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Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog, Eva Mattes, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Clemens Scheitz, Bruno S., Claudia Cardinale
Length: 1391 min + Extras
Rating: BBFC 15
Release Date: July 25, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1
Type: B&W, and Color
Audio: German, English: PCM Mono and Stereo
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
- Alternative German and English versions of Nosteratu, the Vampyre
- Full-length audio commentaries with Werner Herzog on selected titles
- Alternative German and English language audio options on selected titles
- Newly created subtitles for all films
- Optional 5.1 German and English audio on selected titles
- Nosferatu on-set documentary (1979, 13 mins)
- Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank, 1980, 21 mins)
- Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982, 95 mins)
- Guardian Lecture with Werner Herzog (1988, 83 mins)
- South Bank Show: Werner Herzog (Jack Bond, 1982, 56 mins)
- Original trailers on selected titles
- Stills galleries on selected titles
- Illustrated booklet with extensive essay by Laurie Johnson; full film credits
It sounds banal to call someone a legend in his own time, but that is, in fact, the best way to describe German filmmaker Werner Herzog; who, in recent years, seems to have settled quite comfortably into the role of visionary, if slightly eccentric, elder statesman of German New Wave Cinema.
Since the 60s and 70s, tales of almost mythological proportions have circulated about Herzog’s cinematic exploits, all in pursuit of what he calls, “ecstatic truth.” Whether it’s wrestling forces of nature into submission, or wrestling performances out of the equally daunting Klaus Kinski, each new film from Herzog was inevitably accompanied by epic behind-the-scenes stories. He was a maverick, a visionary in the true sense of the word. Even as late as the 1980’s, if a new Herzog film was released in some art cinema for just a week, we all went. It was an important event.
When his very first feature film, Signs of Life, came out in 1968, the great German film historian, Lotte Eisner, remarked, “that’s a real German film.” There hadn’t been any “real” German films since before WWII. Filmmakers of the New Wave German Cinema were a “fatherless generation,” in Herzog’s words. Their fathers had sided with Nazis, so the New Wavers had to trace their lineage all the way back to the Expressionist Cinema of the Weimar Republic. Herzog, along with Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Wenders, and others, found themselves as the pioneers of a new German cinema, one that expressed the anxieties and concerns of a new generation of Germans, but one without a solid lineage to build upon—which made their achievements all the more remarkable.
While Blu-Ray box sets of the other filmmakers of the German New Wave are still eagerly awaited, the BFI has now released The Werner Herzog Collection, an 8-disk box set, containing most of Herzog’s major works from 1967-1987, plus Les Blank’s two documentaries, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) and Burden of Dreams (1982), and Jack Bond’s long-unseen South Bank Show portrait of Herzog (1982).
The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967) – This was Werner Herzog’s third short film, in which he touches on the same themes of absurdity of war that he would later work out more succinctly in his first feature film, Signs of Life (1968).Last Words (1968) – Shot in a faux-documentary style, this short film marked the beginning of Herzog’s long collaboration with cinematographer Thomas Mauch. The film tells the story of a man who refuses to speak, after he is forcibly removed from an island that was once used as a leper colony. Precautions Against Fanatics (1969) – This short comedy—again shot in a faux-documentary style—features several horse trainers on a racing track who are repeatedly interrupted by a older, Bavarian-looking gentleman, who claims to be the only one who knows the truth. It’s hard to explain this film, but there is something genuinely humorous about it. It also marks the beginning of Herzog’s second long-time collaboration with cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Handicapped Future (1970) – A fairly straight-faced (for Herzog) documentary depicting the lives of handicapped people in West Germany. Some of the interviews with children are very touching, especially the 6-year-old girl in a wheelchair named Dagmar. This film is challenging to watch and is not for everyone, but is worth investigating for fans of the director. Fata Morgana (1971) – One of Herzog’s most mysterious and inaccessible films. Fata Morgana was filmed in the Sahara, and Herzog makes it look like some kind of primeval science-fiction landscape. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) – A feature documentary about people who are both deaf and blind may seem like tough going, but if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with a profoundly moving experience. Herzog follows Fini Straubinger—a deaf-blind woman—with his camera, as she travels around various institutions, meeting others with similar afflictions. The nature of language, of communication with the exterior world, is explored in a direct and moving way, culminating in a simple, but unforgettable, image of a deaf-blind man making contact with a tree. Herzog later said that this was the film that made him “grow up.” Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) – In 1560, a small band of Spanish conquistadors, let by the treacherous, Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski in one of his most memorable roles ever), float down the Amazon river on rafts, in search of El Darado, the mythical city of gold. The film opens with one of the most breathtaking opening sequences in all of film, as we see a long string of Spanish soldiers and Indians descend (as if from heaven) down a rocky cliff of Machu Picchu, flanked on either side by walls of fog. It is a spectacle that demands to be seen on the biggest projection screen possible, and fortunately, BFI’s magnificent HD restoration allows for that. As the expedition progresses, the would-be conquerors descend into madness and the Amazon jungle closes in around them. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) – One of Herzog’s most lyrical films, Kaspar Hauser is based on a true story of a feral teenage boy who was found in the middle of Nuremberg, in 1828. He could not read, speak, or understand any language. When he later learned to speak, he described growing up in a dark room, in total isolation, until someone brought him out and left him in the middle of the city.
For the role of Kaspar, Herzog chose Bruno S., a German street musician whose own life strangely paralleled Hauser’s. Though Bruno was in his 40’s when he assumed the role, his portrayal of the enigmatic young man must be one of the most effecting film performances of all time. When Bruno died in 2010, Herzog said, “In all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him.”The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1975) – Herzog has called this documentary about the celebrated ski-jumper, Walter Steiner, “one of my most important films.” Before film, Herzog’s first love was ski-jumping. As a teenager, he had wanted to be a ski-jumper, but fate intervened and Herzog became a filmmaker. Perhaps it’s no accident that the film’s most indelible images are the slow-motion shots of Steiner’s ski-jumps—he is almost suspended in the air, his whole visage expressing what Herzog calls, “the ecstatic truth.” Heart of Glass (1976) – A film famous mostly for the fact that almost all the actors perform under hypnosis. Most of Herzog’s films could already be described as “hypnotic,” but Heart of Glass takes that idea to a literal level. The film tells the story of an 18th century Bavarian village that has lost the secret of making its prized red ruby glass, and how the town slowly descends into madness. Heart of Glass is perhaps Herzog’s most inaccessible feature film, with the least commercial appeal, but is well worth watching and forming an opinion on. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) – Herzog’s ode to the poetry of capitalism, featuring portraits of some of the best auctioneers in the world. Stroszek (1977) – This film marked the second and final collaboration between Herzog and Bruno S., who made such an indelible impression with his portrayal of Kaspar Hauser. In fact, Herzog wrote the script around Bruno, whose early life very much mirrors that of the main character. He is joined by Eva Mattes, one of the key actresses of the German New Wave Cinema, and by Clemens Scheitz, one of Herzog’s favorite stock actors. The film tells the story of three hapless members of West Berlin’s underclass who travel to Wisconsin to start a new life, but soon discover that American culture is even more insidious than German culture in dehumanizing you. Stroszek remains one of Herzog’s most lyrical films. Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979) – Shot back to back with Woyzeck (1979), Nosferatu was Herzog’s way of connecting to the forefathers of German cinema. The film marked Herzog’s second collaboration with the inimitable Klaus Kinski, and is a remake of F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 original. Far from being a shot for shot remake, as some have claimed, Herzog’s version is unmistakably his own. Most of his long-standing concerns are played out, particularly in the loneliness and desolation of the title vampire. Herzog’s Dracula is a suffering, tormented, primal creature who longs to be with people, even as he unleashes a plague-infested army of rats upon them. It is a film that should be seen by all who care about German film and the horror genre, but don’t expect to be scared. Herzog’s Nosferatu is mystical, hypnotic, desolate, even sensual, but “scary” it is not. That isn’t Herzog’s way. Woyzeck (1979) – Based on a seminal German stage play by Georg Büchner, Woyzeck can be considered Herzog’s second attempt to connect the German New Wave Cinema with the German Expressionism of his forefathers. The play was first published in 1879, but was not performed on stage until 1913, in a production by the great Max Reinhardt, the godfather of German Expressionism. In the film, Klaus Kinski plays Woyzeck, a soldier who is tormented by jealousy and experiments being performed on him by army doctors, until he cracks in a most violent way. The film also stars Eva Mattes as Woyzeck’s wayward wife. Kinski is truly unforgettable in the opening credit sequence. Huie’s Sermon (1980) – A television documentary of a sermon, delivered by Rev. Huie Rogers, in a “black” church, in Brooklyn. After a while, the Reverend’s passion and fury become all-consuming, and Herzog’s purpose becomes apparent. God’s Angry Man (1980) – Herzog’s documentary about televangelist, Dr. Gene Scott, a highly controversial figure on American “faith TV,” who was usually embroiled in up to 70 lawsuits at any given time, ranging from embezzlement and defamation, to extortion and tax evasion. His TV show, Festival of Faith, was largely a one-man show, and focused mostly on fundraising and angry rants against the FCC. Fitzcarraldo (1982) – Of all Werner Herzog films, this one is perhaps the most legendary, largely due to the story of the main character being such a close parallel to the story of how Herzog made the film. The story concerns Fitzcarraldo, a disheveled Irishman, living in early 20th century Peru, who dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos. But to do that, he must first make his fortune as a rubber baron. In order to exploit a previously inaccessible part of the Amazon, he has to sail up one tributary of the great river, and then haul his steamship over a steep hill into another tributary.
Not content to use special effects, Herzog hauled a real 320-ton steamship over a steep hill between two river tributaries, with the help of hundreds of Peruvian Indians. It was a feat of not just engineering, but stamina. The film took 5 years to complete, as production was being constantly held back by one catastrophe after another. At one point, when Herzog’s faith was at its lowest, he invited his friend Les Blank to film a documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo. The resulting film, Burden of Dreams, is, in some ways, even better than Fitzcarraldo itself, and is included in this box set.Cobre Verde (1987) – This marks the fifth and final collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Based on Bruce Chatwin’s novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah, the film tells the story of notorious bandit and slave trader, Cobre Verde (Green Snake), who takes on the impossible challenge of reopening the slave trade with Western Africa. Herzog later recalled that, prior to filming Cobre Verde, Kinski had made his disastrous film, Paganini and, unfortunately, the spirit of the demonic violinist invaded Herzog’s film. Four years after doing Cobre Verde, Kinski died.
The HD restoration of these films can be divided into two camps: Most of the films look exceptionally fine, with a strikingly natural celluloid texture which includes very natural looking grain that is never obtrusive. Colors are earthy, well saturated, and very beautiful looking, yet, there looks to be no attempt at digital beautification. The word, “cinematic” definitely comes to mind when describing the look of these transfers. Perhaps the standout transfer is Aguirre. This is one of the best HD restorations in the whole set, and one of the best 1080p presentations of any film out there! The colors of the conquistadores’ costumes, and jungle colors too, are reminiscent of old Dutch paintings. The film looks better and cleaner than it ever has, and yet this does not sacrifice the unmistakable look of celluloid. Outstanding!In the other camp are three of the exceptions to this exalted standard: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, and Woyzeck. The basic foundation of these three films’ HD restoration is just as excellent as the rest of the set. The images boast fine depth and detail. Colors are rich and natural, (and in Kaspar Hauser, quite beautiful). Edges do not look artificially sharp. The only slight disappointment is, what looks like a little too much DNR filtering, which has eliminated a bit too much of the natural grain. There are several dream-like sequences in Kaspar Hauser which were deliberately shot to look hazy and very grainy, and, thankfully, this haziness is allowed to remain, giving these scenes an appropriately dreamy quality. But the rest of the film has a surface texture that is a little too smooth. Not that there is ever any smearing of detail, or the dreaded waxy face syndrome, but a little more grain would have been very welcome. The same criticism applies to both Stroszek and Woyzeck, both of which, at times, look almost video-like.
There are a variety of audio tracks on these disks: PCM mono and stereo, and 5.1 DTS-HD master audio. Generally speaking, there are no sound issues to report. All the audio restorations sound natural and true to their source, with sufficient amplitude and clarity. That includes the special features too. I did not detect any problematic hiss, pops, or crackling. All films are presented with their original language soundtracks (mostly German), plus English tracks where available. For Nosferatu, two separate versions of the film are included: German and English. Optional English subtitles are always provided.
Note: On our review disks, the soundtrack on Les Blank’s documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is missing the music entirely. Only dialog and the live portion of the sound are heard, but no accompanying music. We’ve notified the BFI of this, and they are looking into the issue. Stay tuned for updates.
The extras in this box set include full-length documentaries, audio commentaries with Werner Herzog (which are ported over from previous DVD releases), a lecture by Werner Herzog, image galleries, original trailers, and more. For the sake of economy, I’m going to focus only on the documentaries here, as the rest is self-explanatory.
First and most important is Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982, 95 mins), a documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo. Herzog wasn’t always certain that he would ever complete his monumental film, so he invited his friend documentarian Les Blank to chronicle the miracle of hauling a 320-ton steamship over a hill that Herzog was trying to perform. Many feel that Burden of Dreams somewhat upstages Fitzcarraldo, mostly because Herzog himself proves a much more interesting protagonist than Brian Sweeney Fitzcarraldo, while the plot of the main film parallels the story of its making closely.Next is a somewhat intimate portrait of Herzog called, South Bank Show: Werner Herzog (Jack Bond, 1982, 56 mins). We follow Herzog to a number of locations, including his native Bavaria, as he talks about many things. We also sit in on a conversation between him and Lotte Eisner, the film historian whose serious illness had prompted Herzog to walk from Munich to Paris, to save her life some 8 years earlier. The trek was Herzog’s way of forbidding Eisner to die, at that time, as he considered her the consciousness of German cinema. We also hear some very personal feelings expressed by his first wife, Martje Grohmann, on what it was like living with Herzog. Next is another Les Blank production, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980, 21 mins), which documents Herzog making good on a bet he made with filmmaker, Errol Morris, that if he had enough guts to film his Gates of Heaven, Herzog would eat his shoe. The bet prompted Morris to make the film, and Herzog, being true to his word, returned to Berkeley and consumed one of his desert boots at the UC Theater, in front of an audience, in the hopes of inspiring the students there to make films. There is also a 13-min featurette on the making of Nosferatu, shot and completed in 1979. This is ported over from previous DVD releases.
There is no doubt that the BFI’s 8-disk Werner Herzog Collection is one of the most important BD releases of the year. Many of these films have been available for years on DVD, but some are rarities. In any case, the new BD format is a distinct improvement over all previous DVD releases. If all the films in this set were released individually, I would have personally snapped them all up as soon as they hit store shelves. Yes, Herzog’s visionary cinema is that important. His friend, film critic Roger Ebert once said of him, “[Herzog] has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” In an age of one relentless superhero movie after another, we desperately need Herzog’s images!