As part of our focus on Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, we take an illustrated look at his dark and moody drama The Most Important Thing: Love. Based on the novel La Nuit américaine by Christopher Frank, the story revolves around the passionate love affair between struggling actress Nadine (Romy Schneider), who earns her money starring in cheap soft-core movies, and Servais Mont, a photographer (Fabio Testi) determined to help her get her career back.
The earliest extant film version of Dracula, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok, ironically mirrors the Count’s own struggle to survive death. The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was successfully sued by the copyright holders, and every copy but one of the film was destroyed. It would be nice to think stakes were driven through the cans of celluloid. Once the copyright had expired, that one copy rose from the dead, and Murnau’s Nosferatu firmly established itself as an early classic of German Expressionism, and would haunt horror cinema everywhere.
Werner Herzog’s decision to remake the film was a typically bold, even foolhardy, one, but it is also one of the best post-war retellings of the Dracula story. Eschewing the camp and cheaply Freudian reiterations, Herzog took a grimly sympathetic approach. First of all, he firmly establishes his innocents. An uncannily beautiful Isabella Adjani plays Lucy (not Mina as in the novel) and Bruno Ganz is Jonathan Harker. They live a weirdly colourless and blurry existence of mutual adoration in Wismar. Their watery love is depicted with a walk along a mud-coloured beach in a scene that anticipates the sopping romantics of Terrence Malick’s bathetic To the Wonder. Given the job of finalising a property deal, Harker journeys to the remote mountains of Transylvania. Here, using the thrusting theme from Wagner’s Rheingold (which Malick would also borrow for The New World), Harker becomes a Caspar David Friedrich romantic who – the sea-level dweller having gained some altitude – begins to pose heroic. The sublime is almost a cleansing ceremony, a man alone in the racing clouds, but it is at exactly this point that the romantic tourist meets the resident of the mountains, and discovers the true meaning of loneliness. As Goethe would have reminded Harker, unhappy people are dangerous.
In his second collaboration with Herzog, Klaus Kinski gives a compellingly haunted performance. His Dracula is a creature who is as much a victim of his own condition as anyone else: a vampyre who thinks with his fingernails, while his big frightened eyes look on helpless at the damage he is compelled to commit. His remarkable ugliness, his determinedly unsexy creepiness, and his famished need make a mockery of the teenage rip ‘em up fantasies that now parade as nightmares. Kinski’s creation invades Jonathan and Lucy’s hometown, bringing with him disease, rats and death, a Pied Piper in reverse. As with many Kinski/Herzog films, the latter half slides towards disaster with the unstoppable force of a bad dream, but, as like with other great horror films (and I’d include The Shining in this category), the film is not really frightening as such. Nothing goes bang in the night. Rather there is a continuous unsettling drone screech of everything going wrong all the way through.
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Werner Herzog’s first film with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, Wrath of God, tells the story of an expedition of conquistadors searching for the fabled Eldorado and coming unstuck in the process. Made in 1972, the film was shot entirely on location in the Amazon rain forest and involved the cast and crew enduring much of the madness and hardship that the film’s characters underwent, in what was to become Herzog’s almost legendary modus operandi. The relationship between the director and lead actor – as documented in Herzog’s brilliant 1999 documentary My Best Fiend – was particularly fraught, with temper tantrums, threats of murder and even gunplay coming into the mix.
Aguirre incorporates this sense of ramshackle chaos and insanity. The first sight of the expedition traversing the mountains inspires anything but confidence. The adventurers and slaves descend precipitous paths awkwardly, encumbered by pieces of cannon, sedan chairs, two gorgeously dressed noble women and livestock. A crate of hens is dropped down the mountainside, clouds and mist obscure the view, and no one looks happy. The adventure – even at the beginning – seems like dangerous drudgery rather than anything glamorous or romantic. This is not the story of Europeans going mad in the jungle, but rather the madness that drives these people into the jungle in the first place. Almost immediately, the group begins to fragment, with a forward expedition being sent on, and this continual unravelling will be the main dynamic of the narrative as we follow them on their hopeful (but to us obviously hopeless) quest. Official proclamations are read to the indifferent jungle, the Holy Brother charts the unfolding of disaster despairingly in his diary, and things begin to fall apart. The most literal and dangerous example of this are the rafts that they use to transport themselves down the river and – in the earliest part of the journey – through the furious churning rapids. The camera itself is almost always in the way, splashed with water, and occasionally glanced at.
Aguirre’s transformation from muttering discontent to utterly insane and self-deluded tyrant is inversely proportionate to the amount of power he actually has. As his men succumb to disease and Indian attacks and the ranks are thinned, he lurches around and postures (so much of his performance is in his strange, lopsided stance), attempting to somehow realise his own vision through the power of his glare and his overblown and self-deluded rhetoric. The hypnotic music by Popol Vuh lulls us into a fever dream, and Herzog never allows Aguirre a moment of triumph, or a glorious death. He is left to exacting executions, via his humming henchman, and even there the main voice of opposition, the noblewoman Inez, played by Helena Rojo, defeats him by bravely walking off into the jungle.
There is a dark comedy to all this, and Aguirre is not the only lunatic in the asylum. When two friendly Indians turn up, seemingly prepared to worship the Spaniards as gods, the person who we’ve previously trusted as the narrative voice of reason, Brother Gaspar De Carvajal (Del Negro), has them executed for blasphemy. The cruelty of the expedition is shown in their treatment of the animals (horses, hens and monkeys) as well as of each other, an unpleasant aspect which the film shares with that other film of jungle madness, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Ultimately, the fury of the title is self-inflicted and preposterous. The omnipresent river that carries them along at its own pace – and it’s slowness can prove as deadly as its rapids – will take Aguirre and his raft of monkeys into oblivion.
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How Werner Herzog ended up helming a kind of remake of Abel Ferarra’s 1992 film, starring Nicolas Cage, I don’t know, and don’t really want to. I prefer to think of it as a product from an alternate universe where Herzog does this kind of thing all the time. What you need to know: it’s a blast, and funny as hell, with Ferrrara’s gritty, tortured Catholicism tossed in favour of wilful absurdity and a plethora of lizards. Cage is terrific, with a lopsided gait and a crackpipe laugh, torturing grannies and shaking down football stars, screaming one quotable line after another. It’s every cop show cliché reflected in a hall of mirrors - wholly indecent fun.
Still mystified by what I’ve seen, I hook up with Vertigo online editor Robert Chilcott to talk about the film. Earlier plans to play the dialogue with Robert as Ferrara and me as Herzog are abandoned as Robert fears the substance abuse would kill him, and I fear that I can’t take a bullet with the required sang-froid. We open in a café in Victoria, surrounded by notes, both versions of Bad Lieutenant on the laptop.
Robert Chilcott: This shot (of the iguanas) is filmed by Herzog himself? It’s his point of view. He is the iguana.
Mark Stafford: When they had a press conference at Cannes last year, Herzog praised the iguanas as the best thing in the film. And you also have Englebert Humperdink singing ‘Please release me, let me go..’
RC: That’s Herzog, stepping outside of this detective genre, disdainful of the conventions of the script.
MS: I find myself hesitant to describe it as a great film. Before the press screening of MICMACS I went to, there was a circle of top rank film critics knocking back the freebie wine and quoting line after line from Bad Lieutenant with obvious delight. Contrast this with a friend of mine who just saw it on some kind of download and thought that Nicolas Cage, and the film in general, were awful. I think that tells you what the reception for it is going to be. Filmheads are gonna love it, but I don’t know if it works properly for anyone outside of the circle of celluloid junkies.
RC: Sure. There’s all this stuff in it that is fairly generic. There’s a crime, the cop solves it, all a bit too CSI. But Herzog takes it to a different level with his asides. And Cage’s performance, his little chuckle whenever he mentions ‘your boy G’. He knows there’s something ludicrous about the whole thing.
MS: The same laugh every time. He’s there from the word go, the profanity, the hunched back, the gun in the waist band. He’s just fun to watch.
RC: And Herzog is the reptile - hissing, pissing, laughing. The joke is on everyone else. Who’s this idiot cop and this straight-to-video storyline. He empathises with the alligators, the iguanas, the snake at the beginning. The fish in the tank at the end, they’re all cold-blooded. It’s a big prank.
MS: Herzog has said that he hadn’t seen Ferrara’s Lieutenant. Ferrara is a Catholic boy, albeit of a heavy-drinking, drug-taking persuasion. His film is all about sin and redemption in a very staunch, religious, Graham Greene way. Herzog, of course, happily believes in an entirely meaningless universe of hostility, cruelty, and death. He’s not gonna take the sin and redemption angle seriously. There’s warmth there, in the characters, the dad, his girlfriend, all lovely people, but essentially Herzog’s removed, it’s all absurd.
RC: The Ferrara is a more serious film, more serious in its aesthetic, slower paced. A shorter film, but with longer takes. Cage revels in the mania of his drug abuse. Harvey Keitel is a sluggish coke addict, he doesn’t look like he’s having a very good time on it. Then there’s the rape of the nun, which he can’t really deal with. But that’s absent here, Cage’s soul is not tied to the case. And it’s almost like he’s taking coke for medicinal reasons, for his back pain!
MS: There is the murder of an immigrant family, but you’re right. Apart from being a terrible degenerate, Cage is a good cop, he seems to have his eyes on the prize and his heart in the right place - whereas you genuinely fear for Harvey.
RC: Though there is a redemption scene in this new one. Chavez, the prisoner he rescues at the beginning, saves him at the end. There’s a full circle. There is reflection in the final scene.
MS: It’s just not played out in such Catholic terms. It is a lovely ending. Apparently it arose from an improvised Herzog line, though typically it takes place 15 minutes after most directors would have finished the film.
RC: Keitel’s cop meets a fairly squalid end, whereas Cage’s lieutenant triumphs in the most absurd extreme, where everything just seems to go ridiculously right for him.
MS: It’s like a parody of your normal ‘well written’ Hollywood film, where the resolution is wholly brought about by the hero’s actions and his will is forced upon the world, but here…
RC: It’s luck, or fate. It all falls into his lap. Like when he tries to fix the football game, it doesn’t work, and yet the results of the game turn out right for him anyway.
MS: Well, he brings some of it about. The fate of Big Fate, the murderous gangster, is his doing. But the rest of it, it fits into Herzog’s world view. Blind chance has a much bigger role in life than Hollywood would allow.
RC: And what about this bizarre character that says ‘whoah’ all the time. Again, it’s Herzog taking the piss?
MS: I think that’s typical of the reason a lot of people expecting a grim thriller, or a similar film to the Ferrara, are going to be nonplussed, there’s all this odd broad comedy. There’s the bit with the old lady’s oxygen tube, and this ‘whoah’ guy who gives a ridiculous, mannered performance, but at the same time I could happily believe in him as a person, even though it’s completely mad. It’s like someone showed him and Cage tapes of the Herzog/Kinski films and said ‘look, this is how far you can go, this is what Werner’s happy with’.
RC: With Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and the other films they made together, you kind of knew that Klaus Kinski was Herzog, there’s not much doubt that he’s an alter ego.
MS: In this scene and elsewhere, there’s B-movie dialogue and bits of business that would sit happily in Miami Vice. And then you’ve got bits like this guy, which would just not.
RC: Ferrara directed two episodes of Miami Vice.
MS: Herzog didn’t need to. He’s had this career, the amazing art-house hits of the 70s, then he disappears, for many people, into the documentaries in the 80s, and in the last 10 years or so he’s come back as this incredibly prolific great director who’s all over the shop. Ed Pressman offers him this and he says sure. Knocks it out on a 35-day shoot. You end up with the least Herzog Herzog film. But it’s still utterly his.
RC: The general critical consensus is that he’s made a lot of poor fictional features in the last 10 years, but that his documentaries are superior. Where does this fit in?
MC: I love it, but I’m a Herzog fan. I think three quarters of the viewing public are just going to think it’s a thriller made wrong, that somebody screwed up along the way, or that it’s a comedy that isn’t consistently funny enough. I think that unevenness of tone, the sense of play, is part of what makes it entertaining. But most people are going to think it’s a sloppy mess. Camera shadows in shot and all…
RC: There is a scene that could be out of The Wire where Big Fate is going to buy condos, get into real estate, and he wants Cage’s cop to be the frontman for it. There’s this whole political corruption angle which…
MS: …which doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no time for it. But again, Big Fate is delivering his spiel while at the same time his two henchmen are pulling an obvious wrapped body out of the back of the SUV and dumping it in the river, so the scene becomes absurd comedy. That’s the film all over. The post-Katrina setting adds a definite presence to the film, but the post-Katrina politics aren’t explored, and the tourist New Orleans is wholly absent, not a blues bar in sight. Only one cemetery scene. It says in the notes that they filmed there mainly because of the tax breaks. It was a good decision. Cage says that New Orleans was the town that turned him into a philosopher, which is why you should never read interviews with actors.
RC: One of his philosophical principles in the film is ‘it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life’.
MS: It sounds like something Ferris Bueller could say. I don’t know if it’s great philosophy, it’s a good T-shirt. It’s something that could be said by a great violinist, or a paedophile (laughs).
RC: A Katherine Hamnett T-shirt from the 80s. Here’s another: ‘When we engage with another human being we remind ourselves we are not alone’. That’s probably a quote from somewhere else that they’ve re-attributed.
MS: ‘When we engage with water we remind ourselves we are not always damp’.
RC: This one works better, in larger font: ‘Shoot him again - his soul is still dancing!’
MS: I’d get that shirt. That’s going to get quoted. Together with I’ll shoot you ’til the break of dawn!’. And ‘You mean you don’t have a lucky crack pipe?’
RC: There’s a scene where Cage gets a couple coming out of a nightclub and basically shakes them down, then makes it with the girl, forcing her boyfriend to watch. With the earlier film, Keitel gets two girls to talk dirty to him while he jerks off.
MS: In the Herzog it’s funnier, it’s outrageous. In the Ferrara it’s a scene of seedy depravity, it’s much more unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch, you’re wondering where the hell it’s going to go.
RC: It’s good to wonder. It’s good to not know.
MS: Abel Ferrara’s film is probably of more worth as a piece of art. But comparisons are futile. It’s like rating a garage punk band versus the Brodsky quartet.
RC: What’s the last Abel Ferrara film you saw?
MS: (long pause) I don’t remember. He came out of the arty end of the Times Square grindhouse cinema, with Driller Killer and Ms 45. He’s like a cousin of the cinema of transgression, like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern, but his work was just disciplined and shaped enough to play ‘proper’ theatres. His Lieutenant is pretty lean and mean, Herzog’s is baggy, oddly shaped.
RC: In the Ferrara film there’s a lot of indulgent scenes of Keitel following the Mets games coverage. He’s driving around listening to the game, the Mets lose and he shoots the radio. Everyone looks at him, so he just puts the police siren on and drives away. Now that could be a Cage/Herzog moment.
MS: There’s no scene in the Herzog as screamingly raw as that one of Harvey Keitel, out of his mind, naked and crying like a baby. His body looked like concrete covered in rubber.
RC: Ferrara said that finding out the film was being remade was a horrible feeling ‘like being robbed’. And that ‘They should all die in hell’, and wondered how Cage ‘had the nerve to play Harvey Keitel’, and called (screenwriter) Finkelstein ‘an idiot, man’.
MS: ‘He then vomited and fell off the sofa’. I guess that the difference between the two Lieutenants is that, in true punk spirit Ferrara ‘means it, maaan’, and Herzog’s playing games.
RC: The two films are separated at birth. Two babies throwing their toys out of the pram.
Mark Stafford and Robert Chilcott