Photo by Debra DiPaolo A central figure in Germanys film renaissance of the 1970s, Werner Herzog has developed a distinctive style revolving around societys dispossessed freaks, autistics, deranged visionaries with the larger subject being the collective madness of civilization. Herzog claims to direct animals and landscapes, both of which feature prominently in his films, and hes gone to great lengths to capture unearthly celluloid visions: the final sequence of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, where a quest for El Dorado in the Peruvian jungle ends with hundreds of chattering monkeys scampering over dead bodies; a community of rioting dwarfs in the climax of Even Dwarfs Started Small; cast members delivering entire performances while in a state of hypnosis in Heart of Glass; a European town overrun by an undulating sea of rats in Nosferatu. Perhaps such a temperament could only produce an uneven filmography, and while there are several certifiable masterpieces among the 49 films hes completed, there are some clunkers, too.
To read Ella Taylor's review of Grizzly Man from this issue of the LA Weekly, click here.
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But Herzog is definitely on a roll right now. Over the past three years hes completed three films back to back, all of which rank among his best work. The first, Wheel of Time (2003), is a documentary on the Kalachakra Initiation, one of the most auspicious celebrations in the Tibetan Buddhist world. Finished last year was The White Diamond, a moving reflection on the dream of flight as told through the story of British aeronautical inventor Dr. Graham Dorrington. (Both films recently opened theatrically in New York.) Grizzly Man, which premiered at Sundance and opens in Los Angeles today, is a character study, completed in just 29 days, chronicling the life and death of amateur naturalist Timothy Treadwell. And hes not done yet. After finishing Grizzly Man, Herzog (who lives in L.A. with his second wife, 34-year-old Russian photographer Lena Herzog) shot a science-fiction film, The Wild Blue Yonder, starring Brad Dourif as an alien, and is presently headed for Thailand to shoot Rescue Dawn a feature based on his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.Grizzly Man, the most provocative of Herzogs recent films, tells the story of Treadwell, a middle-class kid from New York who moved to L.A. to be an actor, couldnt get a job, and wound up with a substance-abuse problem. Then, in 1989, Treadwell transformed his life by appointing himself unofficial protector of the bears that roam Alaskas Katmai National Park and Reserve, proceeding to live unarmed among them for 13 summers. This idyll ended in 2003 when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were devoured by a bear. Interspersing lengthy excerpts of footage shot by Treadwell himself with interviews with people who knew him, the film pivots on the folly inherent in Treadwells anthropomorphic view of the wild.I wanted to reveal something about human nature and wasnt interested in footage of fluffy bear cubs, Herzog says. Throughout the film, I have an ongoing argument [in voice-over] with Treadwell, who has a romanticized view of nature which I reject. There is no friendship with bears, because we exist in a different world from them. Some bears were habituated to Treadwell, but that doesnt mean there was friendship.Central to Grizzly Man is the evidence of Treadwells and Huguenards deaths, provided by the pilot who discovered their remains and the extremely flamboyant coroner who examined them. Additionally, Treadwells video camera was running throughout the fatal attack, and although the lens cap was on, there is an audio recording of his and Huguenards final moments. In Grizzly Man, Herzog listens to the tape through headphones, then tells Jewel Palovak, who controls the rights to Treadwells archives, that the tape must be destroyed. Of his decision not to include it, Herzog says, There is such a thing as the dignity and privacy of your own death, and you do not touch that. If you paid me a million dollars to include it, I would not. (Apparently, Treadwells and Huguenards deaths arent off-limits to Herzog himself.)Something the film does reveal is the degree to which Treadwell staged his own video footage; we see him doing multiple takes of scenes, using scripted dialogue, fussing with his hair and mulling over wardrobe choices.Treadwell edited his footage to create an image of himself as Prince Valiant protecting the bears against evil poachers out to murder them, says Herzog, who debunks that idea by including in Grizzly Man a park officials comments that the bears are actually at very low risk of being attacked by poachers. Timothy presented himself as the lone ranger, out there by himself, but in fact there were often women around. Its significant that, in 100 hours of footage he shot, theres only 30 seconds of footage of Amie Huguenard, the woman who lives and dies with him.Treadwell wanted to be a rock star, and I give him the space to be that, Herzog concludes. I show him in his exhilarations and victories and give him credit as a creator of images of such beauty that Hollywood couldnt create them with all the money in the world. Of his interest in Dr. Graham Dorrington, the central figure in The White Diamond, Herzog confesses that hes dreamed of flying since he was a child. If so, he found an ideal protagonist in Dorrington, a heartbreakingly earnest character tormented by the death of a colleague on a test flight of one of his crafts. When the craft finally makes a successful voyage and Dorrington proves it wasnt completely irresponsible of him to put his friend at risk hes so relieved that he weeps. It did him good to build an airship that didnt end in a catastrophe, says Herzog. But when somebody dies a horrible death on the maiden flight of a prototype you created, you cant redeem yourself. The death is part of your life, and you must cope with it until the end of your days.One of the most extraordinary things about Herzogs films is the shattering beauty that often serves as the backdrop for their stories. In The White Diamond, that beauty takes the form of Mark Anthony Yhap, a Guyanese native whos recruited to help launch Dorringtons craft. Left behind as a child when his family immigrated to Spain, Yhap has had no formal education, but is a poetic man of considerable wisdom. At one point Herzog asks him a question, and he smiles sweetly, then replies, I cannot hear you for the thunder that you are.Wheel of Time, on the other hand, is an anomaly in Herzogs oeuvre, in that it presents a portrait of a people in harmony with nature and with each other. Asked about this about-face, Herzog says, The film depicts one of the most important religious rites in the Buddhist world, and when you have 500,000 joyful pilgrims its hard to hide a general mood. Initially, I was reluctant to do the film because I didnt have much knowledge of Buddhism, but the office of the Dalai Lama communicated to me that His Holiness had seen some of my stuff and hoped I would film this event. You cant get out of it easily when the Dalai Lama summons you, because hes a very charismatic man. Hes a wonderful, warm-hearted human being who laughs a lot hes one of the best laughers I know. And of course, hes utterly human. Herzog has spent so much of his life mucking about in the wilderness that its surprising to discover what an elegant man he is in his private life. Entertaining a group of radio journalists during a junket for Grizzly Man, the 62-year-old filmmaker is beautifully dressed, graceful and amusing he can really turn on the charm. However, as any serious student of cinema will tell you, he can be tough when he needs to be, and his steely resolve has resulted in some surprising career choices. Of his decision to transform Little Dieter Needs To Fly into Rescue Dawn, Herzog says, Little Dieter Needs To Fly was unfinished business for me because it has many untold elements in it. I chose Christian Bale to star in the film because I do not make mistakes in casting, period, and he is arguably the most talented actor of his generation. Film critics may feel the need to distinguish feature films from documentaries, but Herzog makes no such distinction. I dont see any difference between fact and fiction, he declares. Even cinema vérité, which I dont like, makes choices and manipulates a certain camera angle is already a modification of whats out there. And a fact doesnt automatically constitute truth. Ive always been after some deeper, more poetic truth I call it an ecstatic truth, and its been at the heart of all my feature films and all the documentaries.