Room Over the Garage Double Feature!

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)

In Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s first of five collaborations together, it is hard to tell which aspect of the film is the most brazenly, hypnotically volatile. Is it the Amazon rapids sequence, in which both cast and crew are clearly at great risk as they lurch about on precariously constructed rafts?  Is it Kinski, whose darting eyes and controlled breathing not only communicate the power-lust of Aguirre but also betray the possibly unhinged mentality of the actor? Or is it (for the more knowledgeable cinephile) the tales of Herzog’s own outlandish behavior while filming? Rumors of the director pulling a gun on Kinski during production swirl tantalizingly around the film.

Aguirre is a masterpiece about the slow creep of insanity.  It is also about man’s primary reaction to nature: the need to seize control of the wild unknown, in the face of not comprehending its significance. The sprawling ultimate shot of the film perfectly captures this dilemma.  As a mounted camera glides downriver and fluidly circles the raft carrying Aguirre and his mostly wiped-out crew, we understand the opposing forces at play.  Aguirre stands with his signature lean, holding fast to the belief that he will conquer, despite the dead men strewn about him and the infestation of water monkeys scurrying at his feet.  This defiant energy is present throughout the film, due in no small part to the perfect fit between subject matter and collaborators.  It is Herzog’s daring that gels with the brash riskiness of Aguirre’s plans, and it is Kinski’s commitment to character that informs Aguirre’s refusal to turn back.  The off-screen turbulence between two such willful individuals sets the stage for on-screen tragedy.  Rarely do the passions of an artistic duo meld so inherently with the art created.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (dir. Werner Herzog, 1979)

Trading in his golden locks, breast-plate and helmet for a sickly skull and sinister, elf-like ears, Kinski transforms into the elegantly frightful and ghoulishly humorous Nosferatu with disarming aptitude.  While roles such as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo deftly channel Kinski’s tumultuous and unwieldy enfant terrible, the role of Nosferatu brings out a different, equally suiting dimension of the actor, an energy that is harmonious with rather than resistant to the primal.  Kinski sinks like fangs on flesh into the character of Dracula, using his bone-deep intensity to feel out the vampire’s profound human loneliness and relentless animal cravings, all the while retaining an ethereal simplicity in both movement and expression.  He also manages to be pleasantly comedic, a flourish that Herzog, a director who never fails to take advantage of weird characters, no doubt had a hand in.  Nosferatu, as envisioned by Herzog and embodied by Kinski, is not only a vampire but a bizarrely petulant misanthrope, stalking around Wismar and brushing off his toadie assistant with a dismissive and somewhat disgusted shrug.

Herzog’s obsession with the natural world seems perfectly primed to meditate on the plight of Dracula, a freakish yet organic character residing within the dark sanctity of Transylvania’s mountains.  Wagner’s Das Rheingold, gloriously accompanying the cinematic ascent to Nosferatu’s elevated lair, suggests a sacred awe of the monster and his bucolic surroundings, as if the vampire is a force to be respected more than feared.  Of course there is also much to be feared in Nosferatu the Vampyre, not least of which is the ultimate unleashing of Nosferatu’s plague-infested rats on civilized society (a telling deviation by Herzog from the original tale).  In a stunningly edited and sumptuously filmed scene in the town square, crazed survivors celebrate their last days before succumbing to the ubiquitous disease.  A quick, stark cut from a table of feasting people to a deserted table emphasizes the brutally regulatory nature of the vampire’s plan.  And regulatory nature, to be sure, is one of Herzog’s favorite subjects.

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