Monday, 1 September 2014

Blu-ray Review: The Werner Herzog Collection BFI

Announced in February 2014, The BFI's Werner Herzog Collection has been the subject of great anticipation from those who hold his work in high regard. This maverick German director, actor and writer has been responsible for some of the most challenging and provocative features of the last 50 years since his first short film 'Herakies' in 1962, and has also directed operas and written books.
This BFI collection is an essential purchase for anyone with a passion for his films, and includes valuable supplementary material which serve to make his accomplishments all the more astounding.
Owing to high demand for these titles, my review discs include DVD versions for the 'Nosferatu, The Vampyre' and 'Aguirre, Wrath Of God' discs which offer visually splendid versions of the films. The other discs in my review are all Blu-ray.

Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog has long held Murnau's 'Nosferatu' to be the greatest German film, and pitched his 1979 film as a re-imagining of a timeless classic. Here, Bruno Ganz is cast as Jonathan Harker who is presented with a task by his boss Renfield (Roland Topor). Count Dracula is actively seeking a property in Germany, and Harker is assigned to assist. Part of this particular brief involves Harker travelling to Transylvania, delivering the necessary paperwork for the Count to sign. Harker is immediately despatched to begin his long journey, leaving wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) to fear for his well being.
Harker's journey to a land of shadows and phantoms is beautifully shot, allowing time for the eerie scenery and the magnitude of his mission to settle like dust on a coffin and unfolds to a terrific score from Popul Vuh. Harker's arrival at the castle and experiences within its imposing structure leads him to the world of the undead, presided over by Klaus Kinski's striking Count Dracula, who infects his guest and departs for Wismar leaving a greatly weakened Harker to make his return journey in a bid to save Lucy.
Herzog's film remains a beautifully constructed fever dream, with twists and turns on Stoker's novel and finely tuned performances from the cast. Van Helsing (Walter Lindengast) approaching the crisis from the angle of disbelief; Adjani's resourceful Lucy, determined to end the Count's reign of terror come what may; Topor's Renfield who goes from cackling realtor to a strait-jacketed insane disciple of 'The Master', and Kinski who is a revelation as a centuries-old slave who grows tired of a never-ending succession of futile days and nights. Stand-out scenes are many here, including a shell-shocked Lucy wandering through a town square amidst plague-ridden revellers bent on making the most of their remaining time, and an amazing encounter between the Count and Lucy that chillingly plays out via a mirror.
This film is fully discussed in Herzog's commentary track - moderated by Norman Hill - revealing the director has never seen the Lugosi version, and declaring his only sources of reference were Murnau's film and Polanski's 'Dance Of The Vampires'. This track is full of fascinating info on the 7 week shoot and various cast members, with Herzog demonstrating excellent recall of the events. Listen out for the funny story regarding 11,000 rats and a customs officer! Viewers also have access to a 12 minute featurette where Herzog declares he regards filmmaking as an athletic pursuit, and establishes a link between German Expressionist cinema and the movement in his country at the time. There's also on-set footage to peruse, including Herzog directing Kinski in German and Topor in English. Both the German and English language versions are included here, with some slightly different camera angles in certain scenes. The German language version is particularly recommended as it draws more confident performances from the cast.

Disc Two

The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser
Based on a true story, 'The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser' features a compelling performance from Bruno S as the titular character who spent years locked in a cellar, devoid of human contact. His meals were left for him by night while he slept, with 4 grey walls his only companions. Eventually, Kasper was taken from his prison, shown how to walk and deposited in a German town, clutching an anonymous letter. Right from the word go, Herzog's use of imagery shows us the world through Kasper's eyes, viewing nature and the lives of fellow man which were previously unknown. Following observation, Kasper is locked in a tower reserved for criminals and vagabonds, before he is rescued to become a house guest by a supportive family who teach him how to eat at a table, speak, play the piano and attempt to embrace his new world.
There are times when Enigma is uplifting and humerous - witness the wonderful village of truth and lies scene - but there's also a great spiritual sadness that's rarely absent from proceedings. When asked what is was like inside his dark cell, Kasper replies "better than outside"; one of many lines that stay with you long after the closing credits. The film comes with the option of listening to a Herzog commentary track, moderated by Norman Hill. Here, Herzog scotches the rumour that the original character was descended from German royalty; reveals how and why Bruno S was chosen for the role; explains his techniques and choices and comments his films often reflect his own inability to dream. It's a stimulating, informative track, and essential listening.

Land Of Silence And Darkness. 1971
"If there were another world war, I wouldn't even notice it".

As a child, Fini Straubinger could see and hear perfectly well, but an accident caused gradual deterioration of sight and sound, leaving her deaf-blind before she reached 20. Fini's tragic condition resulted in her retreating to her bed for almost 30 years, with the world passing by unheard, unseen. This is not so much a documentary as snapshots of Fini's life which includes helping people with the same extreme afflictions and exploring everyday life by touch. It's humbling to share her joy - and that of her companions - during a trip in an aeroplane, and to witness her can-do attitude when it comes to teaching others how to cope with the challenges they face every day and every night. Part of 'Land' also captures the plight of young children who were born with this condition, making it an even tougher watch, though undoubtedly 80 minutes that everyone should experience.

How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck 1976

A 46 minute documentary which takes us into the rapid-fire world of Livestock auctioneers, where the men who can conduct cattle auctions at breakneck speed. Herzog was present at the world championhip in the village of New Holland, Pennsylvania, and his cameras capture many of the 53 competitors (including, for the first time, a woman) who vye for the title with a new kind of language which Herzog finds both frightening and fascinating. I know just what he means, and would also reflect on the audience who need trained ears to follow the frantic speed-talking. Viewers can choose between German or English language versions here.

Disc 3

Stroszek 1977

Bruno Stroszek's (Bruno S) last few hours in jail contain good wishes from his fellow inmates and warnings from the authorities about the dangers of reverting back to alcohol and his bad old ways. The feeling is strong that Bruno would rather stay where he is than re-encounter a world that has never done him any favours, but an old friend named Eve (Eva Mattes) seems to offer him a shot at salvation. Soon, Bruno and Eve are sharing a flat, though the violent attentions of a couple of local heavies threaten to end any hope of happiness. The pair are inspired by the plans of a friend (the wonderful Clemens Scheitz) who elects to move to America and grasp the many opportunities to be found in the land of the free. As events grow ever more violent, Eve raises the cash through prostitution, and the trio emabark for America and a new life.
At first, things appear to be going well: Eve finding work in a diner, Bruno gaining employment at a garage and the arrival of a mobile home seems to signal good times ahead. Sadly, the pair find the grass is no greener on the other side, with escalating debt and Bruno's language barrier driving a wedge between the couple as the walls come closing in. As a portrait of a man who has lost the will to defend himself, Stroszek excels through another fine performance from Bruno S as the good natured man who can only watch as his world crumbles and his possessions are gradually taken away, leaving a barren land that can't and won't understand. Stroszek was viewed - via a BBC transmission - by the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis on the night he committed suicide, and there are certain similarities between the lives of the two men. This is one of the jewels in this BFI collection, and I certainly recommend listening to the Herzog/Hill commentary track where Herzog discusses his feelings for and experiences in America; the reaction to his film in Germany and the USA and his admiration for the acting ability of Bruno S.

Heart Of Glass 1976

A very strange film set in Bavaria, where the death of a glassmaker named Muhlbeck takes with him the secret of how the valuable ruby glass is made. The townsfolk are already living with the prophecies of the prophet Hias, and are gripped by madness as the hunt for written instructions on how to make the percious glass reaches a frenzy, resulting in violent death. With the exception of the prophet, every member of the cast performed in states of hypnosis, which gives the film an eerie trance-like quality that is slow-moving and utterly absorbing.
Once again, Herzog delivers a commentary track moderated by Norman Hill, and this one is very personal.
We learn about the director's formative years; how and why he hypnotised his cast after dispensing with the services of an expert and his despise of storyboards. He refers to himself as " a good soldier of cinema", and 'Heart Of Glass' is solid endorsement of that description.

Disc 4

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God 1972

Aguirre was loosely based on the diary of a monk named Gaspar de Carvajal, and dates back to the year 1560 when a group of conquistadores and their native helpers journeyed down the Amazon river in search of the fabled El Dorado. The expedition is led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repalles) who makes the decision to send a party of men to replenish their dwindling supplies, and establish the exact whereabouts of hostile natives. This elite group is under the command of Ursua (Ray Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his lieutenant. Soon, the party encounter a largely unseen enemy who pick off the group one-by-one, resulting in the decision to abandon their search and return to base. Aguirre, however, has other ideas, using his imposing character to spark a mutiny, which leads to further death amongst a group who are clearly terrified of their new leader.
Herzog was 28 years old when he made Aguirre and it remains an astonishing piece of work, even if you disregard his young age. The escalating paranoia and descent into madness of the shellshocked men, coupled with the unforgiving terrain make this an unforgettable watch, but always absorbing as one wonders just how far Aguirre will push his men in pursuit of power and wealth. The answer is all the way and then some, creating one of cinema's great meglomaniacs, and doubtless proving an inspiration for Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' shoot.
Herzog and Hill return for another commentary track that discusses the arduous 5 week shoot - altitude sickness and all - the fact that most of the story was fabrication, and the challenges posed by the low $370,000 budget; a third of which paid for Kinski's salary. There are also anecdotes to savour, including memories of Kinski, his Winchester rifle and a tent full of drunken extras.

The Unprecedented Defence Of The Fortress Deutschkreutz 1967
A 15 minute b/w short, which unfolds as a satire on the state of war and peace. The fortress used to be a psychiatric hospital, and was occupied by Russian soldiers during the war. Herzog takes a group of local youths who dress up in discarded uniforms, arm themselves with rifles and don gasmasks to stage an eerie re-enactment of life during wartime. It's an interesting little piece, with the homeguard defending against an imaginary enemy, and further eveidence of a fertile imagination at work.

Last Words 1969
A curious short concerning the last man to leave an abandoned island that was formerly a leper colony. Shot in 2 days, Herzog's film uses several characters who tell the man's story, constantly flitting back to footage of the subject declaring he'll say nothing and next appearing in a bar playing the lyre. This is a wholly experimental piece and well worth a look for the eccentric central character.

Precautions Against Fanatics 1969

Herzog's first project was filmed at a harness racing track near Munich, and features a man who claims he protects horses against over enthusiastic racing fans. We also encounter a 'doper' who feeds horses three pounds of garlic before races, and watches them go like lightning and another strange individual who seems to spend most of his time telling all and sundry they have to leave. It's a brisk outing to be sure, but eminently watchable and absurdly funny.

Fata Morgana 1971

Originally pitched as a sci-fi movie, 'Fata Morgana' uses long tracking shots and handheld camera to explore the visually desolate splendour of a world most of us have never experienced. From the Sahara Desert to Algeria and Kenya, lands of mirages, sandstorms and barren plains are explored with narration by Lotte Eisner and music from Popol Vuh. There's the harsh beauty of the desert - look out for the amazing sight of a 3 decades-old plane wreck - the introduction of human beings who populate some of these far-flung locations and structures that seem to serve no apparent purpose. "It's not the way a Hollywood film would do it, but so what!" says a defiant Herzog.
There are times when that original sci-fi concept comes into play, with the surroundings looking like shots from an alien planet, and that's just part of the spell Herzog weaves. A commentary track is available here, as Herzog and Hill are joined by Crispin Glover. It's a stimulating chat as Herzog talks about his film's religious subtext, the feminine landscapes on view, and photographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein who was arrested when his name was confused with that of a German mercenary on the run from the police.

Disc 5

Woyzeck 1979

Franz Woyzeck's (Klaus Kinski) view of the world is one of nature turned upside down. He's a man ruled by others, whether it be his contradictory army captain; his doctor who enforces a 3 month diet consisting solely of peas, or wife Maria (Eva Mattes) with her roving eye for a man in a uniform who better fulfils her idea of someone who can elevate her from a self-imposed 'poor girl' status.
For my money, Kinski's portrayal of Woyzeck is bordering on his very best work for Herzog, delivering a physical, at times poetic turn that demands several viewings to fully appreciate. Mattes, too, catches the eye with another role as unfaithful partner, dissatisfied with the way her life is and the direction it's heading. 'Woyzeck is a prime example of Herzog's affiliation with the lone voyager, here watching his life unravel and powerless to halt a painful march to the end fate has in store. The finale is brutal, yet strangely beautiful to wtach and further evidence of Herzog's extraordinary eye for what moves us.

Handicapped Future 1970

A moving documentary examining the lives of handicapped children, and their thoughts on life and the challenges they face. We meet Dagmar: a little girl unable to walk who imagines what life would be like if she could. We also spend time with the families who try to shield their children from the cruel reactions of able-bodied folk; the teachers who talk of the learning process designed to culminate in a career, rather than a life of pity, and the fit and well children who mostly display positive attitudes towards their disabled friends. A thought-provoking work that everyone should see.

The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner 1975
Walter Steiner: Woodcarver in his leisure time, and an amazing exponent of Ski Flying who shows respect but not fear for the hazardous conditions he participates in.
Herzog's cameras record some beautiful footage of Steiner in flight, and also captures his sheer mental fatigue as event organisers at Planica use the competition to push contestants to the limit, risking life and limb in the process. With 50,000 spectators eager to witness record breaking jumps, Steiner overcomes injury and memory loss to emerge as very much his own man. An extraordinary documentary, and another example of Herzog's attraction to people who dream big.

Huie's Sermon 1981

Huie's Sermon was made for television in 1981, and for most of its 43 minute running time, focuses on a sermon delivered in a Brooklyn church. Huie Rogers - backed by a gospel choir - is quite exhausting to watch as he takes a big stick and proceeds to whack us around the head with a verbal onslaught that will leave you reeling just a few minutes in. Herzog was clearly attracted in part by the physical performance on view, and Rogers in full flow is a sight to behold, though perhaps not an experience you'll wish to repeat any time soon.

Disc 6 Fitzcarraldo 1982

"It's only the dreamers who ever move mountains"

Presented here with the option of viewing either the English or German language versions, I plumped for the latter, which Herzog in his accompanying commentary track states is the most authentic in his opinion. Klaus Kinski turns in another stunning performance, this time as the titular character who switches his entreprenurial energies to the Amazon jungle where he intends to bring opera to the human inhabitants. Inspired by his hero, Enrico Caruso - who he rowed a boat for 2 days and nights to see - Fitz raises the finance for the expedition from the income earned by his partner's brothel (Claudia Cardinale). The purchase of a steam ship takes him a step closer to his dream, but the intervention of local natives and the gargantuan task of hauling the ship up and over a steep hill in order to evade an unfriendly stretch of river threaten to put a premature end to his journey.
With Thomas Mauch providing sterling, highly skilled work behind the camera, and fine performances from the supporting cast, 'Fitzcarraldo' remains an astonishing piece of cinema, and a landmark for all time.

Herzog's commentary track reveals he had trouble "keeping the flock together" during numerous weather-related shutdowns. He talks about his determination to enable the audience to trust their own eyes, with no special effects trickery going on, and gives cast and crew background info. He also has much to say about Kinski whose behaviour was "unspeakably terrible", adding to the many problems Herzog faced. As the splendidly moving finale plays out, the director expresses his sadness that Kinski is no longer with us, and remarks he lives forever in those films. it's a lovely note to end on.

Disc 7

Burden Of Dreams 1982

Being Les Blank's documentary on the making of 'Fitzcarraldo'. We get to see footage of Jason Robard's and Mick Jagger; the former being replaced by Kinski, while the latter had to leave for Rolling Stones duties, and on-set footage that reveals in visual terms exactly how much of a struggle it was to shoot this picture. There's some amazing footage of the 300 ton ship and it's journey up and over the hill, coupled with attempts to negotiate the fierce Peruvian rapids, and the growing sense of sheer frustration as delays meant the rainy season necessary to move the boat had passed them by. In fact, Herzog and his cast and crew could do nothing but sit back during the longest dry spell in recorded history when their boat became stuck.
'Burden Of Dreams' also records the politics involved during this arduous shoot, along with the attempts to discredit Herzog by certain outside parties. It's quite a journey, delivering a warts-and-all account of one man's vision and his determination to see it through.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe 1980

Directed by Les Blank, 'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe' is a fine dining experience as Werner dons his apron and cooks footware for 5 hours, using salad dressing and sauces to transform the flavour. Herzog had previously told fellow director Errol Morris that he would eat his shoe if Morris' 'Gates Of Heaven' film reached completion.
Herzog wished to help his friend and inspire the audience, and he succeeded on both counts. It's a weird and wonderful sight to see Werner tuck in and, in many ways, utterly sole destroying.

South Bank Show: Werner Herzog 1982

A 55 minute documentary focusing on the great man and his attitudes and approach to filmmaking and also to life.
There are so many highlights here, it's perhaps a little unfair to highlight anything in particular but the contributions of the late Lotte Eisner and Herzog's wife at the time, Martje, are moving in the extreme. Picturesque locations and memories from the director's childhood are included - hidden war weapons and all - along with his views on German cinema; his inability to make a film about a central character he didn't like, and the fact that he has no target audience, sometimes feeling it may take 20 years for a particular film to be accepted.
It's a genuine pleasure to take in this episode from the long-running arts show, and it's inclusion makes this boxset even more valuable.

Disc 8

Cobra Verde 1987

Once again, German and English language versions are available. I chose the German option.
Based on Bruce Chatwin's novel 'The Viceroy Of Ouidah', 'Cobra Verde' marked Klaus Kinski's final collaboration with Herzog. Kinski plays a dishevelled barefoot bandit, whose appearance causes people to flee, and who becomes a major player in the slave trade when he becomes overseer on a sugar plantation. His employer decides to despatch him to Africa where no white man has returned alive in the last 10 years.
'Cobra Verde' opened a new debate on slavery in the wake of its release and never denounces the trade but rather works within it. Authenticity is everything in this film, and it remains a colourful, beautifully choreographed account of one of history's dark periods. Do look out for the scene where Kinski meets a bar owner who quickly becomes his only friend after recounting his dream of seeing snow. It's one of the best in the film, containing great poetic beauty.
Herzog and Hill again team up for a commentary track, in which the director talks about Kinski's behaviour - "completely bonkers and out of control" - and recalls his lead actor "brought something to the film I didn't much like". He admits his film is not politically correct, and that he has no problem with that, and of his time spent with Kinski: "I don't regret a single moment. Not one."

God's Angry Man 1981

Dr Gene Scott, resident of Glendale LA, and a Televangelist. This controversial figure was usually involved in up to 70 lawsuits at any one time, including tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. Perhaps not the sort of person to be running a trio of television stations, and spending up to 10 hours a day on camera in front of a largely susceptible audience. Scott's verbal onslaughts are incredible to watch, whipping up his viewers before moving in for the kill when the subject of financial donations rears its ugly head. Scott is fine when the cash comes rolling in - it's purpose to maintain the running of his church - but one night in particular, funds are less than forthcoming, and the host puts on an entirely different mask which is not at all pleasant. You can make up your own mind about this "lonely" man who travels with bodyguards doing God's work. it's a riveting documentary, giving the audience a glimpse into a life less ordinary.

Guardian Lecture: Werner Herzog In Conversation With Neil Norman

And so this collection comes to an end with a 82 minute audio conversation recorded at London's National Film Theatre on 7th September 1988. Norman begins by asking Herzog about his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, and the director inevitably covers some ground we're already familiar with. Hollywood's "panic solution" is discussed, together with some of the challenges he faced with his unconventional methods of filmmaking. After half an hour, Norman invites the audience to ask their own questions and, as is often the case with this type of event, it's sometimes hard to make out individual questions. Hypnosis, opera and filmmaking aesthetics are just a few of the topics covered, making this a satisfying end to an extraordinary collection.

Herzog fans will be delighted with this boxset, and for those who have only caught a couple of his films, it represents the chance to undertake a voyage of discovery with all manner of visual and thematic delights to savour. Picture quality is outstanding with the encoding duties reaching the highest possible standards, and the extras providing great insight into Herzog's world of wonder. Name such as Kinski, Bruno S, Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz, cinematographers Thomas Mauch and Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, editor Walter Saxer and Les Blank are just a few individuals who re-appear on and off-camera, forming patterns within the films. Stills galleries and theatrical trailers are available to peruse for selected titles and the boxset also comes with a booklet that includes stills, full credits and an excellent essay by Laurie Johnson.
As far as UK home video releases are concerned, this release will occupy top slot in countless 'Best Of The Year' slots, and with good reason.


  1. Hi,

    Would you tell me more about picture qualiy, please?
    Caus' i just boight the BFI BLURAY LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK OF "NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE" and am disapointed.
    The days scenes are very very beautiful.
    But at Night scenes, the picture quality is awful, full of grain.
    Am sad caus' i love Herzog Movies.
    Now, i hesitate to buy the Bluray Box.

    Would you tell me more about picture quality, please ?
    At days and nights scenes ?
    Movies with best picture quality ?
    And movies with most bad picture quality ?

    Thank you for understanding and helping.

    Best Regards~

  2. Hi Kabi, many thanks for your comments. Sorry for this late response. Been laid up with flu until yesterday. Sorry to read ytou are disappointed with the image quality on Nosferatu.. For me, the grain is an integral part of the BFI presentation and I'm pleased it has been retained and not tampered with.Although I only received the DVD version of this film for review, I have subsequently viewed the Blu-ray and my impressions are entirely favourable. If, however, you find grain to be obtrusive, I can understand why you wre disappointed. I rate Nosferatu, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek as particularly fine transfers, but the whole set really is first-rate. It was encoded by David Mackenzie, who is just about the best in his field, and he's done a wonderful job here. Some of the documentaries and short films shot on 16mm have a gritty look to them, but the main features look splendid. Many thanks for your comments. Hope you enjoy the set if you decide to spring for it.