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Posts Tagged ‘Werner Herzog’

Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is a eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).

The-Wind-Rises

It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.

 

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Every once in a while a film comes along which bears so little relation to conventional cinematic fare that it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to talking about it. Such a film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary from revered German director Werner Herzog. I caught this movie down at the local art house (I must admit I went partly to dispel my image as ‘the Woody Allen guy’), which necessitated seeing it in 2D. Yes, this is an example of 3D arthouse cinema (facilities permitting).

 

Quite why investing in a 3D version of a film which is essentially about a 2D artform was felt necessary I can’t quite work out – but as I say, I haven’t seen it. Anyway: in 1994 a trio of French explorers happened upon a previously-sealed cave system in the heart of their own country. Venturing inside, they came upon a remarkable collection of cave paintings, depicting deer, horses, lions, bears, and other animals. But what made the paintings in the Chauvet Caves truly unique was their age: scientific tests proved that the paintings were vastly old, some dating back as far as 32,000 years.

Such is the priceless value of these paintings that the cave itself is not open to the public and even scientific visits are severely restricted. For the movie, Werner Herzog and a small camera team are granted unprecedented access to the cave, along with a team of scientists from different disciplines. The film depicts the environment within, and goes on to examine some of the pictures in detail, while exploring the little we know of the culture that produced them.

It is fair to say that not very much happens, and if there is a linear progression of ideas through the documentary it was not especially clear to me. Yet the movie manages to be a compelling watch, but in a slightly odd way. Given that the act of going to the cinema consists of going to a darkened space and looking at flickering images on the wall, and that this film is about a group of people who basically do just that, you could argue that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is on some level about the nature of cinema – or art – itself. Central throughout, but never spoken, is the key question of why the cave paintings were made in the first place – are they simply aesthetic, or do they have a ritual or religious function? The same question could be asked of all art, of course, but what gives the Chauvet paintings their strange power is their very antiquity: they were made when the very nature of being human was different.

The point is repeatedly made that the cave is, effectively, a time capsule, surviving to the present day through a kind of miracle. Visiting the cave is like travelling back in time, with visitors extremely limited in their ability to interact with the environment. (The metal walkway they are required never to step off rather reminded me of the similar element in Ray Bradbury’s similarly-themed story A Sound of Thunder.) Time is referred to a number of times – ‘unlike us, the makers of the paintings were not locked into history,’ Herzog intones as part of his narration, an observation that really requires some thought (luckily the leisurely pace of the movie allows you time to do this). The narration is really more of an incantation, which Herzog intones carefully and drily. For much of the movie there is a sense of a journey into mystic and arcane places, a different world of different thoughts.

That said, this is not a heavy or highbrow movie, with Herzog even managing to find a few moments of dry comedy along the way. ‘Now I show you how to kill a horse,’ beams a French Einstein-lookalike before demonstrating a spear thrower, not very well. ‘I guess prehistoric man was better at that than you, right?’ Herzog enquires from off-camera. Later we meet a master perfumier whose method of discovering new caves is to stick his nose into holes in the ground. Towards the end, the movie’s general thoughtfulness spirals off into the realms of the tangibly insane, as Herzog makes a visit to a local crocodile farm (where he’s particularly interested in the albino crocs). ‘If we showed these mutant crocodiles the paintings in the cave,’ he asks, reasonably enough, ‘what would they make of them?’ Werner, I do not feel qualified to answer that question.

The movie is thoughtful and atmospheric (aided by an appropriately otherworldly score), and oddly challenging: it poses questions, in part by its very nature, but makes no attempt to answer them, and this might be a little disconcerting (if not actually frustrating). Throughout, the paintings themselves retain an aura of awe and mystery: as, really, does the cinema, when someone like Herzog is in the director’s chair.

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