TELLURIDE, Colo. – In 1975, filmmaker Werner Herzog had films such as “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” “Even Dwarfs Started Small” and “Signs of Life” under his belt. Tom Luddy went to his fellow Telluride Film Festival co-founders Bill and Stella Pence with the idea to honor him with one of the festival’s tributes at the second annual edition. And so the stage was set for a long-lasting relationship.
Since 1975, Herzog has returned almost every year with one, sometimes two new films to show. He says he’s stopped counting over the years but it must be over 30 presentations he’s offered here. So it was a no brainer when the festival directors finally made headway on establishing a new venue for the annual festival: it would be called the Werner Herzog Theater.
After the North American premiere of J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost” earlier today, the 650-seat theater — which has been built inside a hockey rink and will be taken back down again after the festival — played host to a bit of an appreciation for Herzog and a screening of the film he brought with him way back in 1975, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” A new HD scan of the original negative, the film was a natural pick to dedicate the space and Herzog was quite touched as he waxed on about what Telluride has meant to him these last four decades.
“When you look at other film festivals, there’s always the industry somehow involved and all of the rituals and all these things,” he told the audience. “This is absolutely pure. This is a place that is a total, absolute constant in the universe where you know you will meet people who love cinema more than anything else. You will see films that are the best of the best. It’s a family reunion for those who love cinema, and in the early days it had the same spirit. This is a place where things actually happen that are deeply embedded in our hearts. It’s a place of poetry.”
The film — one of my all-time favorites and thus tonight’s screening is easily the high point of my meager five-year Telluride history to date — was made in 1972 and starred the late Klaus Kinski. It was the beginning of a beautiful, horrifying friendship between two artists who threatened to kill each other on that jungle set…and meant it. It was put together with a budget of $360,000 and is truly a shining jewel in the history of cinema, an unequivocal masterpiece. In it Herzog finds humor and horror amid considerations of greed, figurehead governments, religion, decadence and more.
It’s a staggering work, really, and one that I discovered at just the right time. I was a film school student and kind of knew of the film. The very title seemed to always have a magnetism to it. But when I finally saw it, it floored me. The striking image of Kinski in his conquistador helmet is every bit as iconic to me now as Gene Kelly on a lamp post, Willem Dafoe in a Jesus Christ pose or Dustin Hoffman with Anne Bancroft’s leg. And the filmmaking on display is a master class.
We talk a lot about “immersive” cinema these days and all the tools that can put you in the story being told on screen, from surround sound to 3D technology. But here is a film in mono and a modest 1.33:1 aspect ratio that transports you to a terrifying downward spiral of insanity and men at their worst. Herzog allows elements into his frame that give the viewer a certain first-hand perspective. Water from the raging rapids of a river drips down the lens and actors frequently spike the camera, but it never takes you out of the film, never feels like something additive. Rather, it puts you there, an observer who can’t look away. Perhaps that word, “immersive,” ought to be reserved for films so expert as this, and there are precious few — “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Apocalypse Now,” etc.
The scan itself was nothing short of glorious. Like you, I’ve been enjoying this film on sub-par home video versions for years, but seeing it on a big screen in full, vibrant detail was jaw-dropping. And lucky for everyone it won’t just be the attendees of Telluride who get to soak up this new re-master as Shout! Factory recently announced plans to use this very scan for a Blu-ray release of the film, among other Herzog classics.
I was in the Werner Herzog Theater all day long, from “All is Lost” to “Aguirre” to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and I really can’t think of a better place to have kicked off the 40th annual. But I will never forget the experience of seeing this film here, in this condition. It is, in so many ways, what the Telluride experience is all about. Whether it’s a painstakingly restored colorized print of Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon,” a 70mm “Baraka” experience or a newly restored Herzog classic, these are the elements that make this perhaps the greatest film festival in the world.
I’ll finish up with some thoughts on Herzog that the late film critic Roger Ebert passed along to him in a Sept. 2011 letter that has been printed in the Telluride FilmWatch booklet: “You and your work are unique and invaluable, and you ennoble the cinema when so many debase it. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. And you have proven it.”