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FilmWatch Weekly: Werner Herzog, POW Film Fest, socialism, and French romance

A feast of films by a legendary director of "indelibly weird classics"; return of a Portland women's film fest.


Werner Herzog and friend during the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.”

What is there to say about Werner Herzog that hasn’t already been said? After all, it’s not every German arthouse auteur who becomes practically a household name, a mystical paragon of cinematic purity, and a patron saint of bemused nihilism, while also popping up in the Star Wars universe and voicing three different characters (one of them himself) on The Simpsons.

A fresh opportunity to ponder how this enfant terrible of the 1970s morphed into the inspiration for a hilarious Twitter parody account arises this week as the Hollywood Theatre screens its September series Descent into Madness: The Films of Werner Herzog. A half-dozen of Herzog’s iconic early works will be featured, along with the equally iconic documentary Burden of Dreams, which chronicles the quixotic making of perhaps the most insane of them.

Six films are, to be sure, barely sufficient to scratch the surface of Herzog’s nearly six-decade filmmaking career. But it is enough to provide either a primer in some of his most celebrated, dangerous work, or a welcome opportunity to revisit newly restored versions of that work on the big screen. The director’s collaborations with the mercurial (to say the least) star Klaus Kinski are well represented, from 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (in which he plays an obsessed conquistador) to 1982’s Fitzcarraldo (in which he plays an obsessed opera lover) to 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (in which he plays an obsessed—you get the picture). The series also includes 1968’s Heart of Glass, for which most of the cast was hypnotized during shooting, and 1977’s Stroszek, an unflinchingly dark immigration fable that’s my personal favorite of Herzog’s movies.

While crafting these indelibly weird classics, Herzog simultaneously laid down a strong track record as a documentarian, and it was his nonfiction films, with their distinctively accented narration, their extreme subject matter, and their unique philosophical perspective, that significantly boosted his profile. The only documentary in this series is a solid choice: Little Dieter Needs to Fly follows Herzog as he accompanies a German-American pilot who had been downed in the Vietnam War as he returns to the site of his captivity in Laos. But it’s a bit of a shame that more couldn’t be included.

In that vein, and with the proviso that the six fiction features screening at the Hollywood are excellent candidates for The Essential Herzog, here are six other documentaries to seek out once the series concludes (several are available to stream for free through Kanopy):

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971): With astonishing empathy, Herzog probes the inscrutable world of the deaf and blind, following an elderly woman who has made it her life’s mission to attempt to communicate with others like her.

La Soufriere (1977): More than any other film, this documentary short shot on the island of Guadalupe established Herzog as a documentary daredevil, as he put his life (and his crew’s) on the line while capturing the violent eruption of the island’s volcano.

Lessons of Darkness (1990): Extreme environments again attract Herzog’s camera, in this case the apocalyptic landscapes, including burning oil fields, left behind following the 1990 Iraq War. Hellish imagery is juxtaposed with a soaring orchestral score to stunning effect.

My Best Fiend (1999): Following Kinski’s death, Herzog made this remarkable tribute to his favorite actor, one which never glosses over Kinski’s sometimes harrowing insanity or the often-violent conflicts between the two, but which communicates the degree to which they were kindred souls.

Grizzly Man (2005): Environmental activist Timothy Treadwell spent his summers living with bears in the wilds of Alaska, claiming that he had befriended them and was protecting them from poachers. Eventually, they killed and ate him. Herzog presents Treadwell’s story as one that supports the director’s view of nature as a hostile and unforgiving force.

Encounters at the Edge of the World (2009): Hard as it may be to believe, this look at, and meditation upon, the life of scientists who live and work in Antarctica is the only film of the 73 he’s made (so far) to garner Werner Herzog an Oscar nomination. (Descent into Madness: The Films of Werner Herzog runs September 2-18 at the Hollywood Theatre.)


A scene from Jessica Beshir’s” Faya Dayi,” screening at the POW Film Festival.

Last weekend, Candyman became the first film directed by a Black woman to open at #1 at the box office. But by no stretch does that mean that the work of the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival is anywhere near done. Now in its 14th year, POW Film Fest returns with a weekend’s worth of notable work from around the world. In previous years, the festival has brought an impressive lineup of visiting artists to Portland, and here’s hoping that will resume with the next iteration.

In the meanwhile, the opening night selection, screening on Friday, September 3, at the Hollywood Theatre, is director Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, a lyrical, black-and-white, documentary-fiction hybrid exploring Ethiopia’s largest cash crop, the stimulant leaf khat, and the people involved in its harvest and trade. The festival continues through Sept. 6 at the Clinton Street Theater, with six programs of short films and three additional features, including the elegiac fable of apocalypse Everything at the End, which screened during this year’s Portland International Film Festival.

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Socialist House of Delegates member Lee Carter in “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.”

In a nice bit of seasonal programming, a new documentary about socialism in America gets its release on Labor Day Weekend. The Big Scary ‘S’ Word does its best to demonstrate that, in fact, socialism is nearly as American as an apple pie that’s shared with the neighbors.

The expected talking heads (Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez, Cornel West, Naomi Wolf, etc.) are here, but frankly they’re the least interesting part of the story. Director Yael Bridge provides a nice history lesson, including the fact that the first socialist political party in America was actually the Republican Party, founded in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1846, and that some of Abraham Lincoln’s public statements on labor and capital would curl the toes of Tucker Carlson. As a native, I was pleased to see Wisconsin pop up repeatedly, due to Milwaukee’s history of socialist mayors (even after World War II) and Senator Joe McCarthy’s redbaiting tactics—actually, not so pleased about that one.

Bridge also follows a couple of present-day stories. In one, an Oklahoma public school teacher joins the 2019 strike prompted by the government’s drastic reduction in education funding, and finds herself transformed into an activist. In another, a former Marine frustrated by Virginia’s workers’ compensation program runs for the state House of Delegates and wins, despite receiving a stamp of approval from the Democratic Socialists of America. From a progressive perspective, they represent a couple of points of light during a difficult time. (Opens Friday, September 3, at the Kiggins Theatre.)


Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson, and Hannah Pepper in “Ma Belle, My Beauty.”

It’s inevitable that Ma Belle, My Beauty will be described as a movie about a polyamorous relationship. First of all, it is that. But it’s a story “about” polyamory as much as your typical romantic drama is “about” monogamy. What it’s really about are the interactions and emotional landscapes of people involved in complicated, intimate relationships. There is, refreshingly, no hint of taboo, no elevation into fantasy or degradation into nightmare, that so often accompanies mainstream films with multi-partner themes.

Instead, we get an idyllic setting in rural France, where Fred (Lucien Guignard) and Bertie (Idella Johnson) seem to be living the life. He’s a jazz guitarist, she’s a singer, and every day is full of rehearsals and bicycle trips to the market. Then, one day, Lane (Hannah Pepper) arrives, to Bertie’s, but not Fred’s, surprise. It emerges that the three of them had a relationship in New Orleans in the past, but after Lane disappeared, the other two eventually married and moved across the Atlantic.

Lane’s reappearance spurs conflicting emotions in Bertie, who has been unable to find her musical groove recently. But Bertie’s uneasiness prompts Lane to pursue a fling with a visiting Israeli soldier and free spirit named Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon). And so it goes. What elevates the film is the sensitive direction of Marion Hill, making her first feature, and the naturalistic performances of the leads, who communicate physical and emotional authenticity at every moment. (Opens Friday, September 3, at Cinema 21.)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.