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Herzog: A Poet of Doom and Survival

September 05, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque's retrospective, "Poet of Doom: A Tribute to Werner Herzog in Person," is an overdue honor for a major filmmaker, a pioneer of the New German Cinema whose more recent work has barely surfaced in the U.S., if at all.

The program's selection spans some of Herzog's earliest work right up to tonight's sneak preview at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian of his latest film, "Invincible," a pre-World War II drama based on a true story and starring Tim Roth. The series runs through Sunday at the Egyptian with Herzog, who turns 60 today, scheduled to attend all screenings.

While Herzog is a poet of doom, he is as much or more a poet of survival and a relentless explorer of the extremes and margins of human experience both in his fictional films and many provocative, incisive documentaries. Since some of his most memorable films were made with the late Klaus Kinski, the weekend gets underway Friday at 7 p.m. with Herzog's appreciation of his screen alter ego, "My Best Fiend--Klaus Kinski" (1999).

Herzog and actor Kinski were made for each other and worked on five films together, beginning with their 1972 masterpiece "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (screening tonight at 9:45 p.m.). These films reveal Herzog's obsession with exploring those outer-most limits of human experience and Kinski's mesmerizing gift in portraying men driven to risk madness in attaining all-but-impossible goals.

Kinski's Aguirre is a 16th century Spanish conquistador who becomes cruel and savage in his unrelenting search for El Dorado in the wilds of the Peruvian jungle. Similarly, in the title role of "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), which closes the series Sunday at 8 p.m., Kinski is an opera-loving Irishman, a failed railroad builder and a struggling ice manufacturer who realizes he must belatedly join the Peruvian rubber boom if he is to realize his absurd dream of building an opera house in Iquitos that he intends his idol, Enrico Caruso, to inaugurate. Herzog and Kinski went on to do a stylish 1978 remake of "Nosferatu" (Saturday at 9:15 p.m.), an homage to F.W. Murnau's silent original, with Kinski a perfectly cast Count Dracula.

Their partnership ended in 1988 with "Cobra Verde," with Kinski cast as an exploited Brazilian peasant turned bandit who is sent off to revive the slave trade in West Africa only to end up leading a rebellion against the mad king of Dahomey. "Cobra Verde," widely regarded as a disappointment, was scheduled for a local release not long after its completion only to be withdrawn, never to resurface.

With "My Best Fiend," Herzog made a heartfelt homage to Kinski that's alternately funny, tender and downright scary. In Herzog's recounting of his tempestuous relationship with the actor, Kinski emerges every bit as driven as the director but with considerably less self-control, to put it mildly. Herzog owns up to his own moments of madness, recorded memorably in Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams," a compelling 1982 documentary on the making of "Fitzcarraldo" that will screen Sunday at 4 p.m. with a newly restored print.

A world-class egomaniac given to volcanic eruptions of rage at the slightest provocation, Kinski could also be a caring and thoughtful man, as both Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale, leading ladies of "Woyzeck" and "Fitzcarraldo," respectively, attest. Kinski, small and wiry with a striking face, could be charming and likable off-screen despite a blazing intensity that could leave one feeling drained.

Somehow director and actor had enough understanding and respect for each other for long enough periods of time to make their five films, glimpsed in an array of fine clips, although Herzog says that both Kinski and their working relationship were deteriorating by the end of "Cobra Verde." "My Best Fiend" leaves one feeling that it was a miracle that Herzog was able to work with Kinski at all. Herzog, though, has said that the notion that Kinski might have been insane "can only be justified from a petty and mediocre standpoint." Herzog says that Kinski, "the most fascinating actor I know," had "burned out" when he was found dead at 65 in his Northern California home in 1991. A discussion with Herzog follows the screening.

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