Blu-ray Review: Herzog: The Collection

Werner Herzog is not merely a filmmaker. He’s an adventurer with a camera crew. He doesn’t just make a film so much as track it down, skin it and present it to you as a marvelous birthday party. He isn’t happy relying on movie magic. He wants to do it for real and capture it on film. He seamlessly goes between narrative and documentary films because he explores and probes. He wants to bring a sense of real grit, dirt and danger to the screen. Herzog was part of the New German Cinema movement in the ’70s and remains cutting edge even at 71. Herzog: The Collection gathers together 16 of his films on Blu-ray. This is a portable Lincoln Center retrospective worthy of being treasured.

The most important part of The Collection are the five films that Herzog made with Klaus Kinski and the documentary that gives an insight as to their relationship off camera. The story goes that the duo met when Herzog was a little boy, but this is far from a father-son relationship. There was a volatility to their creative elements. Their first production was the monumental Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972 – 94 minutes). Kinski is the Spanish conquistador Aguirre. He leads his troops, the natives and his daughter on a search for El Dorado and supplies. The jungle, rivers and mountains of South America are unforgiving to them. But he’s up for the struggle. Aguirre does start to lose touch with reality as their journey becomes futile. It ends with an amazing shot involving monkeys. Woyzeck (1979 – 82 minutes) is based off Georg Buchner’s play. Kinski is a soldier being used as a guinea pig with a pea diet. His commander has him reduced to his designated shaver. His woman is carrying on with another soldier. Woyzeck is about to snap which makes him the perfect character for Kinski. Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979 – 107 minutes) remakes the F. W. Murnau vampire film. The film isn’t an exact copy since Herzog is allowed to call his lead Count Dracula (Kinski) instead of Count Orlok. There would be no copyright fight for the remake. The film follows the Dracula story except this Dracula is not suave and seductive. He’s bald with bat ears and fanged buck teeth. Yet he still has his away of seducing Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) from Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz). This is pure art house horror as Dracula arrives to claim his bride. The film was shot twice with the actors speaking both English and German. Both versions are featured on the Blu-ray. Fitzcarraldo (1982 – 158 minutes) is epic in scale. Fitzcarraldo (Kinski) is a music nut with a dream of building an opera house deep in the Amazon rain forest. In order to make his dream happen, he needs to get a boat over a mountain. This proves to be a marvel of engineering and slave labor. Cobra Verde turns Kinski into impoverished Brazilian that rises to be a major slave trader in Africa. He’s uncontrollable. He knocks up all of a plantation owner’s daughters. My Best Fiend is a documentary that allows Herzog to explore his relationship with Kinski. The duo did want to kill each other while stuck deep in various jungles. This should be treated like a bonus feature and not viewed until you’ve watched the five films.

The other 10 films in the collection are a mix of documentaries, dramas and a few that feel more like documentaries than dramas. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970 – 96 minutes) was the first film that garnered a serious following for Herzog. This is not a typical film. The film features a group of little people on the Canary Islands. It’s hard to give it a real plot. It’s freakish ’60s cinema that wouldn’t go over well nowadays except as 6 second Vine videos. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971 – 85 minutes) is a documentary about Fini Straubinger. She while a small child, she lost her ability to see and hear. Herzog explores how she relates to the world. She goes to a zoo and takes her first plane flight. Fata Morgana (1971 – 76 minutes) is a mix of travelogue, meditation and just plain weirdness. It’s hard to say what it’s about except keeping the folks who love non-action films thrilled. It’s an amazingly good chill out movie.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974 – 109 minutes) tells the story of a kid who was raised without any real human contact. What would this child be like when finally exposed to civilization. He’s stuck in a dungeon until he’s about as old as Will Ferrell. Can he educate himself so he can fit in with the neighbors? Or will Kaspar be treated like the village idiot? Heart of Glass (1976 – 94 minutes) is about a town that’s industry thrives on the glass factory. Trouble happens when the guy in charge of making the glass dies and forgets to tell someone his top secret formula. The town goes into a panic and identity crisis. Stroszek (1977 – 107 minutes) is about a man who uses the money raised from his hooker girlfriend to fun a trip to Wisconsin. This is a brilliantly messed up movie. It features Bruno S. who played the lead in Kaspar Hauser. He has a naturally off balanced nature that makes his illogical decisions seem logical to him.

Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984 – 45 minutes) follows Nicaraguan boys being trained to fight. This might be about a 30 year old conflict, but this indoctrination of minors is still being done around the world. The adults here are a more frightening than Kinski. Where the Green Ants Dream (1984 – 105 minutes) is a mixing of drama and documentary. Herzog delves into a fight between Aborigines and developers in Australia. Can the lifelong locals fight back against a mining operation? Lessons of Darkness (1994 – 54 minutes) visits the carnage of the first Gulf War. This is a flaming landscape in the desert. These were the sights that were ignored by the media which didn’t want to do much coverage about the impact of the battle to reclaim Kuwait from Iraq. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the documentary that became the basis for Herzog’s Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale. Dieter Dengler survived Allied bombings growing up in Germany during World War II. Eventually he ended up flying for the Americans in Vietnam. His story is surviving a crashing during a mission. While Rescue Dawn was good, hearing the story from Dieter is essential.

Herzog: The Collection exhibits the elements that make Herzog an icon of cinema. His ability to go to extremes of the earth and deal with extreme characters makes his films more than just movies. He finds beauty in the most chaotic and grotesque moments. He also can spot the ugliness in subtle gesture. The extra resolution boost from the Blu-rays brings a clarity to his vision. The only side effect of watching so many of his films at once is you’ll speak with a German accent for a week.

The video varies from 1.33:1 full frame to 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfers vary depending if the film was shot on 16mm, Super 16mm or 35mm. All of them look better than previous transfers. The audio also varies on the various films. Many of them have German and English 2.0 DTS-HD soundtracks. There’s English subtitles if you want to listen to the German soundtrack.

Audio Commentaries from Werner Herzog are on Cobra Verde, Where Green Ants Dream, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Stroszek, Heart of Glass, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fata Morgana and Even Dwarves Started Small. Dwarves has Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) join in on the discussion. Werner gives a master class on his filmmaking process.

Trailers are provided for Stroszek, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Where Green Ants Dream, Cobra Verde, My Best Fiend.

Location Africa (45:32) follows Herzog around in Ghana while making Cobra Verde. On the set, Herzog and Kinski seem always on the verge of dropping gloves. This is a very Herzog influenced behind the scenes documentary. Best is an interview that’s ruined by a rooster.

Making of Nosferatu
(13:06) is a vintage featurette about the movie. Werner is so young as he shows off the Dutch town that he would attack with a vampire and rats. He talks of how the original movie means so much to German cinema.

In Conversation – Wener Herzog and Laurens Straub (58:00) is a radio interview done in German. Luckily there are subtitle.

Cobra Verde Still Gallery (10:35) is loaded with shots from the production.

Book features essays and production stills.

Herzog: The Collection is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in the works of Werner Herzog. These are films for people who want to see a great adventure on the screen.

Shout! Factory presents Herzog: The Collection. Starring: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Boxset Contents: 16 movies on 13 Blu-rays. Released: July 29, 2014.

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