Posted by keelsetter on April 4, 2010
In a few hours we will screen a 35mm English print of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. I imported it from Europe with the help of Lucki Stipetić, the younger half-brother of Herzog (and head of Werner Herzog Filmproduktion), who emailed me a week ago to say: “The print we have is the only English print we have and we have to be very careful with it.” I first tried to get Aguirre from the newly reconstituted New Yorker Films, the original distributor of the film who, in a fitting tribute to Easter, rose back up from the dead this month. But they have a lot of sand stuck to their tunic and they’re waiting for the coffee to kick in, which put into question whether I’d be able to secure a print from them in time for today. I didn’t have the luxury of time as Roger Ebert is in town this week for The Conference on World Affairs – a yearly event founded in 1948 – and he’s selected Aguirre for a week-long dissection that begins tomorrow. So last week I contacted Herzog’s office in Germany where Lucki tried to sell me on screening Aguirre in a digital format. For me that was out of the question. Ebert’s week-long dissection goes on this Monday through Friday and allows anyone in the 2,000+ seat Macky Auditorium Concert Hall to raise their hand to pause the action with a question or comment, with Herzog there the first two days and Ebert there the whole week. These aptly titled Cinema Interruptus screenings are by necessity screened digitally. As far as I’m concerned it would be a sacrilege not to give people a chance to see Aguirre before that, uninterrupted, on the big screen, and with the full warmth and density that 35mm celluloid provides. The only time I could sneak in that screening was today: Easter Sunday. Which is just fine by me; the film theater is one of my preferred churches anyway.
As I program The International Film Series I generally go out of my way to get subtitled prints, and when I approached Lucki regarding Aguirre I asked for a German print with English subtitles. He responded by emailing me to say that “in 35mm we only have either German or English without subtitles.” I knew it was available in both languages on DVD (a common enough practice), but all my memories of Aguirre are of it being in German with English subtitles, so at first I was disappointed. Americans are not just spoiled, we are a juggernaut on the film scene that demands everyone to speak in English. The result has been a stupidification of history where, no matter where in time or place the film transports you, English seems the de facto universal language. In a way, Aguirre provided a refreshing twist: the Spanish conquistadors spoke German. But still, as much as I love Aguirre, I’m annoyed when directors take the cinematic liberty of having their characters talk in a language other than what they’re supposed to be on screen. So here’s the fun twist: I’d spent years thinking that the authoritative language version of one of my favorite films was German, but I was wrong. It’s English. Two words sum up why: Klaus Kinski.
The collaborations, and battles, between Kinski and Herzog are the stuff of legend. When it comes to Kinski, there are already several books and films devoted to his rampages as a larger-than-life madman, so I’ll skip over those here to get to the language crux of Aguirre: the film was originally shot in English, but those audio takes were at times compromised due to various scenes on a loud and angry river. Thanks to the wonders of post-synchronization sound, a superior soundtrack was later dubbed onto the print with nice, crisp German dialogue and English subtitles. But there was one hitch: Herzog couldn’t scrape up enough money to trouble Kinski to come back to do the dubbing, so somebody else (Gerd Martienzen) was used to put words into Kinski’s mouth. To Martienzen’s credit, during all my German screenings of Aguirre, it never occurred to me that I was hearing a voice-double. However, knowledge being a pesky thing, I now crave to revisit Aguirre with new ears so that I may hear the real-deal; straight from the mouth of madness.
Kinski, in the out-of-print Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski, refers to the English version as “hair-raising” but the “even worse German soundtrack, with subtitles, doesn’t have my voice because for years I refused to talk to Herzog.” Or, put another way, and according to other sources, Herzog couldn’t come up with enough money to pay what Kinski was demanding to revisit Aguirre to do a post-synch job. Here are some other choice quotes from Kinski’s autobiography:
Nowadays, when one clicks on the “trivia” section of IMDb for a recent title it is often full of shrug-inducing ephemera that doesn’t amount to much, but that’s not the case with Aguirre, for more fun background check out:
Speaking of trivia, if asked what tattoo Herzog got on his arm in San Francisco on July 24th of 1979, would you know the answer? Herzog spells it out in his own recently published Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo: “Death is wearing a tuxedo and singing into a 1950′s microphone.” It is somewhat recognizable from this scanned excerpt I took from Burden of Dreams: Screenplay, Journals, Reviews, Photographs edited by Les Blank & James Bogan. It’s an apt image for a director who has danced so close to the precipice on many occasions and yet always somehow found his footing and avoided tumbling into the abyss.
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