Werner Herzog's Short Films: The 80s, 90s and 2000s (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

...And we're back from Part 1, the 60s and 70s shorts.  So let's start out with a Werner Herzog short that technically isn't a Werner Herzog short.  Or at least he didn't direct it.  1980's Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe was directed by Les Blank, and it documents the time Werner literally ate his shoe in front of a live audience.  He promised his former student Errol Morris that if he ever completed his first feature, he'd eat his shoe.  And Errol did, so Werner did.  It's not a great film, but it's amusing, feeling more like a DVD extra than a stand-alone short.  And, appropriately, it was included on Criterion's 2015 blu-ray of Morris's first feature, Gates of Heaven.  Before that, Criterion had already released it on their 2005 DVD of Burden of Dreams.  And in between those releases, it was included in the big box set of documentaries and short films sold directly through wernerherzog.com in 2006, and BFI's Werner Herzog Collection in 2014.
2005 Criterion DVD first; 2006 .com DVD next;
2014 BFI blu after that; 2015 Criterion blu last.
So all of the discs seem to be using the same source except for the .com box.  I mean, clearly it has serious interlacing problems like every film in that set, as we're seeing; but even apart from that it stands out for having a smeary, videotape-like transfer when even the earlier edition had a much more film-like transfer.  Besides that, things are looking pretty similar.  The blu-rays do offer a degree of clarity above the Criterion DVD, so we know that despite most of these releases just treating this short like an extra, they haven't merely upconverted the old master.  We also see the Burdens DVD is very slightly vertically stretched at 1.33:1, where both blus present the exact same framing in 1.34:1.  Neither BFI nor Criterion bother adding subtitles or alternate audio options, but the .com box does throw in optional Italian subs.
Next, we have a bit of a minor documentary work: Huie's Sermon.  It's literally a filmed presentation of a sermon by a pastor named Huie Rogers in Brooklyn.  The camera is mostly locked in a single shot with  the entire 45 minutes i presented nearly unedited except for a couple shots of people entering and leaving the church at the beginning and end.  The camera also moves at a few points when Huie starts moving out of shot, and makes a few cuts and creative decisions towards the end.  But basically your appreciation of the film will depend entirely on how fascinated you are or aren't by Huie's sermon.  If you are, you'll be happy to know that, besides being included in the .com box, it's one of the shorts BFI remastered in HD for their blu-ray set.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
Seriously, the interlacing in the .com box is so distracting, it's hard to even notice all the other improvements made by BFI with their new 2k scan besides that one, drastic fix.  But it's all here.  The color correction is massive and very welcome, and detail and grain are certainly clearer and more natural.  The aspect ratio is also fixed from 1.30 to 1.37:1, pulling in a few extra slivers of information.  BFI has breathed new life into this film; it really pops now and feels authentic.  They don't bother with any subtitle options or anything, though, while the .com box provides optional German subs.
Now here's a great, little documentary.  God's Angry Man is a terrific look at a real eccentric: televangelist Gene Scott.  Werner interviews him at his home, meets his parents, and gets behind the scenes of his television show.  That's about half the film, and the other half is direct footage of his live broadcast where he screams at his viewers for not donating enough money and declares war on the FCC.  This film was made the year before Fitzcarraldo, and I wonder if Scott wasn't an influence on that character.  Anyway, God's Angry Man long proliferated on bootlegs before appearing in the .com box, and eventually BFI's collection.  I was really excited to get this one restored in HD, even more than many of his features.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
BFI's new scan totally revitalizes this movie.  Just to clarify, all the BFI shorts came from 35mm negatives except The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, Handicapped Future, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Huie's Sermon and God's Angry Man, which, according to the booklet, "were scanned in 2k from the best available 16mm negative, 16mm reversal positive and 16mm print materials."  We're not told specifically which of those came from the 16mm negs, reversal positive or print materials, though.  But whatever they used here looks great, finally ridding of us the dupey, washed look of the previous edition (and, of course, that interlacing).  The DVD is also a bit vertically stretched at 1.29:1, which the blu brings down to 1.35:1.  It does find a sliver of extra picture on the top and left sides, but most of that difference is just un-squeezing the image.  The colors are lavishly restored and grain is on the light side at times, but it's far more filmic than the old DVD.  The sole advantage of the DVD is that it offers optional English and Italian subtitles, which BFI neglects.
Speaking of BFI neglecting things, they completely left this next short out of their Collection.  But thankfully, Shout Factory take the lead and give us a new HD transfer of Ballad Of the Little Soldier, which had previously only been available in the .com/ Shock boxes and one of those New Yorker DVDs (there were apparently two total, by the way, each with three shorts).  Ballad's a heart-wrenching documentary about the the ravages of war in Nicaragua including, yes, a close look at the children who were routinely pressed into combat.  The film was started by journalist Denis Reichle and completed by Herzog, but still, unlike some of his early documentaries, you still feel his creative imprint on this one.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 Shout Factory blu bottom.
Like with BFI's HD restorations, Shout Factory has clearly given this film a brand new scan that transforms the faded, yellowed transfer we had before into a real, living movie.  The image is surprisingly clear and the colors are fresh and distinct.  Whites are actually white, and of course the interlacing is corrected.  The framing has been pushed slightly to the left, and the slightly vertically squeezed image has fixed from 1.29:1 to 1.35:1.  It's not all perfect, though, because there seems to be a little black crush, that has plagued a couple of the films in Shout's Collection (see, for example, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser).  You'll notice it more in the previous shot of the child soldier than the comparison; but it still blows what we had before out of the water.  Both editions give us the option of either the English or German audio versions, but only Shout Factory goes the extra distance and provides optional English subtitles.
That same year, Herzog released The Dark Glow Of the Mountains.  It follows two German mountain climbers who lead a team on an excessively arduous ascent, with Herzog bouncing back and forth between interviews seeking to understand their motives and the sort of exotic location footage only Herzog would go out and get.  It's an evocative combination of Herzog's interview style and impressive shots set to Popol Vuh's distinctive music.  I've only got it on that .com box, but it was also available on one of those New Yorker DVDs, which makes sense as this has more of a broad, crowd pleasing appeal than a lot of his earlier, eccentric shorts.
It's not too bad, apart from the interlacing.  Grrr!  Have I mentioned that yet?  Otherwise, it's standard def, of course, with softer detail and the colors could really stand to be refreshed.  And that 1.29:1 aspect ratio has got to be too skinny.  But it's a mix of 16mm and Super 8 footage, so it probably couldn't look all that much better, right?  That's at least what I like to tell myself since there's no blu anywhere on the horizon.  The .com box offers us the choice of English or German audio, but there's no subtitle option, so it's not that much of a choice really.
This next one I've talked a bit about before, in my coverage of Woyzeck extras, but it deserves to be properly explored here.  Portrait: Werner Herzog is a supposedly (we'll get into why in a sec) 1986 autobiographical doc.  Herzog films himself where he grew up and on the locations of some of his films, talking about his experiences and showing clips from his films.  He interviews Lotte Eisner, a patriarch of German cinema and generally shares some great little insights.  It's in the .com box and presented in HD in Shout Factory's collection, although given the source material, it's not a great distinction in terms of PQ.
But then there's The South Bank Show: Werner Herzog, that was featured in BFI's collection.  So, basically it's an hour-long episode of an ITV show, in this case one entirely focused on presenting a biography of Herzog, with direction credited to Jack Bond.  But if you watch this and Portrait back to back, you'll notice it's pretty much all the same footage, re-edited, except South Bank has even more footage (after all, it's almost a half hour longer).  But the same self-interviews of Herzog visiting his locations are presented here, so is the Eisner conversation.  And yet, this episode apparently aired in 1982.  So... Herzog shot all this stuff, then lent it to ITV for their show, but didn't use it for his own film until four years later?  Or Herzog crafted Portrait out of footage mostly shot for South Bank?  I'm a little confused, but anyway, the end result is the same: Portrait is a shorter, cut-down version of this.  There is a tiny bit of material unique to Portrait (Herzog talking in front of a church near where he grew up), and a lot of unique material in South Bank (from Herzog playing soccer with his team to a candid interview with his ex-wife).  So both have value, but South Bank is definitely the richer of the two.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 Shout Factory blu mid; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
See?  The difference in getting Portrait in HD from Shout is negligible, except that at least means they fixed the interlacing, which is nice.  But otherwise, they both look like mud, with a 1.30:1 aspect ratio including a big strip of dead space along the right hand side.  But clearly ITV had a high quality source, because wow, what a difference in the same footage from The South Bank Show!  Sure, it's grainy and a little light on detail, which is surely down to the quality of the original film.  But at least this looks like film, with natural grain, authentic colors, and the image unsquished back to 1.33:1.  All three versions include English subtitles, but Shout Factory loses a couple points for burning theirs into the picture.  If you're a completist, sure, you need both films.  After all, both have at least a little unique content, and there's some importance to Portrait in that it's how Herzog presented the material himself.  But for 95% of the population, I'd just recommend picking The South Bank Show episode and not even worrying about Portrait.
We leave the 80's with one last short, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun.  The Wodaabe are a small, nomadic tribe who live in the Sahara.  We're told they consider themselves to be the most beautiful people in the world, and this is demonstrated by their elaborate beauty contest-style courtship rituals.  And yes, they also herd some pretty exotic animals.  It's all pretty fascinating.  The only other place I've seen this one pop up besides the .com/ Shock boxes is as an extra on the German, 2005 Art Haus DVD of Where the Green Ants Dream, which yes, is generally English friendly. 
2005 Art Haus DVD top; 2006 .com DVD bottom.
Well, they're clearly using the same master for both, which isn't a good thing.  It's ugly, flat and full of visual noise, not looking much better than a VHS tape.  It reminds me of those old PBS DVDs that looked like we were watching their programs through a screen door.  I'm calling the aspect ratio 1.32:1, but there's so much crap along the edges of the picture, it's hard to determine exactly where the picture ends and the random video junk along the edges begins.  The only difference between the two discs is that Art Haus doesn't have the interlace combing, making it the preferable option.  But clearly a restoration is in order here.  Both discs give us the choice of listening to this with the English or German narration (both spoken by Herzog), but they both have burnt in English subtitles regardless.
If you're getting sick of hearing about the .com box, don't worry, we've come to the last one from there.  But hey, don't knock it; it (and the Shock version) is the only place some of these wonderful films have been made available.  1993's Bells From the Deep finds Herzog in Russia, talking to faith healers and pilgrims, looking for a lost city, supposedly saved by God from invading forces by the prayers of the devoted.  The titular bells can supposedly be heard emanating from the sunken city below.  Jesus Himself even comes and talks to us!
2006 .com DVD.
You know what to expect at this point.  Fullscreen at 1.30:1, slightly faded and tragically interlaced.  Being a more modern, yet pre-digital, flick, it does hold up better than some of the older ones, with somewhat bolder, more distinct colors and image separation.  But it sure ain't high def.  We're given both the English and German audio versions, though our only subtitle options are (removable) Italian ones.
So, we've finally worked our way through the Documentaries and Shorts box (though there are other feature-length docs still on there), but we've still got one last short film.  In 2002, Werner Herzog made Ten Thousand Years Old as part of a series of 10 minute short films by various celebrated filmmakers for a series called Ten Minutes Older, based on a famous Russian short.  They're divided into two, roughly 90 minute chunks labeled The Cello and The Trumpet, which I think only refer to the brief muzak clip they play between each short.  Honestly, they're mostly pretty disappointing.  There are some really enticing filmmakers in the line-up, from Wim Wenders to Bernardo Bertolucci, even Jean-Luc Goddard.  But there's just so little substance to most of them, they range from mediocre to downright poor.  One of the best is Spike Lee's brief documentary on the Florida recount in the Gore/ Bush election, and even then, it doesn't do much but lay down all the facts before it ends.  There's no dramatic weight to it or anything.  So Herzog's stands out as easily the best.
It's a documentary about a small Brazilian tribe called the Amondauas who were thriving until they came into contact with modern society.  This was also released in the UK by Blue Dolphin, but I picked the German DVD from Media Cooperation One, because it had a 50-minute 'making of' doc and, as you can see above, claimed to be an anamorphic 16x9 presentation.
2004 Media Cooperation One DVD.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be a bold-faced lie.  All the shorts, including Herzog's, are given a widescreen 1.85:1 presentation, clearly boxed with a 1.33:1 frame.  So it's surrounded by wasted negative space on widescreen TVs, and consequently crushed to a lower resolution.  As in, non-anamorphic.  I mean, just look at that!  It's not interlaced, but it's pretty shoddy.  We're given the option of Dolby 2.0 or 5.1 mixes, with removable German subtitles.  The 'making of' was not a lie, at least, but it only covers some of the shorts, and the Herzog film is not one of them.  So another disappointment.  There's also a photo gallery, two official trailers (one of which is over six minutes long) and an extensive collection bonus trailers, plus an attractive, 32-page booklet, though the text is all in German.
So it would be great to see the rest of these DVD-only titles get HD restorations, wouldn't it?  Some more than others, admittedly.  And there are a couple of shorts, including 1964's Game In the Sand (which Herzog has said he will never show to the world, so let's not hold our breath on that one), his "The French As Seen By..." film Les Francais Vus Par, and 2009's very short La Boheme, made for Sky Arts' opera channel, none of which haven't come out at all.  It's surprising how much more work is left to do if we're to get his complete catalog restored and released in proper editions.  Hopefully somebody's got their eye on that ball, maybe a second box from Shout or BFI that would include many of his features still missing in HD, too?  Maybe Kino could start scooping these up, and pair up one short with one full-length film for single-disc releases of his remaining work?  Or Arrow could jump in and compile a massive box.  I'm just spit-balling here, but hopefully somebody does something.  We've taken some good steps so far, but there's a long way to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment