Werner Herzog, cinema madness on Arte

By Etienne Sorin

Published ,

At 81, the German filmmaker looks back on his journey to the house in the Bavarian Alps where his family found refuge in 1942. Henning Bruemmer / © Henning Bruemmer

Arte devotes an evening to the German director with the broadcast of a new portrait preceded by Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale, feature film offered at 8:55 p.m., just before the documentary. Werner Herzog, filmmaker of the impossibleis broadcast at 10:55 p.m. and available on Arte.TV.

Werner Herzog, 81, did not always look like a peaceful German retiree walking by the sea. In the 1970s, he looked more like a Mannschaft footballer. Long hair, mustache and thirst for victories. Herzog is a child of war.
In the portrait devoted to him by Thomas von Steinaecker, Werner Herzog, filmmaker of the impossible, we see him returning to the house in the Bavarian Alps where his family found refuge in 1942, after their apartment building in Munich was destroyed by bombing. Memories come flooding back. A childhood without a father – he abandoned them, which makes him happy (“ no commander in chief, anarchy at home “). A courageous mother. The hunger that torments him and his two brothers.

Traumatized by Klaus Kinski

If I could cut a rib and feed it to you, I would, his mother told him. But I can not. So you will stay hungry until Monday. » We understand better how the filmmaker was able to confront Klaus Kinski for two decades. The actor’s madness is no secret. But the rushes of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde show Kinski’s outbursts, gargoyle head and deranged brain. If, at first, his outbursts of anger are a method of getting in condition before shooting a scene, he becomes more and more unmanageable and violent. He doesn’t just trash the set, he attacks the crew members. “ Even today, I have difficulty getting back into it », Testifies Herzog, still traumatized by the actor and by hellish filming in the jungle – hoisting a 300-ton boat to the top of a mountain is no easy task.

Epic cinema

Their collaboration, however, is excessive for a work that emerges when German cinema is in a terrible state. In the 1960s, production was limited to local films in the mountains. With Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders, Herzog is the face of the new Germanic seventh art. He made his first short films thanks to his welder’s pay. After winning a screenplay competition at the age of 19, he signed his first feature, Signs of life (1968). The story of a German soldier wounded in war and tasked with guarding an ammunition depot in a Greek fort where he descends into madness. Nature, superb and hostile, human unreason, all of Herzog’s epic cinema is already in the making in this first attempt.

Second breath

I sometimes tell myself that each person has a landscape that corresponds to their soul. It’s an idea that occupies an important place in my films “, explains Herzog. At the beginning of the 2000s, sources of financing dried up in Europe. He flies to Los Angeles where he finds a second wind. It was through documentaries that he relaunched his career.Grizzly Man (2005), in particular, earned him immediate recognition. The filmmaker tells the story of a man who spends thirteen summers filming bears in Alaska to encourage their protection and who ends up devoured by his subject, literally and figuratively. Herzog does not completely abandon fiction.

Hollywood stars are scrambling to film with him. Christian Bale, Robert Pattinson and Nicole Kidman show their admiration for the German master. Bale tours with himRescue Dawn (2006), jungle film based on the true story of an American pilot taken prisoner in Laos on the eve of the Vietnam War. Pattinson and Kidman star inQueen of the Desert(2015), evocation of the life of Gertrude Bell, archaeologist from the beginning of the 20th century. Pattinson expects extreme filming. It’s a fun party run by a gentle man. We feel a hint of disappointment in his voice.

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