Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo isn’t in the Criterion Collection and honestly, I’m not sure it should be; it’s fine and well-made as far it goes, but the story of its making — the story told in this documentary — is far more interesting. In a sense, there’s as much colonialist privilege being exerted in the actual making of this Amazonian epic as there is in the text of the film itself, and you can see that coming through, the maniacal drive of Herzog to make his film, to honour his grand and foolish metaphor despite all the destruction it wreaks, and the troubles it causes amongst the tribes people he is using as extras and for labour. Indeed, the film touches briefly on but never gets into the human toll of the filming, though we see him and Kinski, amongst others, slipping and sliding about in the mud. And then of course there are those great Herzogian flourishes of aggrandising whimsy (“the birds here are in misery; I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain”) as he addresses his evolving situation. It is, and it surely looks like, the very model of the ‘troubled shoot’, and it’s a vastly entertaining documentary, but it’s also a bleak and concerning portrait of a filmmaker gone awry, a man too much in service to his central metaphor to consider whether it’s all worth it.
- The main extra is the 1980 short film Les Blank made — the project on which he met Herzog and decided to follow him in making Fitzcarraldo. It documents a promise Herzog made to fellow (aspiring) documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that he’d eat his shoe if Morris was able to make his debut (Gates of Heaven, which will show up later on the Criterion Collection). There are, I suppose, two things going on in this short film, and one of them of course is the German film director eating his shoe. Which is to say, we see him preparing it (stuffing it with bulbs of garlic and onion and spices), cooking it, and then — onstage before a screening of Gates of Heaven and then apparently afterwards in the bar — slicing up little pieces and eating it, with a little bit of help from those who wish to interview him. But the other thing going on here is that it’s a public show of support for a small independent filmmaker who has, with Herzog’s encouragement, been able to make his own film. That film is a great work, but this is all about Herzog honouring his own loud mouthed promises, and supporting filmmaking.
- There’s are some outtakes from Burden of Dreams, via Herzog’s own documentary about Kinski My Best Fiend (1999) showing Kinski ranting and raving on set.
- Herzog does a long interview 25 years later for the release of the Criterion disc, reflecting back on how he was back then, what was omitted, and how it’s impossible to really capture the making of a film as enormous and foolhardy as Fitzcarraldo. He also draws attention to Blank’s own interests that went beyond the production itself, vignettes of the locals and the rainforest and the wildlife, that somehow make the documentary greater than it would otherwise have been.
- There’s a gallery of some rather stunning and evocative photos taken during the production, primarily by Blank’s editor Maureen Gosling.
- Finally, there’s a short trailer for the documentary.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Les Blank; Starring Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 September 2001 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, June 1996, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 24 January 2020).
I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.
[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.
I’ve not seen a great deal of documentaries by Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, but all those I have are quite wonderful — no doubt she’s highly regarded in the documentary world, but that’s a fairly closed-off clique. Indeed, I only saw this film of hers because it was attached as a DVD to a documentary-focused magazine in a bargain bin at the BFI film shop. However, it’s a fascinating piece about Honigmann’s birth town of Lima in Peru, which uses its street performers and service industry staff to tell a story of political disengagement from society as it’s lived. Shop owners and waiting staff in restaurants and bars are asked if they’ve met the President or any politicians, and each of them has their own story, many of them fairly dismissive of these people — a minister of the economy who doesn’t know how much a newspaper costs, or a President who doesn’t know which way round the ceremonial sash is worn. Meanwhile there are poor families who rush out in front of cars at traffic lights to try and make a few coins, whose stories are the most affecting because the most bleak, particularly a young boy who stares out empty-eyed while being unable to recall any bad memories or any good ones either. Honigmann talks to her interview subjects in their places of work and at their homes, and there’s a subtle observance of how life is lived for society’s have-nots. Interspersed amongst these scenes are TV clips of Presidents assuming office, though the ongoing political context in Peru is only alluded to in passing by the interviewees (one gathers it involves dictators, corruption and, particularly in the 1980s, widescale economic collapse). An affecting and affectionate portrait of a capital city that is worth watching even for those — like me — with no knowledge of Peru itself.
Director Heddy Honigmann; Writers Honigmann, Sonia Goldenberg and Judith Vreriks; Cinematographer Adri Schrover; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 January 2016.