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Case Number 02096

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The Herzog/Kinski Collection

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God
1972 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Woyzeck
1976 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht
1979 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG
Fitzcarraldo
1982 // 157 Minutes // Rated PG
Cobra Verde
1988 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
My Best Fiend
1999 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Anchor Bay
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // August 5th, 2002

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (published December 4th, 2000) and Cobra Verde (published December 4th, 2000) are also available.

The Charge

"Every man is an abyss. You get dizzy looking in."—Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski)

Opening Statement

For 3 1/2 decades, they tortured one another joyously. Werner Herzog has directed over 40 films, but his best-known work forced him to confront his own evil twin, the demonic Klaus Kinski. Their battles were as legendary as their films. "It's not easy to explain our relationship," Herzog once remarked. "The only thing that counts is what we see on screen."

One legend has Herzog threatening Kinski at gunpoint. It never happened. When Klaus Kinski wrote his savage autobiography, accusing Herzog of all sorts of horrors, few knew that Herzog himself contributed the filthiest insults as a favor to his old friend. When they really did fight, the screaming and threats could go on for hours.

Two combative and brilliant egos. Five films. One documentary to sew the legend together. Anchor Bay offers all this and more in its new Herzog/Kinski Collection.

The Evidence

"I am not the Jesus of the official Church…I am not your superstar." Klaus Kinski may have denied divinity, but his Olympian ego would have made even Nietzsche twitch. As a teen, the feral Kinski was dragged in from the street and into the 13-year-old Werner Herzog's life, exploding in a 48-hour rant that turned their shared apartment to shambles. He attacked a theater critic with potatoes and cutlery. Even from the first, he was a monster with a monstrous talent.

The self-taught Kinski reconnected with Herzog 15 years later for the arduous production of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Herzog had not grown into a prince either: the very camera he was using for the film had been stolen from film school. Kinski arrived on location from a one-man stage show as a raving Jesus, completely immersed in the part. He immediately threw a fit about the Peruvian rain, shot at extras with a rifle, and had to be threatened with death to keep him from fleeing the production.

Both Herzog and Kinski were megalomaniacs, and both men knew it. But at least they had a sense of humor. My Best Fiend is the centerpiece of Anchor Bay's Herzog/Kinski Collection, a six-DVD boxed set chronicling the tempestuous relationship between these two German artists. As its slyly punning title suggests, this 1999 documentary is Herzog's tribute to his doppelganger, featuring bizarre stories of Kinski's cowardice and courage, shyness and savagery, artistic brilliance and terrifying ego. Herzog visits old collaborators to get their impressions of Kinski. An actor from Aguirre recalls how Kinski nearly caved his skull in with a sword; Eva Mattes from Nosferatu recalls Kinski's gentleness and generosity. Herzog jokes about his plots to murder Kinski, and remembers how the native extras during Fitzcarraldo offered to dispose of the volatile actor.

While Anchor Bay does not offer much in the way of extras on this particular disc (only a trailer), we do get a fine anamorphic transfer and the option of hearing Herzog narrate in German or English. But My Best Fiend, although a feature in its own right, really stands best as a supplement to the five other films packaged in this set. All six discs are available separately (DVD Verdict has already reviewed Aguirre and Cobra Verde), and for the most part, these discs are pretty much the same as the prior Anchor Bay releases. But taken as a whole, the Herzog/Kinski Collection reveals new layers to Kinski's strengths as an actor, Herzog's talents as a director, and the obsessive relationship between the two men.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
On Christmas Day, 1560, they descended from the clouds, tiny figures hidden in the landscape, an army soon to be led by a great traitor. He called himself "the Wrath of God," and his lust for power and fame was only matched by a love for chaos. He went to war with God and Nature. But his empire would not last long, and neither God nor Nature would mark his passing.

Shot almost as cinema vérité, with a mud-spattered hand-held camera and a sense of immanent and very real danger, Aguirre, the Wrath of God was Herzog's breakthrough feature, due to the audacity of both its director and its star. Kinski, in the title role, slinks like a wounded predator throughout, creating one of cinema's most memorable villains. Sent as second-in-command of an advance party of Pizarro's conquistadores, Aguirre chooses to "rebel until death," like some Nietzschean self-made monster lusting after the perfect betrayal.

Aguirre is the first of three Herzog/Kinski films that would explore the destructive legacy of European colonialism (Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde obviously being the other two). The threats surrounding Aguirre and his men—hostile natives, rough waters, disease—are always kept at the fringe of our vision, reinforcing both Aguirre's paranoia and our sense that he is the greatest danger of all, the true evil that draws our gaze.

The print quality on this disc varies, mostly due to the impromptu shooting conditions. And since the film was shot in 1.33:1, the transfer is non-anamorphic. Nonetheless, Anchor Bay offers a nicely immersive 5.1 German audio mix, along with a 2.0 German mix and the rather pathetic English monaural mix featured in the film's original American release. Herzog's commentary track, kept in focus with questions from Norman Hill, is an entertaining primer in guerrilla filmmaking. Herzog shot most of the film in single takes with many non-professional actors using improvised dialogue under dangerous conditions with a stolen camera. Add Kinski's raging personality, and it is a wonder any of them escaped the jungle alive.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) stares up at the Borgo Pass. He has been summoned to Castle Dracula to help its master (Kinski) purchase land in Harker's hometown of Wismar. But the cadaverous count does not seem happy about the prospect of moving. After centuries of his hellish and spectral existence, this Count Dracula only wants to be at rest. And if he has to bring the Apocalypse to Wismar, in the guise of an army of plague-bearing rats, so be it. Certainly Harker does not care, suffering from his own illness. Will Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) sacrifice her pure soul to save the town? Is the town even worth saving?

As Herzog remarks on the excellent commentary track facilitated by Norman Hill, "[A] vampire film lives off the quality of gloom, night, and shadow." It also lives by the performance of its monster. Kinski and Herzog make their Dracula a brooding creature, profoundly alone. Kinski moves so deliberately, as if his physical body is a strain and his soul flooded with guilt. In a world where everything seems to seethe with life, including the imposing landscape, Dracula is surrounded only by death: a clock made of skeletons, plague rats, the cooling of passion. Inspired by Murnau's expressionistic masterpiece, Herzog intended this "revision" as an attempt to reconnect German cinema with its past, building a bridge to ford years of Germany's Nazi-tainted cultural heritage. He deliberately recoups elements of Nazi propaganda films—rats, Wagner's music—and associates them with the tormented monster. And rather than recycle Murnau's visual style (although he does borrow a shot here and there), Herzog aims for a more naturalistic style, with the grey environment pressing upon the characters and directing their thoughts inward. We see their minds ticking through the slow pace of the scenes, but their thoughts remain mysterious. As with Dracula, in this world, everybody is ultimately alone.

A financial disappointment upon its release, Nosferatu has aged remarkably well, gaining presence and stature in a way only rivaled by Murnau's version. Although Herzog shot two versions of the film, in English and German (the prior Anchor Bay release contained both in a two-disc set), only the longer German cut is included here. Herzog admits on the commentary track that the English version of the film was made mostly because English was the most-shared language among the European cast. Oddly, the moody trailers included on the disc use cuts from the English version, as does the 13-minute featurette on the making of the film.

Woyzeck (1976)
Charming music and pretty cottages delude us into thinking this might be some fairy tale. And certainly everyone treats the well-meaning Franz Woyzeck (Kinski) as a plaything. The army captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) pushes him around. The doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) runs experiments on him, giving him bonus pay for any signs of "beautifully developed" schizophrenia. Woyzeck's wife (Eva Mattes) is making eyes at the handsome drum major Woyzeck ought to have been. With all the talk of moral imperatives and free will, how long will it be before Woyzeck finally cracks?

Woyzeck is the closest thing to a comedy in the Herzog/Kinski oeuvre. But this comedy is blacker than the ink used to write the unfinished Georg Büchner play upon which it is based. The film seems deliberately fragmentary, mirroring the increasingly disordered mind of its protagonist as he drifts from merely hapless to thoroughly psychotic (watch out for those talking toadstools!). Kinski's mashed face exudes all the desperation, the "haunted look," required of this character, and Büchner's satire of moral hypocrisy and social class, as we watch these bourgeois fools cluelessly program a killing machine, is as trenchant as ever. But while Woyzeck by itself is an intriguing film (although it cuts a little too much out of the play for my tastes), it feels uncomfortably small bookended by the more grandiose films Herzog and Kinski made together. The film has powerful moments, and the Woyzeck character, yet another unstable soul pushed to desperate acts, is an interesting variation on the Kinski persona. Kinski claimed that he had always previously rejected playing Woyzeck on stage for fear that the part would drive him mad. Insert your own joke here.

Woyzeck is probably the most often overlooked of the Herzog/Kinski collaborations, as it was shot very quickly after the arduous production of Nosferatu (although it was released first) and tended to appeal most to European audiences familiar with the play. As such, Anchor Bay treats it a bit dismissively here: there is no commentary track, there is only a monaural soundtrack, and the print suffers from some graininess (and noticeable fading in the second reel).

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
In "the land where God did not finish Creation," one man steps in to complete the work. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Kinski) is guided by his love of European culture and believes he has been divinely called (by the voice of Enrico Caruso) to civilize the wilderness of Peru. His ark: a steamship carrying the fruits of European culture. His Ararat: a mountain in the Amazon.

Fitzgerald is a failed railroad baron, a mediocre ice producer, and a fevered dreamer haunting the frontier town of Iquitos at the turn of the last century. The pompous rubber magnates around him send their laundry back home to Europe because the Amazon is "impure." But Fitzgerald, dubbed Fitzcarraldo by the local Indians, has a plan to purify the world, a grand plan like that of an Old Testament prophet. And like a prophet, Kinski's Fitzgerald is ecstatic and terrified, listening for signs, bringing the natives the songs of his operatic god.

Like Aguirre, Fitzgerald is based on a real historical figure about whom very little is known, so Herzog uses the basic premise as a jumping off point to explore his own interest in colonialist politics and how civilization contains the seeds of its own madness and collapse. Fitzgerald's plan to build an opera house (which he announces to the town by ringing the Church bell) hinges on his ability to exploit untapped rubber-tree reserves on an inaccessible stretch of an Amazon tributary. But to get to these trees, he must become a "white god" to the natives and enlist them to help haul a steamship over a mountain.

Fitzcarraldo has become as well known for the story behind its creation as for the story on screen. Les Blank chronicled part of the madness in his wonderful documentary Burden of Dreams, but as Herzog remarks on the commentary track (where he is joined by his brother Lucki Stipetic, who produced the film, and interviewer Norman Hill), Blank missed a lot of the wilder stories about the production. An overwhelming project, Fitzcarraldo nearly folded when original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger had to leave with the film half completed. So Herzog turned to his nemesis, Kinski, who imbues Fitzgerald with the necessary intensity. Herzog's commentary on the film is full of hilarious stories (Sarah Bernhardt was played by a transvestite!) and tales of catastrophe. He traces the production history from its early financing hassles to its nightmarish shooting logistics. While Herzog demurs on the question of obsession (Blank's film makes him seem as insane as Kinski), he seems quite warm and reasonable here, aware of all his strengths and weaknesses and quite gracious to all his collaborators, especially Kinski, even though he does jokingly call Kinski "the ultimate pestilence."

Along with the commentary track, Anchor Bay offers a trailer, a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills and advertising art, and an anamorphic transfer. Since the film was shot in English (to accommodate the international cast), I prefer the English track, which gives Kinski's performance more immediacy, but Herzog prefers the German dub himself as a more accurate reflection of his intent. Fortunately, you get to choose from 5.1 and 2.0 mixes for both versions.

Cobra Verde (1987)
Sing the song of Francisco Manoel da Silva, the bandit known as Cobra Verde (Kinski). From a parched and dying land, this barefoot demon, "the alonest of the alone," wanders his way into a job as sugar plantation overseer in his native Brazil. When he manages within weeks to get all the owner's daughters pregnant, he is shipped off to certain death as the new slave broker for the fortress of Elmina, on the West African coast. But he turns out to be too good at the slave trade as well. After all, if slavery is a monstrous institution, it takes a monster like Da Silva to succeed at it. Before too long, everyone else wants a piece of the action…

The third film from Herzog and Kinski to deal with postcolonial themes, Cobra Verde is also one of Herzog's few attempts to incorporate gender politics as a theme. The production of slaves as a commodity is frequently paralleled to the production of children, as the white colonialists constantly brag about impregnating their female slaves. Ironically, Da Silva uses women as weapons against his enemies, first impregnating the daughters of Don Coutinho (José Lewgoy) and later training a female army to overthrow the king of Abomey.

But the prime focus of Herzog's story, adapted from a novel by Bruce Chatwin, is the complex politics of the slave trade in the 19th century. He takes a compelling and unsentimental look at the brutal economics of slavery: how many countries banned the trade but hypocritically embraced products made by slave labor; how African tribes freely profited from trading slaves culled from their neighbors. Oddly, the world of Cobra Verde is one where an opportunistic beast like Da Silva ends up a sort of hero—and by far the sanest character—only by default.

Of course, such an approach requires that we empathize with Cobra Verde in some way, even if he is a villain. But the character is more of a cipher than Kinski's other protagonists for Herzog. Other than his rebellious nature (refusing to wear shoes and bedding every woman he meets), we never really learn what makes him tick. At one point, his sidekick (King Ampaw) asks, "Aren't you afraid of dying?" He casually responds, "I've never tried it," as if to suggest that Da Silva may be nothing more than a creature of impulse, driven by urges that neither he nor the audience understand.

As Herzog implies on his commentary track (assisted, as usual, by Norman Hill), part of this may be due to Kinski's near disintegration during the shooting. Wrapped up in his obsessive biopic of the famous violinist Paganini (which he ended up directing himself), Kinski was so intolerable on the set of Cobra Verde that Herzog was forced to release longtime cinematographer Thomas Mauch, and ended up with a meandering first act that comes across like an overstylized spaghetti western, all to accommodate Kinski's tantrums. Later, Kinski refused to dub his voice onto the English soundtrack (he speaks German throughout, although most of the African actors speak English). Even Herzog admits that he is disturbed by Kinski's "dirty" performance in the film, and it does seem as if Kinski is less focused on playing a character than on finding a way to reach through the camera and throttle the audience. By the end, his intensity shifts from hypnotic to creepy: we can see him falling apart on screen. Only a few years later, Kinski would burn himself out, spitting his last breath, like Captain Ahab, at the director he claimed to loath but could not escape.

Closing Statement

So many masterpieces in one boxed set: how can you go wrong? Three of these films (Aguirre, Nosferatu, and Fitzcarraldo) should be in the collection of any fan of international cinema anyway. Each is brilliant in its own fashion. But for less than the price of those three films, you can add two more collaborations between these two madmen, and a heartfelt documentary to put it all into context. Perhaps Woyzeck and Cobra Verde are not quite up to par with the other three masterpieces—I'll blame the former on Herzog's middling adaptation of Büchner's play and the latter on Kinski's mental collapse—but both have a disturbing energy that makes them fascinating to watch. How can you go wrong? If Anchor Bay had included Burden of Dreams (and maybe the English version of Nosferatu), this boxed set would be perfect. But as it stands, the Herzog/Kinski Collection is more than worth the price of admission.

[Editor's Note: Please note that Judge Pinsky's Scales of Justice are based on the box set as a whole, though due to database limitations they are repeated identically for each film.]

The Verdict

Although Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski have already punished each other with apocalyptic fury, we are inclined to forgive most of their sins based on the beauty and power of these films. Anchor Bay is acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.

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Genres

• Drama
• Foreign

Scales of Justice, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God

• Commentary Track with Werner Herzog and Norman Hill

Scales of Justice, Woyzeck

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Woyzeck

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Woyzeck

• None

Scales of Justice, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (German)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht

• Commentary Track with Werner Herzog and Norman Hill
• "Making of Nosferatu" Featurette
• Theatrical Trailer

Scales of Justice, Fitzcarraldo

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Fitzcarraldo

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (German)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Fitzcarraldo

• Commentary Track with Werner Herzog and Norman Hill
• Photo Gallery
• Theatrical Trailer

Scales of Justice, Cobra Verde

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Cobra Verde

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (German)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Cobra Verde

• Commentary Track with Werner Herzog and Norman Hill

Scales of Justice, My Best Fiend

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 95
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, My Best Fiend

Studio: Anchor Bay
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (German)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, My Best Fiend

• Theatrical Trailer
• Talent Biographies
• Essay Booklet








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