Article – Obsessed with Obsession

One of cinemas most extraordinary directors and bewildering characters is one Werner Herzog. This is a man thankfully still working today in an industry which is all too often unable to provoke or excite its audience. The only horizon of expectation attached to Herzog is to expect the unexpected for his films know no genre styling or format. He is as au fait with documentary as he is with historical drama or modern pulp fiction. However one theme sticks to his work both in front and behind the camera, and that is obsession.

It was 1972 when the 30 year old German filmmaker travelled to Peru to film his first feature. Most aspiring directors make their debut in their backyard covering a subject matter familiar to them, not Herzog. 16th Century conquistadors seemed like a good start for him so he packed his bags, his camera and his psychotic leading man/childhood friend and departed for Machu Picchu. The initial frames of Aguirre Wrath of God depicting Spanish soldiers and Peruvian natives scaling the misty slopes of that awesome and ancient monolith is truly one of cinemas greatest visual moments. What followed is a story of madness and obsession on both sides of the lens. On screen a search for El Dorado the mythical city of gold, behind it Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski sought a different treasure, a modern cinematic masterpiece. Kinski played the deluded monkey wielding conqueror as only he could. The manic reality of Klaus Kinski is more captivating than any performance. The charismatic but ever so slightly temperamental actor found time to anger the locals with his explosive outbursts and prima donna demands. This behaviour would only increase through the years until 1982 when the indigenous extras on the again Peruvian set of Fitzcarraldo asked Herzog if he would like them to kill Kinski. The director mused it over but decided that a living lead man was necessary to complete his film.

Fitzcarraldo again tackles a man’s obsession, this time a Rubber Baron’s fevered dream to build an opera house in the deep jungles of South America. The film required a huge boat to be transported over a hill from one part of the Amazon into another. Herzog dealt with this scene the only way he knew how, special effects were laid aside and the locals had to deal with the actuality of hauling a 340 ton boat over a steep jungle slope, the collateral damage being the limbs of the natives. It can be a noble characteristic to suffer for your art, but is it acceptable to force this onto others? This struggle against science and nature can be seen as a metaphor for the unbearable toil of this film set. Life is imitating art and the same in reverse. Herzog and Kinski looked into the abyss and it looked back at them. Again Herzog’s obsession more than matched his characters. The logistical and physical nightmare of filming in the jungle environment should never be underestimated. It’s an unforgiving hell for the films characters and must have been even more so for cameramen working in the sweltering heat. Surely only a man obsessed would undertake the herculean task of managing such a situation.

It has been said that this odd couple have worked in ever decreasing circles since their first pairing in Aguirre. That’s debateable. What is not is that they tackled the same themes constantly until their partnership ended with Kinski’s death in 1991. Woyzeck, Cobra Verde and Nosferatu all have elements of desperation and obsessive need. Herzog even made a documentary about the love hate relationship he had with the yang to his yin entitled My Best Fiend. These two men were like magnets, a push and pull of love against murderous ambitions. Their lives truly became a whirlwind of obsession of each other and their craft.

In more recent years Herzog has moved very successfully into documentary film and he has brought his obsession with him. A child’s aspirations to take to the air were captured in Little Dieter Needs to Fly and then expanded upon in the film featuring the same character’s wartime imprisonment and all consuming need to escape, Rescue Dawn. Perhaps the Herzog documentary which deals with the theme head on is the award winning Grizzly Man .

Timothy Treadwell was an ally and protector of wild bears for many years as he lived with them, filmed them and truly believed he befriended them. In 2003 he changed from friend to food when he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by the animals. An interesting but fairly standard tale which for most would be a single news article. However Herzog connected to something here so dug a little deeper into the background of the man. Treadwell had rebelled against traditional society since a troubled and alcoholic past. The world of the bears seemed simpler and purer than the human existence which had rejected him. This man seemed to believe he could become a bear, the grizzlies disagreed and made him lunch. The story is told through Treadwell’s extensive video diaries. In one he rages incandescently at a society he feels he is not part of. The similarities with Kinski are stunning, even down to the almost peroxide level blond hair. Perhaps this is what attracted Herzog to this man and his story, he had sensed a kindred spirit which could fill the hole left by Klaus. Although Kinski’s life had passed the director had found a new leading man, again steeped in delusion and obsession. Tragically and morbidly this was another posthumous star.

Always something of a renegade Herzog continues to interest and provoke. Two years ago he made the oddly beautiful Encounters at the end of the World where as the name suggests he encountered those who had taken their lives to Antarctica for various reasons. Living in that hostile environment Herzog uncovered individual obsessions within each individual encounter whether it was to study penguins or volcanoes. Some were running towards something, others away. Running away would seem the reasonable reaction for the director who took on a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but Herzog faced the storm. Creative types can be precious at times but Ferrara took this to hilariously absurd levels when he stated “They should all die in hell!” This head to head is the true psychotic director heavyweight prize fight. Herzog gave the cheeky aside that he had never heard of Ferrara or the film he had remade.

Whether it’s chronic obsession Herzog possesses or just unbelievably steely determination is something to question. The little things don’t bother a man like Herzog, his passion and work ethic take over. My abiding image of him (and one which is viewable on YouTube) is when being interviewed for a film promo in L.A. by Mark Kermode Herzog is shot by a passerby. It may just be an airgun but it leaves a bloody hole in his stomach. Perhaps this was retribution for the stolen souls of Peruvian Indians so many years ago. One accusation which cannot be levelled at this intriguing director is hypocrisy. In an age when celebrities refuse to be seen with a hair out of place Herzog just continues the interview indoors. The show must go on, the movie always comes first.

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