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.
Nosferatu the Vampyre will be released in the UK as a limited edition Blu-ray SteelBook on 19 May 2014.
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.
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Cecilia Rivera, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling
Original title:Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes
West Germany 1972
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, Wrath of God will be released in the UK as a limited edition Blu-ray SteelBook on 19 May 2014.
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.
‘I know the hearts of men. And that is why I am a director.’
Werner Herzog handles grim matters in his work as a whole with genuine love and familiarity, and the quote above is no flippant boast: he does fully identify with his subjects and their suffering. He is, however, rarely sympathetic, and instead reveals humanity in the materiality of being human. The honesty of the flesh, the absurdity of the sacred, the enduring equivalence of meaninglessness that all men share. Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life finds its foothold here. In this documentary about life on death row, Herzog does not linger on eviscerating questions of guilt versus innocence. Instead, the film is concerned with the banality of the immanence of death, the curious paradox of denial and commitment in the mind of the living-about-to-be-dead, and their strange hybrid communities where the families of criminals and their victims overlap to create an unwilling and unwanted extended family in mourning.
Herzog’s hallmark co-option of melodramatic sentiment also serves as an eccentric form of comedy, buoying his scrutiny of human ethics. In the film, he claims that as a German who survived the Second World War, and as a ‘guest’ in America, he has no position of moral authority from which to condemn the American judicial system. Even this statement contains a playful double meaning. Conversely, the state-mandated philosophy surrounding the execution of condemned men is curiously clumsy and archaic. There has seemingly been some attempt by unnamed governing bodies to address the praxis of execution, and the extent to which the prisoner is conscious of its ‘variables’ as relative factors in his own mortality - when, where, how. Of equal or greater concern, though, is the extent to which these devices are used to shield the executioners (known collectively in Texas as the Tie-Down Team) from the very terms of Herzog’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to state-sanctioned killing in Germany, as is the problematic role of a shared religious faith as a coping mechanism for victims of crime, criminals and representatives of the state apparatus.
There is currently an accompanying series of one-hour episodes airing on Channel 4 that deal with other death row inmates and their trajectories towards death. Herzog is quick to point out that he has spent no more than 60 minutes each with any participant in the film and the TV series - having measured time allocated to his interactions with people who have lost a loved one, either to crime or to prison, against the constraints of time allotted visitors of death row inmates as determined by state correctional facilities. The film is often cold, lacking the wild outbursts of violence and madness Herzog is known for, but it is also darkly funny in its peculiar earnestness. Its purest moments are those that show emotions clearly groomed for the camera, rehearsed and played out in their entirety. Oddly, it is in the most manufactured and rehearsed demonstrations for the camera that the visceral conflict of the situation reveals itself; in tears unshed – glimpsed or swallowed, rather than in the choreographic design of yet-unbaked cookies and dead bodies in a suburban American household.
Electric Sheep writers review the best films of 2011.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
Take Shelter is Michael Shannon‘s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols since the director’s acclaimed 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Shannon plays the troubled construction worker Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who slowly loses touch with reality as he becomes haunted by nightmares and apocalyptic visions about a fatal cyclone whose exceptional strength causes devastation on an unprecedented scale. Being the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Curtis decides to seek the help of a doctor, but as the hallucinations grow, he scraps the advised psychological treatment and instead takes out a risky bank loan to rebuild and fully equip the shabby storm shelter in the family’s garden. Shannon makes the story work, with support from an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand her husband, while Nichols’s remarkably assured directing style creates a deep sense of unease about an unsettling near-future, in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Safe. Shot with a careful eye for colour, light and framing, and refined with an array of stylish visual effects, the film impresses most in the way Nichols manages to keep the tension at a nerve-racking level in a film that deliberately refuses to give much space to hope and optimism. Pamela Jahn
Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 2010)
Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Vincent Gallo is an unnamed (possibly Afghan or Iraqi) fighter, taken prisoner and flown to an alien country; confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, he becomes increasingly animal-like. Despite the initial, politically charged prison scenes, legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is not interested in making specific political points, but rather in presenting a universally resonant story. Gallo gives an extraordinarily intense performance and his astonishing emotional involvement in the character keeps the audience firmly on his side as extreme circumstances force him to commit increasingly desperate and brutal acts. Poetic, savage and beautifully expressive visually, Essential Killing is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience that should not be missed. Virginie Sélavy
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)
Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical. Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naí¯ve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band). There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors. Sarah Cronin
Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)
This third feature film from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. Larraín’s stylistic restraint in Post Mortem is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario (Alfredo Castro), who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring. The only criticism of Larraín’s confident and brutal minimalism might be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh. Frances Morgan
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Released in the UK in January after a striking festival run in 2010, Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan remained one of the most exciting films to come out this year. A dizzying, intoxicating dark tale of passion, obsession and jealousy, the film follows young ballet dancer Nina (Nathalie Portman) who becomes dangerously caught up in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina performs a technically perfect White Swan but consistently fails to deliver an equally convincing Black Swan breathing sex appeal and malevolence. Pushed by her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), her narcissistic former dancer mother and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new arrival in the company and potential rival, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act. Blurring the line between the supernatural and the psychological with touches of horror, Aronofsky pulls off some astonishing visual twists in a glorious melodrama that might bring nothing new to the table but certainly makes for a thrilling ride. Pamela Jahn
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures. Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. Ultimately, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema. Julian Ross
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Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
A dysfunctional upper-class family gathered for the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies. The film’s take on the End Times is in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Opinions on whether the classy cast succeed in transcending some of the plot’s holes and clunky dialogue will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression. Frances Morgan
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost his whole career. His approach is that of a man following his own obsessions, his own line of thought. He is the opposite of the parochial, petit bourgeois smugness of a Michael Palin, who doesn’t seem happy unless comparing Timbuktu/an Afghanistan opium market/a Vietnamese wedding to Saturday afternoon on Clapham High Street. Having said that, Herzog’s The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) does have a Palinesque fascination with the foreign only in so much as it reflects on the normal. Of late, Herzog has sought out obsession obsessively: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World are all brilliant in their portrayals of a mad engagement with the world to match Herzog’s own. Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes a similar cast of oddball scientist - Herzog can barely contain his delight on hearing one of the scientist was a circus performer - but it is the place, a unique archaeological site containing the oldest cave art, that is the star. Despite his fun with the scientists (openly scoffing at one boffin’s inability to throw a spear), Herzog is seriously fascinated with the paintings, and his breathless enthusiasm and the patient unveiling of the cave’s wonders create a hypnotic meditation on life and art. The time scales are enormous, tens of thousands of years, and yet, despite this, Herzog manages to convey a sense of both humanity and continuity, arguing persuasively that his own activity as a filmmaker is analogous to the cave painters’ art, crooked little fingers and all. John Bleasdale
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
This intriguing social drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi attracted many awards this year, including Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for its ensemble cast. Powerful, convincing performances are essential to the film’s dramatic tension, which starts with middle-class couple Nader and Simin arguing over a divorce. Marital discord is just the beginning. When Simin moves out, Nader needs someone to look after his elderly father. He hires Razieh, a woman from a poor family, and before long, they are making grave mutual accusations of theft, violence and neglect. The film’s surprising shifts in perspective make for a thoroughly engaging experience. Each character has his or her own version of events, but as a spectator you believe that you have a fairly clear sense of what really happened. This impression of omniscience falls apart as the film gradually reveals facts that the characters would prefer to keep secret. A Separation is also notable for its portrait of contemporary Iran: while highlighting stark differences in lifestyle and worldview between bourgeois and proletarian families, the film shows that both groups are vulnerable to the country’s arbitrary judicial system. Alison Frank
Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
If there was an award for the best opening sequence it would unarguably go to Tetsuya Nakashima for the mesmerising, if not comfortable, first-act monologue in which teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) tells her unruly class on the last day of term that she won’t be returning after the holidays as she believes that the murderers of her four-year-old daughter - whom she refers to as student A and student B - are in the room and that she, knowing that the law won’t help her, has subtly and unobtrusively taken revenge. Adapted from the debut novel by Kanae Minato, Nakashima’s refined, bleakly ironic, yet deeply unsettling thriller is more than just another coming-of-age schoolyard bullying horror tale about the troubled Japanese youth. With wonderfully natural performances and remaining faithful to a script that plays with deft pacing while keeping a perfect balance between hypnotic tension and surprising plot twists, Confessions is an unexpected emotional tour de force that keeps you petrified in your seat from the very moment teacher Yuko begins her lesson in revenge. Pamela Jahn
Red White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news. Unflinchingly gruesome in parts, yet sensitively, elliptically, edited, Red White & Blue has fully rounded characters who, although capable of the most terrible acts, are neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Director Simon Rumley has crafted an original take on the serial killer genre that flirts with horror but subverts the rules to create a deeply affecting twisted romance. Virginie Sélavy
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino,2010)
On paper, a virtually dialogue-free art-house movie set in and around a mountain village in Italy, which unfolds at a snail’s pace and focuses on an elderly, dying goat shepherd, a lost kid and a fir tree, might sound like one to avoid for all but the hardiest of cineastes. For my money though, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) is one of the year’s finest movies, charming, delicate and subtly transcendent. Frammartino’s visually poetic docu-essay, advertised by perhaps the year’s most beguiling promo poster - a memorable image of a goat on a table - seduces the viewer with its gently undulating rhythm, flashes of slapstick humour and understated approach to its dominant themes; the cycle of life, inter-connectedness, rituals, communities and time. Frammartino tackles these weighty and complex concerns in a deftly simplistic manner that exudes a quietly reverential understanding of the symbiotic nature between humankind and the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. The relentless cycle of death and rebirth, collapse and rejuvenation, is poignantly threaded throughout Le Quattro Volte, from the shepherd’s death, via the kid’s separation from the herd to the preparation of the charcoal after the fir tree is felled. A contemplative, yet accessible examination of ‘big’ ideas. Neil Mitchell
Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)
This quiet little film is about a mother and her baby who get picked up and driven in a truck the 1,5000 miles from Asuncií³n, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Filmed mostly in the constricted space of the cab of the truck, these two strangers lives slowly open up. It is a spare, affecting and exemplary model of slow cinema and proves that layers of non-diegetic (or indeed diegetic) sound need not be employed to aid the viewer in ‘getting’ the story. The film won best new director and film awards at Cannes, Oslo, Mumbai, San Sebastian and London FF. Patience will pay off with this one. James B. Evans
Venue: Curzon Soho, Empire Leicester Square (London) and nationwide
Distributor: Lionsgate UK
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: William M Finkelstein + earlier film: Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara, Zoí« Lund
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
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
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews