Queen of the Desert: a boring and flat movie that mocks a remarkable woman and the people and region she came to love

Werner Herzog, “Queen of the Desert” (2013)

Renowned German film director Werner Herzog, maker of classics like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” could have done something just as eerie and awe-inspiring with the subject of the life of early 20th-century British adventurer-archaeologist-explorer-spy Gertrude Bell, who travelled across the Middle East several times over a period of 12 years before 1914 documenting and publishing her observations and photographs of life in the cities there and among the Bedouin and Druze peoples in the region. Bell would later become a policy advisor to the British government in dealing with the tribal peoples of Arabia and in obtaining the loyalty of those peoples’ leaders, and play a significant role in the creation of Iraq and its early political institutions, and in the country’s administration. Here is enough meaty and challenging material for a director such as Herzog, whose films reveal a fascination with the motivations of singular individuals, and what inspires them to great achievements and equally noble failures.

Instead what Herzog delivers is a very boring and flat two-hour snoozefest of Hollywood-style banalities in which Bell’s life is shaped by two romantic relationships and two meetings with Thomas E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Between these episodes her travels to the Levant and Arabia and the bonds that develop between her and the peoples there are treated very superficially. Viewers learn very little about how the young Gertrude Bell refused to follow the expected path of early marriage and motherhood or what motivated her to leave the comforts and safety of Western civilisation and travel among little-known peoples in the Middle East. We do not learn how women travellers of her time might have been regarded by the peoples she visited, whether they treated Bell differently from European male travellers because of her sex or her personality or because she demanded nothing more from them than their hospitality. The most Herzog offers about Bell’s determination and motivation is a small scene in which she tells a British military officer that she admires the “freedom” and “dignity” that the Bedouin supposedly possess. What does Bell mean by saying that?

The acting by Nicole Kidman (miscast as Bell) and the cast surrounding her is competent enough but there is no chemistry between her and her lovers (played by James Franco and Damien Lewis). Ultimately though the nebulous nature of the project, the lack of a definite theme behind it, the flat script and its emphasis on technical details like nice cinematography, the fashions of the day and Kidman’s looks over Bell’s contacts with one set of exotic people after another, and what they might mean for the future of the Middle East, defeat the actors.

What I find most annoying is that when the plot comes close to an incident in Bell’s personal life or a significant political event that she participates in, it immediately ducks away to something irrelevant. The film reduces Bell and her life to a series of romantic encounters (and very lazily sketched ones at that) that may or may not be based on her actual life to satisfy a narrow agenda which views women as incomplete or not quite human unless they’re attached to a man.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? – celebrating absurdity and eccentricity in a bland and indifferent world

Werner Herzog, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009)

In this film, based on an actual incident, director Werner Herzog pursues his life-long fascination with characters who harbour grand obsessions to the point of carrying out acts that endanger people’s lives and cause upheaval, but which ultimately have very little effect in the overall scheme of things in an indifferent universe. Two plainclothes detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) are called to the scene of a crime in a neighbourhood in San Diego, in southern California. There, they discover the body of a middle-aged woman with severe stab wounds made by a sword. Very quickly, they realise her murderer is her son Brad (Michael Shannon) who is holed up in a Spanish-style house next door with two “hostages” (actually his pet flamingoes). While Brad taunts the police in a stand-off that stops through-street traffic and attracts curious neighbours and passers-by, the two detectives are regaled by Brad’s fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), a play director (Udo Kier) who sacked Brad from his last acting role and an injured woman from the crime scene about the character of Brad and his peculiar obsessions, and how these explain his motives for killing his mother (Grace Zabriskie).

It’s a slow-burner of a film with an oddly detached air for a plot that would normally have been treated Hollywood-style with lots of shoot-outs and shouting, an emphasis on the kind of crime scene investigation that’s been done over and over on too many movies and TV shows on the subject, and a cast of grimly determined and smartly dressed actors posing as attorneys, forensic detectives, pathologists and hard-working SWAT team members who always arrest the right people and do not harm innocents during the course of their duty (in contrast to what too often happens in real life in modern America). All the characters are rather eccentric: Dafoe and Peña’s characters tend to be useless rather than useful and settle for listening to war stories from the murderer’s significant friends; Ingrid seems a passive girl, nothing more than Brad’s trusty shadow; and the play director Meyers who just “happens” to show up reminisces at great length about how Brad is a great actor but had to be thrown out of the play for taking the method style of acting too seriously. The eccentricity of the major cast characters at least is an interesting contrast with the bland generic style of the neighbourhood and culture in which the action proceeds. The SWAT team seems quite intrusive when America’s finest turns up but at least the guys get their man without any Hollywood pyrotechnics.

Most of the major characters are oddly endearing though one occasionally feels the urge to kick them along a bit as the pace of the film is very leisurely, perhaps a little too much so. The acting tends to be adequate and enough for what the characters are required to do and only Shannon as Brad is required to convincingly play a young man who’s a few kangaroos short of a full mob in his inner paddock. Even Brad comes across as likeable and eccentric in a charming sort of way at times in spite of his clear mental instability, inability to relate to others normally and psychopathic tendencies. His relationship with his mother is unusually intense and one might draw parallels between this couple and that other famous couple, Norman Bates and his mum (of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” fame). Brad clearly identifies with his role as the Greek tragic hero Orestes who kills his mother Clytemnestra for having betrayed and killed her husband (and Orestes’s dad) King Agamemnon, in the play Meyers is directing. (The film doesn’t say which Greek play based on the legend of Orestes and his torment by the Furies for having done in Mum is being performed.) At last we understand why Brad had to kill his mother and why he hides in the neighbouring house surrounded by police: he is re-enacting the part of the play where Orestes takes refuge in the goddess Athena’s temple while the Furies bother him with their nagging and flapping. Unfortunately for Brad, the two detectives aren’t playing Athena and Hermes, and the gawping neighbours aren’t fine and upstanding Athenian citizens who can judge on the correctness or not of Brad’s actions in murdering Mum as some sort of revenge for having got rid of Dad.

As is to be expected with Herzog’s films, “My Son …” features some very beautiful cinematography, particularly of flashback scenes in which Brad goes travelling down the Amazon river or visits Central Asia or other foreign places. The film sometimes has a documentary feel in scenes where Brad and Ingrid go travelling together to Mexico and are serenaded by a mariachi band.

As a celebration of individuality, eccentricity and absurdity in an otherwise dreary and conformist world, “My Son …” succeeds well for a small-scale Lynchian film that manages to be a microcosm of sorts of a much greater world. Shannon can be overly dramatic but this might the consequence of decisions made by Herzog; certainly Shannon’s acting makes a greater impression than the overall minimalist style offered by his fellow cast members. The outburst of individuality does not last long though: once Brad has been hustled into the police car with his wrists handcuffed and driven away, life returns to boring and uneventful normality, the universe yawns and continues on its way, and the neighbours drift back to their homes to watch Hollywood-style CSI crime shows and movies. Brad’s desire to become Something Significant is continually undercut throughout the film by his inadequacies: he is frightened of nature when he confronts it, he shrinks from pursuing spirituality, he is unable to function as an adult in the world around so he lives with his mother as an unemployed and unemployable actor and musician. The film manages to evoke some sympathy from viewers for people with grand ideas about their place in the world but unable to achieve them due to personality flaws and consequently forced to live lives of frustration that might end in tragedy.

 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

Fitzcarraldo: epic adventure marred by flat, over-involved plot with little human-interest tension

Werner Herzog, “Fitzcarraldo” (1982)

For all the off-screen controversies and shenanigans that bedevilled the making of this film, “Fitzcarraldo” turns out to be a decent enough work. Like its protagonist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald aka Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski), the film aspires to epic visionary heights, epitomised by the Herculean task of dragging a huge steamer over logs up and over a steep mountain in dense Amazonian rainforest with much of the work done by local people in the area, but for all that the film falls far short of masterpiece territory. The plot is meandering and fairly involved for a mainstream audience and I’d say that, here and there, a good 10 to 15 minutes in total could have been shaved off the film. Bogged in a fair amount of expositionary detail so as to make Fitzcarraldo’s voyage more incredible, the plot ends up flat. The actual trip up the Amazon river and its tributaries and over the mountain includes enough shady characters that conflict, setbacks and the odd sabotage look more than likely but apart from a mass desertion and a couple of deaths, the whole journey proceeds more smoothly with more luck and deus ex machina twists than should have been allowed.

The plot is based on a real incident in the life of a 19th-century Peruvian rubber magnate, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, who did indeed transport a steamer overland from one river to another: the difference is that he had the ship disassembled, transported in pieces by human and maybe animal labour, and reassembled on the shore of the other river. In the Herzog universe, such mundanity is to be disdained for the sake of drama and the fulfillment of a heroic dream. There’s got to be a plausible reason of course though Fitzcarraldo’s reason cuts plausibility quite fine: the fellow wants to build an opera house in his home town of Iquitos but his ice factory doesn’t generate enough income to support his vision so he has to swallow his pride and join the rubber plantation boom. He stakes out an area of land near the Ucayali river in Peru and is given nine months to survey it properly by the Peruvian government. Hopefully after the land is cleared of forest and converted to producing latex, there’ll be enough profits earned to start building the opera house. Reading some maps of the area provided by rival rubber baron Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), Fitzcarraldo notices the remote land could be made more accessible to rubber markets due to a quirk in the courses of the rivers Ucayali and Pachitea: their courses happen to come so close that at their closest point they are only several hundred metres apart – close enough that a ship could be carried overland from one river to the next!

This all takes an hour to work out plus a ship must be bought and fixed up for the trip and a crew of the usual motley unreliable and ill-fitted sort must be hired. The crew includes a captain with eyesight problems (Paul Hittscher), a cook who loves wine, women and song (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez) and Cholo the mechanic (Miguel Angel Fuentes) who is still reporting to his ex-boss Aquilino and may harbour his own hidden agenda. That done, the ship is on its way into the Pachitea river waters and the lands of the Jivaro Indians, famous for shrinking the heads of unwanted guests. Not surprisingly most of the crew decide that the cliche about discretion versus valour applies to them so they sneak away from the steamer at night in a boat and leave Fitzcarraldo, the captain, the cook and Cholo to face the unique Jivaro hospitality. Surprise, surprise, the Jivaros are very hospitable to the extent that they happily substitute for the deserting crew, help clear the forests and cut the logs to provide rollers for the ship to travel over on land, and provide the labour to haul the ship up the mountain and over, down to the Ucayali river. It helps that in the nick of time the cook remembers a Jivaro legend about a white god coming in a huge ship who will rid the Jivaro lands of an evil curse (yeah, right – that god’s name is Quetzalcoatl, whatever). Even when a couple of native labourers get fatally squashed under the ship, their colleagues simply down tools and observe the two-day bereavement period then get back to work with no complaint. Karl Marx must be spinning in his grave.

Amazingly everything works out with no more mishap and the ship reaches the Ucayali in double-quick time after scaling the mountain’s summit. The Jivaros mischievously push the ship off for a joy-ride down the Pongo de Mainique rapids in a baptism of, uh, “fire” to appease the evil spirits afflicting their territory. Visually spectacular though this part of the movie is, with shots of the steamer buffeted about by the churning waters and nearly over-turning, it does have the feel of being an after-thought tacked on to provide a climactic thrill given that the overland trip was relatively trouble-free and everyone including the captain, Cholo and the cook actually behaved and got on well together in spite of their CV’s. After Fitzcarraldo and the ship have proved their worth to the Jivaros, the film’s prolonged denouement doesn’t quite work out as expected but Fitzcarraldo is hailed as a hero in Iquitos.

Though he wasn’t the first choice to play Fitzcarraldo – original choice Jason Robards had actually completed about half the role’s demands before dropping out due to illness and fellow US actor Jack Nicholson had been considered to replace him – Klaus Kinski turns out an excellent performance in balancing the character’s eccentricity, restless enthusiasm and sheer mania. His interactions with the Jivaros are gentle and humane, not at all what I had expected of a colonialist would-be rubber baron. His scenes with Claudia Cardinale who plays brothel owner Molly are tender and touching and Cardinale herself provides some much-needed humanity to round out Fitzcarraldo’s character and give some depth to an otherwise straightforward and rather dry adventure epic.

Much of the film has the flavour of a travelogue documentary as there are many shots, some fairly long, of tropical frontier town life and of the Amazon rainforest environment. Local people in the area were heavily involved as extras with some individuals having quite important speaking roles in the film. The film acquires a strong exotic frontier flavour but at the same time the near-documentary approach does have a distancing effect and smooths over any simmering conflict. Being a more conventional mainstream film with a definite narrative than a previous Herzog / Kinski collaboration, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo” perhaps needs a less artistic approach with more emphasis on character interaction and conflict, building tension highs and lows and tightening up the preparation for the voyage.

The comparison with “Aguirre …” is relevant as both films focus on a character’s obsession with achieving his dreams: whereas Aguirre is interested in fame, wealth and power and ends up destroying himself and everyone around him, Fitzcarraldo dreams of bringing high art and culture to his home town and everything he does has that goal in sight. It’s a noble dream lacking in egoism and promising to benefit everyone, rich and poor alike, and therefore worthy of fulfillment. Good to see that the Herzog universe, however bloated it is, still adheres to a morality which rewards people who dream big but beneficial dreams and punishes those who follow selfish goals.

It could have been a really enjoyable if still long epic trip into the heart of the Amazon rainforest with dangers and fights aplenty, and Fitzcarraldo probably having to dodge near-death a few times and crack a few heads together, but for all the conflict and fighting that went on behind the film’s scenes, the result itself is surprisingly smooth and free of tension. A different director might have concentrated more on the potential human conflicts inherent in such an enterprise but then the whole film would be completely different: no comic scenes of a real steamer being dragged up the mountain for one thing …

Aguirre, Wrath of God: understated study of obsession and megalomania is worth watching

Werner Herzog, “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972)

A dramatic fictional rendition of the 1560 expedition of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Ursua down the Maranon and Amazon rivers, and his overthrow and murder by rebel soldiers led by Lope de Aguirre, becomes a study of the pursuit of impossible ambitions and obsession to the point of madness and destruction in the hands of German director Werner Herzog. The film brought early acclaim to Herzog as a director and to lead actor Klaus Kinski for his acting, and was the first of five film collaborations that started with “Aguirre …” and ended with “Cobra Verde” in the late 1980’s. The two might have made more films together if Kinski hadn’t died in 1991: though Herzog and Kinski had a love-hate relationship to the extent they both apparently plotted to kill each other while working on “Aguirre …”, they at least respected each other professionally to want to work together again on further movie projects.

The first several frames of “Aguirre …”, where the actors are traipsing down a narrow path on a steep mountain side, carrying cannon and a heavy sedan-chair among other things, are at once hair-raising for sheer audacity and the danger involved, and breath-taking for the scenery. The expedition that’s just come down this way is under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), younger brother of the more famous Francisco who found and brought down the Inca empire in Peru, in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Separated from the nearest Christian settlement by hundreds of miles, Pizarro splits his expedition into groups and puts one such group, 40 men in total, under the control of Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as second in charge, to go on ahead by rafting downstream. Joining this group are Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre’s teenage daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), the monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and an aristocrat Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Almost immediately after Ursua’s group starts its trip, it runs into trouble: one raft with several men gets stranded in an eddy in the Amazon river and the rest of the group debate as to how to rescue them with Aguirre suggesting the raft be abandoned. A rescue group eventually reaches the other side of the river to rescue the stranded men but discover they have been killed mysteriously. The rest of the rafts then get washed away by the river and Ursua tries to return to Pizarro’s main expedition but Aguirre, eager to find El Dorado and win fame and wealth, leads a rebellion and replaces Ursua with Guzman as nominal leader. Ursua is tried in a kangaroo court and found “guilty” but Guzman as judge spares his life.

Aguirre fetes the foolish Guzman as emperor of a new territory and the rebels formally proclaim their breakaway from the rule of Spain. They build a new raft and sail down the Amazon but over time, starvation, isolation and attacks by hostile natives who never confront the soldiers directly (there are no actual scenes of fighting in the film) take their toll on the men. Yet they continue their quest for El Dorado as Aguirre is an oppressive leader who punishes disobedience and disloyalty with death and only Inez de Ursua dares to challenge his authority. Guzman is found dead, presumably murdered, and Ursua follows him soon after in death. Shortly after, Inez deserts the failing group. Eventually an attack by unseen Amazon natives wipes out the group including Flores and only Aguirre is left alive, nursing his obsession and going mad as the raft continues its fruitless journey downstream.

Viewers expecting much melodrama, frenzied action, shouting, hammy acting and bloody scenes will be very disappointed: the whole film is shot and directed very minimally so it has the air of a nature documentary or home movie. Acting and dialogue are minimal as well with a sketchy, mostly improvised narrative. The film in its last 30 minutes has the quality of a bad dream and a magic realist moment of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort comes late in the proceedings when the starving and delirious soldiers spy in the distance a galleon stuck in a tree far above the ground and start arguing over whether the scene is for real or they’re just hallucinating. Of course the symbolism of that sighting is completely lost on the men, let alone the immediate physical dangers it portends. Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is restrained, studied and calculating: his madness is more implied than open in the increasingly contorted way he stands and struts about and in the way he looks at the camera in close-ups, his head aslant, his eyes glassy and staring. Originally Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed maniac and clashed with Herzog over his portrayal; Herzog allowed Kinski to blow his top off and then filmed Kinski after he had calmed down. I’m not sure that I’d accept Kinski’s interpretation if he’d been allowed his way: I might have found it shocking at first, amusing second and then tiresome and campy. Under Herzog’s interpretation, Aguirre’s madness seems more plausible, as much caused by circumstances as the man’s own ambitions, and there’s a suggestion that even after the story has ended, Aguirre’s madness deteriorates further with the arrival of the monkeys. The boredom of life stuck with other barmy people on the raft, the frustration of following a dream that may not be real after all, the effects of starvation, fear of the forest and the unknown, and ever-present death … all these make more impression with matter-of-fact direction than a more conventional story-telling approach might have done.

The minimal camerawork with its long shots enables the Amazonian environment to emerge as a significant character in its own right: the river traps a number of men in a whirlpool and the forests along its sides hide dangers and unimaginable horrors beneath their silent leafy canopy. Staring at the bland, banal greenness all day long, knowing what terrors lurked within and expecting death at any moment, any sane person might go clean round the bend. Small wonder that Inez, once ashore again and in some kind of trance, wanders away into the forest and allows it to swallow her up. You become aware of the camera only when it starts to circle the raft at the very end, mimicking the whirlpool that trapped the other raft early on and emphasising Aguirre’s extreme isolation and descent into madness.

Understated and minimal as it is, the film’s not likely to appeal to most people expecting a strong narrative and lots of continuous action and dialogue that push the plot. Yet for all the long shots where you’re just looking at trees, people’s immobile faces, reflections in the river or even a mouse collecting its babies, the pace of the film is surprisingly fast for something that seems so static. It’s arguable that the spare approach makes a deeper impression on people than one where there’s so much busyness that viewers end up remembering very little of what they see and hear. Even so, I’d still recommend people should watch the film for a number of reasons: true, it’s entirely fictional but seeing people cooped up on a raft trying to cope with boredom, hot and sticky weather and getting on each other’s nerves in an unfamiliar and frightening environment may tickle some folks’ fancy (they’re the people fixated on watching “Survivor”); and among other things you become aware there are different approaches to telling a story which need not be all about action and fighting. As arthouse or cult movies go, “Aguirre …” is one of the easier ones to watch as there’s still a definite narrative and just enough loopiness for a mainstream audience to accept as credible.

The real Lope de Aguirre was perhaps very much the man Kinski had in mind: the man was a megalomaniac and paranoid who, as in the film initially, followed Pedro de Ursua with 300 soldiers and several hundred natives on an expedition down the Maranon and Amazon rivers in 1560. In 1561, Aguirre overthrew Ursua and then Fernando de Guzman and took over the expedition, had himself proclaimed prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and the Chilean provinces, and led his men to the Atlantic Ocean via the Orinoco river, destroying native settlements along the way. He reached Barquisimeto in Venezuela where he was attacked by forces loyal to Spain. Realising his situation was hopeless, he killed his teenage daughter Elvira, who had accompanied him, to save her from being raped and mistreated as the child of a traitor. He was captured, shot and beheaded and his body was cut up into pieces and thrown into the streets.

Heart of Glass: metaphor for downfall of German and Western civilisation

Werner Herzog, “Heart of Glass” (1976)

An 18th-century tale of a town dependent on its glass factory becomes a metaphor for the downfall of German and Western civilisation in this early film by Werner Herzog. The unnamed town, located in Bavaria, produces glass products with a ruby-red colouring but the knowledge of colouring the glass has died with the death of the foreman, Muhlberk, at the glass factory. As a result the townsfolk lapse into depression and madness and the local landowner / factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Gaettler), hereafter referred to as H, resolves to discover the secret of colouring the glass red for himself. He pores over old manuscripts, he threatens to exhume Muhlberk and have the local cowherd-cum-seer Hias (Joseph Bierbichler) talk to the corpse, he even has his servants barge into Muhlberk’s house to bring him an old sofa so he can rip through the cushions and search the stuffing. Later on he orders other people to take some of the ruby glass products and throw them into the lake to discover the secret (but the men flee with the items and sell them in another country). As all his schemes fail, H resorts to even more drastic measures to find the secret including murder and arson, ruining himself and plunging the town into chaos.

The pity of H’s actions and their results is that Hias has foreseen everything and tried to warn everyone of the doom that will follow; in spite of his lowly status as cowherd, he’s so good at forecasting that he can even foretell individual people’s deaths. (Why he doesn’t charge for his services remains unexplained: surely he could have forecast the wealth rolling his way if he did.) Early on in the film we meet two town drunks Anscherl and Wudy who sit in the tavern discussing what they’ve heard from Hias about how Anscherl will die. After then digesting this information in shared silence, Wudy smashes his glass on Anscherl’s head; the glass shatters but Anscherl merely brushes the shards away and blinks as if waking up. He then pours beer over Wudy’s face and Wudy barely registers the attack. At this point you realise the actors are beyond seriously drunk, in fact they’re not even drunk but either on some heavy drugs or hypnotised. A later scene in which the townsfolk walk more or less in single file shows they are all in the same mental state as Wudy and Anscherl. Herzog did indeed have all the actors except Bichbierler hypnotised which explains their odd actions throughout the film: they sit or stand staring into space with no interactions until it’s their turn to say or do something and even then, in the case of two women characters who have to scream in separate scenes, they sometimes miss their cues. (Bit like watching some very old episodes of Doctor Who where actors really did stand around on the set waiting for their turn in full view of the cameras.) This gimmick, for want of a better term, is a metaphor for the way society acts and reacts generally: we generally sleepwalk our way through life, waking up and blinking occasionally if something hits us, then going back to open-eyed sleep.

H and his obsessive quest are a metaphor too for Germany’s leaders who took their nation into two disastrous wars in mad quests for more territory and resources among other things. Like most of the actors, Gaettler has been hypnotised and camera close-ups often show him with eyes half-shut, to demonstrate the often unthinking, reactive nature of German politics. Huttenbesitzer’s father, who hasn’t stirred from his chair in twelve years, laughs at people and only gets up and walks around to look for his shoes when the town has been destroyed by fire, represents those people absorbed in petty problems and the trivia of life, failing to notice the disasters coming upon them. The maid Ludmilla can be seen to represent perhaps the workers and supporters of society, like the armed forces: she is told by Hias to leave the Huttenbesitzer mansion but continues to serve her masters faithfully and ends up a sacrifice.

While the town is collapsing around him, Hias continues to have visions about what will come: he sees a time when peasants will be the equals of townfolk and women the equals of men. His predictions trace the history of Germany through the two world wars and the American occupation. The townsfolk accuse him of having the Evil Eye and throw him into prison with Huttenbesitzer. Hias is able to escape and returns to his cave lair only to grapple with an invisible bear. The film’s budget was either very threadbare or Hias is going insane. After killing the bear, Hias “sees” an island of people at the far end of the earth in the distant future, who wonder what is at the end of the ocean horizon; four of the islanders then set off in a boat to sail to that very end to find the answer.

Everything in “Heart of Glass” serves a purpose, even the beautiful shots of nature that bookend the film: the early shots of mountain and river landscapes with overhanging clouds and the waterfall cascades, overlaid with a melodic electric guitar soundtrack by the German band Popol Vuh, exist to mesmerise the audience and put it in the right mood to see the tragic events unfurl; the later panoramic shots of the islands emphasise their remoteness in both time and space from civilisation. These scenes also emphasise the allegorical nature of the plot. Popul Vuh’s soundtrack which includes acoustic and chanting matches the style of filming and acting in its strangeness and is used sparingly and appropriately; most of the film runs without any background music and this lack together with the sparse zombie acting helps to create a sense of distance between the characters and the audience. If we feel any sympathy at all for anyone, it would be for Hias who, though the only clear-headed person here, is unable to save his people and ends up a lonely outsider losing his grip on reality; and perhaps also for Ludmilla who won’t or can’t escape when offered the opportunity. At the same time, “Heart of Glass” isn’t without moments of humour – intended humour or unintended, it doesn’t matter – as in the aforementioned scene with Wudy and Anscherl in the tavern and Anscherl’s death scene where the drunks are laid out exactly as Hias predicted. Many such scenes and others seem to be totally irrelevant to the film though they are all linked in some way.

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone but if you’re in the right, ah, frame of mind or consciousness to see it, you shouldn’t pass it up. And if you’re not but you wish to be, you’d be better off hearing some nice instrumental Popul Vuh music rather than ask someone to whack you on the side of the head with a beer glass.