Werner Herzog
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
and
Cobra Verde
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In the early '70s, German cinema was beginning to pull itself out of a long, dormant post-war period. Filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog were part of a new vanguard that was revitalizing German cinema.

Werner Herzog attracted attention with Signs of Life (1968) and Fata Morgana (1971), but his real breakthrough came with Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), a stunning film that brought him attention from film circles around the globe. Now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an utterly unique film. Filmed on a meager budget of $360,000, of which a third paid star Klaus Kinski's salary, Aguirre is an epic-scale production that involves hundreds of extras. The movie's opening shot is a stunner: the camera pans down the side of a Peruvian valley (filmed near Machu Picchu) as Spanish conquistadors (circa 1560), bound in armor and accompanied by scores of Indian slaves, slowly descend through fog-shrouded jungle. If filmed by a Hollywood studio, this sequence alone would likely have cost as much as Herzog's entire budget. But Herzog is one of the great guerrilla filmmakers. (He readily admits that he stole his 35mm motion picture camera from a film school.)

Part documentarian, part artist, part con man, part psychologist, Herzog finds ways to film scenes where conventional filmmakers would have become ensnared by regulations, political bickering, and civil strife. For example, after agreeing to purchase several hundred monkeys (in a story revealed on the DVD's audio commentary track), Herzog discovered the monkeys had been re-sold to an American company. Herzog raced to the airport where the monkeys were being loaded aboard a cargo plane. Herzog impersonated a veterinarian and raged that the monkeys had never been vaccinated. The workers handed over the monkeys. Herzog quickly loaded them up and drove away. (These monkeys appear in the movie's final sequence and play a crucial role in bringing the movie to a conclusion.)

However, Herzog's greatest challenge may have been dealing with star Klaus Kinski, who was frequently unmanageable ("bonkers" says Herzog). While Kinski thought Aguirre's descent into madness should be accompanied by screaming and foaming at the mouth, Herzog wanted a more subtle descent. Before filming a key scene, Herzog purposefully engaged Kinski in an hours-long argument that left Kinski drained. When Herzog then shouted "action!", Kinski was too tired to shout and swagger. Instead his movements were slow and deliberate. In this manner, Herzog coaxed the performance he wanted out of Kinski -- and it's one of the great film performances. Kinski moves like a crab, always bent at the waist, his outfit consisting of straps of leather that figuratively hold him together. He lurches around the other participants, watching and waiting. Aguirre speaks a relatively small number of words. But his lurking presence commands attention. When he finally does launch into a monologue, Aguirre's madness is astonishing:

"If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, the birds will drop dead from the trees. . . . I am the wrath of God! . . . The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes!"

Some rumors (encouraged by Kinski) suggested that Herzog at one point during the filming became so incensed with Kinski's unprofessional behavior that he pulled a gun and threatened to shoot Kinski. However, on the audio commentary track, Herzog dispels these rumors. He says that after a long fruitless argument where Kinski threatened to quit the movie, Herzog threatened to kill Kinski -- but no gun was ever brandished.

It's easy to imagine how tempers must have been frayed during the filming. The bulk of the film forced the actors and crew upon rafts on Peruvian river where they lived in close quarters for several weeks. With the river flooding the jungles for miles, land was nearly inaccessible. As filming progressed, Herzog, the actors, and the crew found themselves trapped -- just as happened to Aguirre and his conquistadors.

Drifting in circles on a flooded river, Aguirre's quest for the fabled city of El Dorado becomes a journey into insanity. Besieged by arrows and spears from Indians that they rarely see and running perilously low on food, the Spanish soldiers become dazed -- as if in a hypnotic trance. When arrows strike their mark, the soldiers don't even flinch. Their visions become increasingly surrealistic -- as when they see a boat lodged in the upper branches of a tree. Herzog calls this the "fevered dreams of the jungle."

In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog found an effective balance of a documentary-like approach and stylized filmmaking. In one scene, for example, the camera watches unobtrusively, moving through the brush as if carried by one of the conquistadors. And in the next scene, the actors are carefully arranged before the camera, posed and impassive. The movement between styles feels natural because of the bizarre events unfolding on screen. Fifteen years later, when Herzog filmed Cobra Verde (again with Klaus Kinski in the title role), he shifted the balance toward the stylized sequences -- largely out of necessity because Kinski was totally out of control. With spontaneity nearly impossible because of Kinski's uncooperative behavior (Herzog says Kinski was "bored and pissed" throughout most of the movie), Herzog's approach became less fluid and less documentary-like. As a result, Cobra Verde is one of Herzog's less satisfying films.

Now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, Cobra Verde (1987) is Herzog's final feature film with Kinski before the star's death in 1991. The movie tells a story that has rarely been attempted in the past. It takes us to West Africa at the close of the slave trading era as a bandit known as Cobra Verde (Kinski) comes to gather slaves for a sugar cane plantation in Brazil. It's an unusual story because it depicts the role that African kingdoms played in capturing members of other tribes and bringing them to slave ports such as Elmina for transfer to the Caribbean and the Americas.

Cobra Verde comes to Elmina after working in Brazil for a plantation owner named Colonel Octavio Cotinho (Josť Lewgoy, a veteran of Brazilian television). In addition to his duties managing the sugar cane workers, Cobra Verde takes an interest in the Colonel's three daughters, and in relatively quick fashion impregnates them all (which is an interesting reflection on the Colonel's own habit of impregnating his mulatto slaves). Fully intending to send Cobra Verde to his death, the Colonel entrusts him with responsibility of going to Elmira and restoring a dormant slave trading station -- which Cobra Verde does in glorious fashion, succeeding to a far greater degree than the Colonel ever imagined possible. He even manages to lead a revolt by an army of women warriors against a ruling kingdom.

The sequence where Cobra Verde trains the women to fight is remarkable. Herzog organized hundreds of women actresses to play the warriors. Kinski walks through their ranks, brandishing a spear, holding it high and driving forward as she strikes the spear against their shields. The women became so enthusiastic and swept up in the roles that they were playing that Herzog was nearly crushed on payday when the women rushed forward to claim their money.

Curiously, while the story itself is fascinating material (it's loosely based on a book by Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah), the movie itself remains detached and uninvolving. Occasional sequences are effective, such as the aforementioned sequence where the women warriors are trained, but many sequences are so stylized that they seem to belong in a spaghetti western. Unfortunately, the stylization freezes the actors and robs the story of any immediacy and urgency.

On several occasions on the DVD's audio commentary track, Herzog says he would have done things differently today. For example, the movie includes a wonderful scene where a group of young women chant a tribal song, but this scene is an autonomous fragment with no relation to the surrounding movie. Herzog admits on the commentary track that he would now delete the scene. Likewise, during the movie's baffling ending, Herzog's camera focuses on a boy stricken with polo as he walks along the beach. On the commentary track, Herzog admits that he holds the shot for much too long, way past the point it becomes uncomfortable. Herzog's intention was to equate the crippled state of the boy's body with the crippling blow upon the African continent by slavery. But Herzog forces his message at the expense of narrative coherence.

On the plus side, Cobra Verde is a truly remarkable example of how far Herzog can stretch his budget. Filmed for just $2,000,000, Cobra Verde looks like a mega-epic, involving thousands of extras and the construction of huge sets. If filmed by a major American studio, Cobra Verde would likely have cost many times Herzog's budget.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has given excellent presentations to both Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Cobra Verde. Both discs include trailers and notes on Herzog and Kinski. In addition, the audio commentary tracks by Herzog are exceptionally insightful and valuable. All movie directors who consider providing audio commentary on DVD releases of their own movies should listen to the care that Herzog takes on these commentary tracks. Herzog is a great storyteller and the extreme conditions under which he filmed these two movies make for fascinating listening.

 


Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Cobra Verde are now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The discs include theatrical trailers, talent bios for Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, optional English subtitles, both English and German soundtracks, and audio commentary by Herzog. Suggested retail price: $29.98 each. These movies are also available on VHS. Suggested retail price: $14.98 each. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.