Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 10, 2023 8:09 pm 
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Werner Herzog loses his edge

Werner Herzog is a unique living filmmaker. For better or worse he seems almost a pop figure in America now, and we wonder what that will mean for his fuure reputation. We learn in this documentary that he significantly revitalized German filmmaking after the War. Lotte Eisner, a key figure, said so after she saw one of his early films, Signs of Life (1968) (of course that was 20 years after the war: there's a gap in cinema history here). Later, paradoxically, several of his most epoch-making and insane films , Aguirre, The Wrath of God and, ten years later, Fitscarraldo, the German film industry apparently would no longer underwrite his work, and having for some time become "international," he seems to have abandoned Germany and his first wife, taken a new wife, and gone to live forever in The US, taking with him, he says, nothing but a tooth brush. Good thing: director Thomas von Steinaecker is German, and he interviews important German figures here in German, inncluding directors and siblings. We also see numerous films of Herzog himself as a young, vigorous, sexy man, contrasting rather with the more mellow elder statesman type who was filmed for this well meaning but essentially disappointing documentary.

Unfortunately this is not a worthy, intelligent, or thorough enough documebntary of a man who himself has made bold and penetrating documentaries as well as pioneered in blurring the line between documentary and drama, not to mention between reality and illusion, sanity and insanity. While the making of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are touched on, and the crucial role of Klaus Kinski is referenced, many other significant films like Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser Stroszek , Little Dieter Needs to Fly and various others are not mentioned. Herzog's early life is not described in enough detail (even though a brother is a talking head, notably reporting Werner's winning a screenwriting contest for an entry written in a week).

This film is too often content with generalities and, worst of all, with celebrity endorsements. If you want to see Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale, Patti Smith and Robert Pattinson say what a cool guy "Werner" is, this is the film for you. It's true, fellow German language filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders say something about the director's importance in their development, as well as the Lotte Eisner moment. Prizewinning younger American filmmakers Chloe Zhao and Joshua Oppenheimer talk about Herzog's uniqueness for them, and that's of some value, one supposes; but it's essentially just professional endorsement.

The subject, Werner Herzog today, who is now 80, walks through this film and reminisces; he is even taken to the first place where he lived (I wish the short film about a plastic bag's saga that he narrated for Rahmin Bahrani had been mentioned). He talks about his early milestones, and his new career in America. He has become a pop cultural character, figuring as himself in "The Simpsons" and other cartons like "Boondocks." We need to hear more about that. The voice of Herzog narrating in English has become a thing. Wem Wenders says he invented his own accent. (I challenge that: it's Herzog's intonation, not his accent, that's so distinctive; it's basically just a German accent. But has Herzog been popularized and cheapened? Has he allowed this to happen?

As a latecomer to the game myself, I find this film particularly disappointing because I need more background, more elucidation, and more analysis. Personally, I ignored Werner Herzog's famous films of the Seventies and Eighties, the ones like Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo that made him into a cult figure. (I sensed that Klaus Kinski would not be my cup of tea; no doubt I missed out). The superficial treatment here is particularly glaring in view of the fact that there is a well-known documentary by Les Blank, Burden of Dreams, about the chaotic but epic making of Fitzcarraldo.

The film that did grab me once and for all and make me an admirer of Herzog is his 2005 Grizzly Man. This I find also celebrated, if briefly as usual, here: the documentary about the ultimate grim fate of bear activist Timothy Treadwell is a many-layered story of a man and nature and a look at the relationship that dares to disregard received views. Herzog also makes extraordinary use there of the revealing body of recorded data of himself Treadwell left behind. When I saw Grizzly Man, I knew I had found something unique. (So, apparently, did a lot of other people.)

It's Herzog's role as a solitary visionary also that interests me, and it relates to caricatures of his pseudo-profound pronouncements. His visionary status has come to seem, or ring, hollow. What of it is solid and worthy of our lasting admiration? Werner Herzog is a subject crying out for the kind of bold, in-depth examination he himself might have provided in making a portrait of himself and his career. Herzog is more impressive than this simply as a man as well as a filmmaker: over and over again he has shown immense courage and will power. He has been enormously productive. He deserves better than this.

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer, 102 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 5, 2022. It was shown at Mexico City (DocsMX), Cologne, Vienna and other festivals. Screened for this review as part of Berlin & Beyond, San Francisco Mar. 23-28, 2023
Saturday, March 25 – Roxie, SF:
1:00 PM:

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