24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Werner Herzog

Berlin Film Festival: Documentaries take cameras behind bars

February 11, 2012 | 12:59 pm

Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but cameras are the windows to the cell in two wildly different but gripping films premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Saturday's entry in the competition section, “Cesare deve morire" ("Caesar Must Die") from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, is a dramatic documentary set in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, where inmates from the high-security section are staging William Shakespeare’s tragedy "Julius Caesar" for a public audience. The Tavianis capture six months of rehearsals leading up to opening night, and the struggles of the men as they internalize Shakespeare’s dialogue detailing power, betrayal and manipulation, all themes they know too well from the lives of crime that led them to incarceration.

The inmates-turned-actors find resonance in Caesar’s ancient capital reflected in their own corrupt cities, be it Naples or contemporary Rome. The Taviani brothers, now in their 80s, have been making films since the 1960s; their films have been awarded a Palme d´Or ("Padre Padrone," 1977) and the Grand Prix du Jury ("The Night of the Shooting Stars," 1982)  in Cannes and the two were honored with a Golden Lion for Career Achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1986.

After viewing a presentation at Rebibbia of a prisoner reading from Dante’s "Divine Comedy," the directors were moved to design the film and theater project with with Fabio Cavalli, a stage director whose theatrical program for the incarcerated has resulted in more than 100 convicts performing behind prison walls for 22,000 audience members over the last 10 years.  Most of the film is shot in black and white, with color coming in for the energetic stage performance.  Along with Cavalli, the Tavianis developed a guiding screenplay for the filming, leaving ample room for chance and improvisation. The action feels at times stagy, but it’s hard to fault the characters for playing larger than life when they are serving life sentences. 

Nearly Shakespearean characters also populate Werner Herzog's “Death Row,” a four-part documentary series made for TV.  This lengthy companion piece to last year's Herzog prison doc “Into the Abyss” will be shown in the U.S. as a series on the cable channel Investigation Discovery.

After shots of a prison death chamber and the cells leading up to it, a brief narration from Herzog states his position respectfully disagreeing with the death penalty (the same sequence opens for each episode).  Each episode then offers a portrait of criminality, personalized.

I may sympathize with your cause, says Herzog to James Barnes in one episode, “but I don’t have to like you.”  Barnes, a convicted murderer who confessed to another brutal slaying while in prison, and two more during Herzog’s filming, is a  consummate actor to the extent that it’s unclear what his current relationship to the truth might be.  A trip into his past turns up juvenile delinquency, but also physical and possibly sexual abuse.  In each episode, family, lawyers and media clarify the facts of the story, but leave it up to the viewer to decide whether these individuals deserve death at the hands of the state.  It may not be pleasant spending time with these subjects, but it is riveting.


Pan African Film & Arts Festival celebrates 20th anniversary

Berlin Film Festival: 3 documentaries on Japan nuclear disaster

Berlin film fest kicks off with an international mix of upheaval

-- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A scene from “Cesare deve morire." Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival.

L.A. Film Critics choose best actor, best actress winners

December 11, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Fassbender shame
The L.A. Film Critics Assn. is handing out its annual awards today. They've named their best actor and actress -- Michael Fassbender and Yun Jung-hee, along with several other awards. Here's the list so far.

Best actor: Michael Fassbender, for his work in "A Dangerous Method," "Jane Eyre," "Shame" and "X-Men: First Class."

Runner-Up: Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter."

Best Actress: Yun Jung-hee, in the South Korean film "Poetry."

Runner-up: Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia."

Best Documentary/Nonfiction film: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" by Werner Herzog.

Runner-Up: "The Arbor" by Clio Barnard.

Best screenplay: Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation.”

Runner-Up: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, “The Descendants.”

Best supporting actress: Jessica Chastain, who was recognized for her work in six films -- "Coriolanus," "The Debt," "The Help," "Take Shelter," "Texas Killing Fields" and "The Tree of Life."

Runner-up: Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs."

Best supporting actor: Christopher Plummer, "Beginners."

Runner-up: Patton Oswalt, "Young Adult."

Best cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, "The Tree of Life."

Runner-up: Cao Yu, "City of Life and Death."

Best music/score: The Chemical Brothers, "Hanna."

Runner-up: Cliff Martinez, "Drive."

Best production design: Dante Ferretti, "Hugo."

Runner-up: Maria Djurkovic, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

Best Independent, Experimental: "Spark of Being." Directed by Bill Morrison, it's a re-imagining of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein,: using images culled from archives around the world.


National Board of Review names 'Hugo' best picture

New York critics name 'The Artist' best film of the year

'Bridesmaids,' 'Tree of Life,' 'Hugo' in AFI's top 10 films of 2011

Photo: Writer-director Steve McQueen, left, and actor Michael Fassbender on the set of "Shame." Credit: Abbot Genser/ Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Toronto: Werner Herzog looks 'Into the Abyss' of death and crime

September 10, 2011 |  9:45 am


Since the premiere of his new documentary last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, filmmaker Werner Herzog has been saying that "Into the Abyss" could have been the title of any number of his films. On reflection he's probably right, as the wanderers, seekers and misfits that populate his fiction and documentary films alike all seem to face down the mysteries of the world. As it is, "Into the Abyss" is a look at a capital murder case in Texas from 2001 in which three people were killed, one man was executed and another faces 40 years in prison.

Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" famously helped get a man out of prison -- and more recently the inmates known as the West Memphis Three were released due to the attention their case got from a series of documentaries -- but Herzog had no such intent when making his film, which also played this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. He was not interested in reexamining or retrying the case, which involved a dispute over a Camaro; rather, he wanted to look at the larger effect of the crime.

"This is not an issue film; it's not an activist film against capital punishment, because the film has only partially to do with someone on death row," the German-born, Los Angeles-based Herzog said Friday afternoon in his now-familiar rumbling hiss of a voice, ensconced in a Toronto hotel suite after the film's standing-ovation public screening on Thursday night. "It's very much about the whole environment. Families of victims of violent crime are equally important.

"It's a tapestry," the 69-year-old added. "That's why I named it with the secondary title 'A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,' and the entire end of the film is about that urgency, the final sequence is even called 'The Urgency of Life.' Why do I have to make an issue film? That's what you normally expect when you see a TV documentary. 'Into the Abyss' -- yes, it has an issue, but it's not the main purpose of the film."

Herzog got his on-camera interview with one of the killers, Michael Perry, just eight days before his execution last year. Among Herzog's other interview subjects are the other convicted killer, Jason Burkett; his father, also incarcerated; a police detective who handled the case; a death-house chaplin; a former executioner; a woman who lost both her mother and brother in the crime; and the woman who has married Burkett while he has been in prison and as the film ends is pregnant with his child.

Continue reading »

Toronto Film Festival documentary lineup includes Herzog, Spurlock

August 3, 2011 |  9:41 am

The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival has filled its documentary lineup with a heady mix of movies from today's best-known documentarians, including Morgan Spurlock, Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog and Alex Gibney, among others, organizers announced Wednesday.

The subjects are just as varied as the filmmakers. Spurlock ("Super Size Me") will present his take on the annual geek fest in San Diego in "Comic-Con: Episode IV: A Fan's Hope."

Demme, who has made  documentaries on Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, among other subjects, is on tap to deliver his tale of Hurricane Katrina from one woman's eyes in "I'm Carolyn Parker: the Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful."

Werner Herzog, who surprised audiences with his 2005 tale of grizzly bear devotee Timothy Treadwell and struck box office gold this year with his 3-D "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," is back with an examination of a triple homicide case in Texas.

Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2008 documentary on U.S. torture practices in "Taxi to the Dark Side," takes on an extremely different subject matter in "The Last Gladiators": professional hockey players. And for those unsatisfied with Stephen Bannon's recent flattering Sarah Palin film, “The Undefeated," there's "Sarah Palin -- You Betcha" from Nick Broomfield ("Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer").

Thom Powers, lead programmer for documentaries at the festival, said: "I'm thrilled at the large number of veteran filmmakers who have brought us new works this year. The lineup contains a wide range of memorable characters -- crusaders, convicts, artists, athletes, nude dancers, comic book fans, dog lovers and more."

The festival is also presenting the world premiere of Mark Cousins' 15-hour documentary, "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" that tells the story of innovation in movies. The lengthy work traces 11 decades of cinema, features 1,000 movies and dozens of interviews with filmmakers such as Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 8-18.


Bono, U2 doc will open Toronto International Film Festival

George Clooney, Brad Pitt highlight Toronto film festival lineup

A secretive Nick Broomfield documentary about Sarah Palin is nearly complete

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Werner Herzog in West Hollywood on April 25. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Toronto 2010: Herzog's 'Cave' will go on display

September 15, 2010 |  7:10 pm

We mentioned late last night that IFC was the lead and likely buyer of Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Now the company has closed the deal, which means that fans of Herzog's quirky visions will get a chance to see the film in a theater.

The movie, as we mentioned, and as our colleague Patrick Goldstein wrote this week, looks at the Chauvet cave in France, where remarkable drawings demonstrate early signs of human life.

The film is the first Herzog has shot in 3-D -- and, he says, his last. He generally finds that "fantasies should always be free" when one goes to the movies. But the prospect of showing the striking drawings in anything other than the full three dimensions just didn't sit well with him.

No word on when the distributor will bring out the movie. But the company did not buy television rights, which means the film won't be day-and-date in your living rooms, as some IFC films are. Of course, this one is in 3-D, so it probably will be better in the theater anyway. Plus what better place is there to hear Herzog's sonorous voice?

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams.' Credit: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion


Toronto 2010: Buyers line up to enter Werner Herzog's 'Cave'

Is Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary a huge leap forward or a total folly?

Toronto 2010: Indie movies continue to find homes

If you thought 'Bad Lieutenant' was nutty...

April 6, 2010 | 12:15 pm

We have no idea whether these two videos actually come from Werner Herzog, or what hallucinogenic substance its reader had ingested prior to offering his, er, unusual take on these children's classics. ("A monkey has bested seven adult men -- this should give you a dim view of human potential.") But they're pretty funny just the same. Ze tiger, indeed, dreams only of death.

-- Steven Zeitchik

She is introduced in her underwear, as a nod to French sensibilities...


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: