables with flowers on them and through a thick metal door, into a room with a gurney, on which the inmates will die. The scene had me sweating and almost shaking. It is quite chilling. The whole film is edited superbly and uses music to great effect.

One of the downsides of the documentary is that it left me wanting to know much more about the case, the legal system and Conroe, Texas. At 105 minutes, I would have happily sat through another 30. Another problem is that it feels very televisual. This however is a problem that many documentaries face.

The film is bleak and troubling and doesn’t shy away from gruesome scenes and descriptions. It had my girlfriend and I discussing it all the way home which is something that few films manage and is a must watch for anyone with a vote in America.      

Additional. Since watching the film I've found out that it was compiled from just five hours of footage, which makes the resulting film even more remarkable. Along with the feature, Herzog has also made four 45 minute TV Documentaries about other inmates on Death Row which are currently airing on Channel 4 here in the UK and are well worth checking out.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s (Grizzly ManCave of Forgotten Dreams takes the viewer on an incredible journey through the Chauvet cave in Southern France which when discovered in 1994 was found to contain the oldest cave paintings in the world. At 32,000 years old they were more than twice the age of the previous oldest human art ever to have been discovered. To put the painting’s age into perspective, they are more than sixteen times older than Jesus. They are 26,000 years older than many Creationists claim the earth is and they were painted at a time when the artists lived along side Neanderthals, lions and mammoths in Southern France. 

Since the cave’s discovery, every effort has been made to preserve the paintings and the cave itself and no film crew has ever been allowed access before and they are unlikely to gain access again. Herzog takes us through the dark and cavernous cave, past bear skulls that are so old that they have calcified and past huge stalagmites which although take thousands of years to grow, were not present when the paintings were created. The crew and scientists who accompany them must stick to a two food wide metal path that has been created in order to protect the cave floor. A floor which features the longest known cave bear tracks, carbon fragments from 28,000 year old torches and the tracks of a wolf and a human child that walks side by side. It is not known if the tracks are that of hunter and prey or laid down thousands of years apart.

When the Herzog’s light first flickers towards the cave paintings it appears as though they are fresh and could have been drawn that very day. They are in the most remarkable condition and when first discovered were thought to be a hoax. It was not until the scientists looked closer to discover calcification over some of the paintings that they were sure they were dealing with the genuine article. There are many painting in the cave, including those depicting lions, bears, hand prints, horses, mammoths, bison and the only example in Europe of a panther. There are many examples of paintings overlapping each other. In one case, the painting underneath is five thousand years older than the one which partially covers it.

The film is remarkable and incredibly interesting. It is amazing that the paintings have remained undiscovered for over thirty millennia and are still in such great condition. The film’s narration by Herzog in his Bavarian monotone adds to the sense of wonder that the pictures create. He invokes the most wonderful vocabulary to describe what we see as the dreams of long forgotten people and ponders their connection to us. As well as footage from inside the cave there are also interviews with scientists and archaeologists who are working on the site and these provide added insight.

Despite the wonder on screen and the film’s relatively short run time of 85 minutes I did think that perhaps it was more suited to a television rather than theatrical documentary. It also sometimes got a bit dull. While the paintings are undoubtedly incredible, by the time you’ve seen them for the fifth time it does get a bit samey. This doesn’t detract from what is an incredible documentary from the visionary Herzog and one that everyone should see, if only to get a sense of ones place in history and to understand where and who we come from.