To celebrate our 30th Anniversary screening of Fitzcarraldo we have not one but two special pieces on Herzog's masterpiece.
First up is an essay by Fred Aspbury who is fast becoming a regular Kino Klubb feature bringing the hi-brow to our unintellectual blog!
Herzog and the Fictional Documentary
By Fred Aspbury
This week Kino Klubb is showing Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Fitzcarraldo. And how lucky we are for it. It’s hard to know where to begin talking about how great this film is in its every aspect. Yet again Klaus Kinski is mesmerising in the title role and shows his great diversity in characterisations. This enterprising and ambitious dreamer is so far removed from the psychopathic megalomaniac of Aguirre, The Wrath of God; and yet more so from the mentally fragile soldier in Woyzeck. Yet themes unite these performances as they do these films. Regarding Kinski himself, and perhaps due to his own dubious mental health, all the characters written for him by Herzog tend to be on the cusp of madness. In the case of Fitzcarraldo, it is a more innocent insanity than the others – no one is murdered at least – but mad he is still (NB. This is not a treatise on madness, nor is it even a piece about the characters in this film and so there need not be a lengthy treatment of the definition or even reality of madness so calm yourselves Foulcauldians).
The mental health of Kinski and his characters is not the issue I wish to discuss however. I wish to look at a different theme that permeates this films, and the majority of Herzog’s other works, both drama and documentary. Indeed, this is the rub: the relationship between these two kinds of film making that characterise the Herzog corpus. It is undeniable that in his later career, Herzog has cemented his name as an exceptional and interesting documentary film-maker. Films like Encounters at the Ends of the World; Grizzly Man; and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are a heady mix of authoritative if eccentric talking heads, beautifully prepared and filmed tracking shots and emotional comment from the director himself. They transcend the usually cold objectivity of the classic documentary – so deceptive in their attempt at offering their content free of interpretation – and give us just that, an interpretation as if the ‘real’ events are stories told by the German bard himself. Herzog is reminding us that the world is populated by people, and that events are experienced by those people and formed into a narrative just as fictional as any folk tale, and yet all the more real because of it.
If the real events that feature in his documentaries are given a human face, then we can also say that the fictional stories of his earlier films are given a documentary feel. Indeed, it is hard at times to differentiate the two. Conscious of the problems of the clichéd categorisation of film-makers, we can say sous rature that Herzog is a minimalist. Music and even dialogue are sparse in his films. Music is often only present from sources within the scene itself, such as a radio in Stroszeck or the Gramophone in Fitzcarraldo. This suggests to us a minimum of post-production manipulation and thus offers us a hint of passivity and objectivity. Passivity is a key phrase here and it needs further comment. Many film-makers attempt to immerse us in the action and make us forget that we are watching a two-dimensional image. To achieve this a film-maker may use first-person camera shots (such as in The Blair Witch Project, discussed last month), or they may constantly shift the camera positions, an effect that makes us feel as if we are there, looking around, and serves to immerse us in the subjective confusion of a scene. The camera usually focuses on the important people, objects and events in a scene, ensuring that we are involved in every development considered central to the plot by the director. The end result is that the audience feels itself to be an active participant, despite the fact that it itself has made no decision on perspective or import.
Herzog, as one sees in most if not all of his films, is a great fan of the wide, deep focus and often panoramic shot. The camera rarely moves other than perhaps to zoom in on a face here, or a tree there (often objects and people outside of the plot itself). These scenes are often silent save for the natural background sounds of a location. One is thus conscious of the fixed point of the camera, indeed of its very existence in that its presence is hardly hidden; as if it is referenced constantly and directly by some BBC camera crew like in an Attenborough documentary. Indeed, only the lead cast seem to attempt to ignore its presence. A great fan of using almost unbriefed extras Herzog seems to relish the fact that these Native Americans (in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo) often look straight at the camera – taking me right back to the Nouvelle Vague films of the 1960s. Often these background characters have some front of camera dialogue. The scene which sticks out primarily is one in Aguirre in which a Peruvian slave is discussing his former status as a prince. He occasionally looks straight at the camera and also seems to speak directly to who I imagine to be Herzog, standing behind it. The bits seem to replace the talking heads of documentaries and, indeed, all we are missing is a name tag to shoot across the bottom of the screen.
Space is short and I have no more in which to continue a comparison between Herzog’s documentaries and his dramas. Although I do have enough to conclude that they are practically the same. The dramas are filmed like documentaries and the latter like the former. Any story that has an emotional affect on us is surely as real as a historical event distant from our consciousness, and any historical event that is recorded is done so by a person with stories in mind. This is an introduction to Herzog’s corpus and I implore all of you new to his work to seek out more and enjoy as I do the message that facts are nothing more than stories and it is the people who count. I recommend that after this film you watch Stroszeck, which, with some talking head sociologist thrown in, could be an urban version of Tribe about the abandonment of the vulnerable and the inaccessibility of the American Dream. All Herzog’s films are consciously pieces of art and art can be both enjoyable and true, but rarely accurate in any representative sense and, as I concluded last time, I personally glory in the knowledge that what is shown is not ‘real’. Take a trip to a pub called the Grosvenor on Mansfield road. The TVs in there are gilt-framed like paintings. Ignore the pointless sport on the canvas but have a good old think about how perceptive such a move is, whether the publicans know it or not...
Next up our very own Richard May who designed the wonderful Kino Klubb logo. Richard was commissioned to design the sleeve for the Criterion release of Burden Of Dreams.
We asked for an insight into the creative process, it seems that the cover was just as troubled as Fitzcarraldo's production!
Producing an ostensibly straight-forward wrap-around for the Criterion DVD release of Les Blank's Burden of Dreams proved to be the design equivalent of hauling a 320-ton steamship over a small mountain.
The best part of four weeks, moonlit hours inclusive, was spent producing versions, versions of versions, and versions of versions of versions for seemingly never-ending client review at the behest of a barely communicative art director who didn't so much send emails as grunt them.
All in addition to the original submission; now sadly lost, most likely disposed of in a fit of pique, but similar in style and execution to this.
It was, emphatically, one of those "This is a completely open brief" commissions that with hindsight is anything but; common sense and acquired wisdom dragged out back and chloroformed by the allure of future portfolio prestige.
What am I moaning about? If you do this thing full time it's par for the course. It certainly wasn't the first time but it was definitely one of the last. An underdeveloped ant couldn't have crawled through the narrow gap between the temptation to bin the high-res artwork at the very last minute (the deadline had been extended more than a few times) and the eventual common-sense decision to submit it. I got off my high horse because I needed the cheque.
The memory is a significant one for me because not long after I decided to call it a day, mentally and creatively burnt out from endless all-nighters; the Criterion gig was simply the proverbial final nail, although somehow quite apt. I despise my Burden of Dreams cover with a passion. It's disjointed, stiff, soulless, but what irks me most is that it could have been churned out by any number of cookie-cutter 'mixed media' illustrators of the day. I don't care how big headed this sounds, if the original brief had been "Please do something utterly shit and quite obviously creatively compromised" I could've whipped it up in a few hours and saved myself the hassle.