Herzog, whose voice is too rarely heard, listens to the stories of people affected by a stupid double murder in Texas, mostly the victims’ families but also a few unenlightening minutes with the killers themselves. There’s little attempt to question whether these two (one of whom is on death row; the other avoided execution because his dad cried in front of the jury) actually committed the crimes. And there’s little attempt to make polarizing statement regarding the death penalty, until the end when the movie tries to land hard on the anti- side. But I’ve been on the anti side for years, and the movie almost has me convinced that the death penalty is a great thing, because these kids are horrible and have learned nothing, so they might as well be dead. One of the highlights is a long interview with a former death row prison guard, who walks us through the whole procedure before saying he had to quit after too many executions messed with his head. No mercy from Texas. Music by Soul Coughing’s Mark De Gli Antoni.

“the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film”

Cave drawings from 25k to 40k years ago, during the last ice age, including drawings of extinct animals. The earliest recorded human artworks. Somewhat ecstatic movie, between the cave camerawork and the string/choral music, with notes of Herzogian strangeness (a master perfumer speaks of trying to sniff out hidden caves). The first half suffers from having to use a subpar camera, without the time or equipment needed to set up perfect shots, but the crew gets to return with better stuff later, slowly moving a light source while the camera remains still to expose the rock’s textures. Herzog faithfully edits their two journeys separately instead of just using images from the second trip and pretending like they got it perfect the first time.

Cave sniffer:

Sidetrack interviews with cave explorers, engineers plotting the cave with laser imagery, a historian who demonstrates statuettes, ornaments and musical instruments from the ice age, carved from mammoth tusks. Then an unexpected poetic epilogue about albino alligators in a steamy greenhouse warmed by runoff waters from a nuclear plant.

Herzog in Cinema Scope:

There’s not much room for intentionality. You have one week. You have four hours a day to shoot. You have to build your cameras and then reconfigure your cameras on a 60 centimetre-wide walkway. You’re allowed only three people with you. You’re allowed only three small panels of light. So intentionality is reduced to having to film like crazy and deliver.

Of course there was a very clear idea about why 3-D was necessary, and clear ideas about music. There was a clear idea about not trying to define what things represent… because we do not know. There are a number of hypotheses made by scientists, but what’s construed to be a ceremonial site could just as easily have been the traces of children playing. I think we have to keep possibilities open if we want to understand what can look to us like the sudden awakening of the modern human soul.

DEC 2021: Watched again with Katy, who liked it enough that she’s taking an interest in other Herzog movies – this could be good.

Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011, Werner Herzog)

Also on the DVD, Herzog takes a camera to the recording of the film’s score by really amazing cellist Ernst Reijseger. I could watch this a bunch more times. Probably I should just buy the soundtrack.

“Razzle them. Dazzle them. Razzle dazzle them.”

“Sometimes I’m really not sure who’s worse: us cops or the fuckin’ criminals,” says a cop (Willem Dafoe) in Werner Herzog’s new movie – which premiered two days after his Bad Lieutenant. I appreciated that little connection, as well as some casting borrowed from producer David Lynch (Dafoe from Wild at Heart, Brad Dourif from Blue Velvet and the ever-creepy Grace Zabriskie from Inland Empire) and Lynchian attention paid to coffee cups. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate much else – not the flat camerawork, the easily-predicted hostage twist, nor the go-nowhere story.

Grace has jello:

My two biggest problems with the movie are identified as assets by Herzog on the DVD extras. He says that feature films should be made cheaply and he achieved this by using a lousy DV camera (probably a Lynch hand-me-down), hence the flat grey photography (fortunately Herzog still knows how to frame a nice shot – it’s not just a visual wasteland out there). Then he talks about interviewing the crazy fellow on whom Michael Shannon’s character was based, noting hundreds of loony little details, then making up his own loony details with Shannon to avoid making a boringly specific true story. But it’s all random details. Shannon is always saying crazy shit with no connection anywhere else, and hey, maybe that’s what fellows who call themselves God and murder their parents actually do, but it comes across as trying too hard to be zany.

Chloe starts to worry about her boyfriend:

Framing device: Michael Shannon (last seen being crazy in Bug) has killed his mother with a sword in front of neighbors Irma P. Hall (Coens’ The Ladykillers) and Loretta Devine (Urban Legend). Detective Dafoe and his overeager partner Michael Peña (Shooter) wait outside because Shannon yells that he has two hostages – but he won’t say who, and the only characters missing are his pet flamingos named Macdougal and Mcnamara, so guess who the hostages turn out to be? Until Shannon comes out, Dafoe kills time by interviewing the neighbors, Shannon’s girlfriend Chloe Sevigny, and friend Udo Kier.

Macdougal and Mcnamara are great flamingo names!

Theater director Udo describes the background of the play he cast Michael Shannon in: “a dynasty of ruthless kings and diabolical queens who eat each other’s flesh and fuck each other’s wives – century after century, generation after generation – and only Orestus can lift that curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it.” This is the part that was based on a true story. He also reminisces about Shannon taking him to uncle Brad Dourif’s ostrich farm (flamingos + ostriches = a good bird movie). Chloe says Mike went to Peru with his buddies a couple years ago and started having premonitions, ditched the raft trip they were all supposed to take and ended up the only survivor. Meanwhile, Shannon in flashback walks around a market in some country or another with a Pi-camera strapped to him and says things like “I hate it that the sun always comes up in the east.”

Michael, Udo, Brad and a sword:

DVD extras tell us the writer used Jules Dassin’s A Dream of Passion for inspiration. I was thinking that “hostages” kinda sounds like “ostriches.”

Nicolas Cage’s first good part since Lord of War and Val Kilmer’s first good movie since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Cage hurts his back rescuing a prisoner, starts taking lots and lots of drugs and racks up gambling debts. He robs kids outside clubs, gets a violent dude mad at Cage’s hooker girlfriend and loses a key witness. Surely he is a bad lieutenant, but he has a few principles, and Cage’s charismatic intensity keeps us on his side even as he’s waving guns at grammas (lovable Irma P. Hall of the Coens’ Ladykillers). Ultimately he takes down a drug baddie (Exhibit, fifth-billed in the second X-Files movie), saves his girl (Cage’s Ghost Rider costar Eva Mendes) and pays off his bookie (Awwww Brad Dourif is getting old. Life is too short).

Nic, Brad and red beans:
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The story (from a lead writer on Cop Rock) isn’t great, and the idea (remaking Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant) is awful, but Herzog pulls it off with flair. The occasional weirdness (extreme closeups of reptiles, including an iguana music video – what is it about drug movies and visions of reptiles? See also Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), the sense that Cage is having too much fun to take anything seriously, and a lovely tacked-on ending where Cage meets the ex-con he saved and they get philosophical at an aquarium rescue this doomed movie and turn it into something I’d actually recommend. Can’t wait to see Werner’s other 2009 movie (star Michael Shannon, the contagiously crazy dude in Bug, shows up here as a police property guy).

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Cage pulls up at a building I think I saw in Wild At Heart. Maybe lots of buildings in New Orleans look like that. Jennifer Coolidge (Pootie Tang), Fairuza Balk and other names I know or faces I’ve seen pop up regularly. Surprising that so many actors wanted to be associated with a cheapie indie remake of a cult film, but I guess you can’t discount the Herzog factor.

Salon:

Your ending really defies expectations. I’m not quite sure what to think about it, in fact. We expect one of two possible endings — the bad lieutenant triumphs, or he is punished for his misdeeds. And you really don’t give us either one.

Herzog:

In my opinion, it’s a very beautiful and very mysterious ending. You see, according to the screenplay, it ended with a false happy ending that became a real abyss of darkness. And I thought, no, we should not dismiss the audience like that, out into the street. There should be something vague, something poetic, something mysterious.

Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, Werner Herzog)
“Have you ever seen a dishonest man with a chest like this?”
Said to Werner’s cameraman by a one-armed man in a suit: “What are you doing here? Go away!” It’s not clear who is supposed to be here where they’re filming, in the training area of a horse racetrack. Some guy is repeating himself and karate-chopping flat stones. This cannot actually be happening! It is all pretty wonderful, a parody of a behind-the-scenes documentary. Made in between Signs of Life and Even Dwarfs Started Small, both of which I need to catch some day.
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Organism (1975, Hilary Harris)
Time-lapse footage and readings from biological textbooks portray a large city (New York, of course) as a living organism. The dated 70’s sound design is unfortunate but otherwise it’s completely wonderful. Makes me wish I had a classroom of kids to show it to. He worked on this for years, inventing a time-lapse camera in the 60’s for the purpose. Bits from Scott MacDonald “As late as 1975, Harris apparently felt that time-lapsing imagery was unusual and high-tech enough to justify his frequent use of science-fictionish electronic sounds as an accompaniment. … Hilary Harris shot some of the New York City traffic shots used in Koyaanisqatsi, though apparently Reggio didn’t see Organism until after his film was well under way.”
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L’Opéra-mouffe (1958, Agnes Varda)
Somehow I missed this during Varda Month – one of her earliest shorts hidden amongst the copious features on a Criterion DVD. Varda films either herself or another pregnant nude women, then goes on a rampage through the marketplace, mostly capturing the faces of people shopping there, with interludes featuring actors (incl. Varda regular Dorothée Blank, as nude here as she is in Cleo) clowning around. Sections highlight public drunkenness, anxiety and affection. I want to say this is my favorite of her shorts so far, but then I remember they’re all so good. Delightfully scored by a not-yet-famous Georges Delerue.
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“I was pregnant. I felt the contradiction of expecting a child, being full of hope, and circulating in this world of poor, drunken people without hope, who seemed so unhappy. I felt tenderness toward them, especially the elderly. I imagined them as babies, when their mothers kissed their tummies.”
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Silent Snow, Secret Snow (1966, Gene Kearney)
A boy named Paul starts to obsess over snow, allowing the snow in his mind to filter him from reality. Creepy and well shot. Later remade as a Night Gallery episode with Orson Welles narrating. Makes me think of the Handsome Family song “Don’t Be Scared,” with its line “when Paul thinks of snow, soft winds blow ’round his head,” except it’s one of their very few comforting, happy songs and the movie is anything but.
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Une histoire d’eau (1961, Truffaut & Godard)
A girl wakes up and the whole town is flooded from melting snow. She meets a guy (a young Jean-Claude Brialy) who offers to drive her to Paris before nightfall. Music is weird – gentle flute or horns punctuated with bursts of percussion. Ooh, a Duchess of Langeais reference… in fact there are a ton of references in her quick monologue narration, which ends with spoken credits.
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The Forgotten Faces (1960, Peter Watkins)
Revolution in Budapest. Nice reconstruction, convincingly documentary-like – where’d Watkins get all those guns? No sync sound, a TV-sounding narrator. One part, the reading of a communist speech turns briefly into a dramatic propaganda montage – don’t see that happen much in Watkins’ films.
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The Perfect Human (1967, Jorgen Leth)
“Today I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days.”
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I like the British narrator. “What does he want? Why does he move like that? How does he move like that? Look at him. Look at him now. And now. Look at him all the time.” There’s no diegetic sound, but if this was dubbed in a studio, why does there have to be so much tape hiss? A fake documentary and a stark white delight, with slow zooms in and out, gentle string music, and a general sense of serious absurdity. Only saw, what, a third of this in The Five Obstructions.
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Les Maître fous (1955, Jean Rouch)
Document of a group in Ghana called the Hauka doing something involving wooden toy guns, red ribbons, chicken sacrifice, dog-blood-drinkin’ and having lurchy foaming-at-the-mouth fits. I’m not ever quite sure, because the French narration has been auto-subtitled by google – whatever they’re doing, the subs call it “having.” After they’ve had, the film crew catches up with them at their day jobs, not freaked-out cultists anymore, just working hard, smiling at the camera. This is one African film that Katy didn’t want to watch, because Rouch is an exoticizing anthropologist. So what’s going on that this film makes the best-ever lists? A Rouch tribute page says he popularized direct cinema/cinema verite, that he was known for rethinking ethnography, and a documentary surrealism (sounds like Jean Painleve). Ian Mundell says the film “drew plaudits from the Nouvelle Vague, in particular from Jean-Luc Godard. They liked the fact that Rouch’s fiction emerged from an encounter between the actor (professional or non-professional) and the camera, and his willingness to break the rules of cinema.” Paul Stoller says Rouch crisscrossed “the boundaries between documentary and fiction, observer and participant,” but I take it that’s more about his later films, which I’m thinking I would like better. So it’s seeming like this film gets awarded because it’s one of the most-seen of his films and because of its influence, not because it’s Rouch’s best work.
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Nicky’s Film (1971, Abel Ferrara)
A mysteriously silent possibly gangster-related 6-minute film. I can’t imagine even a Ferrara scholar gets much out of this.

The Hold Up (1972, Abel Ferrara)
Super-8 production made when Abel was 21, seven years before Driller Killer. A few minutes in, I realized it’d be much better with the director commentary turned on. “And away we go. Wait, it’s the other way. Which way is she looking?” Um, some guys get fired from factory jobs, hold up a gas station, get caught. The song “Working on a Building” is heard.
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FITZCARRALDO (1982, Werner Herzog)

Klaus Kinski (the year after starring in Terayama Shuji’s Fruits of Passion) acts less crazy than usual as Fitz, though he’s still got that hair. And of course, his crazy actions speak for themselves. Fitz loves opera, especially the singer Caruso, whose records he collects (which places the action somewhere 1905-1915ish) and wants to build an opera house where he lives in Iquitos, Peru, but investors won’t be convinced.

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So Fitz decides to make a fortune as a rubber baron, and build his own damned opera house. Gets his brothel-running girlfriend Claudia Cardinale (over a decade after her heyday in Once Upon a Time in the West, 8 1/2, The Leopard) to front him a steamboat and claims an unharvested plot of riverfront land in the jungle. It’s unharvested because nobody can reach it… it lies upstream from dangerous rapids. But even further upstream, another river veers within half a mile of the river in question, so Fitz plans to sail up THAT (dangerous-native-infested) river, drag his boat onto land across into the other river and harvest his rubber.

Claudia Cardinale:
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Along with a half-blind but navigationally-keen captain, a drunken chef, and a mechanic (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, fresh from playing the mystical indian sidekick in Puma Man) who’s openly spying on Fitz for his competitors, Fitz makes it to the crossing and with the help of hundreds of natives, drags his 30-ton ship over a damned muddy mountain and into the other river. That night, after the drunken celebration party, the natives cut the ship loose as a sacrifice to the rapids, undoing months of work. In a wonderfully bittersweet finale, with what’s left of his capital Fitz hires the opera to come to Iquitos and perform from the ship.

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Shot realistically, naturally taking its time to unfold. Herzog’s/Fitz’s ambition is immeasurable, and so a mere two hours cannot contain it. Movie doesn’t seem long so much as… huge. Actors speak English, dubbed into German and subtitled back into English.

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Hey wow, it was shot by the guy who did Orson Welles: One Man Band, which is the other movie I considered watching tonight. He also shot bunches of Alexander Kluge films.


WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE (1980, Les Blank)

“I’m quite convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking”

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Oh man, this was great… first of all because Werner is my hero, here being smart and funny and provocative, and second because Les keeps it lively with a circus atmosphere, bringing in clips of Herzog movies, The Gold Rush, and a Gates of Heaven outtake. Fitzcarraldo was in pre-production, and Les would follow Werner into that venture, filming…


BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982, Les Blank)

“If I abandoned this project I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.”

One of the most amazing docs I have seen, and essential viewing with Fitzcarraldo. Shows and tells the factors that made that film define “troubled production”, making Terry Gilliam and Francis Ford Coppola look like pansies in comparison. Attacks and intimidation by natives (their camp is burned down, a spear attack injures three), losing both stars of the film (post-Melvin and Howard Jason Robards and pre-Tattoo You Mick Jagger) and the actual pulling of a 30-ton steamship over a mountain by natives doesn’t even cover the whole story.

Burden of Dreams:
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Fitzcarraldo:
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On-set tantrums by a bored Klaus Kinski aren’t in this film (presumably they’re covered in My Best Fiend). This doc itself is wonderfully well-paced and shot, and Les gets choice interviews with Herzog, including his oft-quoted bit about how the jungle birds don’t sing, “they just screech in pain.” Taken as a package, Fitz and Burden are the rare cult films which exceed their reputation.

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From Paul Arthur’s Criterion essay:

When production stalls, as it often does—Herzog claims his film is “cursed,” admitting that “the jungle is winning”—Blank filters in lively scenes of the Campa extras’ quotidian routines: food preparation, clothes washing, the blending of a local alcoholic drink made from yuca plants. It is significant that most activities are “women’s work,” a realm that Herzog’s masculinist vision rarely acknowledges. Later, Blank constructs a touching vision of cross-cultural identification by juxtaposing the sound of a Caruso aria coming from a record player in an earlier shot with loving close-ups of native women, as if they are responding to the beauty of this alien voice. The moment recalls an archetypal collision staged by romantic adventurer Robert Flaherty in Nanook of the North (1922), when the titular Eskimo marvels at a phonograph record (then jokingly decides to bite it). Unlike either Herzog or Flaherty, Blank clearly prefers the rhythms of collective effort, of sensuous community, over Eurocentric ideals of heroic individualism. In essence, he has crafted a film about the interaction of premodern tribal existence with European modernity, epitomized by a movie narrative about the invidious clash of brute nature and a singular ego bent on his own, ultimately delusional, mission of cultural enlightenment.

Immediately after watching Milk, I unaccountably wanted to watch something else featuring Diego Luna, who was the worst part of Milk. Not necessarily his fault though, and he’s been great before (in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Criminal) so I thought I’d give him (and hated Nashvillian Harmony Korine) a second chance.

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Here he’s a Michael Jackson impersonator who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. She takes him to her commune retreat, staffed only by other celeb impersonators, including her abusive cheating husband Charlie Chaplin and their cute daughter Shirley Temple. Meanwhile in an entirely different movie, Werner Herzog is a priest who airdrops supplies to people in need. One of his nuns accidentally falls out of the plane and lands unharmed. A miracle is proclaimed, and all the nuns start skydiving without parachutes and landing unharmed.

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And that is good enough for me. That storyline (provided it’s done well, which it is) combined with moments of euphoria (MJ’s dances with sfx but no music, the camerawork on the falling nuns) is good enough. Korine is redeemed, Luna rises above being the crazy, clingy boyfriend in Milk, lovely Samantha Morton is freed from the dour prison that was Synecdoce New York, and all is well.

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Of course all is not well, exactly. Why does Werner annoyingly repeat everything he has just said? What is the connection between the nun bit and the impersonator bit? How come Michael is so easy around others and never seems all that lonely?

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I enjoyed it and didn’t worry too much about the questions above. Katy only watched the first half, which was all setup, and missed most of the story. The commune’s sheep are sick and have to be killed (with shotguns by the Three Stooges) and after that everyone’s depressed. They pick themselves up and decide to hold a spectacular show, open to the public. After much prep, the show is just okay and only ten people show up. That night Marilyn is discovered having hung herself from a tree. Charlie is painfully distraught (it’s a great turn in an interesting performance by French actor Denis Lavant, looking rough, star of Lovers on the Bridge). Michael takes the bus home and tells his agent (Leos Carax, director of Lovers on the Bridge, hmmm) that he’s quitting the impersonator business and is going to be himself from now on (after he is sung an uplifting song by the ghostly heads of his commune buddies upon some painted eggs). Meanwhile, in the other movie, the nuns set off in Werner’s plane for the Vatican to get their miracle blessed by the church, and the plane crashes on a beach killing everyone, heh.

Leos Carax:
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Movie is divided into four sections titled by MJ songs: “man in the mirror” (luna/michael)… “beat it” (leaving town for the commune)… “thriller” (drama and death)… and “you are not alone” (the finale). Very nice music by J. Spaceman and the Sun City Girls and camerawork by Michael Winterbottom’s reguar guy. Actors were good (and surprisingly not overdoing it), especially young Buckwheat, who may be a bit nuts. As The Pope and The Queen were James Fox and Anita Pallenberg, two stars of the movie Performance… interesting. And playing Samantha Morton’s daughter was actually Samantha Morton’s daughter.

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Shot immediately after Nosferatu. Kinski looks worn out, stupid and insane. IMDB says “The entire 80-minute film was shot with only 27 cuts.” but I remember five or six in the opening credits alone, so nice try. I didn’t know there was a best supporting actress award at Cannes, but Eva Mattes won it. Movie was trounced by Tin Drum and Apocalypse Now for the grand prize, though, and it’s not on either of the top 1000 movies lists that I track, but it’s now on mine. Looks just like Nosferatu, same crew worked on it. All giant buildings and city and space dwarfing our characters. Feels like a play – you can totally tell the way people talk to themselves that it was written for the stage. Dialog is awesome. Writer Georg Büchner is famous mostly for Woyzeck, and this is one of twenty film adaptations of it.

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Kinski is a soldier, or a military barber I guess, in the 1800’s. He’s seeing Marie, and has been for a while since they have a son together. Lately Marie likes a drum major, no surprise since Kinski is completely nutty and nervous, due in part to the all-peas diet his doctor (above) has him on. After a movie’s worth of foreshadowing that crazed Kinski will kill someone and most likely his wife, he kills his wife down by the river. That’s it, except the film and script are way more poetic than my description.

The Noroit-ian band:
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V. Canby in the Times: “At the heart of each Herzog film is a mystery, not because information is arbitrarily withheld, but because every Herzog film is a record of the director’s questions and speculations about his subject — which is, I suspect, why he chooses to do the films he does. To do anything else would be storytelling of a kind that doesn’t interest him. Questions for which the answers are simple aren’t worth asking.”

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The Drum Major had been in Herzog’s Heart of Glass, would eventually turn up in Haneke’s Code Unknown. The Captain had been in Herzog’s Signs of Life after small parts in Rivette and Welles films. Eva Mattes had been in Strozek and In a Year of 13 Moons.

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Shadow of the Vampire should’ve portrayed Klaus Kinski as a demon instead of Max Schreck. Anyway, I’d like to see Malkovich playing Werner Herzog.