Dueling Werner Herzog Collections

Okay, it's time to wrap all of this.  With these following six Werner Herzog films, I will finish comparing every film in both Shout Factory's massive 13-disc 16 film 'Herzog: the Collection' blu-ray set and BFI's equally impressive 8-disc 18 film 'The Werner Herzog Collection' blu-ray set.  Each set covers many staple films from Herzog's body of work, and each has a sizeable amount of exclusive films.  I've already covered a number of these films on this site, which I'll link to below.  This post will contain all the rest, plus some overview discussion on how the sets compare as wholes (i.e. extras, packaging, etc).  I've also got at least one DVD edition of every single film here, so we'll throw all those in, too.  So, to start, let's look at exactly which films are in which sets, and then start with movie #1.

Herzog: The Collection (Shout Factory) 
So we begin with the very eccentric 1970 drama, Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The film is set in an isolated mental hospital staffed and housing only dwarfs, and as in all good mental hospital stories, the inmates take over.  What might be a simple tale of revolt and self-liberation quickly gets dark and complicated, however, as the residents immediately descend into chaos and self destruction, indulging sadistic whims and taking advantage of a lower cast subset of the community who are all blind.  And once it gets going, it never stops; EDSS is a constant, unsettling celebration of humanity running rampant.  There's talk of authority returning and stamping down the uprising, but it never arrives.  The people are left to make of their oversized environment whatever they will.

Even Dwarfs Started Small debuted early on DVD, coming from Anchor Bay back in 1999.  I've still got mine, so we'll be looking at that here.  The same disc was later repackaged as part of AB's 2004 Werner Herzog Collection boxed set.  To date, its sole HD release is the blu-ray in Shout Factory's 2014 Herzog Collection.  And, like almost all the discs in that set, it is not sold separately.
1) 1999 AB DVD; 2) 2014 SF BD.
If you don't click through to look at these screenshots fullsize, you could be forgiven for thinking the DVD holds up pretty well.  So on a small set, maybe you could still get away with it.  But once you give it some genuine scrutiny, you can see how smeary and artifact-ridden it is.  The contrast is washed and detail is smudged away, whereas the blu-ray brings it all back, giving us a crispy and grainy image.  Detail really is lost on the DVD, like buttons on shirts, and the blu brings it back.  The framing is also slightly corrected, going from 1.30:1 to 1.33 and revealing additional picture around all four sides.  If you've been following along with my coverage of Shout's Herzog blus, you know black crush has been an intermittent issue in them, but here they actually restore information that was lost in the DVD's shadows.  The book speaks a bit generally about the transfers, so we're left to guess whether most of their blus were scanned from the original negatives or the original CRI (camera reversal intermediate).  In this case I'd guess the former, however grain is a somewhat patchy; you can tell this predates our recent years where everything is either a fresh 2 or 4k scan, but for a 2014 release, it still holds up rather well.
In both cases, the sole audio option is the original German mono, though it is noticeably clearer on Shout's DTS-HD version, with removable English subs.  And the only extra, again in both cases, is another great Herzog/ Norman Hill audio commentary, except in this case they're also joined by actor Crispin Glover.  No, Glover was not involved with this film at all, but he's quite an enthusiastic fan, and does help liven the discussion even further.
Next we have Fata Morgana, Herzog's 1971 quest for mirages.  Yes, Herzog treks out to the Sahara dessert on a mission to capture actual mirages on film.  And while he's out there, he winds up exploring the lifestyles of its various, disparate residents and fellow travelers.  The whole thing is then edited into a strange, three part Creation story of sorts, though I'm not sure how much that all adds up to. Ultimately, it winds up working simply as a fascinating document of Herzog's travels through an exotic dessert locale.  I'm not sure it comes together as whatever it was intended to be, but packed with beautiful images, eccentric characters and an eclectic soundtrack, it still adds up to an essential viewing experience.

Fata Morgana debuted on DVD as a bonus featured on Anchor Bay's 2002 Lessons of Darkness DVD, which yes, also wound up in their 2004 Werner Herzog Collection.  Except it's a 2-disc set bby itself, while they're crammed onto the same disc in the set.  Anyway, Werner Herzog also included it in his massive Documentaries and Shorts boxed set he only sold directly through his own website.  And on blu, Shout and BFI both included it in their massive boxed sets.  This time however, it is also available separately, again as a bonus, this time on BFI's Aguirre blu-ray release.
1) 2002 AB DVD; 2) 2006 Herzog DVD; 3) 2014 SF BD; 4) 2014 BFI BD.
At a slightly overly skinny 1.31:1, the two DVDs seem to share the same core transfer.  The only substantial difference between the two is that the Herzog box's disc is interlaced, which seems to be a problem with every single film in that set.  The two blu-rays, then, also seem to share a same core transfer, but not the same one as the DVDs.  They correct the aspect ratio to 1.33:1, and the image is naturally more focused and cleaner in HD.  The blacks are deeper on the blus, allowing the colors to pop more, though you'll notice in some scenes, like the second set of comparison shots, the image is brighter, giving a paler look.  Between the two, Shout's is paler than BFI, which maintains a bit of middle-ground and generally looks the most pleasing.  Thanks to this brightness, however, black crush is again avoided... in fact, Shout actually reveals a bit more in the shadows than BFI.  So deciding between the two will be a bit of a personal judgement call.  BFI's encode is also slightly cleaner, with slight hints of pixelation on the Shout, but it's a very slight distinction you'd never spot in motion.

All four DVDs give you the choice of the English or German mono tracks, in DTS-HD on the Shout and LPCM on the BFI.  All of the discs also include optional English subtitles except the Herzog boxed set DVD, so in that instance you really don't have much choice but to go with the English audio.  And speaking of something every disc except the Herzog box has, the other three all feature another great Herzog/ Hill/ Glover commentary.
The same year, Herzog made the more traditional documentary, Land of Silence and Darkness, a personal look at how the German government takes care of its handicapped citizens.  We do this chiefly by following a single blind and deaf woman who works as a caregiver to the similarly afflicted, traveling from institution and institution, and making house calls to more patients in their homes.  If you're looking for a dose of Herzog weirdness, you'll be disappointed.  But it's still a powerful and touching documentary by any right.

Anchor Bay never got around to releasing this one, though New Yorker Home Video got around to it eventually.  Personally, I skipped right to the Herzog box for this one.  Then, of course, both Shout and BFI wound up including it in their blu-ray sets.
1) 2006 Herzog DVD; 2) 2014 SF BD; 3) 2014 BFI BD.
Here, the Herzog box finally gets their fullscreen transfer to 1.33:1, and the blus wind up going a little extra wide to 1.35:1, and actually reveal more along all four sides with their fresh scan.  They've also done some corrective color timing, too, assuming the sky behind them in the first set of shots is supposed to be blue as opposed to a neon-like green.  And, of course, the DVD is severely interlaced, which both blus are free of.  Surprisingly, BFI actually crushes a little bit more information out of the blacks than Shout does here, but the DVD preserves the most of all.  I certainly wouldn't recommend opting for the DVD over one of the blus just for that, but it is one thing it got right over its HD counterparts.

Options are very simple here.  Across all three discs, we just get the original German mono, in DTS-HD on the Shout and LPCM on the BFI, with optional English subtitles across the board.  And none of the releases include any special features for this film whatsoever.
We jump ahead a few years now to 1976's Heart of Glass.  If you were disappointed by the lack of strangeness in our previous film, a film where Herzog had the entire cast hypnotized so they'd always act in a trance.  The story's set in 18th century Bavaria, where a prophetic shepherd travels to a small glassblowing town that's gone mad because they've lost the secret to making their famous, ruby glass.  He predicts that their town will be destroyed in a massive fire and, well, the people aren't great sports about it.  This is a film sure to test the patience of any young person in the room - they're all in a melancholic trance the whole time, after all - but it's full of beautiful imagery and an alluring air of despair.  By the end of this film, you'll probably feel like you've been put under a spell yourself.

And we're back to our Anchor Bay DVDs with this one from 2002, which yes, was also included in their 2004 collection.  It's also featured in both blu-ray sets.
1) 2002 AB DVD; 2) 2014 SF BD; 3) 2014 BFI BD.
We've got some weird aspect ratios with this one.  The DVD is 1.68:1, whereas the blu-rays are 1.63:1.  The framing is slightly shifted between the two (as always, the two blus share identical framing), but a big part of the difference can be accounted for by the DVD being slightly horizontally smushed (i.e. it's a little too narrow).  The BFI has noticeably deeper blacks, even compared to the other blu, but it doesn't really crush much - although I had to crank the gamma to confirm it was all still there - it just gives the film a darker, more contrast-y look. I'd say it's the most attractive by far, with Shout's blu looking a little too pale, and the DVD being too red, not to mention softer and lower resolution.  And in a film like this, where the ruby red is meant to be lush and absorbing, BFI definitely pulls that off the best.

All three discs provide the original German mono, in DTS-HD on the Shout and LPCM on the BFI, with optional English subs.  Then Herzog and Hill are back for another audio commentary, which you'll definitely want to listen to because the story behind this film is so unusual.  This time, all three discs also include the trailer, and BFI even throws in an additional photo gallery.
In 1977, Herzog made Stroszek, his second collaberation with Kasper Hauser star Bruno S.  He again plays the title role as an impoverished street performer.  He, his prostitute girlfriend and their elderly neighbor get on the wrong side of some local pimps, and wind up fleeing their native Germany to live in America.  But it turns out the American dream might actually be more soul crushing and unbearable than the crime-ridden streets of his native land.  The film is at turns charmingly funny and desperately bleak, but always all too-relatable.  This is also the film with the famous ending scene that appears in 24 Hour Party People and Control when they depict the suicide of Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis.

Anchor Bay released this one on DVD in 2001, and then inserted in their 2004 collection.  Both Shout and BFI included it in their sets... it's really quintessential Herzog.
1) 2001 AB DVD; 2) 2014 SF BD; 3) 2014 BFI BD.
The biggest improvement you'll probably notice here is that the blu-rays again have fixed the DVD's white balance.  Of course they've also really smartened up the smudgy artifacting of the standard defintion compression, though retaining a little more grain would've been nice.  All three discs do a fine job preserving the film's 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though you'll notice the blus continue to have a little mroe around all four sides.  And now, so far, Shout's been doing pretty good in the black crush compartment, but here's one where they really start to go overboard and push out too much information.  Just look at Bruno's hair in the first comparison, which is a very bright, well lit shot.  And you'll see BFI doesn't have that problem making it a clear winner this time around.

All three versions offer the same German (though there's some English spoken, too, once they get to America) mono tracks, in DTS-HD on the Shout and LPCM on the BFI.  All three feature optional English subtitles for the German language, but only Shout gives you two options: subtitles for just the German audio or for all of it.  All three discs also include the always excellent Herzog/ Hill commentary and the theatrical trailer, with BFI going that slight extra step to throw in another photo slideshow.
Finally, we end in the 80s with 1984's Where the Green Ants Dream, Herzog's Australian film.  If you guessed that Herzog would surely concentrate on the inherent conflict between the European settlers and the Aborigional natives if he were to tell an Australian story, you'd be right.  But here he manages to handle some heavy poltical subject matter in a surprisingly light-hearted way.  It's based, very freely, on a real case where natives went to court against a mining company that wanted to take over their land.  In this version, they warn that this particular plot of land is where green ants come to dream, and disturbing that dream means the end of the world.  It's certainly on the side of the natives rather than the west, though it protrays both sympathetically; however I suspect the somewhat silly way Herzog presents the tribe's beliefs and behaviors might be a little offensive to actual Aborigines.

Anchor Bay never released this one, and for a very long time I had to rely on a 2005 German import DVD from Art Haus to see this film at all.  Fortunately, it's a pretty good disc: anamorphic widescreen with some bonus features, but it's only English-friendly because the film itself is spoken in English.  Otherwise, it's essentially German-only, as we'll get into further below.  In terms of HD, this is a Shout Factory exclusive, as BFI did not include it in their set, and nobody else has released it on blu-ray either.
1) 2005 AH DVD; 2) 2014 SF BD.
The DVD here was pretty good.  It may've been a little too red, but then I feel like Shout may've over-corrected going a little too blue (though not as badly as they did on Little Dieter Needs To Fly).  They've also widened the picture a bit, from 1.81:1 to 1.86:1, which equates to more image almost entirely on the right-hand side of the frame.  The HD of course clears up a lot of fuzz, and the colors and contrast are certainly stronger.  Yes, they do seem to brush the blacks a little here, but it's very mild, and I probably wouldn't have even noticed if some of the previous discs we've looked at hadn't made me hyper-sensitive to it at this point.  You know by this point, they've got seeking it out.  Overall, it's a pretty satisfying blu that I can nitpick, or see looking better if anyone ever wanted to lay out the dough for an updated 4k scan; but I'm perfectly happy with it as-is.

Now, this film is shot and best seen in English, and both discs give us that option (in DTS-HD on the blu).  But there is also a German dub, which both discs also include.  Unfortunately, Art Haus only bothered with German subtitles though, whereas Shout has English ones.  Furthermore, there's a German audio commentary with Herzog and moderator Laurens Straub.  Well, both discs include it, but only Shout translates it into English subtitles, so the DVD left non-German speakers in the cold there.  Art Haus also included the short film Wodaabe: Herdsmen Of the Sun, which I've covered on my Herzog short film page.
And with that, we've finally completely covered all of the Shout and BFI Herzog sets.  Neither set has a "bonus disc," or any other special features that weren't already completely spelled out with their associated films.  As you can see in the photo above, the BFI set is a foldout digibook housed in an external slipbox.  It comes with a 36-page booklet with notes by Laurie Johnson.  Shout's set, on the otherhand, is itself a book, with 46 pages (not including those that house the aactual discs) with notes by Stephen J. Smith, Chris Wahl and Brad Prager.  Curiously, the booklet for the BFI set claims that "[a]lternative 5.1 sound mixes were also included" for all of the films in its set, despite that being true for none of them.  I guess that was the plan, and then they cut a few corners at the last minute?

So which set do I recommend?  Unfortunately, there's no easy answer.  First of all, if you want all of his work in HD, you pretty much need both, despite the overlap, because each set has a bunch of exclusive films.  They also have a few unique extras, although in that regard, they're pretty evenly matched.  In terms of picture quality, BFI usually has the edge, but not always, and there's only one or two (see: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) where I'd say the difference is strong enough for it to be an important distinction.  It would be great if either company would create a part 2, debuting more of Herzog's catalog on blu and eliminating any exclusivity in the process; but unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

1 comment:

  1. And now, all these years later, Shout Factory is bringing us a Volume 2 in June!