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Filmed with a stolen camera by a crew of eight in the rain forests of Peru's oriente, Aguirre is perhaps the most accomplished of the three. Herzog concocted a simple plot around a Francisco Pizarro sub-captain about whom little is known. He made the picture on a shoestring while totally roughing it in the wild.
Francicso Pizarro sends a group of explorers Eastward into the jungles of the upper Amazon in search of the rumored El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. Along with practical supplies, a line of Indian slaves move a cannon, a horse, a likeness of the Virgin Mary, and nobleman's chairs containing the wife of the commander, Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and the daughter of the military captain. He is Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), an intimidating thug who broods and plots mutiny almost from the start. The group intends to claim El Dorado as their own new empire, and has brought along nobility, the clergy, and the women precisely for that purpose. Burdened by their Spanish customs, the group falls prey to the mysteries of the jungle. The river rises without warning and washes away their camp. A third of their soldiers are lost on a raft that becomes caught in a perpetually spinning whirlpool. And unseen Indians pick off the explorers one by one, with snares and poison darts. When Don Pedro decides to turn back, the possibly insane Aguirre mutinies. Butchering any and all dissenters, the snarling captain continues the expedition further downriver. His megalomanic plans include breaking away from Spain and starting a pure dynasty by marrying his own daughter.
Considering that Aguirre was filmed with the crew equivalent of a Larry Buchanan backyard spectacle, it's the jungle 'backyard' that is the star, with the explosive Klaus Kinski running a close second. One look at his straw-haired, bullet-helmeted captain achieves the effect that took Coppola five minutes of narration in Apocalypse Now to introduce Robert Duval: this Aguirre is one mean hombre. Herzog describes Kinski as a walking psychic scream, and their 'collaboration' turned violent on a daily basis. Kinski once fired madly into a crew tent, shooting off the tip of a man's finger. Herzog did indeed threaten to shoot the manic actor -- coining a Leone-like phrase to the effect of, "There are six bullets in this gun. If you don't do what I say RIGHT NOW, five of them are for you and one is for me!"
Herzog has an uncanny sense of where to put the camera, and considering how little control he commanded over the elements, the film is very well made. A few minutes of the commentary and we appreciate things like the fact that an almost certain death awaited any actor who might fall off that raft caught in the whirlpool. Or that the simple act of chopping into a tree with a hatchet, resulted in a rain of fire ants whose stings brought Herzog down with a fever. The plot point of the flood that washes away the conquistador's campsite came about because that's exactly what happened to the company -- the set, half the props and their rafts were lost when the river unaccountably rose fifteen feet in one night.
All the Herzog films have an underlying humor, or at least the ironic feeling that the gods are laughing at these overreaching mortals. As the remnants of Aguirre's band succumb to silent death or madness, the fading of the dream of El Dorado is expressed in the raft-load of monkeys that are Don Lope's ultimate empire. Near his wit's end, he clutches at a screaming, defecating monkey as if he were blaming it for his own folly.
Fitzcarraldo is Herzog and Kinski's most acclaimed collaboration, and is only a little less famous than their fascinating remake of Murnau's Nosferatu. It's more accessible; Kinski again plays a borderline madman, but this time a loveable dreamer whose goal to conquer an unconquerable landscape is only a means to achieve an aesthetic dream.
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) runs a broken-down ice house in a frontier town deep in the Amazon, living like a pauper while indolent rubber barons reap enormous fortunes from their vast land holdings. His only friend is the local madame Molly (Claudia Cardinale, glowing as usual), who accompanies Fitz on a mad downriver race to catch an opera performance, like Judge Roy Bean. Determined to build his own opera house deep in the jungle, Fitzgerald tries in vain for financial backing from the local millionaires, but then comes up with an incredible scheme. With Molly's backing, he buys a riverboat and steams upriver into the Heart of Darkness, like Conrad's Mallory. He seeks an entire unclaimed land parcel. It has so far been useless for rubber exploitation because the only river access is rendered unnavigable by a series of rapids and waterfalls. Fitz tells nobody his plan, not even his boat captain, until he reaches his objective, a point in the river that parallels the unreachable upper tributary into the unclaimed rubber fields. There he announces that with ropes and pulleys, Indian labor and the laws of grade-school physics, he'll haul the entire steamboat over the hill that separates the rivers. To everyone's amazement, the previously hostile forest Indians agree to help. The giant ship is soon inching its way up a 45o embankment, a mountain of mud as red as Fitzgerald's wild Irish hair.
Fitzcarraldo presents Herzog's most engaging protagonist, probably the only character played by Klaus Kinski one would ever want to meet in person. With a childlike imagination and unlimited stubbornness, Fitzgerald forges his way where white men fear to tread. The production must have cost 50 times the budget of Aguirre but it is the small details that stand out. At one point Kinski settles the hash of two hooligans twice his size by grabbing them by the hair. A boatload of convincing savages are inexplicably charmed by Fitz's quest. The central image for the film is not the boat going up the hill, but the sight of Kinski cruising along on the topdeck of his steamship, playing Caruso on his Victrola and filling the primeval jungle with culture.
Les Blank's Burden of Dreams is a documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo that is even more successful at showing the outer limits of obsession. The trials and travails of filming this epic were even more daunting than those portrayed in the movie. This is the film that originally starred Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, until they used bad weather delays to bow out. Starting again with his mainstay Kinski, Herzog soldiered on until relations once again broke down into psychotic fits of rage.
Most of Herzog's films end in despairing doom. Although Fitzgerald doesn't finish in the clover, he's afforded a wistful finale that fulfills the spirit of his dreams, if not the letter. Being in awe of Fitzcarraldo is guaranteed, if one is aware that everything in the movie (with the exception of a few model boat shots) has the truth of a documentary.
Cobra Verde is the most radical film of the trilogy. Going beyond the theme of man conquering nature, Herzog takes on the maddening caprices of human politics both savage and civilized. It compares international business with outright brigandry and doesn't see many real differences. The hero becomes an out-and-out slave trader but the Herzog doesn't once offer a moral position regarding the notorious profession. With Herzog's customary documentary eye, Cobra Verde is an absurdist adventure in a savage land, as bizarre as anything in Alice in Wonderland.
After losing his land and his mother to drought, Brazilian farmer Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski) embarks on a nihilistic career as a shoeless, spaghetti western-inflected highwayman. Soon His adopted name Cobra Verde soon strikes fear across the land. Wandering into the rich environs of established sugar planters, Cobra's intimidating ways with the black slaves so impress one planter (Josè Lewgoy) that he's immediately hired as the new foreman. While learning the cruelties of the sugar trade, such as the indifference to frequent and grisly accidents in the sugar mill, the new foreman manages to impregnate all three of his employer's daughters. Francisco's defiant attitude and killer reputation cows the planter. To get rid of him, the local landed gentry give him a commission and a ship, and send him to Africa to reopen the slave trade outlawed by the English.
Instead of being massacred as his employers hope, Francisco finds himself set up in an old slave fort by the local warlord's representative. He's provided with hundreds of captured black slaves with which to trade for guns. Summoned inland to be tortured and slain by the insane warlord-king, Francisco's one-man colonial enterprise is rescued by the king's rebellious brother. Within days, Cobra Verde is training an Amazon army of a thousand native women to overthrow the king, a gambit which will make him an emperor of slaves. How Cobra Verde succeeds, yet is thwarted, provides a conclusion as eerie as the end of Conrad's Outcast of the Islands.
A farmer becomes a legendary bandit, then a slave overseer and then a slaver himself in this fictional but historically inspired fantasy. The dupe of his Brazilian "partners", Francisco throws himself into the middle of a seemingly unsurvivable land of savagery, where a mad king's walls and floors are lined with hundreds of human skulls. Unlike the pedantic Amistad, the slave trade is portrayed in Cobra Verde as a moral miasma without clear color lines separating good from evil; slavery is legally outlawed but still in practice. Africans prey against themselves for whoever can pay in guns -- muslims, the English, the Portuguese. Considering how cavalier their own ruler is with their lives, one can almost make a case for slavery as a kinder fate. West Africa is completely corrupted by contact with the White Man's cruel economics.
Considering how little Cobra Verde cost (more in the ballpark of Aguirre than Fitzcarraldo), its epic scope is never less than impressive: the massed drilling of the Amazon army is frightening and funny. Klaus Kinski's ah, uninhibited performance brings out all the irony in Cobra Verde's chain of identities. When he drives his Amazon trainees into a frenzied bloodlust, screaming, leaping about and thrusting spears, it is obvious that the onscreen hysteria is no drill and the hundreds of naked women are being whipped into an authentic martial trance.
This time the undoing of Herzog's intruder in La Selva is pointedly modern: Cobra Verde is seduced, cheated and abandoned by his own business partners. And when news comes that Portugal has joined England in outlawing the slave trade, the Brazilian planters deny complicity and demonize Cobra Verde as the slave kingpin, a 19th century Manuel Noriega. Where only a few hours before Francisco had thousands of flunkies to tend his fortress, or to form an endless signal chain across the kingdom, now he cannot even get an escape boat launched into the surf. Misshapen native freaks, pariahs like himself, watch him like the crabs and bats that haunt his empty slave fort.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are only three of the continuing chapters in Anchor Bay's exemplary Werner Herzog collection. The transfers are beautiful and the sound crystal clear. The biggest surprise to many viewers will be that these are German language films (!), subtitled in English and provided with alternate English dub tracks. Since many of the actors are Latin American Español y Portugues speakers, a lot of very good German dubbing is utilized. Indigenous Amazonian Indians and African kings speak fluent German, a reminder that our familiarity with foreigners speaking English in the movies is purely a function of our economic dominance. If Germany had won the war, ALL movies might sound like these! [Actually, the helpful Mark Wickum corrects me here: Fitzcarraldo was filmed in English and the German version was for some reason released in America. The English track on the DVD is the first opportunity to see the film correctly, and hear Claudia Cardinale's voice.]
Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are in beautiful 1:78 16:9 widescreen, while Aguirre is fullscreen. It doesn't look pan'n scanned however, and its 1:37 aspect ratio is probably correct.
Trailers augment the excellent director commentaries. Herzog is excellent as a vocal guide to his exotic jungle worlds. He comes off as an amazing fellow who can make quality movies while bumming around the world. He talks investors into his wildest schemes and disappears into jungles to return with celluloid gold. If anyone proves the myths of La Selva wrong, it is this wild rogue filmmaker from Germany.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,