A recent viewing of Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe on Turner Classic Movies got me thinking about the oft-brilliant, sometimes-obsessive and frequently zany director and his oeuvre, which includes one of my favorite films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It’s a movie that defines him in a sense–a superbly shot, hauntingly scored (the dreamlike, pulsating music was crafted by Popul Vuh) picture about megalomania and how it can carry, and ultimately destroy, human endeavors. The megalomaniac in question is Aguirre himself, a crazed, based-on-a-real-person conquistador played with frightening abandon by Klaus Kinski, who teeters, glowers and broods throughout the flick as he carries out a mutiny of a 16th-century Spanish expedition to find gold amid the Amazonian jungle. As I remembered the great moments that characterized this adventure, I wondered if only a person as mad as Aguirre himself could make it, capturing hallucinogenic images such as a line of soldiers and their retinue struggling to climb down a verdant, mist-covered mountain, a head continuing to count numbers even after its owner has been decapitated, and the final scenes in which Aguirre, his doomed raft overrun by monkeys, talks to no one about his plans for global domination…no one, because everyone in his party is dead, a fact revealed memorably by the famous, swooping shot at the end.
But Herzog isn’t mad. I think he’s quite sane, though I wonder if he likes the thought that people may think he’s mad. Really, he’s an old-fashioned showman with magnificent obsessions and a talent for promoting idea-rich films made on low budgets. And I value this image he’s cultivated, because we don’t see a lot of it. It’s a mix of Hitchcock’s talent for marketing with Kurosawa’s quest for perfection, and the stories Herzog tells about his exploits rival the great ones in the cinematic lexicon–including the one about Kurosawa ordering the set of Throne of Blood to be rebuilt because he saw a nail that wouldn’t have been there during the period in which the movie takes place.
That’s not madness, folks. It’s art, and it suggests a commitment to its creation that only the most dedicated craftsmen have.
I wish there were more filmmakers like Herzog around these days, filmmakers who take risks and know how to advertise themselves. Yet there’s only one Herzog, and I think we have to be content with that. I’m certainly pleased that he gave us Aguirre, though I realize that if there’s anything that defines its creator, it’s not madness but determination and a need to produce art.
Thank you, then, Werner Herzog.