A Book Review Essay by John Duncan Talbird.
There are snowy peaks all around, majestic crests, and the mountains tower like Holy Cathedrals. Very clear, icy, silent air, frost lying on the hoary ground, all in deep, majestic silence. From the mountain crests, glacial tongues lick down into the depths. Clouds are gathering around the crests, as if coming out of nowhere. The air further above is light and blue, deep down it is a deep purple. Nothing at all is stirring. The huge mountains tower one above the other up to 18,000 feet, in profound silence.
All at once, there is a breathtaking sweep, and with a breathtaking zoom that makes you dizzy, the camera picks out the top of a pass: now, suddenly, we recognize a thin thread of people there in zigzag formation, and we can distinguish hardly any movement. At certain points the thread is broken, then followed up again, winding through rocks, slag, and ice. The dizzying gaze still moves downward into the deep: we realize now that there are hundreds, dragging themselves along, hundreds, one man after another. Animals are now distinctly recognizable, some horses, llamas, and, on the glacier, some pigs. They are standing in a long line at the edge of a crevice exhausted to death. The file works its way forward with great effort. (3-4)
This is the opening to the script for Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), what he envisioned the beginning of his film looking like before he shot it. There is no “breathtaking zoom” which, I suspect, would have been ill-conceived, the slow, subtle zoom keeping with the haunting strains of Krautrock band Popul Vuh. Also, the mountain is greener and less icy than described. But the mists of fog are even creepier and seem to forecast the doom of this quixotic party of warriors. The astonishing thing, though, are not the differences, but the fact that Herzog so closely realized his vision of the opening of this cinematic masterwork.
Herzog doesn’t write traditional scripts, those robotic bastardizations of plays with their mathematical breakdown of location in all caps, “INT. – DAY” they seem to bark at the reader in staccato voice because, of course, they’re not meant to be read, they’re more like schematics. Instead, Herzog writes scenarios which are like a hybrid of film, fiction, and prose poetry. He has said, “I write [the screenplay] as if I have the whole film in front of my eyes.” We have the University of Minnesota to thank for the recent reprint of four of Herzog’s early film scripts, Scenarios: Aguiire, the Wrath of God; Every Man for Himself and God Against All (or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974); Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). This, the first in a projected series of “Urtexts” from Herzog is welcome, especially after their recent republication of On Walking in Ice (2015), his 1978 memoir about walking from Munich to Paris over three weeks in the middle of a winter storm. (You can see my review of that book here).
Aguirre is the first text in this collection and it is the standout, the most fully realized, the text that nearly could have been published as a stand-alone story. Before reading it, I don’t think I realized how much Herzog owed Joseph Conrad (and by extension Francis Ford Coppola owed Herzog). Of course, there is the superficial connection between Aguirre and Heart of Darkness (1899) – boat and white man vs. jungle/river and natives – but reading this scenario made me see what a psychological film Aguirre is. In Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola mined the geopolitics of colonialism as expressed in a classic adventure story, but Herzog nailed the madness. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, we have Marlon Brando reciting Coppola’s high school beat poetry, in Aguirre we have three men debating whether the boat in the tree that they see – that we see – is truly a boat. And to watch Klaus Kinski alone on his raft at the end of the film, alone except for a few remaining corpses and hundreds of tiny monkeys, is to go a little mad yourself. When Kinski catches one of those monkeys and raises it to his face as if it were Yorick’s skull, we know we have passed into a realm beyond the lucid and quotidian, that world people stand in line to cash their paychecks then go home to eat dinner with the family. This final scene, one of the most surreal in all of the surreal scenes Herzog has ever filmed, shows that the filmmaker wasn’t a slave to his original vision. In Herzog’s original scenario, Aguirre kills everyone, including his daughter Flores, and we then see the raft drift empty out to sea.
This is one of the pleasures of reading the scenarios, to see what choices Herzog made in the transition from paper to film. In the scenario for Aguirrre, there is no narrator, but, as we know, in the film action is intermittently narrated by the monk Gaspar de Carvajal. In the scenario for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, the opposite happened. Herzog imagined Kaspar narrating his own story, even misspelling the narrative with awkward grammar as an uneducated, abused young man might: “I want to say myself how hard it be for me. There, where I was always lokked in, in this prison, it seemed there wel to me, becos I knew naught of this world, and so long as I was lokked in and never seen no human being” (63). It seems that as Herzog filmed Bruno S.’s painstaking and painful portrayal of Kaspar, he realized the redundancy of the voiceover and wisely dispensed with it. We see Kaspar struggle to drink from an empty mug and so we don’t need Kaspar to also narrate, “Since my mouth become dry, I very often take the little jug in my hand and place it to my mouth very very long, but water never came out, I waited some time, whether water came out soon, becos I knew not that it must be filled, whilst I was asleep” (63).
Like in Aguirre, Herzog ultimately went with a different ending for the film version of Kaspar Hauser. Just as written, in the film version we hear “An aria from a very old recording, full of dignity, beautiful and solemn. The voice carries peacefully and without strain” (115). But in the scenario it’s paired with three people outside in the square waiting immobile much as Kasper Hauser was near the beginning of the film. A coach pulls up and they get into it and then they all just sit there immobile.
The music stops. A gruesome horrible light over everything, without shadows. The carriage stands and stands and doesn’t move on. In the midst of this unheard-of rigidity and paralysis, the vehicle stands stock-still with the people inside it. The square is filled with electric inflexibility.
The carriage doesn’t, and doesn’t, and doesn’t move on. (115)
This seems like a Herzog ending and it’s hard to know why he chose the one he did which is lighter, more absurd. The scribe (Clemens Scheitz) exits the building where Kaspar’s body has just been dissected and, calling to his coachman, says, “Today is a day to remember. Be so good as to take my hat home with you. I’m going to walk home.” On the way, he continues to speak to himself: “What a wonderful, what a precise report this will make! Deformities discovered in Kaspar Hauser’s brain and liver! Finally we have gotten an explanation for this strange man and no one would never find nothing like this.” Both the film and the scenario ending seem to point at a favorite theme of Herzog’s, that those who are different or strange actually make much more sense than the most respected members of society, the doctors, politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats.
The least interesting scenario in the collection is not even a scenario. The Land of Silence and Darkness is a documentary – about Fini Straubinger, an elderly woman who had been deaf and blind since adolescence – and so this entry is simply a transcript of the spoken dialogue. The final one, though, is the scenario for Fitzcaraldo, the length of a novella, about a hundred pages in this edition. One difference that a reader will quickly notice is that a major character, Wilbur, Fitzcaraldo’s “feebleminded” nephew, is completely absent from the film version. This is because Mick Jagger was cast in that role and after the production went over schedule (because the original Fitzcaraldo, Jason Robards, got sick on location and had to be replaced with Klaus Kinski) he had to bow out because he was scheduled to go on tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog was convinced that Jagger was too perfect for the role and cut it rather than attempting to replace him, an audacious choice for such a central character, but perhaps a wise one (we don’t know since very little of the original footage with Jagger is available).
Much has been made of Herzog’s exploitation of native actors and crew and these are charges which should be taken seriously. However, the scenario suggests that Herzog seems to see human exploitation – of nature, of other humans – as part of nature, natural and obscene, elegant and monstrous and absurd. His nature is amoral, if not immoral. This seems to be expressed in his description of the futility of the task of pulling a steamship over a mountain, humanizing the forest and mechanizing the humans:
Deep inside the forest, the foul, moldering slope rises steeply in front of us. There the Indians have lined up along a broad front, hacking away with machetes at the dense jungle growth and knotted liana thickets. Clouds of mosquitoes swarm around them, and from above a drizzling mist of tropical rain is falling. With light, almost dangling movements, the Jivaros wield the razor-sharp machetes with such elegance, such finality in their actions. And still we know that the jungle will close up again on its own, within weeks. As soon as they are cut, the dangling lianas hesitate for a long moment, as if denying at first their own destruction, as if needing a moment to understand, then they crash to the ground, collapsing into themselves. Fleshy bushes are hacked through with a single stroke, their big leaves bending aside as an angry, whitish juice oozes from the cut. Conjuring poison, orchids in heat glare at their reaper. (205)
Fitzcarraldo has a notoriously muddled plot and readers of the scenario will get only a somewhat better handle on it. But as those who admire Herzog’s work have already accepted, plot is always of secondary concern to him, much less important than ambience, isolated events, cinematography, and poetry. Bookending this collection with Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre seems fitting. I’ve always regarded these two films as a diptych of sorts. However, reading them together, I’ve noticed some of their crucial similarities and differences that move beyond surface plot points. Whereas Aguirre owes a debt to Heart of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo owes one to Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I would argue that any list of major 20th century existential texts would have to include these two films. In fact, despite the dearth of literary adaptations in Herzog’s fifty-plus-year career, you could make a strong argument that he is one of the most literary of filmmakers. Which makes it wonderful that the University of Minnesota is making these written texts available to the reader again.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.