I could go on for days and days about these prides of German filmmaking. I’ve seen most of their works, but not all of them: but still more than probably any other human being on the planet. And I more than likely hold the world’s record for the most viewings of these five collaborations between the two of them—a tumultuous, symbiotic existence chronicled by Herzog himself in the 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend (which you can watch on TubiTV).
Considering Kinksi appeared in 137 films and, since the age of 19, Herzog has directed 73 and written 59 films—both across all genres, including documentaries—B&S About Movies could easily do two, month-long tributes to my two best celluloid heroes. And I could write most of those reviews by heart—without a third to fifth viewing of those works. And I’d sell my soul for a diminutive “under five” acting role in a Werner Herzog film. Just name the swamp or jungle: I’ll be there, Mr. Herzog. I’ll drag a boat for you. But I won’t chainsaw off a foot for you. I have my limits.
So, settle in with your rotisserie hotdogs, heat-lamped burgers, and ice-cold A&W Root Beers as we sit back in the station wagon bench seat to enjoy the Herzog-Kinski five-film oeuvre of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampire, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde. And as the films roll: Keep in mind that each was made before the advent of digital technologies: everything was shot in-camera using practical effects with no process shots. And that makes these films ever more amazing.
Yeah, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. And probably couldn’t if they tried—without the crutches of a filmless camera and digital after-effects.
Roll ’em, Dano!
Movie 1: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
If you want to know where William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola picked up their narrative and cinematography ideas for their respective, crazed jungle romps, Sorcerer (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979), then look no further than Aguirre.
Herzog is, first and foremost, a historian. If you review his resume, you’ll noticed he excells at the documentary format and is, in fact, one of the world’s greatest documentarian filmmakers. No stuffy talking heads need apply. And even in his narrative works, Herzog leans towards chronicling the lives of historical figures and events.
Here, he decided to examine the life of 1500s Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, who broke away from the command of Gonzalo Pizarro to lead a group of men on a crazed journey down the South American Amazon River in search of the lost, legendary city of gold, El Dorado.
What makes this film epic is that it’s not shot on a soundstage. There’s no green screens or plate processings: it was shot along the Amazon in the middle of the Peruvian rainforests for a five-week shoot.
Wrap you head around that for a moment: Herzog convinced European actors and crew members to live in the jungle and travel along the most dangerous river in the world. And Herzog and Kinski clashed all along the way, with an unhinged Kinski terrorizing the crew and the local natives who assisted the production as crew and extras. Try to remake (oh, god, please don’t) this in today’s major studio system: You wouldn’t. You’d be in a green room emoting to green tennis ball stand-ins, amid the to-be-digitally-painted-later trees.
While Herzog repeated this crazed jungle exploration, somewhat, in his fourth film with Kinski, 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, he also parodied his debut film with Kinski in the frames of his 2004 mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness. That film concerns the “troubled” filming of Enigma of Loch Ness and includes “scenes” from the documentary Herzog in Wonderland. If you’re into meta-fiction, then that film’s film-within-a-film-within-a-film is just what the big red streaming button ordered. It’s the end-all-be-all of meta films, before meta became digital de rigueur, matched only by Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.
Movie 2: Nosferatu the Vampire (1979)
This second of five Herzog-Kinski romps is an impressionist-stylized remake of F.W Murnau’s unauthorized, 1922 black-and-white silent adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But how did Herzog manage to make this film without the same copyright issues that plagued Murnau’s version? Simple. The day the copyright expired on Stoker’s novel and entered the public domain, Herzog began his adaptation.
As with all of Herzog’s films, this is scored by the West German progressive rock group Popol Vuh who, when it comes to soundtracks, are that country’s greatest musical export, next to the commercially better known Tangerine Dream*. And as with Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh released both independent studio albums and soundtracks. Seriously. The soundtrack is incredible. (I played the album until it split apart like a cinnamon roll.)
And we’ll leave it at that, as Sammy P, the bossman at B&S About Movies, did a commendable job at reviewing this masterpiece of horror. No disrespect to Max Schreck who scared the sand out of me, but Kinski giving a “voice” to the character really ups the game. A highly recommended horror watch if there ever was one.
You can watch this as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTv. And Kinski made a pseudo-sequel with Christopher Plummer and Donald Pleasence in Italy—1988’s Nosferatu in Venice, which you can also stream for free on TubiTV.
Movie 3: Woyzeck (1979)
Less than a week after wrapping principal photography on Nosferatu the Vampyre, Herzog, Kinski, and the crew from that film banged out this psychological drama in less than three weeks—the quick shoot courtesy of many of the scenes done with only one take. That’s Kinski. He doesn’t mess around, boy. He delivers on the first take.
The film is based on an unfinished play by one of Germany’s most revered poets and dramatists, Karl Georg Buchner. First premiering in 1913 in Munich, the play, under a variety of interpretations after his death, is one of the most influential and performed plays in Germany. The play itself is loosely based on the tragic, real life story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a soldier who killed his girlfriend and was executed for the crime.
In this study of the tragedy of human jealousy, Woyzeck fathers a child out of wedlock. To earn extra money to take care of his growing family, he agrees to a series of medical experiments that tears at his mental state, leads to a series of apocalyptic visions—and tragic consequences.
Definitely one of the more obscure Kinski films for western audiences and intended solely for German audiences, it none the less became a commercial and critical hit throughout Europe and achieved an arthouse acceptance in the U.S.
You can watch Woyzeck as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTV.
The snack bar will be open in five minutes . . .
. . . And now, back to the show . . .
Movie 4: Fitzcarraldo (1982)
This brings back wonderful memories of my “saving the isle seat” for Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times for the weekly PBS-TV broadcast of Sneak Previews. And they raved about this movie. And I had to travel to a single-screen arthouse in the big city to see it. And it was worth every drop of gasoline to get there.
As with most Herzog films: This was based on historical documents regarding a Peruvian rubber baron and his real-life accomplishment of transporting a boat across the Peruvian jungles to rubber-rich lands. And as with most, well all, Herzog films with Kinski in the mix, this was rout with problems. But not all were Kinski’s fault. For example: Kinski didn’t cut off anyone’s foot: the Peruvian extra, who was bit by a venomous snake, cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to stop the venom spread and save his own life.
Jason Robards (Something Wicked This Way Comes) was originally cast and forty percent of the film was completed—then he came down with dysentery. All of the footage with Robards and Mick Jagger has to be scrapped and reshot. But Jagger had to leave to go on tour with the Rolling Stones. So Jagger’s character as Fitzcarraldo’s assistant was excised from the script. Could you imagine: a film starring Klaus Kinski and Mick Jagger? Wow. (They would have ended up killing each other. Neither would have been left standing. I wonder who the Stones would have gotten as a new lead singer?)
As with the impossible dreamer Lope de Aguirre, Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald sees “gold” in the Peruvian rubber industry and is determined to transport a steamship over a treacherous jungle mountain to reach a rich rubber tree deposit in the Amazon Basin. And yes: the cast and crew is manually hauling a 300-ton steamboat across the jungle. That’s how you rolled in the pre-CGI days, baby.
You can watch this as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTv. The troubled shoot was chronicled in the critically acclaimed 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, which you can stream-with-ads for free (region-dependent) on Vimeo and as a PPV on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Movie 5: Cobra Verde (1987)
For this fifth and final film in the Herzog-Kinski oeuvre, as is usually the case, Herzog drew from another historical document: British author Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, which is an examination of the 1880’s slave trade through the eyes of the fictional Brazilian, Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski).
After his ranch is destroyed by drought and he murders a gold mining operator who exploits his workers, da Silva goes on the lam to become Cobra Verde, aka Green Snake, the most feared bandit of the Brazilian outback. After capturing an escaping slave and finding work with a local sugar baron, da Silva becomes a successful African slave trader—and comes to lead a native army to overthrow the local warlord king who supplies slaves to the Portuguese.
Critically well received throughout Europe, U.S. audiences came to discover this gem (IMO) on the home video market.
You can watch this as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTv. As with the troubled Fitzcarraldo production, this was also chronicled, with the 1987 European-Swiss TV movie Location Africa. You can watch it as a two-part free stream on You Tube.
Okay, people. Use the trash receptacles. Those drink cups and hotdog and burger foil wrappers wreck havoc on the bush-hog.
I was elated when it was announced that Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage were making a film together: 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I thought for sure that Herzog found his new “best fiend” in Cage—a new muse more than capable of taking over Kinski’s crazy crown.
However, Herzog has embraced the documentary format as of late and has only made three narrative films since his Cage collaboration: My Son, My Son, What Ye Have Done (2009), Queen of the Desert (2015), and Salt and Fire (2016)—two with Michael Shannon, along with Willem Dafoe and James Franco. All four films are excellent and come highly recommended.
And I don’t see Cage, or Dafoe, Franco, or Shannon for that matter, going “Kinski” on Herzog. Well, maybe Cage. Just kidding, Nic. I am still your bitch**. And Kinski’s. And Herzog’s.
* Be sure to check out our exposé on the films and soundtracks of Tangerine Dream with our “Exploring: 10 Tangerine Dream Film Soundtracks” featurette.
** Join us as we show the love to Nicolas Cage with our “Nic Cage Bitch” featurette.