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     Volume 8 Issue 88 | October 2, 2009 |

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The Flamboyance and Passion of Herzog

Fayza Haq
Werner Herzog talking to Tim Roth.

Werner Herzog is no doubt one of the most fascinating filmmaker who also excelled as a prose writer and opera director. A recent discussion and exhibition on the work and life of this remarkable talent was held at the Goethe Gallery recently by film and photography experts. This included Morshedul Islam, veteran filmmaker, Imtiaz Alam Beg, director, Begart Institute of Photography, and Angela Grunert, an anthropologist on her own merit (new director Goethe Institut). It is on Herzog on whom an intriguing photography display is currently on at the institute.

The photographs are a part of a travelling exhibition of snapshots taken by Basel-based Beat Presser, who worked with Herzog on three of his films. These photos show Herzog, one of the most influential filmmakers at work during various film shoots. Herzog describes directing as primarily as "athletic work".

Beat Presser, who worked as a stills photographer, successfully captures this physical dimension. His photos show the director in action: Herzog becomes visible as the impassioned creator and tireless motor of his films.

The display contains 37 photos by Beat Presser and 13 others that belong to the Film museum in Berlin.

The exhibit, which celebrates 60 years of Herzog's flamboyant and enigmatic life, has taken seven years to travel from Switzerland, to other European countries; and onwards to Mumbai. The display is now on in Dhaka, and is due to be returned to Greece. It has been drawing photography buffs of the metropolis-- even on rain-drenched days. The exhibition-- both in colour and black-and-white -- is also to mark 50 years of Begart's existence.

Herzog is sometimes believed to be an eccentric director, who "stopped at nothing to realise his vision "He has made more than 20 TV documentaries. In this field his interest has been a unique life story that covers the entire world. Since 1986 he directed operas of great acclaim. Today he lives in Los Angeles.

A scene from the film 'Fitzcarraldo'.

A workaholic, "Herzog always wanted to reach the impossible," says Grunert. She says that he did a documentary on climbing an 8,000 metre high mountain. "Isn't it enough that he climbs a high mountain? No, he needs to make a film on it. To make a film at that height, one can imagine how difficult it was in those days. Another remarkable film " Escarraldo"of his was when he took a big ocean liner, out of the sea, climb a mountain, and cross vast jungle of 30 kilometres. " Morshed elaborates that this ship's journey symbolises the hurdles that one faces in life. The unusual and enigmatic elements are brought into the film to tease the mind. Herzog portrayed the failed hero, whom the gods love, and who inevitably dies in the end in most of his films. Bursting with unique ideas, he punched his films with mind-whirling incidents. Herzog even made a documentary on eating his shoe, says Grunert. He had bet on something and then he lost. The shoe eating was a sign of his remorse and anger. "He mixed his private life with his work," says Grunert. Once he went on foot from Munich to Paris, passing the Alps, with snow and ice. He then wrote a book on this maniacal episode. At that time, in 1982, the filmmaking techniques had not developed as it has today. Thus the prospects of making the films were not easy. But he was hell bent on making the impossible possible.

As for Beat Presser, who photographed Herzog and the actors of his mind-whirling films, was also the assistant movie cameraman for Herzog, who later became the sill-photographer for Herzog. When this great filmmaker said "Films must be physical", it meant that when his crew said, "Why do we have to do it in this difficult way?" He said, "You must put in all your efforts into the film or people will not be moved. When you tell a story, bring yourself into the film" In his "Faustus" Herzog believed that the most suitable setting is an opera house. In fact, says Grunert, "He combined documentary with fiction in our crazy, complex life," He did this in a manner that the two genres are inseparable, says Morshedul Islam. As a consequence, his fiction has a flavour of documentaries.

Even in the film "Fitzcarraldo", based on a historical figure, a robber baron, On this Herzog commented "I have to admit, I wasn't the robber baron's story. What interested me was one solitary detail; that he overcame a bottleneck between two river systems by dismantling the boat, carrying it overland , and reassembling it on the banks of the other river. This was the impetus. I wanted to write a story about great operas in the jungle and a man who wants to put up a river in the rainforest. Since he can't scrape up the money for it, he first decides to make a fortune with rubber. He purchases a region that is impenetrable because of the terrible rapids that block ship passage. But one needs a big ship in the big regions... What Fitzcarraldo actually does is this. He travels by boat up another source river that flows roughly parallel to his river. In the end, however, Fitscarraldo manages to turn catastrophe into victory. " The finale has the hero going to Peru by cutting a mountain, explains Insaan, a fashion photographer affiliated with the Goethe Institute.

In the stills of "Cobra Verde" one sees Klaus Kinsky, a reputed actor and a friend of Herzog's, who worked together in films. The two friends are seen focusing on a scene with intensity.


Herzog in an African set of 'Cobra Verde'.

Herzog has been a director, producer, as well as scriptwriter. He even acted in them, running backwards, forwards, around the actors, bursting with inimitable joie de vivre. His bursts of energy has been interpreted as eccentric although it can't be denied that one has to be a little bit crazy to do anything totally unusual in life. When shooting his films, he kept the cast and crew on their toes with his outbursts of outlandish and whimsical ways of interpreting his themes, which, in themselves, were totally out of this world. He did not resort to animation, says Imtiaz Beg. Herzog insists on cutting a mountain to carry his ship across -- or actually climbs a mountain peak himself in order to shoot it

Born in Munich in 1942, Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village, close to the Austrian border. In his boyhood, he had nothing to do with a telephone or TV. Yet, he made his first film when he was 19, and is today recognised as one of the last representatives of the grand era of the European film industry as well as the international cinema. He made 40 films in all. He was a pioneer of his times, along with Fassbinder and Schloendorff. These filmmakers gave war-torn Germany something to be proud of after the mid forties. They made something beautiful out of the ashes of the post-war German lifestyle. Together the three giants of filmmaking made the war-weary Germans oblivious to the prevailing hunger, poverty and broken dreams.

Nobody could totally understand this intense genius of scenes, figures and words. Critiques of his time labelled his films like "Cobra Verde" as "dirty, disgusting and the word of a fascist". His heroes projected his inner feelings and beliefs -- like the Polish blacksmith in "Zishe Breitbart", who with his visionary powers, called out to his countrymen to fight the Nazis, but they did not take him serious. Even his girl friend was totally intrigued and overwhelmed by his attitudes, reactions and observations. Unpredictable and impassioned he remains an enigma till today. The stylised characters in his films are bizarre or heroic (often both). Herzog longed to intrigue and remained disinterested in the opinion of others of his persona. When he says, "Posterity can kiss my ass," he actually means it. When his girl friend of years first met him and asked him what he did, he mumbled "I'm in films."

Beat Presser, on his part, is travelling the world, lecturing on films in countries like Africa and Asia, says Imtiaz Beg of Begart. In the staircase of Goethe Institut, are seen photographs Beat Presser and various photographers. The display in the main gallery depicts Herzog's activities both in and out of the sets. He is seen playing, leading on, discussing, disputing -- elements which one does not normally encounter in snapshots of a filmmaker. They burst with the apogee and perigee of the fascinating man-- abounding with ideas and energy. He isn't concerned with what the world thinks of. He goes ahead to do what he thinks must be done.

In one of the photos we see Herzog directing an army contingent of Amazons. We see him leading a group with the statuesque African people The soldiers have headgear painted red and white. Conch shells form the garbs. Brandishing spears, the army contingent are coloured with white and black paints to signify the ongoing war. Herzog, shoe in hand, is seen leading them on. (Herzog wrote a book, incidentally, with the title, "Life is under the sole of your shoes "). Thus we see Herzog in action with his crew and cast.

Says his fellow worker, Peter Berling, "The man has remained a stranger to me. He has burned images in my brain that will never leave me, at least not in this life. He made it possible for me to experience beauty that goes far beyond the exotic lure of wilderness, awakening a longing for the incomprehensible vastness and the dark secret of the rainforest's depths. For this I thank Werner Hezog." Claudia Cardinale, who also worked on his sets, has moving memories of this giant, who made cult movies. "When I was in school I wanted to be an explorer; I dreamed about it and Werner made this dream come true in 'Fitzcarraldo,'" says Claudia Cardinale.

The concurrent Herzog film screening at the institute included "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). In "Fitzcarraldo" everything is real. There are no camera tricks, no special effects, and no miniatures. Herzog insists on framing nothing else but the truth.

The exhibition is on till October 8.

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