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Mad genius?

The HFA brings us the chain-rattling visions of Werner Herzog

by Ezra Friedman

"THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: VISIONS OF WERNER HERZOG." Screens weekends, October 18 through November 15, at the Harvard Film Archive.

["Werner Although it may be a universal truth that the desires of each and every individual will always be within sight but forever just out of reach, German director Werner Herzog has made it his mission to grapple with the extremes of the human spirit by rattling the chains of reality until something comes loose. The Harvard Film Archive's Werner Herzog film series, which starts this Friday, offers a comprehensive collection of the writer/director's work.

Herzog's visual interpretations and commentaries on the nature of dreams and those individuals willing to leap into the abyss in order to realize their visceral desires is a subject many filmmakers shy away from. He not only takes the plunge but relates the fall and somehow climbs back out to describe this realm where there is no longer any distinction between real and unreal. The subjects of his films include conquistadors haunting the depths of sanity amid the Amazon jungle, mountain climbers circling the highest reaches of the world and human spirit, the murky world of a woman who is both deaf and blind, even the influence of vampires on a society now forsaken by God.

"I think his is a visionary cinema. He is one of the great directors working today," says Herbert Golder, a professor of Classics at Boston University and longtime friend and collaborator of Herzog's. "Werner's films examine human feelings in the extreme. When you subject someone to extremes, it is man at the greatest points of his courage and spiritual depth. He is a man who dreams with his eyes open, and his is a highly original and universal vision."

Fitzcarraldo, Herzog's most famous -- and infamous -- film (it screens this Saturday, October 19, at 8:30 p.m.), is the story of a man who yearns to build an operahouse in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The inimitable Klaus Kinski delivers one of his most inspired performances as the eccentric Irishman who strikes out into a cloying world of García Márquez-ian lushness and magic. The Jivero Indians believe that "everyday life is only an illusion behind which lies the reality of dreams." They see Fitzcarraldo's gigantic steamboat as the means to soothe the angry gods who have chosen to leave their world unfinished.

For Herzog's script to remain true to his personal vision, he actually had to drag the ship over a mountain. The painstaking process encountered every disaster possible, including tribal and cast revolts, droughts, and floods. Herzog somehow pulled the boat and everyone else along with his own dream, to create one of the truest representations of the primordial and one of finest examples of the transcendent nature of film. It left many casualties in its wake, however, and he wound up the target of numerous accusations of recklessness. Ironically, most of the controversy was fueled by the documentary that he himself commissioned. Les Blank's Burden of Dreams paints a picture of actors trapped in the jungle at the mercy of a mad genius.

"It's all been grotesquely misrepresented," says Golder. "None of these bad things happened because of Herzog's recklessness. He has never intentionally put anyone's life in danger. He is the consummate professional. Burden of Dreams does misrepresent reality, but Werner understands why he [Blank] did it."

There have also been stories about the clashing of wills with frequent star Klaus Kinski. The two worked together in the Amazon on Aguirre, the Wrath of God, under exceedingly rough conditions. Kinski relates the experience in his recently reissued autobiography, Kinski Uncut, saying among other things, "Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It's no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me." And yet they did some of their best work together, Kinski giving one of the best performances of Dracula in Nosferatu the Vampyre and one of the most staggering comments on man's relation to God in Woyzeck. Both men have commented that it was some twisted form of destiny that brought them together.

"No matter how fantastic, his feature films are more real than anything Hollywood has to offer," Golder concludes. "His work represents the familiar landscape you see with eyes refreshed -- the miraculous in the mundane."

For a schedule of this week's Werner Herzog films at the HFA, see "Film Listings," on page 41. Herzog himself will appear at the HFA November 2 to introduce his Stroszek.

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