Saturday, February 02, 2008


Having extolled the budget-conscious delights of the VHS in my previous post, the price of some great boxed sets are now
becoming more affordable. So for the last two months its been New German Cinema season at chez nous in the company of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.

[I just discovered, the British Film Institute in London are halfway through a major Wenders season at present. It runs until the end of Feb: details here.]

As a result, some interesting assessments of Wenders ouevre
have appeared: Nick Roddick's essay - 'The Road Goes on Forever' - in Sight and Sound and 'King of the Road' by Chris Petit in The Guardian. James Mottram in The Independent takes what seems to be a widely-held view that Wenders recent output is weak. Hopes are high that his new collaboration with Dennis Hopper may see a return to form.

Chris Petit, incidentally, does not rate 'Wings of Desire ' (which he calls 'a triumph of location over content') or 'Paris, Texas' ('on the evidence of websites, many are willing to subscribe to Paris, Texas as a profound statement on emptiness, rather than an empty film...'

Petit is an interesting and innovative filmmaker in his own right. According to a profile in Screenonline, he 'interested Wim Wenders in backing his first feature, Radio On (1979). In spite - or perhaps because - of having no previous film-making experience, Petit pulled off an extraordinary debut, a highly 'European' road movie which, greatly aided by the cinematography of Wenders regular Martin Schafer, presented the British landscape, both rural and urban, in a manner quite unparalleled before or since. Moody and angst-ridden, it announced a singular talent - but also one that was clearly not destined to find a niche easily; as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith aptly put it, Radio On was "a film without a cinema"'

The box set of Wenders contains 10 films - a mix of features and documentaries. Alongside 'Wings' and 'Paris' are two early works - 'Wrong Move' and 'The Scarlet Letter' (the first, a strange, wordy saga in which annnoying writer called Wilhelm sets out on a random journey and meets strange wierdos along the way; the second, a weird costume drama set in the Puritanical village of Salem, Massachusetts in the 18th century, drawn from the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne). Curios both.
Original film still and paperback (The Generalist Archive)

'The American Friend', on the other hand is, in my view, Wenders at his best. Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper star in this brilliant, edgy film based on the novel 'Ripley's Game' by Patricia Highsmith. Saw it on its first release back in the 1970s and found it happily still as great on a re-look. One of Hopper's best roles, combining cool and menace.

Jean-Luc Godard in 'Room 666'. (1982) Now President of the European Film Academy, Wenders was to present Godard with the Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Godard, writes Petit, 'was a no-show, saying afterwards that his absence was in protest against a prize "imposed" on his entire career. Godard's snub (at Wender's expense) was done as a point of principle, but it generated far more publicity than if he had accepted. Godard and Wenders are both expert manipulators, curators of their own legends...'

The documentaries are really interesting. 'Room 666' was shot at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Wenders invited a number of film directors to talk directly to camera about the future of film in a hotel room set-up with a camera and tape. They come in, switch them both on, and start talking. The question was:"Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?" It begins with Jean Luc-Godard then, in no particular order, Antonioni, Herzog, Fassbinder, Spielberg, Monte Hellman and other younger voices. Superb and fascinating. Antonioni looks into the future and correctly predicts large-screen tv in the home. Herzog takes his shoes and socks of before answering such an important question Godard is a brilliant thinker and showman, Spielberg views are fascinating too in the light of the subsequent development of his career in particular and Hollywood in general.

Two documentaries on Japan - 'Tokyo Ga' and 'Notebooks on Cities and Clothes'. The first is a portrait of the city using the films of Ozu as a framing device; Herzog appears also in this. The second I first saw on Arena many years ago, a portrait of the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto as he prepares a new collection. Video was relatively new at this time and Wenders enjoys playing around with a whole range of new gadgets. Watching Yohji at work is fascinating. Funniest scenes: Yohji and Wim talking whilst playing pool; Wim is very tall and Yohji is very small.

'A Trick of the Light' is a real discovery. A documentary about the Skladanowsky Brothers, the German-born duo responsible for inventing the 'bioskop', an early version of the film projector. Eclipsed by the fame of the Lumiere brothers, the S Brothers experimented with silent film and slapstick comedy. Wenders uses some wonderful inventive trick shots, animations and fictionalised episodes, built around the incredibly vivid testimony of 95-year-old Lucie Skladanowsky, the surviving daughter of Max, one of the brothers. [See IMDB for a more detailed account of this film]

'Lightning Over Water' is a documentary Wenders made of Nicholas Ray, the legendary director of such classics as 'Rebel Without A Cause' and 'Johnny Guitar', as he lay dying of terminal cancer. I haven't had the heart to watch it all through yet.

Ray and the late Samuel Fuller (read Wender's eulogy to him here) were Wender's mentors and icons - two rough, tough battle-hardened vets of the movie business, outsiders of great charisma. They both also acted in Wender's films: Ray played an art forger in 'The American Friend', Fuller a camerman in 'The State of Things', my other great favourite. (This black and white movie was shot in Portugal in a break during the long nightmare that was the filming of 'Hammett', Wenders tribute to the don of noir fiction Dashiell Hammett, at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in California.

In conclusion: A valuable set. Shortcomings: No extras.
Wim Wenders official web site

Whilst I love Wenders work, find it fascinating and cool, I am in awe of Werner Herzog.

His global search for what he calls the 'ecstatic truth' has produced both legendary features and a back catalog of extraordinary documentaries - more than 50 films in all. These two box sets are a good place to start getting to grips with this inspiring figure.

Herzog/Kinski is dynamite. Here collected together are the are the five features that Herzog made with the legendary madman Klaus Kinski. Kinski made scores of films, in most of which he only appears in cameos. This was because he was absolutely impossible to work with. Only Herzog was able to control, cajole and threaten this monstrous man, corral his ferocious spirit, and capture performances that have a power unequalled in cinema.

'Aguirre Wrath of God' and 'Fitzcarraldo' are rightly Herzog's best known films. Shot in the Amazon, they are not only terrifying to watch, you also know that there is no special effects trickery here. To make these films hundreds of people actually lived and worked under hazrdous condiitions to achieve movies that noone could now emulate. They wouldn't find the financing and the risk factors would be too high for any sane person to handle. The sheer determination it must have taken to realise these stunning films is almost beyond imagining.

'Cobra Verde', based on the Bruce Chatwin book 'The Viceroy of Ouidah', sees Kinski leading an extraordinary army of black women warriors. In 'Nosferatu', he becomes a ghastly creature of the night, the scariest vampire ever put on screen. In 'Woyzeck' a hapless soldier, bullied and torturted beyond his limits. The set is completed with 'My Best Fiend', Herzog's documentary tribute to his deranged comrade.

Many of the films have versions with commentary by Herzog and others. Never less than fascinating.

Box 2 I'm still absorbing: It contains four features - 'Heart of Glass', 'The Enigma of Kasper Hauser', 'Stroszek', 'Even Dwafs Started Small' - and 'Fata Morgana', Herzog's strange documentary on desert mirages.

A third box set is exclsuively available from the Werner Herzog Archive

'Werner Herzog – The Documentary And Shorts Collection', they say, 'is a collection of twenty-five films which run the gamut from his first experimental short ('Herkales' from 1962) through to longer documentaries such as 'God's Angry Man' and 'How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck', making all sorts of quirky little cinematic stops along the way. Most of this work is new to DVD.'

Much to my suprise, two weeks after I started watching these films, a brand new Herzog movie was released - 'Rescue Dawn' starring Christian Bale, who plays Dieter Dengler, a German-born American pilot, shot down in Laos duing the Vietnam War and tortured by his captors. He led a prison break-out and escaped, battling his way through the jungles to safety in Thailand.

Obsessed by this real-life story and despairing at ever raising funding to make a feature, in 1997 Herzog made a documentary instead - 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'.

A good account of Herzog and this new project is Christopher Goodwin's 'Dangerous Waters' which appeared in the Sunday Times.

Useful Wikipedia entry

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