When I was a boy back in the 1950s, growing up on Long Island, I was neighbor to a son of European refugees who was obsessed with becoming somebody‘s blood brother. It was something he’d learned about watching a TV show called Broken Arrow, which starred Michael Ansara as the great Apache, Cochise. My friend was always pestering me to cut my arm with a sharp rock — he would even cut his own by way of demonstration. “See? Now you cut yours, and we‘ll join our bloods.” I would always refuse; at age 6 I lived in mortal fear of being punctured by so little as a doctor’s needle. One day I accidentally fell off my bike, ripping one of my kneecaps bloody. The instant I stood up, my friend jumped to his knees and pressed a two-day-old scab on his elbow against my open cut.
This is a memory that might have lain buried forever, but it‘s been called back time and again by 25 years of encounters with the films of Werner Herzog. At first I used to think this was simply because my old friend was, as with so many of Herzog’s heroes, eccentric and alienated, and, like those played by the great actor Klaus Kinski, determined to force a connection with the nearest human being. As the memory kept coming back, however, I began to appreciate that Herzog‘s films, which are like nobody else’s in film history, oblige me to bypass other movies altogether and instead refer to firsthand experience to make sense of them. Watching My Best Fiend, Herzog‘s new documentary about his long, heartfelt entanglement with the late Kinski (who died in 1991), what comes back to me most poignantly about my long-ago blood brother is that he was the son of European refugees. He wasn’t just playing cowboys and Indians, but attempting to make a new family come into being, which is more or less what Herzog and Kinski accomplished, in work that takes its temperamental and thematic force from the aftereffects of the Hitler era.
Two of their finest collaborations, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Woyzeck (1979), both of which are showing this week with the documentary, meditate on power from the viewpoints of a dictator and a victim. There seems to be no middle ground in either Herzog‘s imagination or Kinski’s, and the two extremes are interchangeable under enough pressure. When the 16th-century conquistador Aguirre bullies his fellow explorers as they travel the Amazon River, the psychological deterioration is so complete for everyone, Aguirre included, that by the end it‘s clear he’s as much the slave of his demons as he‘s forced everybody else to be. Woyzeck, a poor soldier with “victim” all but engraved in his shaved scalp, suffers the spectacle of his wife’s infidelity with a superior officer, but also (in ways unknown to him but comprehended by Kinski and Herzog) collaborates in his own indignity, the better to assert himself in a final tyrannical rage.
The raw vibrancy of Aguirre: The Wrath of God is inseparable from the sheer contact with reality into which Herzog perpetually brings himself, his actors and us. Those are no fake South American rapids we‘re looking at. One knows instinctively and at a glance that the actors and the crew are actually risking their lives to achieve these moments. When that immense, multi-ton riverboat is hauled over a mountain in his 1982 Fitzcarraldo (which also stars Kinski), it’s no special effect we‘re seeing but an actual physical ordeal whose rages and night sweats have entered the very fabric and rhythms of the finished film. Herzog commits himself to firsthand experience in order to create fresh, extra-cinematic experience for the viewer. The unyielding ferocity of his commitment made him a legend to film lovers in the late ’70s and early ‘80s. Strange as this sounds now, Herzog was a cult icon at a level not repeated until the emergence of Quentin Tarantino in the mid-’90s. Critic Roger Ebert, whose star was also on the rise, was Herzog‘s most ardent American champion and hosted seminars around the country at which the filmmaker would appear.
Eventually, the legend served to bring the roof down on his head. A documentary crew headed by Les Blank tagged along during the years-long struggle required to make Fitzcarraldo. By the time Herzog’s film emerged (an incomplete version with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger having been scuttled after Robards nearly died of a bacterial infection picked up in the jungle), even the director‘s most devoted admirers were worn out in anticipation. Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, had been released first and revealed Herzog in an unpleasant light, a half-step from madness. His self-absorbed, even affectless reaction when two natives attached to the production drowned in a canoeing accident struck many as worse than mad; he had become Aguirre. In the years immediately after, he seemed stripped and spent. Fitzcarraldo was his last major American release. And though new films such as Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) would trickle into art houses, along with superb documentaries such as The Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) — a portrait of the Nicaraguan war from the beleaguered vantage of the Mosquito Indians — the most memorable impression one had of him for a long time was supplied by Wim Wenders in his documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985). There, Herzog is shown in an airport, ranting painfully but hilariously that the world has been exhausted, bankrupted of images, that there is nothing left to see that hasn‘t already been photographed.
There’s a bittersWeet logic, then, that heRZOG should recover as much of his original force as he does in My Best Fiend — not by discovering new images, but by making visible the power of memory. Herzog first met Kinski in the ‘50s, when the future filmmaker was 13 and the young actor about 30, and the two were among the many tenants of one crowded Munich apartment. The place has now been transformed into a prosperous showpiece, but Herzog’s animated, highly focused glee as he leads the present tenants to and fro helps us to vividly imagine its former squalor, and the psychotic impression Kinski made on everybody who had the mixed fortune of living with him. Where most documentarians would resort to still photographs or other memorabilia to make us see the past, Herzog trusts our imaginations to help re-create these memories. When he does elect to use photographic representation of the past, the choice is particularly forceful. He shows a small moment from a forgotten German film of the ‘50s in which young Kinski — as a Nazi soldier sleeping on his folded arms — simply wakes up. Herzog repeats the little clip four times. This uninflected bit of business which, in context, one might easily miss, is shown, with repetition, to be a flash of genius: an actor’s moment so truthful that it‘s not just lifelike, but life; a lovely throwaway we’re not intended to notice, only experience.
In such authenticity, Herzog is able to make us know at a glance the artistic credo that bound him soul-to-soul with Kinski. The footage from Burden of Dreams is similarly reconfigured and transfigured, as the story of Herzog and Kinski‘s love-hate friendship and fiendship moves to the Amazon. Footage that once entombed Herzog now brings Kinski back to life, and the resurrection energizes everything that is best in Herzog’s own talent: his patience, his bravery, his hypnotic capacity to stare at a face or a landscape with such sensitivity that the unseen suddenly becomes seen, the spiritual suddenly physical. That Kinski could so perfectly embody this principle is either the most beautiful piece of blind luck or a perverse example of divine harmony. At this stage in his life, Herzog has opened his gaze to either possibility, and his tribute to Kinski doubles as a life-affirming monument to creation in all its variety.