An Introduction to Werner Herzog

Conquistadors & Bad Lieutenants: A Fool’s Search for El Dorado

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Francois Truffaut, one of the main proponents of the French New Wave, once described New German director Werner Herzog as “the most important film director alive.” Herzog certainly has quite the repertoire, ranging from such influential films as Fitzcarraldo and his 1979 Nosferatu remake, to such recent, critically acclaimed documentaries as Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I have not seen any of the above mentioned films, but as evident to any viewer who has seen Herzog narration parodied in YouTube videos (check out his hilarious “commentary” on Where’s Waldo?, for instance), Herzog has a perspective of humanity that may be the most genuine to have ever been translated onto film. His characters struggle with both God and themselves, their dreams and their visions, and most of the time, simply can’t sort their lives out. But in the process, they do discover something, and in most cases, it is often up to the audience to interpret what that something truly is. And for viewers open to the experience, it is often nothing less than divine.

The two works I will discuss in this piece are Herzog’s fourth and seventeenth fictional films, book-ending a long career of movies that I hope are as rich, stimulating, and reflective as those I have studied. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, made by Herzog in 1972, is a visual envelopment of madness, illusion, power, theology, and nature. 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, meanwhile, focuses on the tangible deceptions that remove us from purpose, loyalty, and happiness, yet finds hope in the dreams that may or may not lead us back.

 

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre marks the beginning of Herzog’s collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski, a powerful, money-hungry performer who Herzog never quite got along with, but always felt was a key element of his films. The two argued quite a bit about how Kinski’s role should be performed in Aguirre, but whatever did occur onset (including supposed tantrums and the occasional murder/suicide threat), Kinski clearly ended up dominating the screen.

He plays the blonde-haired, menacing-looking, Spanish soldier that the title refers to, and throughout the film, claims to exert “the wrath of God” that nature, in fact, is inflicting on him. Aguirre has been sent by conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), along with two commanding officers and a group of several, on a mission through the dangerous, Amazonian jungle below the Andes mountains, one that the group hopes will ultimately result in gold, or more specifically, the treasures of El Dorado.

The film’s opening shot, which displays the explorers’ mountainous decent from the widest possible angle, already establishes the picture’s forthcoming,  illusory elements, a hazy fog enveloping before the lens. Aguirre never loses its stylistic imagery, impossibly beautiful, on-location shots displaying some sort of subtle evil, emphasized by the haunting, musical score by German rock band, Popul Vuh. The film is narrated from the journals Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, played by Del Negro. He serves as the film’s guiding reminder of religion, a source of order that becomes obscured as Aguirre mutinies against those in charge of the expedition, granting himself unlimited authority, which in an uncivilized land, appears to give him the powers of God.

Aguirre’s daughter, played by Cecilia Rivera, is a source of purity in all this madness, and it is only upon her death when it is fully realized that the humans have lost; the wrath of Aguirre has destroyed them, as will any sense of authority in a world where we are bound by our surroundings, in addition to powers that do not transcend earthly ability.

Aguirre‘s striking, hallucinatory imagery takes a powerful role when the men literally begin to see reality melt before their eyes, starvation leading them to question everything they see. Aguirre, the only survivor, is therefore left with nothing and everything. He has the whole world before him, but no one left to dominate, not even his own daughter. He is in complete control of his own destiny, yet trapped by the horrid depravities of the jungle. He is lost, and the search for myth has made him not only inseparable from greed, but from the physical location in which avarice has taken his soul. The dream has become a nightmarish reality, yet the illusion remains that his conquest has been victorious.

The cinematography by Thomas Mauch is one of the best examples of a story driven by visual ingenuity, not relying on dialogue to advance the relatively simple plot, but instead, a surreal, deeply layered reality that can only be visualized in cinema. This would no doubt inspire Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as well as Terrence Malick’s The New World several decades later. Even today, Aguirre, the Wrath of God descends into the “heart of darkness” like few films would even dare to attempt.

 

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Decades later,  in Bad Lieutenant (a film that has virtually nothing to do with the 1992 movie of the same title), Herzog also directs a fantastic performance, one that ranks among the best of Nicholas Cage’s career. Cage plays a pain-ridden cop with both a drug problem and a conscience, a dangerous combination when attempting to solve a homicide case in New Orleans, post-Katrina.

Meanwhile, Eva Mendes plays the prostitute he loves, reprising the performers’ romance from 2007’s Ghost Rider, a superhero flick that provided zaniness and poor writing in equal dosage, making it in my opinion, quite more fun than it had any right to be. Cage carried that movie, and in Bad Lieutenant, it is fair to say that his performance is not only flawless, but also one of the most overlooked in many, many years.

Cage embraces each role he’s given with complete focus and charisma, even if it’s a completely ridiculous, typecast bit that he has accepted simply because he needs to give the IRS some sort of compensation. There is some slice of autobiography in his role as Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh, playing a conflicted man whose debt digs him into quite a deep hole, but provides some way for the better part of himself to suppress his inner demons. Herzog allows Cage to play the character with completely realistic insanity, Cage simply filling the role with his entire being.

Terrence has a limp, and damned if in every shot, we don’t see the actor dazed with the satisfaction that the coke and painkillers are keeping him from wincing. It’s like a twisted version of Laura’s handicap in The Glass Menagerie. Meanwhile, when he overdoses, we know. As he begins to get high, the gradual transformation is evident. McDonagh is simply one of the most realistically portrayed drug addicts I have ever seen, Cage conveying the mental and physical torture with both humor and vigorous humanity.

There are obviously anti-Bush undercurrents in Bad Lieutenant, but the film is most successful in conveying Katrina as a metaphor for Terrence’s suffering. Water has flooded the already crime-filled streets of  New Orleans, and as a good deed leads to a crippling accident for Terrence, the ensuing drugs that make the “bad cop” numb are symbolized by the suffocation of those waters. Like we cannot prevent the fury of nature, we can also not stop the inevitable pain that unfairly enters our lives, even if we attempt to do the right thing. Terrence fulfills his duties by trying to solve his current case, but that does not mean he doesn’t try to score drugs at every opportunity.

When he gets high, he often sees reptiles, an element associated with both Katrina and his current state of drowning. For all you Harry Potter fans out there, they’re basically his anti-Patronus, a sign of weakness rather than protection. In one scene, where Terrence begins to develop the hallucination of iguanas on a coffee table, or another, when he may literally see a dead alligator on the road, Herzog provides us with POV shots from the reptiles’ perspective, almost as if Terrence is having an out-of-body experience. More specifically, Herzog wants us to recognize that the troubled man is currently living within his demons, and it will take quite a unique narrative for him to escape.

That opportunity comes in the crime lord, Big Fate (Xzibit), who is responsible for the crimes Terrence is investigating. This portion of the film leads us to heavily question Terrence’s character, whether he will work with Big Fate to score drugs and resolve his debts, or fulfill his responsibilities as an enforcer of the law. The solution to this drug-induced haziness is foreshadowed in several ways, including the moment when after Terrence is removed from duty, he utters the line – “a man without a gun, that’s not a man.” Being a cop is the only source of order Terrence has in his life, and if he wishes for any hope of clarity, his duties must be fulfilled.

But Terrence also has a greater dream, and that is to love and be loved without the sorrow that surrounds us in other areas of life; to aspire to something greater than a little fish in the great ocean of human imperfection. It may be an impossible goal, but with the laws that his career places so prominently within his life, the “bad” lieutenant at least has a chance to try. Try he does, and when the pieces do fall together in his favor, whether through coincidence, karma, a genuine stroke of conscious, or through a parody of the “American happy ending,” the crime is indeed, solved. But part of that “crime” remains within Terrence, and as the credits roll, it becomes clear that even though that darkness may remain forever within his soul, fish do indeed have dreams. And maybe one day, they will escape the flood.

The most touching moment in the film occurs when Terrence describes a story to his beloved, about how he once placed a silver spoon in his childhood hiding place and was never able to find it again. When Terrence uncovers the goodness within his troubled soul, he obtains the spoon once again, and gives it to the woman he plans to be with forever. It has become rusty, but at least it’s there; at least there is some proof of life before this devastating present.

As the film ends, we know our protagonist isn’t quite clean, but we are not yet impatient with his incurable addiction. Instead, we sympathize, and hope for his dreams to become a reality. His nightmares, like Aguirre’s, certainly have. Cage may play a seemingly “crazy” character, similar to many of his others. But with Herzog’s direction comes the diary of a man who is deeply human and relatable, and who over the course of the film, becomes someone we actually care for. These two artists take us to Hell and back, making it rain in a way that is hard to ignore. Weeks later, Terrence’s soul will still dance within your mind.

 

The Fool

Upon viewing these films, I reflect upon a chapter of Roger Ebert’s latest memoir, Life Itself, as the critic contemplates the ways in which Herzog has affected his life and career. I enjoy this passage in particular –

I felt a connection with Herzog’s work that went beyond critic and film. We shared an obsession. He engaged with the infuriating relationship between the human will and the intractable universe. Each film, in a new way, dealt with the fundamental dilemma of consciousness: We know we are here, we know what we see, we learn what we can, we try to do more than is possible, we fail, but we have glimpsed a vision of the infinite. That sounds goofy and New Age, but there is no more grounded filmmaker than Herzog. He founds his work on the everyday realities of people who, crazy or sane, real or fictional, are all equally alive to him.

No person can fully understand the universe, one may even call it foolish to try. But as Ebert explains, Herzog provides a pathway to mortal comprehension. He obtains this through characters who try as hard as we do, not only to understand, but to accomplish the many objectives that life has placed before them. Whether or not we can consciously connect with his films, it is obvious that Werner Herzog understands people. That still means he’s one step ahead of us.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice post on Port of Call, the studio really screwed up with the whole Bad LT. idea IMO. I have not seen that Aguirre, The Wrath of God but now I want to check it out.

    It was so nice to see Cage in film where he is not mailing it in.

    • Thanks! I highly recommend Aguirre, can’t wait to see some other Herzog films.


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