A booking coincidence has brought two works by the oddly gifted, incorrigibly primitive-minded German filmaker Werner Herzog to Washington at the same time. "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," about 7 years old but one of his most admired creations, is making a belated debut at the K-B MacArthur. "Nosferatu," a 1978 remake of the F. W. Murnau silent classic, which was an unauthorized film version of "Dracula," is at the Inner Cirlce. A rare feast for Herzog freaks; a double dose of art-movie medicine for unbelievers.
Both the power-mad conquistador Aguirre and the vampire Nosferatu are played by Klaus Kinski, who has evidently become as important to Herzog as Robert De Niro is to Martin Scorsese.
As the scowling, hunchbacked Spanish conquistador Aguirre, Kinski suggests Mick Jagger doing an impression of Oliver's Richard III (in a costume borrowed from Toshiro Mifune in "Seven Samurai"). Kinski's diminutive, spidery, desiccated Nosferatu is obviously modeled on Max Schreck in the Murnau film, although the buck-toothed fangs are closer to Oliver J. Dragon.
Herzog has nothing of lasting value to offer the vampire tradition. His "Nosferatu" is at best unintentional, fitfully risible camp. With luck it might be adopted by the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" crowd, and since 20th Century-Fox distributes both films, a cult double-bill is hilariously possible.
Roland Topor's incessantly cackling Renfield is sheer camp: The whole performance is a running gag run into the ground, reducible to that infernal demented noise he makes. Presumably, Herzog is kidding venerable cliches when he has Isabelle Adjani, cast as Lucy Harker, pull a swoon and when he shows a tankard crash to the floor and the customers go quiet after Bruno Ganz, as Jonathan Harker, casually drops the name of Nosferatu at a Transylvanian inn.
The problem is that you can never be quite sure which laughs are calculated and which serendipitous. Herzog imposes an austere, lugubrious style that doesn't really lend itself to frivolous reinforcement. Maybe that swoon was supposed to be funny, but the actresses in "Aguirre," while playing it straight to the brink of banality, look even funnier tagging along on an allegorical trek through South American jungles in the mid-16th century, pretending to be immaculate Spanish noblewomen.
Temperamentally, "Nosferatu" is the absolute antithesis of John Badham's sumptuous, witty, erotically charged film version of "Dracula" released last summer. Herzog doesn't lack a perverse, morbid streak, but his necrophilia takes a different form, reflected in the characteristic images of corpses the movie begins with a frieze of mummified remains), coffins and swarming rats.
Sex isn't a source of inspiration forHerzog. For example, at the end of "Aguirre" we're told that the protagonist's doomed quest for El Dorado was motivated by an incestuous desire to found a dynasty with his own daughter. This unexpected revelation comes from the mouth of Aguirre himself. Perhaps the idea was in Aguirre's head or Herzog's head, but it never takes a discernible form on-screen. Kinski and the impassive young blond cast as Aguirre's daughter barely seem to know each other.
When you think of Herzog, the phrase "life force" never springs to mind. However, the phrase "slow death" is always near the tip of your tongue. He is evidently haunted and stimulated by intimations of social decay, plauge, Gotterdammerung . Death trips are his forte.
Most of "Aguirre" is ludicrous -- a plodding, tritely allegorical death trip about the folly of power lusts, whose fleeting but obvious allusions to Hitler and the war in Vietnam merely exaggerate the triteness. (Some admirers regard "Aguirre" as the precursor to "Apocalypse Now." I'm afraid they may be right.)
However, the opening and closing sequences happen to be pictorially magnificent, stunning reminders of the mute, epic eloquence he sometimes can attain.
"Aguirre" is based very loosely on the first expedition in search of El Dorado, a misguided project that led inadvertently to the discovery and exploration of the Amazon River. Herzog imagined an apocryphal side trip and shot the film in Peru, with cinematographer Thomas Mauch. The dense, rugged locations frequently impose themselves in a way that makes you feel transported to uncharted territory in a remote historical period.
This spendid illusion tends to crumble as soon as the characters begin speaking (incongruously in German) and conducting poorly contrived melodramatic business. But for the first several minutes no one speaks, allowing you to feel totally overwhelmed by the sight of the long column of explorers and porters winding along incredibly steep, mist-shrouded Andean paths. The compositions, at once panoramic and vertiginous, produce an eerie, awesome sensation.
A maddening case, this Herzog: Beneath the klutzy dramaturgy and simplistic ideology there's a genuine cinematic poet who occasionally breaks out. Perhaps it would have been easier for him to break out before movies discovered sound.