Tuesday, April 12, 2011

With Herzog on Kinski and Wagner

It's the year 2000, and I'm on a one year sabbath from New York (long story) and in a Baltimore hotel room with Werner Herzog, one of cinema's true living legends.

"It's a very interesting city," he says, looking out at the Inner Harbor, recalling earlier trips to the city. "It's not a coincidence that such a fine man as John Waters grew up and made his films here. A very strange, very dangerous place, full of conflict and real life."

Most of which the director won't have the opportunity to enjoy, as he's busy putting finishing touches on his staging of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser with the Baltimore Opera Co. while also doing press for My Best Fiend, his documentary about his famed collaborator, lunatic thespian Klaus Kinski.

Herzog has always approached his art with a fierce sense of independence and intuition. He financed and shot his first film at the age of 20, and has since completed more than 40 films in almost every conceivable form and genre. "I never went to film school," he says. "I've never been inside a film studio to this very day." Without any "academic bullshit" to bind his vision, Herzog's films have encompassed experimental works (1976's Heart of Glass, with its cast acting under hypnotic trance), ambitious art-house favorites (1975's The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), and rule-breaking documentaries such as 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Still, he is probably best known for his five features starring the notoriously addled Kinski: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu (1978); Woyzeck (1979); Fitzcarraldo (1982); and Cobra Verde (1988).

Kinski's personality was composed of equal parts megalomania, consumptive womanizing, insane insecurity, and bouts of general assholery. Before his death in 1991, he appeared in more than 200 films, usually playing cameo roles that required him to spend only one or two days on the set. If Kinski stayed longer than that, Herzog says, "He was intolerable -- with very few exceptions."

As My Best Fiend illustrates, an absurd level of patience was needed to deal with the actor's world-class tantrums. "It was as if a volcano had erupted," Herzog says, "as if a tornado had passed by! It was like this all the time!" All the director could do was "let the storm rage. It was a necessity that the storm had to exhaust itself first, until work was possible again."

However, even Herzog had his limits: Filming Aquirre in the Peruvian jungle, the two artists' "explosive, almost dangerous creative relationship" hit its demented peak when Herzog seriously contemplated whacking his nut-job star.

"We had a tacit understanding and agreement that what we were doing was beyond our private feelings," the director recalls. "This never must be violated. But when he was about to violate it [by storming off the set], of course I was determined not only to threaten him -- I would have shot him."

Today, Herzog views the near-homicidal situation as weirdly funny, although at the time he was "dead serious." "Thank God time has this mysterious quality to change our perspective," he says.

Herzog says he has no regrets about having worked with Kinski, naming the titles of their five collaborations as sufficient justification. "It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every gray hair on my head I call 'Kinski'?"

Asked if any actors today are in Kinski's league in terms of sheer intensity -- Gary Oldman, perhaps? -- Herzog shakes his head. "[Oldman] is kindergarten in comparison to Kinski. I mean, he has a certain intensity, he's a good actor, but not the caliber of Kinski. There has never been a man in cinema who had such a presence, such a ferocious intensity on the screen. He's beyond comparison."

A director with a history of shepherding such operatic intensity onto the screen would seem a logical choice to direct an actual opera. Filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Atom Egoyan have actively sought out opera as an alternate means of expression, but Herzog, a serious opera buff, says he has "never volunteered to do operas. I was almost dragged into it."

Considering that the Baltimore production is his fifth version of Tannhäuser, and that he has previously staged a dozen other operas, one can only guess that Herzog likes being "dragged." At any rate, his excitement over this latest production is obvious: "Having the privilege to work with some of the greatest music ever composed, the finest musicians available -- that's a wonderful thing."

Michael Harrison, the Baltimore Opera's general director, recalls how the filmmaker got "dragged" into his Charm City gig: "I knew of Herzog's extraordinary [opera] productions, and I was discussing this with a colleague who is a head of the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville [Spain], and he said 'I'm doing Tannhäuser with Werner Herzog. Would you like to be a part of it?' "

It was an offer the big-time Herzog fan couldn't refuse. "We did [approach Herzog], approximately two years ago," Harrison says. "But it had to be done when he and his production team were available. I think he became so entranced with the music of Wagner that he began to see a corollary between his ideas of creativity and the emotion that permeates this music. He became very taken with this medium, while I was taken with his ideas, his vision."

Like many a classic Herzog film, Tannhäuser deals with a lone man fighting insurmountable odds to gain redemption. ("You should be cautious to touch that idea with a pair of pliers," he advises of this comparison, "because when you look at Tannhäuser, that's Wagner and not me!")

The opera is set in typically Wagnerian mythic, medieval Germany, jam-packed with angels, goddesses, and sexual implication galore. In the Baltimore Opera Co. production, Jon Fredric West and Louis Gentile co-sing the demanding title role; Petra Lang sings the part of Venus; and Eva Johansson plays Elisabeth, the object of Tannhäuser's salvation.

Although opera is free of the variables (such as bad weather) that plague the location shooting Herzog favors, he says that working on stage presents its own challenges. "It's music and light and wind, and very elaborate choreography," he says. "The technical translation is complicated."

In addition to the basic problem-solving (last-minute costume acquisitions, replacing a noisy wind machine) involved in mounting any opera, Herzog says he brings his own approach to the form. "I just listen to the music and transform these images onto the stage," he says. "I always say, 'Opera is achieved when the whole world is transformed into music.' And I think I've achieved it somehow."

And of his future opera plans? "At the moment, I say, 'No, I will not be dragged into it,'" he says, then laughs. "But I've said that a couple of times."

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