Curious Imports: The Werner Herzog Edition (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's an unusual Werner Herzog blu-ray boxed set available for import from Germany.  It's called the Werner Herzog Edition, and it's got six of his films on blu on five discs, plus a bunch of extras.  And it seems to have some worldwide HD exclusives... maybe, sorta, kinda?  The language options listed online are a might bit confusing, too.  One of the films is just listed as an extra, despite being a full-length Werner Herzog film that's been released on DVD around the world.  Does that mean it's in standard definition or something?  How are the transfers?  Are any of the extras subtitled?  Herzog fans have been speculating about it online for a long time, but you know, we're never really going to get to the bottom of it until one of us dummies just bites the bullet and gets the damned thing in-hand.  Well, lucky for you guys, Momma ain't raise no geniuses.

Update 11/7/17 - 11/22/17: Yes, a big update just a week later.   Can you believe I tried to pass these comparisons off without having Shout Factory's Herzog: The Collection's discs?  Me either!  I printed out this post just so I could spit on it.  😜  But seriously, almost immediately after making this post, I wound up getting an Amazon gift card, and guess what I sprung for?  Yep!  So now we're going to have some proper blu on blu comparisons for this post, and you can definitely expect more comparisons of other Herzog flicks from that set over time, including one that was previously requested in the comments.

Update 12/23/17: I can't stop updating this post!  After talking so much about that Canadian My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done blu, I tracked down a copy, and have added it to the comparisons. Behold, as one of my weakest posts becomes one of my strongest!

Update 1/20/19: And the updates keep rollin' in!  This time we're adding the UK BFI blu-ray of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser from their Werner Herzog Collection boxed set to the mix.

Update 10/13/19: Wow, this has become probably my longest, and certainly most updated, page on the site!  Well, this time I'm adding another blu-ray edition of The White Diamond to the mix from Revolver's Encounters In the Natural World blu-ray boxed set.
One thing that makes this Werner Herzog Edition weird is its seemingly arbitrary collection of films.  Apart from being directed by Werner Herzog, they have almost nothing in common.  Oh, and they don't even all have that in common.  We've got movies from the 70s, and movies from the 2010s.  We've got dramas, and we've got documentaries.  There's no over-arching thematic connection as far as I can tell.  It's like someone just threw a few darts at Herzog's IMDB page to decide what to package together.  It's not even like these just happen to be the only Herzog films Art Haus had the rights to; they've released plenty of his other flicks, from Nosferatu to Scream of Stone.  It's just baffling.  And speaking of baffling, what better film to start us off than 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser?
Enigma is the first of Herzog's films starring the genuinely enigmatic Bruno S. (he later brought him back to star in 1977's Stroszek).  Bruno S. was a self-taught musician painter living in the streets, who Herzog had seen in a documentary.  Despite having never acted before, Herzog gave him the starring role in a strange, true story about a 19th century stranger who appeared in town one day after having been trapped alone in a basement for seventeen years.  He's made into a circus attraction until a professor teaches him to speak and write after which he becomes a bit of a mysterious celebrity.

This is Herzog through and through.  A deliberately told, off-beat tale with heart and eccentricity to spare.  Helmut Doring of Even Dwarfs Started Small appears as the "little king," the camera regularly turns away from the action to follow the local wild life, and what little score there is was provided by Popol Vuh.  The viewing audience is even taught how to hypnotize a chicken, a trick he repeats from his first feature, Signs Of Life.  In short, it's pretty great, but mainstream audiences new to Herzog's work will probably throw up their hands in frustration and bewilderment.
Anchor Bay first released The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on DVD back in 2002.  They repackaged it a couple times and it came out in other regions; but it was pretty much always that one SD transfer.  When the Werner Herzog Edition came out, this was an exciting inclusion, because it was the film's HD debut.  But before any of you get too drawn in, I'll let you know right now, this film does not include the English subtitle track or any other English language options.  So unless you're a native German speaker, this disc won't do you much good.  Fortunately, the disappointment from that has been washed away by Shout Factory and the British Film Institute, who included Enigma in their big, competing Werner Herzog box sets in 2014.
1) 2002 US Anchor Bay DVD; 2) 2013 German Art Haus blu;
3) 2014 Shout Factory blu-ray; 4) 2014 BFI UK blu-ray.
The first thing to point out is what a massive improvement the blu-rays are to the DVD.  We're not talking about the same master slapped onto a higher def disc with a little less compression; but a whole new image.  The blu-rays are all pillar-boxed to 1.66:1, while the DVD goes for a fuller 1.77:1, but the blus still manage to reveal more picture on all four sides.  They've corrected the colors so skies are blue instead of pink, and dialed back the excessive contrast and whatever kind of edge enhancement they used to pull the image out of all that artifact noise.  But while they're all clearly using the same core master, it would be a real mistake to assume all three blus are equivalent.  The Shout definitely has deeper blacks, for example, which on first glance could appear more pleasing with slightly richer colors.  But on closer scrutiny, it does actually crush the detail out quite a bit.
Art Haus blu left; Shout Factory blu mid; BFI blu right.
Look at the barker's coat in the second set of shots, or better yet the dog in the lower right-hand corner.  He's practically been erased on the Shout disc; his face submerging into a sea of solid black.  And the black crush occurs throughout the film.  Here it's not so bad, but it's actually fairly severe in other scenes.  I'd still say the US blu is leaps and bounds above the old DVD, but with that black crush, the Art Haus and BFI discs win out.  Between the BFI and Art Haus, it's a considerably closer call, but BFI seems to have the best compression, more faithfully capturing grain where it's more likely to be smoothed out in patches on the other blus, though AH's is still better than Shout's.  And while you can make more observations about barely perceptible distinctions (AH's blu is just a teensy bit paler than BFI's marginally deeper colors, but BFI lifts even a bit more out of the shadows), in terms of what you'd actually notice watching on your televisions, it's pretty much a tie between the two, with the Shout disc coming in below.

Except, like I said, for the no English subtitles thing; that really takes Art Haus out of the running.  The Anchor Bay DVD just gave us the original German audio with English subtitles, and this is what Shout and BFI provide, too, though boosted to DTS-HD and PCM, respectively.  The Art Haus blu has that same DTS-HD German audio, but this time only with optional German subtitles. 
Don't worry; he's just hypnotized.
Extras-wise, Anchor Bay came up with a great audio commentary by Herzog along with moderator Norman Hill.  They recorded commentaries for a whole ton of Herzog's films and they're all great.  Herzog fans would be doing themselves a favor by seeking every single one of them out (hint: Shout's Collection rounds them up quite nicely).  They also included the trailer and a fold-out insert with notes by Jim Knipfel.  Shout retains the commentary and the trailer (now in HD), and handily trumps the insert with their impressive looking 45 page book, with notes by Stephen J. Smith, Chris Wahl and Brad Pager.

Art Haus didn't retain the commentary, but instead recorded a new one with Herzog... in German.  They also included the trailer, some bonus trailers, and a new photo gallery.  I have to admit, I'm a little curious about that new commentary and wish it could've gotten subtitled for BFI or Shout's releases (which just have the Norman Hill one), but hey.  Long story short: this is all very interesting if you're German, but for the rest of us, this all this Werner Herzog Edition stuff rates a big "who cares," right?  Hang in there, though; later discs in this set are decidedly more English friendly.  ...English friendlier?
First though, let's burn through the rest of the German-only stuff.  Lessons of Darkness is our next film, and it's a bit of a short one: a 1992 documentary clocking it at five minutes short of an hour.  It's all about the amazing footage Herzog was able to get of the burning oil fields in Kuwait immediately after the Gulf War.  It's also quite famous among documentary filmmakers and enthusiasts because it's one of a very rare breed: a fictional documentary.  Mind you, I don't mean a mockumentary, like Drop Dead Gorgeous or Dadestown, where a bunch of actors are pretending to be in real scenes being shot for an imagined documentary.  This is real documentary footage of an actual situation, but then Herzog provides completely fictitious narration, imaging a whole new story behind what you're seeing.  I once got to ask Alex Gibney about it as he was what distinguishes a documentary filmmaker is the obligation to tell the truth and I said, "so does that mean Lessons of Darkness isn't a real documentary?"  Ah well, no, you see... it's one of those examples that really challenges how we understand the form.  So you can nerd out to that debate, or just zone out and let Lessons' incredible combination of stunning footage, classical music and Herzog's imagination just wash over you and carry you away.
So like Enigma, Anchor Bay first put Lessons of Darkness out on DVD back in 2002.  Since it's a shorter film, they included another Herzog doc, Fata Morgana, on a bonus disc.  And have you ever wondered about that giant DVD box-set Werner Herzog sells directly from his personal website of 24 of his documentary and short films?  Well, I bit the bullet on that one, too, and Lessons of Darkness is one of the films in it (so's Fata Morgana).  But of course, also like Enigma, the excitement wore off this Art Haus blu as soon as Shout Factory included it (and again, yes, Fata Morgana, though this time Lessons shares a disc with Little Dieter Needs To Fly) in their Collection with English language options.
2002 US Anchor Bay DVD first; 2006 Herzog self-release DVD second;
2013 German Art Haus blu third; 2014 US Shout Factory blu fourth.
So, not a lot of surprises here. The Anchor Bay DVD describes itself as 1.77:1, but it's more like 1.73:1 with very subtle pillar-boxing.  Werner's box set version is pretty much identical across the board except, as you can see in the first set of shots, it has interlacing frames.  The blus just barely shift the aspect ratio to 1.78:1.  They present another solid upgrade with increased detail and some subtle but welcome color correction.  Like, look at the second set of shots.  It's not a huge boost in fine detail, but it's just nice to see it shed that softening compression around her eyes and nose and all.  And thankfully, Lessons does not have the black crush problem that Enigma has.  In fact, it's actually slightly (though you'd never notice it outside of a direct comparison) brighter.

Again, the Art Haus blu only has the German audio.  Anchor Bay gives us both audio tracks, the English and the German, but no subtitles, so it's a kind of pointless choice.  Here is where the big Herzog box shines, because it gives us both the German and English audio, plus English and Italian subs.  And finally, Shout's Collection only gives us the English audio track, despite including optional English subtitles.
I remember being surprised and disappointed that Anchor Bay didn't record a Herzog/ Hill audio commentary for Lessons of Darkness.  They did record one for Fata Morgana (in fact, they even got Crispin Glover to join him on that one), which in itself I suppose could be considered an extra.  But that's about all we get for this flick.  No trailer, no nothin'.  And that's true across the board: nothing in the Werner box (unless you count a general documentary about Herzog, which is part of the set but doesn't talk about Lessons at all) and nothing on either blu.
And I guess that kind of explains why they this is the disc the stuck the sixth film on, The White Diamond.  And yes, folks, The White Diamond has English language options!  We're finally getting into the stuff one might actually want to consider importing for now.  This one's not in the Shout set and has never been released on blu-ray in the US.  And despite concerns that because it was included as a bonus feature, it might just be in SD; I'm happy to report that it's not.  The White Diamond is here and in high definition.
The White Diamond is a 2004 documentary that follows a scientist on an expedition to fly his untested diamond-shaped helium balloon creation over the rain forests of Guyana.  This is his second attempt, after his first try with a similar balloon years ago killed his partner.  So tensions are high, but as a Herzog film, you can expect a lot of the film's attention to be directed towards the beautiful landscapes and wildlife, excelling in capturing footage few filmmakers ever get the chance to, perfectly marrying image and music.

Wellspring released this one here in the US, as a DVD only in 2005, both separately and as part of a 2-disc set with Wheel Of Time, another Herzog doc we'll be coming to shortly.  And Revolver released it in the UK on blu in 2009, both separately and as part of their Encounters In the Natural World box set.  For the record, my copy is the one from the set.
2004 US Wellspring DVD top; 2009 UK Revolver blu middle;
2013 German Art Haus blu bottom.
The big story here is that they're all interlaced.  Yuck.  The 1.78:1 framing is identical on all three versions, too, right down to the ugly edges on the left and right sides of the frame.  But make no mistake, the blus are still substantial improvements over the DVD, which is terribly compressed.  It's worth noting, though, that The White Diamond has also been released on blu in Australia by Shock, which is reportedly free of any interlacing and superior even to these editions.
Because it's listed an extra feature, the back of the Werner Herzog Edition doesn't tell you anything about this film apart from its running time.  So I'm happy to report that they actually did right by it in the language department.  We get both the German and English audio track, plus optional German subtitles, and a secondary German subtitle track that only translates the native English speakers.  Wellspring only has the English audio with no subtitle options and no special features of any kind apart from a bunch of bonus trailers.  So this Art Haus blu is fully English friendly and far superior to anything we have in the US, at least.
But it's definitely not the best in the world.  While, yes, the Revolver is just as interlaced and looks identical to the German blu, it has two English language options: the stereo track from the DVD and a 5.1 mix in DTS-HD (though no subtitle options).  But what sets it apart is the fact it also features a 26-minute behind-the-scenes 'making of' documentary, which is really quite excellent.  And if you bought the Encounters boxed set, it also comes with two additional Herzog shorts, which are SD upconverts and have already been previously released on DVD, but hey, they're better than nothing.  Really, though, the 'making of' is the big deal.  The Australian release doesn't even have that.
My bad.  I thought we were past the non-English friendly flicks, but there's one more.  Art Haus presents 2003's Wheel Of Time in German only.  Still, serious completionists may consider importing this one anyway, because it seems to be the only blu-ray release of this film anywhere in the world.  Yeah, there are DVDs, but this is the only HD transfer.  So most of us will dismiss it because it's not English-friendly, but a few of you might want to look at it anyway.  You could always mux it with an English audio rip on your computer or something I guess... But whatever.  I won't pretend this isn't another disappointment.
Wheel Of Time is a 2003 documentary about an ancient Buddhist ceremony where thousands of believers congregate to create some beautiful, temporary artwork (it is traditionally destroyed at the end of the ceremony).  So Herzog is able to capture their work with his cameras before it is erased, but follows the long, grueling pilgrimage many of the Buddhists make for this event.  He also interviews The Dalai Lama and naturally captures plenty of colorful - and sometimes dire - images.

As with The White Diamond, the only US release is a 2005 Wellspring DVD, released separately or in that 2-disc set.  And like I said, this time there are no foreign blu-ray alternatives.
2005 US Wellspring DVD top; 2013 German Art Haus blu bottom.
Wheel of Time is not interlaced like The White Diamond was.  At least in terms of the blu-rays.  Wellspring's DVD still is.  But let's face it, Wellspring were never a top-of-the-line outfit.  If a movie you were waiting for to come out on DVD was announced by Wellspring, it was a disappointment.  There disc is interlaced, poorly compressed and has some weird framing issues (see the second set of shots).  Art Haus's 1.78:1 blu is a very strong upgrade in all fronts. 

So the blu-ray only has the German audio, plus German subtitles for the Native English speakers captured on camera.  The US DVD only has the English audio with no subs.
Did I mention that this disc is frustrating?  Art Haus has even produced an exclusive, on-camera interview with Werner Herzog about this film.  And of course it's in German with no subtitles.  They also include the trailer, which is more than I can say for Wellspring who have nothing to offer but some generic bonus trailers.  Dammit, this would be a must-have disc with a few additional subtitle tracks!  😡
Okay, I just took a break to kick some office furniture, but now I'm back and it all really is English-friendly from here on out.  And on disc four we have 2009's thoroughly eccentric My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.  This, of course, is the famous collaboration between director Werner Herzog and producer David Lynch.  And admittedly, for all us film fans who've waited decades for these two artistic titans to come together, it's a disappointment.  It feels cheap and quickly thrown together.  But, if you can step back from the massive expectations the pairing engenders, it's a decent, quirky little flick.  If you haven't watched it since it first came out, I recommend a revisit.
Herzog has described My Son as a horror film, and while I don't know if I'd quite go that far, it is at least horror adjacent.  It's based on a true story of a popular Californian high school student who, in 1979, killed his mother with a sword after having been theoretically driven mad by playing the lead in a student production of OrestesOrestes is an ancient Greek play where the titular character also kills his own mother.  So they've got a heck of a story to work with (and it holds up a bit better if you remember that what you're watching is based on actual events), and a great cast, including Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Ant Man's comic relief sidekick Michael Peña, Brad Dourif, Udo Kier and Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriskie.
Now, My Son has never been released on blu-ray in the United States, so there's good reason to be checking out blu-ray imports.  Here, we just got a DVD from First Look in 2010, though at least it's a special edition.  Canada got a nice blu, though, from VVS Films, and of course it's in this German set.  But, as you may've already noted from the above screenshot, this movie has kind of a digitally over-processed look, so will the blu-rays improve much? 
2010 US First Look DVD top; 2010 Canadian VVS blu mid; 2013 German Art Haus blu bottom.
Well, one thing's for sure, the DVD has a serious problem with milky blacks, which the blu-rays go out of its way to correct.  And while it looks dangerously close, I don't think they've actually crushed much (there's just not a lot of dynamic range in this film to begin with).  If you can look past that, the transfers aren't too different.  Both are slightly matted to 1.85:1, and yes, the blus are a little sharper and clearer for being in HD.  But it actually appears like they've used the same root master, the blus just look heaps better because they pulled down the blacks.  Apart from that, it's an upgrade, but a slim one.  That one thing just makes all the difference.  And no, the two blus aren't 100% identical, though they're similar enough that you'd never spot it without a direct comparison like this.  While both blus pull their blacks down to actual black, the German blu also has darker midtones.  It's a slight difference, but if you open both shots in different tabs and then flip between them, you'll immediately see the lightness going up and down.  For that reason, I slightly prefer the Canadian blu, because it makes shadowed elements, like Udo Kier's face in the first set of comparisons, a little easier to see.  On the other hand, you could say it makes the colors a little richer on the German blu.  So it's a question of preference, and a very slight one at that.

The US DVD gave us a choice between English stereo and 5.1, plus optional English and Spanish subtitles.  The Herzog Edition case claims to give us three audio options: German and English 5.1 tracks, and the English stereo track, all in DTS-HD, plus optional German subtitles.  But they actually only have two audio tracks, leaving off the English stereo mix.  The Canadian also just has two audio options, the English 5.1 and, naturally, a French 5.1, and it does also have optional English subtitles.
Art Haus gives us some decent special features here, too.  Primarily, we get a 28-minute 'making of' (which, yes, is in English), two trailers, a photo gallery, and a massive collection of bonus trailers.  However, the US DVD and Canadian blu have that same 'making of,' and the trailer, but also plenty more.  First there's a short film called Plastic Bag, which has no connection to My Son, except that Werner Herzog acts as the narrator.  Basically, if you remember that student film the kid in American Beauty was making, this is that fully fleshed out in the real world.  Frankly, I could take or leave that.  But much more importantly, the 2010 discs have an audio commentary by Herzog, screenwriter Herbert Golder and co-producer Eric Bassett.  Now, that's a noteworthy loss.  Extras-wise, the only difference between the US DVD and Canadian blu is the blu has a couple extra unrelated bonus features, and has reversible artwork with French text instead of English.
Finally, we come to Happy People: A Year In the Taiga.  This one's interesting, because it's not exactly a film by Werner Herzog.  It's a four-hour documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov made for Russian television, that Werner Herzog and his editor Joe Bini cut down to about 90 minutes and added Herzog's narration over.  You can actually find the complete original - four hour long chapters, divided by the four seasons - subtitled into English online.  Frankly, I find it deliberately misleading how it's consistently marketed as "a Herzog film."  That's not to say he contributed nothing of value with his (and Bini's) creative input.  But honestly, what we have here, the only version released on disc anywhere around the world, is Herzog's much shorter "international version" of Vasyukov's film.
Happy People is a 2010 documentary that closely examines the day-to-day lives of the small group of indigenous people living in Bakhtia, Siberia.  Cut off from society, they live in very rough conditions.  I mean, holy cow, the sections of this film where the people and their animals are just covered by insects is frightening.  It feels a bit like watching a tiny culture from centuries ago until one of them breaks out a modern convenience like a chainsaw.  Herzog puts his spin on the material, compared to the original Russian version, which feels more like a standard television production; but it still feels more conventional than a "true" Herzog documentary.  At the end of the day, the strength of this film comes from the fact that they've got tons of great, on location footage of people living this tough outdoors lifestyle.  So it's a compelling watch; no documentary fan is going to come away wishing for their time back.  But it's not the same experience as something like Encounters At the End Of the World or Little Dieter Needs To Fly, where you can feel Herzog on the ground shaping what we see with his distinct perspective.
So Happy People actually came out first exclusively in the UK from Second Sight in 2011.  Finally, in 2013, it started to get a little broader recognition and appear on DVD in the US from Music Box Films and of course on blu-ray from Art Haus in their boxed set.  As far as I can tell, this is the only HD option available anywhere in the world to date.
2011 UK Second Sight DVD top; 2013 Music Box DVD middle; 2013 German Art Haus blu bottom.
But maybe there's a reason for that.  This footage looks like it was shot on VHS or some low definition camcorder.  So the difference in bumping it up to HD is practically imperceptible.  Every single one of these films presents the film as 1.78:1 - all clearly coming from the same master - but Vasyukov's original television version was fullscreen 1.33:1, with considerably more vertical information [left], which every one of these discs has cropped.  I'm guessing it's a creative decision on Herzog's part, though, so I won't fault it for a Happy People release.

Happily, Art Haus has given us both the English and German audio, in 5.1 DTS-HD.  The original Second Sight DVD only gave us the English audio.  But the US DVD actually gave us the best audio options: the English track, the German track, and a track of the original Russian voices with optional English subtitles.  Still, at least all three are English-friendly.
But let's talk extras, because that gets interesting.  The Second Sight DVD has nothing, not even a bonus trailer.  It's completely barebones.  But the other discs provide. The German blu has four sets of deleted scenes, broken into the four seasons and adding up to almost an hour, compiling a lot of what was cut from the original film, including use of the original narration.  And yes, these are English friendly.  That's about it, though, except for a boatload of bonus trailers.

The US DVD, on the other hand, cooked up their own little oddball edition.  They include a brief interview with Herzog, taken from an introduction he did for the film at a festival, and they show a lower quality, seven minute clip of the original Russian version of the film, without subtitles, just to give "the viewer an inspirational reference point to Werner Herzog's role as co-director and narrator on the final film," as an on-screen prologue explains.  They also include the trailer.  But most surprisingly, they also throw in a whole other Russian television documentary about life in Siberia (not by Vasyukov) called Chasing Spring In Siberia.  This one's focused on the wildlife, though, not the people.  It's about seventy-four minutes long, and no, Herzog doesn't interfere with it at all.
So, is the Werner Herzog Edition worth importing?  For the most part no, unless you speak German.  If you do, it's a pretty excellent set.  But if you're a serious Herzog fan, even if you don't speak German, there are legit reasons to add this to your collection, being the only HD editions of a couple of his films.  But that really only applies if you're the sort of person to spring for multiple editions of the same films.  There is something to get out of this set, but it just won't be enough for most of us.  We'll have to keep our fingers crossed that another label will put the remaining films out on English-language blu-ray some day.  I mean, it turns out it doesn't matter much for Happy People, but we at least need Wheel of Time.

1 comment:

  1. What a great help to sort out all these international Herzog compilations. Thanks much!