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Here's a telex I got reporting on the new movie from L.A. resident Werner Herzog, our best German import since Fritz Lang.

"I saw Herzog's new 'Invincible' last night. It was pretty horrible. The guy's totally lost his edge. It's a story of a Jewish strongman who goes to Berlin and pretends he's Aryan to entertain the Wehrmacht. The dialogue was atrocious and treacly and the acting was horrible by all three leads – the real-life bodybuilder who plays the lead; the actress who plays his girlfriend; and Tim Roth, who gives an over-the-top bad guy performance right out of a Simpson-Bruckheimer movie. The Polish Ghetto Jews are portrayed as being 'magical' carefree creatures who speak in wise metaphors – in fact, he portrays them the same way he portrays the smiley natives in 'Fitzcarraldo' and 'Aguirre' – and he lingers over some mundane religious ceremonies ('Passover') as if the audience has never seen them before. Also, Herzog is so enamored of the fact that he has a budget, that he films a scene in a cabaret and lingers forever over not one, not two, but three Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers that slow down the film. There's also a Rudy Vallee-esque guy who sings a bunch of songs for no reason. The only good part of 'Invincible' was the supporting role of a Count played by Udo ('Andy Warhol's Frankenstein in 3-D') Kier!!! The audience went nuts went he appeared on screen. His face is weirder than ever – he's aged into the 21st century Peter Lorre! Somebody should definitely do a mad scientist flick with him in black and white. (Apparently, Kier is also in 'Fear Dot Com,' which is a German-American co-production filmed in Luxembourg!) From what I remember, 'My Best Fiend' is definitely good – esp. the part at the beginning where Kinski is pretending to be Jesus in front of a crowd of frightened German hipsters."

— Chuck Zigman

PART I: Love Fest for "Invincible"

From the ovation, you'd think Dr. Phil just entered the Oprah set. Herzog says a few words – always an excellent speaker, very quotable. He notes that the European critics have been savaging this film and he's heartened to get such a warm reception.

Herzog thanks Gary Bart, "the secret father" of the film and one of its producers, whose grandfather was the central character in "Invincible." The director ID's the low-key Tim Roth, on hand for the screening, as an actor who possesses "the grace of God." By now there's an extremely warm feeling of positive disposition to everything that's about to be seen on the screen.

The film starts and right away there are signs of trouble. We see a little peasant kid reciting a parable for his strongman pal, but it's spoken in some kind of dialect knocked off from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story — it comes off like a dodgy attempt at some sort of universal-market film esperanto.

Then the strongman and his little brother go to a medievel-type mess hall and act out this scene straight from the Sergio Leone and John Milius school of Western showdown: they get taunted by neanderthals ("What do you know, a couple of Jews? Just look at them. One Jew's too skinny and one's too fat." etc.) and the strongman winds up using a couple of these villainous stooges to break up the furniture.

So far so good. Except style-wise, the action's just as unexciting as the herzog & bartokdialogue was: suprisingly dull and homely. Without the designer label you'd be inclined to denounce it as pretty damn shoddy. Except you are actually getting a little buzz because you know some of the "badness" is intentional, a little sadistic frisson to keep the filmmaker, if not the audience, from falling asleep.

Meanwhile this is all fully in character. You gotta remember Herzog from his essential performance in front of the camera — in Harmony Korine's "Julien, Donkey Boy" (1999). As a satire on the Father Figure, Herzog's Germanic jerk-off kicked serious ass for all 175 people who saw it. While free associating pompous dialogue, Herzog does this hilarious bit about "no sissies allowed," and in his day they were all hard-asses and supermen. He chugs cough syrup and repeats dialogue from "Dirty Harry." That's the place where Herzog overtly gives his props to macho man writer John Milius.

Anybody else recall that Milius did the high-dollar Hollywood rewrite on the 1996 Herzog script "Mexico," an epic of the Conquest of the Aztecs? For a genuine education on the ritual of the Hollywood rewrite, just line those two drafts up side by side. It was solicited with the kind of scurvy loot that made the conquistador Spanish go monkey wild and drunk with greed when they looked upon the Aztecs' gold — at least that's how Herzog relayed the tendency in New Line's unproduced "Mexico." Ah, what might have been. Jimmy Smits as Montezuma, Ralph Fiennes as Cortez.

Never did happen. Even so, when Herzog stages a mess-hall brawl in "Invincible," you know he's like, OK people, here comes a bit of the old Harry Callahan, a little "Do You Feel Lucky?", a spoonful of Eastwood to make the medicine go down.

dirty harryThere's only one problem: when Don Siegel directed this stuff, audiences responded by attending in droves. Siegel was technically dynamic in his attack, virtuoso — he had Lalo Schifrin conducting jackhammer funk, and his stone-faced heroes were aces. They didn't deliver lines like it was second language summer stock.

But hey, if it worked for Milius directing marble-mouth Arnold Schwarzeneggar in "Conan the Barbarian," why the hell not? If it gets Herzog a U.S. release, bring on the strongmen.

PART II: Masterpiece Theater

I return later in the week for two spin-offs from Herzog standards: "My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski," in which he covers much of the struggle to film "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," plus "Burden of Dreams," Les Blank's docu on Herzog's passion in the jungle, the making of "Fitcarraldo."

The first thing you notice is the rest of the Herzog festival is free from smoke and mirrors. Nobody's dressed to anchor the news or pumping each other with empty promises about lunch. Without the opening night suits, it's back to the plain old film nerd adoration factor. This is a definite improvement. Scaled response instead of lockstep ovations borrowed from the 2002 State of the Union Address.

With "My Best Fiend" Herzog gives us one of his guided tour "movie stories," docu-style, as opposed to his masterpieces in the dramatic narrative. Yet "My Best Fiend" is so funny, so natural, so playable, I start to wonder if this title isn't in some sense Herzog's best Kinski movie, like a distillation of all their films in one. I want it to go on for hours, to return in installments and sequels.

"This one was made quickly," Herzog says after the screening, "easily, effortlessly. I felt I was being back at ease with Kinski. The warmth and the humor returned.


"We were complementary but dangerous when together, like a critical mass. It could have ended in murder, in shoot-outs. It could have ended in anything, but thank God it ended in five films."

Murder as in the act, not the figure of speech. Herzog admits the deep jungle paranoia of "Fitzcarraldo" created a homicidal Spy vs. Spy scenario between actor and director. In fact, he relates, if not for the barking of Kinski's Alsatian shepherd, Herzog – lurking in darkness in deadly earnest – may have succeeded in firebombing Kinski inside his cabin.

"I chickened out," Herzog smiles. "Klaus Kinski also plotted to kill. That's the fun of it."

Herzog describes a charismatic wild man who required at all times a persona to fill up his enormous ego. "He was Dostoevsky's Idiot for a couple of years. He was Jesus Christ. He filled himself. He became Jesus. He was Paganini for the last few years."

venomThere was also low character to spare. "He did everything for money. He cursed Kurosawa, Buñuel. Fellini invited him and Kinski said he was a 'greasy vermin.' For some reason he worked for me for less... He did so much trash. He did hardcore porn. He would do anything."

Yet Herzog's indictment soon does a 180, just as it does in "My Best Fiend." Les Blank retrieved some unreleased footage he shot of a radiant Kinski playing with a jungle butterfly. Herzog used it to close "My Best Fiend" almost as a love song.

"[Kinski] had a kind of intensity on the screen that no one ever had ever. Maybe young Brando in a different way, a few others. But he will live forever."

Brando? Fair enough. But I would first and foremost put Kinski in a league with the Unholy Three: Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. venom Then I would put him in a league with someone else in the wild man hall of fame. Iggy Pop.

Which is a good place to wrap the Herzog report. Except that in response to some innocuous question, Herzog fires up a tirade against one of L.A.'s sacred cows: psychoanalysis.

"Psychological analysts should be thrown overboard into the abyss of history," he intones in that Rhineland accent that screams 'I am a WWII villain in a big Hollywood movie.'

Herzog: "They are as big a mistake as the doctors who hundreds of years ago would let blood. There should always be corners in the psyche that should remain unilluminated."

And he keeps railing on shrinks for five minutes. Let me assure you this monologue ices the crowd like gangbusters. I love it! I mean, Germans dissing psychoanalysis.


Didn't that sort of thing originate a little closer to home than Southern California? It's just as well, because as soon as things were getting a little too warm and chummy, a little too safe and satisfied, Herzog busts out some Lou Reed-style controversy. The guy has his own bag of tricks in the ranting department, plus all the ones he inherited from Kinski!

Hey, Werner. Does this mean we'll see you down there on Sunset at the "Psychiatry Kills!" exhibit? Because it looks like those are your local allies in the crusade.

But whatever, for them a little ranting is also good therapy. Welcome to L.A.

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Issue One
Previously on Five-O
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Compelled to Kill
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L.A.'s Lucha Libre
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Ace Producer Stanley Rubin
With the RKO
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 werner herzog
Werner Herzog
Plotted to Kill Kinski!
Condemns Psychoanalysis!
Five-O July/Aug
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Jeter Girl
Kristielee Wilcox
From Box Seats
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