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Obsessive Heroes in the films of Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick

This was my final paper in my Writing 412 course, Recurrent themes in the Films of Stanley Kubrick, taught by Brian Hendricks. It made heavy use of my previous film studies in German 439 New German Cinema taught by Dr. Peter Göltz. I decided to put it online to give this section of my website some orginal content and because I am a great admirer of both filmmakers. It was written in the summer of 1999.

A surprising number of similarities and parallels can be drawn between the films of German director Werner Herzog and British/American director Stanley Kubrick, a particularly glaring one is their use of non-traditional, obsessive heroes as the protagonists. Kubrick's heroes are always obsessive. However the most memorable of Herzog's heroes equal Kubrick's both in the depths of their passion and the extent of their madness. Indeed narrowing the focus of this comparison was the chief obstacle of this essay rather then acquiring additional supporting material.

Originally I had planned to contrast the brutally violent Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" with the violently brutal title character in "Aguirre the Wrath of God". I had also intended to compare the cultured and refined Colonel Dax with the opera obsessed Fitzcarraldo. I still feel these comparisons can be easily be made, but they leave out a number of notable obsessed protagonists that might have yielded a better argument. Comparing Humbert Humbert from "Lolita" with his Old World elegance, love of art, and perceived intelligence might have been a better choice than Colonel Dax. And although it is hard for any protagonist to be more violent then Alex, Jack Torrance's descent into madness is a direct parallel to Aguirre's. Eventually I ended up incorporating elements of all the films I had seen by both directors rather then strictly comparing one character to another.

Kubrick's obsessive heroes are all white males of a middle class background whose obsession may vary from film to film but are ultimately concerned with the pursuit of freedom. This journey leads them to learn new facts about the nature of the world they inhabit and the futilely ineffective role they play within it. Kubrick often delivers a bleak moral such as "there is no justice in war (the world)" or "all rebellions are doomed to failure". Indeed the futility of the plight of Kubrick's protagonists can not be understated.

Herzog doesn't seem to have as much underlying commonality between his various protagonists. Indeed the first Herzogian protagonist I encountered was the pitiable and persecuted Kasper Hauser. This character does not seem to be as obviously obsessed as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. However the two protagonists in Herzog's 'jungle films' have more then enough obsession for the purposes of this paper. Also the master of the glassworks in "Heart of Glass" is extremely single minded in his obsession with "the ruby glass".

Herzog states his primary concern within his films is the quest for new images, the works of Stanley Kubrick also provide no shortage of unique and memorable images. Both Herzog and Kubrick have reputations for their own obsession and difficulty to work with. Kubrick and his myriad of retakes contrasted to the almost obscene lengths Herzog will go to get a shot. This includes hypnotizing his cast or holding a gun to the head of his star. Perhaps their similar though difficult to work with directing styles contributes to the obsessive and prone to madness persona often portrayed onscreen by their protagonists.

Another trait shared by both directors is their tendency to reuse actors. I believe this was a result of familiarity and proven working relationship as well as an ability of these actors to play the kinds of characters required. Examples of this include the omnipresent Klaus Kinski in the works of Herzog. The two films he shot with the star of "Kasper Hauser" and even the reuse of minor characters such as the farmer who takes in Kasper Hauser who also plays a villager in "Heart of Glass". Examples from Kubrick's films are the reuse of Sterling Hayden as Jack D. Ripper as well as the return of the puppy-loving psychopath as a "social undesirable" in "Paths of Glory". The actor who plays Alex's father in "A Clockwork Orange" also makes appearances in "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining", though Kubrick's most well known reuse of an actor is probably the two pictures staring Peter Sellers.

The two directors explore common themes and motifs, an obvious one is the descent into madness. This is most observable in "Aquirre the Wrath of God" and "The Shining" though madness is prevalent in a number of other films notably "Dr. Strangelove" and "Heart of Glass". Both movies use external turmoil and the setting to represent the inner turmoil the characters are suffering. The further they go down the river, the madder Aquirre becomes. While Jack becomes more estranged the longer he spends in the Overlook Hotel and specifically as winter sets in. Both characters pass the point of no return early in the film, Jack when he takes the job or at least assumes the caretaker position, Aquirre when he organizes the mutiny.

Aquirre is obsessed with finding the fabled city of El Dorado. This is the stated goal of their exploration, however Aquirre and the other conquistadors are also seeking fame and fortune. Jack is obsessed with becoming a successful artist, though later in the film he is obsessed with repeating history and murdering his family. His madness stems from an inability to achieve his goals though the supernatural element of the Overlook Hotel also contributed. Aquirre's madness probably has something to do with disease and starvation though it primarily stems from his inability to achieve his stated goals as well.

Both Jack Torrance and Aquirre are almost bereft of redeeming characteristics. Though some argument could be made that Aquirre is a loving father similar to Barry Lyndon. This is a dubious statement about Aquirre whereas it is stated in the film and enacted on the screen in "Barry Lyndon". Both Jack and Aquirre are ruthless in their madness and think nothing of a casual murder. Both are concerned with history, Jack with repeating it and living out his role, Aquirre with achieving a lasting fame. Jack does not achieve his goal, though he does murder the chef. Aquirre does not discover El Dorado though as the making of this movie attests he achieves lasting infamy throughout history through the journal of the monk.

Alex is also without many redeeming characteristics though he does have a real love for art, similar to Fitzcarraldo in this regard. However Alex's ruthlessness and brutality and his disdain and mistreatment to those under his command likens him more to Aquirre. Priests play a role in both these films, and bringing up the theme of the role of the church in society. Alex does not have a descent into madness though the world he inhabits is certainly unnerving. His world and Aquirre's both share a distorted view of Utopia. The Utopia of "A Clockwork Orange" would have all the criminal's minds altered in order to remove freewill to promote law and order. Alex being a rebel against societal order and obsessed with freedom found himself turned into just such a 'model citizen'. Aquirre's utopian world sees him in command of the New World, which he would repopulate with offspring from a union with his young, deceased daughter. Aquirre's infatuation with his daughter is not unlike Humbert Humbert's obsession with the underage Lolita who is and later legally his daughter.

The European refinement of Humbert, as mentioned above has parallels with Fitzcarraldo though their obsessions and situations are vastly different. Fitzcarraldo is obsessed with opera more specifically with bringing opera and therefore culture to the jungle wilderness. Humbert certainly brings a greater level of cultural sophistication into Lolita's household. Both films however have more substantial female roles then most of the other fare from these directors, though in both the hero ultimately fails. Fitzcarraldo has a measure of success as does Humbert who briefly holds the object of his obsession Lolita. Fitzcarraldo succeeds with his 'impossible plan' rather like Johnny Clay in that he gets the steamship over the mountain. But like Clay his careful planning comes undone by chance, unlike Humbert he survives and like Clay accepts his fate at the end, defiantly playing opera music on the unskipable record player as the steamship descends through the rapids.

A measure of success is another common trait shared by these obsessive heroes as is succeeding at the impossible. In "2001" Bowman gets through the airlock and completes his journey to Jupiter, but the mission was a costly success and through Kubrick's fatalistic view of human nature may ultimately fail. Fitzcarraldo also does the impossible but does not get to realize his dream. He does spend all his money to briefly bring Opera to the jungle and to buy a velvet armchair for the pig. Dax fails in his ultimate goal, failing to free his men or to achieve his obsession of justice. He does get a measure of satisfaction in that he indites the General over firing on the French position. Both Dax and Fitzcarraldo have a love for the common man, and both bring music and thus a measure of happiness to them at the end despite the personal cost.

The obsessed heroes also share a number of common nuances or even scenes. For example many of the protagonists rage against the futility of their situation and openly scream out for their obsession. Jack Torrance bellows after both Wendy and Danny. Fitzcarraldo snaps and repeatedly rages "I want my opera house!" Humbert when abandoned loses his refinement like Fitzcarraldo and laments the loss of Lolita.

Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick both saw fit to populate their eerily beautiful and strange worlds with obsessed protagonists. These heroes are then put in an impossible situation where despite their intelligence and skill they are doomed to failure. Often the inability to achieve or possess their obsession drives them to madness. They then devolve to mindlessly raging about the screen. Often their freedom, which they value highly, is restricted and if they manage to survive they have a new view of the world they occupy. Though not always the sort of person that you would invite around to the house for a barbecue, the characters are often all the more memorable because of this.

Words and Images © Andrew "Muskie" McKay.
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