Monday, May 21, 2018

WTF? Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)




                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is a West German film by Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn”).  The movie is best known for the collaboration of Herzog with Klaus Kinski.  This was the first of their five movies together and they had one of the weirdest relationships in cinema history.  Kinski was  mentally unstable individual and the circumstances under which the movie was made were not exactly conducive to stability.  Herzog insisted on filming on location in the rainforest of Peru.  His small crew of eight and his cast had to climb mountains, cut paths through the jungle, and raft down rivers and over rapids.  And without the comforts that a big budget might have provided.  The movie cost only $370,000 to make (and one-third of that was Kinski’s salary).  Part of that money went to a monkey catcher (the movie has a memorable scene involving a raft-load of monkeys).  When the contractor betrayed Herzog and was going to ship the monkeys to a buyer in America, Herzog intercepted them at the airport.  Pretending to be a vet, Herzog made off with his simian actors and later set them free.  If the lack of funds and biting monkeys were not enough to insure a difficult shoot, you had Kinski involved.  He and Herzog disagreed violently on how to portray Aguirre.  Kinski wanted to play himself, basically.  Herzog wanted Aguirre to be more sane.  To get the performance he wanted he would rile up Kinski and let him exhaust himself and then roll the camera.  That worked on set, but when they weren’t filming there was the problem with dealing with the unlensed Kinski.  At one point, Klaus fired three shots at a noisy tent and took off the finger tip of an extra.  Another time, Kinski was preparing to leave because he wanted a crew member fired.  Herzog pulled a gun and threatened to kill Kinski and himself if he left.  And yet, these two made four more movies together!  Not that Herzog is the most normal director either.  He wrote the script after reading about the real Aguirre in a book about adventurers.  He completed the script in two-and-a-half days.  Part of the writing occurred on a drunken bus ride with his soccer team.  At one point, a teammate vomited on several pages which Herzog proceeded to throw out the window.  This resulted in a gap in the original version of the story. 

                The movie is set in South America in 1560.  “After the fall of the Incan Empire, the Indians conned the Spanish into believing there was an El Dorado in the Amazon basin.” An expedition of conquistadors moves through the jungle to find this city of gold.  Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of the famous conqueror of the Inca, leads the expedition.  However, the lack of supplies and the difficulties that still lay ahead cause him to reconsider the march.  He decides to send a group of forty ahead to reconnoiter and report back the feasibility of proceeding on.  He appoints Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) to command.  Don Lope de Aguirre is his second-in-command.  They bring Ursua’s mistress Dona Ines (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s fifteen year-old daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera) .  Accompanying them is our narrator Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro).  The motley crew is travelling by rafts.  It is not a pleasure cruise.  Not only is Mother Nature against them, but the natives are not welcoming.  When Ursua cools to the prospects of gold and glory, Aguirre overthrows him and declares a fat slob named Guzman to be the Emperor of Peru.  They continue on with Aguirre becoming increasingly megalomaniacal.

                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is an acclaimed movie.  It is considered to be one of the great cult films.  Many critics place it among the best movies ever made.  It is certainly one of the most unusual movies ever made.  If you take away the involvement of Herzog and Kinski, I would doubt it would be the must-see film that it surely is.  Be aware that if you are not a cinephile, the movie might leave you scratching your head.  The cinematography is mesmerizing.  Herzog’s use of hand-held cameras for the raft scenes gives you the feeling that you are on board.  This can be disconcerting when the rafts are braving the rapids, but a lot of the journey is on a slow-moving Amazon.  The river moves slow and so does the movie.  The movie seems longer than it is and some of the scenes tend to drag.  It is obvious from the start that the plot will be a series of escalating calamities hosted by a mad man, so it is not exactly a feel-good film.  The entertainment is provided by watching the performance of Kinski.  Just his facial expressions alone are worthy of the cult following.  Aside from him, the rest of the cast does not stand out.  How could they when Kinski was sucking all the air out of the jungle?  This was Cecilia Rivera’s only film.  One wonders if her experience playing opposite Kinski soured her on the profession.  Another thing the movie is memorable for is the unusual sound track provided by the progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh.  It is choir-like and surreal.  The kind of music you could imagine Herzog playing on a boom box as the cast and crew labored through the jungle.

                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is not really a war movie although it did influence Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.  It also has a touch of the ‘lost patrol” subgenre to it.  I recommend you watch it if you love movies in general.  Just be aware that it is overrated as entertainment. 

GRADE  =  B-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Surprisingly, the movie is fairly accurate.  Herzog has melded two different tales.  In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro sent a small force under Francisco de Orellana to scout ahead for El Dorado.  Orellana’s small force forged ahead on a small ship.  On board was a Dominican named Gaspar de Carvajal who kept a journal.  The real Carvajal was not the Indian-hater of the film and in fact, was sincerely interested in their conversion.  Orellana and his men disappeared into the jungle and were presumed lost, but eventually sailed all the way down the Amazon to the Atlantic.

                In 1560, the governor of Peru commissioned an expedition to explore for El Dorado.  It was led by Ursua and included his mistress Dona Inez.  His second in command was Aguirre who brought his teenage daughter Flores.  Along the way, Aguirre decided to take over and murdered Ursua.  He proclaimed a man named Fernando to be “Prince of Peru”.  Later, when Fernando balked at Aguirre’s goal of conquering Panama and Peru, Aguirre killed him, too.  By this time, Aguirre insisted on being called “Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, and King of Tierra Firme.”  Others called him “El Loco”.  Aguirre and his men made war on the natives as they passed through.  When they reached the Atlantic, they captured Isla Margarita off the coast of Venezuela and killed much of the population.  This notorious conquistador was worse than in the movie, believe it or not.  His treasonous activities had reached the Crown and the government offered a pardon to Aguirre’s men if they would turn on him.  They did.  Before he was captured and executed, Aguirre killed Flores. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

OVERLOOKED GEM? Men in Battle (2015



       “Men Go to Battle” is an independent film by Zachary Treitz.  It was made with a very low budget and earned less than $18,000.  Considering the look of the production, it may have actually made a profit.  The movie gained some good reviews from critics.

                The movie is basically a character study of two brothers who live in Kentucky during the Civil War.  Francis (Tom Morton) is the optimist and Henry (David Maloney) is the pessimist.  They live alone in a shack and are dirt farmers who are not good at farming.  They like to prank each other.  Their attendance at a party makes it clear that they are lower class individuals, but well-liked.  When Henry kisses an upper class belle, she runs off crying.  “I didn’t want you to be my first kiss.”  Ouch!  Henry runs off to join the Union Army.  The movie concentrates on his experiences and gives a minor dose of soldier life as portrayed by reenactors. 

                “Men Go to Battle” is one of those WTFWTCT movies.  As in what the fuck were the critics thinking?”  I have seen some amateurish movies in my time, but this one takes the cake.  I would not have been surprised to find that it was written by high schoolers and was filmed by a parent watching the production from a seat in the auditorium.  Actually, it appears to have been filmed by Trietz himself using a hand-held camera.  This may impress critics, but an entire movie of the main characters either walking toward the camera or away from it does not make for entertaining cinema.  And filming night scenes by candlelight because you can’t afford the lighting is not that impressive to me.  It just makes for a dark movie.  Speaking of low budget, the movie has no soundtrack.  Another thing Treitz could not afford, I suppose.  The movie is simple in every way.  The exact opposite of a blockbuster.  And also unlike a blockbuster, nothing happens.  Although technically a war movie, there is little action.  This is a bit surprising since Treitz had access to quite a few reenactors.  Why not take your hand-held camera and film the reenactment of a battle?  Because he was making a character study.  A character study of two boring characters that nothing much happens to.  How do you set a movie in war-torn Kentucky and not have any drama?

                It is hard to hate “Men Go to Battle”.  After all, I did not pay money to be the only person in the theater to see it.  It is more a movie to be pitied.  As much as I am in favor of increasing the quantity of war movies in this modern age, I still insist on some quality.  At least with the worst of the straight-to-DVD combat porn movies, you get some adrenalin flow.

GRADE  =  D-

Sunday, May 13, 2018

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #33


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the following quote from?

"I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days."

3.  What movie is this a description of?

  The action takes place in the Taman Peninsula in the Caucasus in 1943.  The Germans are in the midst of their retreat from Stalingrad.  The film was the director’s last great feature and his only war movie.  He supposedly was heavily drinking during the shoot.  The movie is based on the novel "The Willing Flesh" by Willi Heinrich.  The movie follows the book fairly closely.   The movie was filmed on location in Yugoslavia with the cooperation of the Yugoslavian army.  Because the production ran out of money, the ending had to be improvised.  The release met with mixed reviews and it did not do well at the box office.  It’s reputation has been rising over the years, however.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

CRACKER? Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)



               
                “Judgment at Nuremberg” is another of Stanley Kramer’s “message movies” like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Inherit the Wind”.  This time he decided to be one of the first to take on the Nuremberg Trials and the Holocaust.  He was inspired by a teleplay that aired on Playhouse 90.  He got Abbie Mann to adapt the screenplay for the big screen.  He then convinced Spencer Tracy to lead the cast.  Tracy loved the script and liked working with Kramer.  He made the film in spite of a kidney ailment and ill health due to years of alcoholism.  The cachet of Tracy brought several other all-stars to the production.  Most agreed to take substantially less of their normal salaries because of the social importance of the movie.  The cast included three actors who were problematic:  Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift.  Dietrich was difficult on set and insisted on special lighting and wanted her lines rewritten, which Kramer denied.  Garland had not made a movie in seven years and had a reputation for being difficult.  She was uncharacteristically fine for this production.  However, she had trouble getting into character.  Clift binge-drank through his participation, which actually enhanced his performance.  The movie was a minor hit (but did not do well in West Germany because most Germans did not want to reopen old wounds).  It was critically acclaimed although there were some that questioned Kramer’s directing.  It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mann).  Kramer received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award.

                Mann based the screenplay on the Judge’s Trial of 1947.  This was one of the twelve U.S. military tribunals (known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials) that followed the main trials.  16 jurists and lawyers were on trial.  Most were members of the Reich Ministry of Justice and the others were prosecutors and judges of the Special Courts or People’s Courts.  The main charge was furthering the “racial purity’ program including eugenics. Specifically, the defendants were accused of judicial acts of sterilization and persecution of people for religious, racial, political reasons or for disabilities.  This particular trial was held from March 5-December 4, 1947.  Ten of the sixteen defendants were found guilty and most were given life sentences (although all got out in a relatively short time).  Mann also incorporated the Katzenberger Trial which involved an elderly Jew who attempted to seduce a sixteen year-old Aryan girl in violation of the Nuremberg Laws.  He was sentenced to death.

                The movie opens with the iconic shot of the blowing up of the swastika at Nuremberg Stadium.  The movie takes place in Nuremberg in 1948.  The trial is of what seems to be small fry – four Nazi judges.  Tracy plays the presiding judge Dan Haywood.  He is modest about his abilities and is determined to understand as well as judge.  As part of his process, he befriends the widow  (Dietrich) of a German general who was executed for his role in the Malmedy Massacre.  Haywood is not locked into finding the defendants guilty.  The prosecuting attorney is Col. Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) who, in an emotional opening statement, makes it clear that all Germans are to blame for the depredations of the Nazis. On the other side, defense counsel Hans Rolfe (Schell) argues that the men had no choice because they would have been considered traitors if they had refused to carry out the laws.  Clift plays an intellectually-challenged man who was forcibly sterilized.  Garland plays a woman who was a sixteen year-old girl who had relations with a Jewish man resulting in his execution.  They both have memorable stints on the witness stand.  Lawson uses their testimony to nail the four judges who handled cases like these.  Lawson himself makes a trip to the witness stand to narrate footage of the liberation of the death camps.  The footage includes piles of naked corpses and bulldozers being used to inter them.  

                The climactic moment in the film is the testimony of Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who had been a famous and respected jurist and scholar before the war.  Janning is pleading guilty, but explains that good people went along with the Nazis because they thought the injustices would be temporary.  Rolfe uses his closing argument to reference how the Allies shit stank too.  He mentions Oliver Wendell Holmes defense of eugenics and Churchill’s early praise for Hitler.  And, of course, he can’t go without bringing up Hiroshima.  It’s up to Haywood and the other two judges to decide the fate of the accused.

                “Judgment at Nuremberg” is a thought-provoking film.  It explores several themes.  One is whether international law takes precedent over national law.  In other words, should the defendants refused to enforce laws they should have known were wrong.  Another is how can the Allies condemn actions that were not that much different than injustices they perpetrated.  Many American states had eugenics and/or miscegenation laws at the time.  The movie only hints at the hypocrisy of that situation.  After all, the movie was made during the Cold War and no studio would have financed an indictment of America.  In fact, the movie uses the breaking out of the Berlin Blockade to make the case that the trial was influenced by the desire to not offend West Germany too much during the crisis.

                The real strength of the movie is the acting.  Kramer makes great use of his outstanding cast.  This is definitely an actors’ movie.  The stunt casting of Dietrich, Garland, and Clift works, especially if you know their backstories.  Clift, in particular, is amazing given what he was going through in his personal life.  In fact, Kramer used his mental instability to get a great performance out of him.  It was a gamble.  Clift was drinking so heavily that he could not remember his lines.  Kramer allowed him to ad lib most of his testimony.  It worked.  Tracy glues it all together and gets to give a closing speech that was eleven minutes of one take.  But acting honors go to Schell.  He won the Best Actor Oscar even though he was fifth billed.  His nomination with Tracy was a rare double nomination and even rarer victory for one of them.  Speaking of great actors, Werner Klemperer recreated his role of the unrepentant judge from the Playhouse 90 production.  Klemperer was a Jew whose father’s family had fled Nazi Germany.  He insisted that if he played German roles they had to be negative characters or buffoons.  Col. Klink was the latter.

                The acting distracts from the length and preachiness of the movie.  It is typical Kramer.  Kramer was criticized by many for this aspect of his “message movies”.  I think this was unjust.  He took chances with his topics and those movies were significant.  They may seem tedious to some, but he was sincere.  He also took some grief for showy cinematography in this film.  Most famously for a shot where the camera makes a 360 degree circuit around Widmark during a monologue.  Kramer admitted later that it was a bit overblown.  I thought it was cool and I liked the frequent use of deep focus.  If you are not a critic whose job is to get upset about cinematography stunts, such shots can be interesting.

                Will “Judgment at Nuremberg” crack my 100 Best War Movies?  I could.  It is a must-see.  It is a rare war movie that makes you think and examine your conscience.  A key part of the script is that the audience wonders what Haywood’s final decision will be.  It could go either way.

GRADE  =  B+