There are few things today as ubiquitous as the internet. Our daily lives are sorted and stored online in a variety of ways, and we have become dependent on electronic information. Whether this interaction between humans and the connected world we have created is good or bad is an open question that invites many interpretations. In Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, the German philosopher/director Werner Herzog probes the depths of this relationship through a series of chapters that explore this cyber connectedness. One the one hand, he notes, the great potential and advances in scientific discovery that are beneficial to humankind. On the other, Herzog walks us through the part of the human realm that is lost or changed through this relationship.

Read the rest of this entry »

large_eraserhead_blu-ray_03With Halloween around the corner, the lists of top scariest movies have begun popping up again on the Internet. The usual suspects are there, of course. But some of us might want a little more than typical genre recommendations. As someone who has grown out of looking for thrills in monster movies and ghosts stories in cinema, allow me to present you with something a little different for the season, some of which will be screened on Halloween on 35mm in my town, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema by the Secret Celluloid Society, in a marathon night of screenings (see the line-up and get your tickets here). Check out their trailer for the evening below:

Many of the films below offer something more than cheap scares, gimmicks and gore. I’m talking about a sustained sense of eerie gloom. The problem with a lot of horror is that the films often fragment the story into these moments of thrills that feel cheap if the rest of the plot, story and performances fail to hold the mood together. To me, there’s nothing like sustained dread for creating an off-kilter atmosphere that will keep you hooked to a horror movie. I want a movie to tap into a deeper, primal sense of fear that feels truly otherworldly, the more irrational the better. There is nothing more disturbing than a film that tests logic, maintains mystery and heightens a sense of confronting the unknown. It’s all about the dark, and nothing is darker than that place in the mind that holds our fears.

My choice of some of the most successful movies of terror that sustain this sense of dread are presented in no particular order, as all achieve an atmosphere that never seems to let go. Following each entry you can find a link to the best format to find the film in via Amazon.com. If you click on those links and make a purchase, you help support this non-commercial blog.


Though full of startling moments, this debut film by the master of cinematic surrealism, David Lynch, creeps under your skin with its soundtrack and lighting. All sort of eerie things occur that do not necessarily seem startling, though they are quite unsettling. The main character’s sensuous neighbor lady comes out of the pitch black shadows, emerging from the depths like a creature conjured from the dark. “I’ve locked myself out of my apartment … and it’s so late,” she says in a soft, droll voice. The strange industrial/suburban setting, and those sounds by “the baby,” just build to play with how we react to sounds.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Nov. 1, the best format to see it: 35mm. Buy your ticket here (Yes, it’s at 4:30 a.m.). Nayib Estefan (indeed, the son of Gloria), the founder of the Secret Celluloid Society, assures an amazing sonic experience with the 35 projection. “Take a dip in the analogue hot tub,” he messaged me via Facebook just yesterday.

The Ring

Just before finding success as the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, director Gore Verbinski took the job of remaking the cult Japanese horror film Ringu. It was about a cursed VHS tape that held an abstract short film featuring grisly, statling scenes. If you watched it, you would die a week later. I saw it alone, during its theatrical release with only a handful of people in the movie house, 13 years ago, and it was the last movie I saw that conjured up an irrational sense of dread I had not felt since childhood. The grinding, screeching atonal music of on the cursed short film still played in my head as I headed home that night. The bushes next to my stairwell never looked darker or held more mystery. What I like best about The Ring is its dreamlike logic. One moment the investigative reporter played by Naomi Watts is in the hustle of the newsroom, the next she is off to a cabin in the woods with trees glowing a surreal orange. Even the sets look staged an unreal, recalling the design of many of the early J-Horror movies like Hausu (1977) and Jigoku (1960).

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.


Speaking of Hausu, it’s another that was screened on 35mm by Secret Celluloid Society, earlier this month. I have seen some odd Japanese movies, but this stands as one of the strangest. It’s not so much frightening as it is surreal. The characters, all female, are stock archetypes to an almost clichéd extreme. There’s a karate expert and a chubby girl who is always eating something, for instance. They are part of a group of teenagers who head out for a stay at a friend’s mother’s mansion, only to meet a gruesome demise while — in a strange salacious quirk — they lose their tops, as they struggle for their lives. The lighting always seems to be twilight with an orange sky, and the effects, many of which are super-imposed animated images, are primitive but heighten the unreality of the movie to jarring effect. I’ve heard it described as a “Scooby Doo” cartoon as Japanese nightmare. The story is so out there, it’s no surprise it came from the mind of the director’s prepubescent daughter.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

The Shining

It’s a predictable choice but worth noting the cinematic power that has made The Shining a classic horror film. Stephen King, the author of original novel, famously griped about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, going as far as producing a two-part television remake. It hardly rose to the level of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The gliding tracking shots and inventive Steadicam use created a new way of capturing on-screen action. It felt alien and unsettling. Couple that with Wendy Carlos’ eerie but low-key score of creeping, high-pitched strings, sporadic rumbling timpani and terse xylophone hits, and The Shining becomes a masterpiece of sustained unease. Beyond music, sound is also important. The score also mingles with the sound of little Danny riding his big wheel in the Overlook Hotel’s hallways. The rhythm of the plastic wheels skipping from carpet to wood to carpet to wood mingle with the music, keeping the audience grounded and tense. The Shining stands as grand testament to the tools of cinema to create a mood that builds toward well-earned startling moments.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Ju-on and Ju-on 2, the shorter Y2K TV movies

Above you will find a short, creepy film in the Ju-on series by Takashi Shimizu called “In a Corner.” It was around this time that the Japanese director made the first in a long series of Ju-on (a.k.a The Grudge) films, which had its start on Japanese television with these two tightly connected films. It’s basically about the bad vibes left in the wake of domestic horror. It’s a classic haunted house story. However, what made Shimizu stand out was his non-linear storytelling, which relied on foreboding plot developments. For example, in one part, a pair of detectives stand in an attic, staring down at an unseen object hidden between the rafters. As they speak elliptically about the remains, one finally says something to the effect of, “If this is the jaw, where is the rest?” Cut to a scene at home where a woman is walking up some stairs calling out to someone in the house to no response. Then, a shadowy figure of a girl in her school uniform, with black hair draped over her face, appears behind her, slowly creeping up. Could that be “the rest” the detective asked about? We will have to wait for the reveal, when the woman finally turns around to let out a long scream.

Purchase the 2000 version of Ju-on here and the the 2000 version of Ju-on 2 here.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

Another movie that has a Halloween screening in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on 35mm (again, here’s the link): John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. It’s one of those rare remakes that actually improves upon the original. In Carpenter’s version, the creature from outer space is never given a cohesive form. Whether it is implicitly felt hiding in plain sight as one of a group of scientists on an Antarctic research station, or bursting forth from their bodies becoming an array of primal, startling and often dangerous parts: teeth, claws, tentacles and black eyes, The Thing always has a presence. Even as an amorphous mound of viscera, it has personality, thanks to a masterful group of artisans behind the monstrous special effects. In between harsh scenes of gruesome appearances from the sorry bodies of humans and even dogs, there is a haunting sense of paranoia. It’s an element that was so key to the ’80s brand of Cold War weary American culture, but it also infuses The Thing with a disquieting sense of dread.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Oct. 31, the best format to see it: 35mm! Buy your ticket here.

The Exorcist

I have vivid memories of being a child entering a Radio Shack with my mom and younger brother in the late 1970s and seeing the images of Reagan (Linda Blair) levitating off the bed and twisting her head around on a tiny TV screen on the counter, near the cashier. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it despite the horror it was imprinting into my sensitive, innocent mind. I would finally see it at a more appropriate age, later in life. The mix of the mundane and the supernatural that constantly appear in the film always creeped me out. Even many years later, when I caught it after it was re-released in theaters as “the cut you’ve never seen” in the late 1990s, it still worked. Before any of the horror starts, the film brilliantly explores a sense of the foreboding horror that was to come, from the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” to that scene when Reagan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) hears an unearthly sound in the attic and says it’s probably just rats.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vamypre)

Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, a remake of the German expressionist silent film classic, has to be my personal favorite version of the Dracula story, and I got to write about it in Reverse Shot for its “Great Pumpkins” series. Read it by jumping through the RS logo below (scroll down to the “sixth night” in this post that is a collaboration with many great writers on this site who have their own recommendations for terrific horror movies for the season):

RS logo

Best version to buy: The new Shout Factory Blu-Ray release with both English and German versions (no dubs; both shot simultaneously)

Bonus, as for the soundtrack, skip the soundtrack CD, and get Popol Vuh’s Tantirc Songs, which has the 16-plus minute version of “Brothers of Darkness – Sons of Light.”

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Speaking of the “Great Pumpkins” of Reverse Shot, it all rightly began with this essay by Michael Koresky on this little TV special, which has become an icon for Halloween. It goes to show Halloween is about more than frights of the supernatural or horror and violence. It’s also about the turning of the leaves and the deepening of the shadows. So what if “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is not scary? It still oozes Halloween atmosphere for many generations. For this writer, a child of the ’70s, before cable and VHS, it was an annual event to watch on TV, where the special interrupted regular programming to announce the start of the holidays. Even Miami felt cooler back then. Maybe we had fall back then? Who cares? Even if it’s all an illusion. It certainly always feels real with this short animated delight from the mind of Charles Scultz.

It’s a shame that much of the music was never released on CD, but at least there’s this. Listen for the flute parts, they’re amazingly dark for the instrument, including the closing iteration of the “Linus and Lucy.”

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Hans Morgenstern

Still image from Eraserhead courtesy of dvdbeaver.com.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Joshua_Oppenheimer - photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

For his follow-up to 2012’s The Act of Killing, documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to once again explore the late 1960s massacres of innocents that put the nation’s current government in power. With The Look of Silence, once again, Oppenheimer, co-directing with the victims and the victims’ family members who he credits as “anonymous,” creates a stark testament to a grim history. As opposed to The Act of Killing where he spoke to only the perpetrators who killed people with clubs, knives and steel wire with impunity, The Look of Silence features the family members of one of the victims.

Speaking via phone from New York City, the Danish-born filmmaker reveals he first thought of this film before he shot The Act of Killing. However, he only began shooting The Look of Silence in 2012. It was actually too dangerous to identify survivors of the massacres because the current government could have imprisoned them or worse. People still live in fear of the government in Indonesia, and the release of The Act of Killing has now given him and his victims a kind of protection, though he still had to be careful not to shoot interviews with people who were too high-ranking in the government.

Oppenheimer calls The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing mirror images. He says the title The Look of Silence also came to him before The Act of Killing. Explaining the film’s title he says, “It was, above all, a definition of a project of making visible, of making palpable something normally invisible, this silence born of fear and the traces that fear and silence leave on a human life. How can you look at a family that’s lived for 50 years afraid and in silence, and in forced silence, and see the traces of that and how can you discern the inventive ways that people find to live with dignity and love, despite being surrounded by the powerful men who killed their loved ones.”


It’s a profound observation for a heavy subject. The family Oppenheimer spotlights is that of Adi, a village optician who makes the rounds testing the eyes of his neighbors, including some who actually participated in the massacre. And it is Adi who conducts the interviews with some of the perpetrators. They share with him chilling stories of drinking the blood of their victims to keep from going mad. But what mainly gets to Adi is footage Oppenheimer shot of two elderly men while making The Act of Killing. The two men stand at a clearing by the Snake River and admit they were the ones who killed Adi’s elder brother, Ramli, They even act out their actions and go into gruesome details of each machete blow that they remember. And they laugh.

The film also features Adi’s parents, his mother, who calls Adi the reincarnation of Ramli, and his father, who is now blind, toothless and suffers from dementia. In a particularly unnerving scene that Oppenheimer says Adi shot one day when he was home alone with his father, his father suffers an episode and begins crawling on the ground patting the walls crying that he doesn’t recognize where he is. “Adi explained to me, ‘I shot this because I couldn’t comfort him that day,” says Oppenheimer, “because I was a stranger to him, and I realized that it’s too late for my father to heal. He’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and his family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten his fear, and now he’ll die like millions of others, in a prison of fear. It’s too late for him to heal because he’s forgotten what happened, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear.’”


Indeed, this is a stark movie that dwells not so much on explaining but understanding how to heal from such a past for the sake of the nation’s future. A sort of mantra is repeated by both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide: “The past is the past.” Oppenheimer explains this reasoning thus: “It’s a statement that absolutely belies itself because the survivors always say it out of fear, and the perpetrators always say it as a threat, indicating that the past is not the past. It’s right there, keeping people afraid. It’s a gaping wound. It’s an abyss dividing everybody. Keeping survivors afraid and a kind of threat by the perpetrators. The past is right there and is open … That’s really the experience of the film. I tried to create a film that’s so immersive that it goes beyond a message.”

Oppenheimer has created a poetic film, actually. It is much more than a documentary (my review: The Look of Silence explores aftermath of genocide with startling cinematic poetry). The quality of his filmmaking stands alongside the work of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two of contemporary cinema’s most influential and important documentary filmmakers. Both even acted as executive producers on The Look of Silence. However, Oppenheimer names very different filmmakers as influences on this film. “I kind of made a study in preparation for this use of silence of two filmmakers. I suppose for the viewing scene, I was thinking more of the work of Robert Bresson. Diary of a Country Priest, for example, the closing shot of that film, where you see a face reacting to memory and reacting to the plights of the world and the trials that are being thrown at the priest, and in the dialogue scenes, I was thinking about Yasujirô Ozu, whom I think is a master of creating dialogue scenes where everything important being said is articulated through silence and shame as opposed to the words.”

*  *  *

You can read much more about the film, its story and Oppenheimer’s intentions in an article I wrote for the Arts and Culture blog of “The Miami New Times.” I’m quite proud of it. Jump through the logo of the blog below to read an even more insightful piece on what is sure to be one of the greatest documentaries of the year:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores on Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Act of Killing video release

This morning, the nominees for the Oscar® awards were announced. Among those nominated for best documentary* was the already plenty-award-winning film the Act of Killing, which also won best documentary from us at the Florida Film Critics Circle. The film’s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer sent us a statement regarding the nomination this morning: “We are deeply grateful. This nomination is an honor for us as filmmakers, but for the survivors and victims it is a crucial first step in their country’s acknowledgement of a moral catastrophe— the horror of the genocide and the on-going regime of fear and corruption built by the killers. May it also be a first step toward healing.”

Last week, Cinedigm Entertainment released the extended cut of the Act of Killing on home video. I first spoke to Oppenheimer last year. We spoke fast and deep about this film, and much of our conversation can be found in this post featuring two articles:

An interview with the director of ‘the Act of Killing’; more in ‘Miami New Times’ (August 16, 2013)

However, as is usually the case, even with two articles, there was still left over material from our interview. I don’t even think I had room to note that Oppenheimer is actually credited as co-director with Christine Cynn and “Anonymous,” the latter representing the survivors of a virtual genocide in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThey too spoke out about the Academy Award nomination: “The Act of Killing— and the issues of impunity it raises— will make front-page news today in Indonesia. Our schools still teach children an official history that glorifies genocide, and our government continues to celebrate mass murderers as national heroes. They do so to keep us afraid, so we won’t dare hold them accountable for their crimes. I hope this nomination encourages us to demand truth, justice, and reconciliation.”

That fear was the source of inspiration for making the Act of Killing. Oppenheimer revealed the project began with the Globalisation Tapes, a film he made with Cynn about a Belgian-owned oil pump plantation in Indonesia that manufactured palm oil (take note, Nutella lovers), which documents the struggles of workers with abuse and inhumane working conditions (the film was never released on home video, but you can view it free here). Oppenheimer noted that the workers were threatened into not forming a union and had to endure forced labor and pesticides that killed mostly women over the age of 40. “Turned out that the reason they were terrorized into silence was that their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965 and had been accused for being communist sympathizers simply because they were in a union, had been rounded up, put in concentration camps and dispatched out to be killed by local death squads, and they were afraid that this could happen to them again.”

This piece of history that still haunts much of the Indonesian population became the inspiration for the Act of Killing. However, the filmmaking was met with many roadblocks by Indonesian officials. “As soon as we came back and word got out that that’s what we were doing, the army would come and stop us from shooting with them,” Oppenheimer said.


The victims that compose “Anonymous” then gave Oppenheimer and Cynn the idea to focus on the perpetrators because, they said, they would gladly not only share details about the killings they committed but also show off about them. The filmmakers struck a goldmine of material to work with. “I found they were all boastful. They were all open,” said Oppenheimer. “I found myself in Germany 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power.”

The filmmakers were able to brew up a surreal concoction of staged movie scenes featuring the killers themselves among traditional documentary footage. The mix of gangster film, musical, horror movie and documentary makes for a surreal experience that feels more truthful than most documentaries. The Act of Killing takes an exploration into the depths of the soul of men corrupted by heinous acts to a whole other level.

Oppenheimer said he prefers the extended cut of the film, a near-three-hour odyssey into the heart of remorse and revelation unlike most anyone will ever see, which can be found on the home video release. He notes one of the film’s executive producers also prefers this longer cut to the U.S. theatrical cut: the famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the other noteworthy executive producer is Errol Morris).


The director also noted that some of the subjects of his film have seen this extended cut. “Anwar [Congo] was very, very moved by it. He was silent from a long time after watching it, a little bit tearful, and he said, ‘This film shows what it is like to be me. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally express feelings that I have been discouraged from acknowledging for so many years.’”

Oppenheimer noted he and Congo, who he filmed over the course of five years, have remained in touch, “and always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate and ultimately transformative journey.”

Then there was Herman Koto, who never hesitated to dress in drag during many of the staged scenes. “Herman has seen the film and loves the film,” said Oppenheimer. “Herman, over the course of the film, fell in love with acting, developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. A good actor has to have a loyalty to the moral and emotional truth of any situation that she or he is acting in. He does.”

Oppenheimer said Koto also came to his own revelation about the group he belonged to, the sort-of neo-fascist Pancasila Youth, which still hold rallies celebrating the killings to this day. “He became more disillusioned with Pancasila Youth because he came to understand more and more deeply the horror upon which it’s all built. So he’s been very supportive of the film.”


Someone Oppenheimer did not bother showing the film to was Adi Zulkadry. He explained, “He recognizes in the film exactly what the film will do and decides to leave the film for that reason, and he has high connections with the paramilitary leadership in Indonesia, and I was worried that if he saw the film he could start lobbying against the film and that could jeopardize our plan for distributing the film in Indonesia and could make it unsafe for people to screen the film … All high-ranking political leaders who appear in the film inevitably hate the film, as well as they should, or else it would mean I didn’t do my job.”

Though, throughout the Act of Killing, the filmmakers keep the implications of U.S. culpability to these killings on a subtle level in the film, juxtaposing destitute neighborhoods and the fancy malls tourists and the upper class frequent in Jakarta, it’s not lost on Oppenheimer that there was something culturally criminal at play here. Therefore, there could be some poetic justice if the film indeed wins the Oscar, come March 2. “There could be a whole film made, certainly a book written, about the U.S.’s role in supporting the genocide,” he said. “but that would be a historical film. The Act of Killing is not a film about the past. It’s a film about today. It’s about how the past is abused in the present … The moral and cultural vacuum of sort of rampant capitalism and consumerism. The alienation, the hollowness of consumerism is a character that haunts the whole movie.”

Hans Morgenstern

In South Florida, The Act of Killing returns to the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus for two nights only this weekend (buy tickets).

*Also nominated for best documentary feature was another Indie Ethos favorite, Cutie and the Boxer (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship)

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Ry Greenberg

Photo by Ry Greenberg

This week has seen me caught up on a couple of preview interviews with two little-known but talented directors. The first fellow I spoke with was writer/filmmaker Alan Greenberg (the second was Terence Nance, whose interview I will share shortly). Greenberg’s documentary on the funeral of Bob Marley, the Land of Look Behind is a luscious and contemplative work steeped in atmosphere. The most resonant images are that of the foggy mountainous land harboring small huts of Rastafarians who smoke amazingly humongous joints and offer philosophical eulogies to Marley, not to mention the land from whence they all sprouted. Besides the meandering chatter of the Jamaicans, the film’s soundtrack is also coated by interludes of luscious, droning and percussive synth music by K. Leimer while the camera slowly pans over the landscape. In the end, the giant funeral for this man becomes a festival and celebration by people who thought of him with greater regard than their own president. This documentary will convince you Marley was the king of Jamaica.

Greenberg had worked with Werner Herzog on Heart of Glass in 1976 before shooting this documentary in 1982. You can see the influence. However, Greenberg notes, Herzog was also inspired by Greenberg’s work. I spoke with him ahead of his visit this weekend to Miami Beach where he will discuss his book about working with Herzog, Every Night the Trees Disappear, published by the Chicago Review Press in May of last year. Every NightGreenberg said he considers Herzog a best friend and they remain in touch. “There were times when Werner would call me and say, ‘Alan, I stole the opening of the Land of Look Behind from you in my Gesualdo film.’ And I would look at the Gesualdo film, and he completely blew it. He did not achieve the same effect, but then you look at Land of Silence and Darkness, and you realize that’s where my influence really came to fruition because suddenly Werner was making films, not only as he’d always made films and which influenced me but now you can see it was almost a wordless documentary. There was scant narration and it was all composed in almost a musical fashion, or an oratorical fashion, and that’s how I did Land of Look Behind. I didn’t do it as a documentary. I did it as a piece of art or a piece of music.”

Greenberg will also discuss Love In Vain, his script about the Mississippi Delta blues legend of the early 20th century, Robert Johnson. He recently revised the script for a new edition, which saw release only six months ago by University of Minnesota Press as a book.Love-In-Vain-cover But Greenberg wrote it more than 30 years ago, and it has seen prior printed editions, the first in 1983. Now he says David Lynch will direct it. He jumped the gun a bit to reveal that to me when we spoke via phone over the weekend, and Lynch was forced to release a statement that clarified, “I’m a 30 year fan of the screenplay Alan Greenberg wrote for Love In Vain. I would very much like to direct it someday. But, a number of things would have to fall in place before that would occur.”

It’s a striking notion that Lynch would direct such a film, but there’s some weirdness to Johnson, like his alleged pact with devil. Also, Lynch has been known to take true-life stories and treat them with sincere respect on the big screen, like the Elephant Man and the Straight Story. “Yeah, there are two David Lynches,” says Greenberg, “the David Lynch who did Elephant Man and the David Lynch who did Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart and Mulholland Dr. and all of those, but there’s also the David Lynch who did Elephant Man, the Straight Story, which won Oscars and was a very poignant, charming little film.”

You can read much more of my conversation with Greenberg, by jumping through the Cultist logo below, a blog run by “The Miami New Times:”

cultist banner

Alan Greenberg will appear at the Art Center South Florida via Books and Books Saturday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m. in Miami Beach to discuss his books and sign copies. Visit the event page for more details (that’s a hotlink).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The great documentarian and filmmaker Werner Herzog has no shame in revealing an agenda. But he does not push it or sentimentalize it. His successes date back to the early seventies, and the best of them reveal a profound understanding of humanity. These include features from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Rescue Dawn (2006) and documentaries from “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner” (1974) to Encounters at the End of the World (2007). That is only counting the films of which I am familiar with, including many in between, so if there are “genius” ones prior or since, I have only omitted them because I have not seen them. The point being, more often than not, Herzog probes deeper into the mysteries of humanity than most other artists, or men for that matter, ever dare.

Add Into the Abyss to Herzog’s rich filmography. Now he heads to Texas to interview a pair of inmates convicted of murder, one destined to die (Michael Perry), the other incarcerated for life (Jason Burkett). Both were found guilty in the same 2001 triple homicide that took the lives of Sandra Stotler, 50, her 16-year-old son, Adam, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson. Through the fates of these two men, Herzog offers something further reaching than a statement on the death penalty. He presents a community where circumstances offer very little hope to those struggling to get by, the shattered lives of surviving family members and the effects of execution on all participants involved.

Herzog opens Into the Abyss with a reverend who has spent a life-changing amount of time with men put to death by lethal injection in the State of Texas. During his interview, Reverend Richard Lopez says, “I believe God is good and caring.” He says this near the cemetery where the unclaimed condemned are buried, plain crosses with only dates and numbers denoting the grave sites. Though Lopez offers the classic Christian’s reassurance for death: “it’s God’s will,” he seems shaken up recalling a moment he almost ran over a squirrel with his golf cart. “Life is precious whether it’s a squirrel or a human being,” he says before tearing up. “For someone on the gurney, I cannot stop the process for them. I wish I could.”

It’s a a set up resonating with complexity and seems to reinforce Herzog’s own philosophy as a man who has freely admitted to his atheism yet is deeply attuned to the encounter of death by the living. In his haunting 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, which dealt with the mauling death of an animal lover who enjoyed camping near grizzly bears, Herzog says, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” The phrase can apply to the situations presented in Into the Abyss, be it the contrasting fates of the convicts to the reverend’s tearful reaction in regards to execution.

The prologue with the reverend offers a brilliant set up before the title card appears: “Into the Abyss. A tale of life, a tale of death,” hovering over handheld camera footage of the cell an inmate will wait in before execution. The words hover between a table with bibles and a holding cell a few feet across from the lethal injection room. On the soundtrack, some sparse, bluesy music by Mark Degli Antoni (formerly of Soul Coughing) drones, accentuating the tragedy of not only the presence of execution in society but also the murder scene.

Early in the documentary, Herzog intercuts actual footage from the bloody crime scene documented on video by police as evidence, while Police Lt. Damon Hall walks him through the night of the murders, driving him to the house where the elder Stotler was shot dead to the lake where her body was dumped and the wooded area where the two young men where also shot dead, all over a pair of vehicles. The slow-paced editing of that police footage, set to Antoni’s dreary music makes it all feel very Herzogian and tragic for those involved, with enough space for meditation by the viewer. Herzog is no manipulator, but an observer who wants to share what he sees, fostering room for insight by the audience.

However, Herzog does not hold back. In an interview eight days prior to his execution, the director tells Perry he does not like him but respects him as a human being:  “You are a human being, and I do not think human beings should be executed.” But then, that is also just before the film spends time at the bloody crime scene Perry has been convicted of having a hand in. Police were lead to the killers because witnesses came forward saying the young men had boasted about the murders.

Herzog pulls out mesmerizing stories from his subjects during the interviews, makes insightful observations about the aftermath of the deaths and never sensationalizes. It turns out Burkett’s father is also serving time in prison, and he is filled with regret. In a section of the film entitled “Time and Emptiness,” Delbert Burkett casually notes that is son will be eligible for parole in 1941 instead of 2041 several times before Herzog corrects him. The loss of time is part of the sentence that also affects the victim’s surviving family members. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who lost her brother and mother to the killers, talks about trying to live again and how she “basically shut down” for months after the deaths. Time seems to stand still for those involved while life continues through some new window that has opened up to an alternate reality they are no longer part of.

Many revelations come to light during the course of Into the Abyss, as Herzog brings out reason for contemplation with deliberate pacing and choice statements from those he interviews. In a tidy bookend complementing the reverend’s interview, Herzog closes the documentary with retired Police Captain Fred Allen. Allen admits to participating in over 120 executions, though he does not have an exact number; sometimes as many as “two a week.” He retired after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. She was the first woman executed in Texas since 1863. Allen surprised himself by his breaking down in tears after strapping the woman down for her execution, and he describes having flashbacks to all the inmates he executed during this tearful breakdown. “This was not your self, but your real self,” Herzog tells him, and Allen affirms that was the exact feeling he got from it. “No one has a right to take another life,” the former police captain says.

Distributor IFC Films provided a screener for the purposes of this review. Into the Abyss is rated PG-13 and opened in select theaters nationwide yesterday and is currently screening at the Regal South Beach 18 in Miami Beach. It will also begin a screening run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Dec. 30.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

When I first heard about  SPV‘s planned release of a five CD collection of Popol Vuh’s early soundtracks for Werner Herzog’s films, I was excited that this might finally feature some of the unreleased work I had heard in some of Herzog’s films but never seen released on record. I was particularly hoping for some of the music from Herzog’s short film “The Great Ecstasy of Sculptor Steiner.” But it was not to be.

What this release includes are all the out of print, but not too hard to find, soundtracks SPV released nearly 10 years ago for Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. It looks like they come in the digipaks they were packaged in the first time around. This time, though, they are inside a fancy limited edition box with a 96-page booklet designed by International Double Standards Berlin. The book is supposed to include unseen footage and images capturing both Popol Vuh and Werner Herzog in action through their years of collaboration. Many sources online claim it’s limited to 5,000 copies, though SPV’s site does not note any limit to the production run.

The set seems affordable enough at just under $50 (less than $10 a CD), per Amazon (at the time of this post). However, it is regretful that the label has not dug up some more rare tracks for this reissue.

So I decided if they weren’t giving it to me, I would go hunt down the music composed for “The Great Ecstasy of Sculptor Steiner.” When I first saw this film not too long ago on DVD, which is now quite valuable and out of print, I was in awe at the images Herzog captured in super slow motion of the ski-flier Walter Steiner. The film opens with a montage of some horrific spills that capture the sublime near death experience this man risks for a few seconds of flight. Popol Vuh produced some of the most majestic and melancholy sounds of its career to accompany the images, complimenting the deadly serious tone of this man’s passion.

I needed to hear the sessions that produced this work. Many commentators on-line said they no longer exist, as they were produced and cut for the film, and that is the music’s only existence.

After three hours or so of scouring the ‘net, I did at least come across a comprehensive compilation of mp3s someone culled from the short film. You can download the zip file here. But I realized some flaws upon listening to it. It is a sloppy editing job, as the most beautiful of the pieces is missing its first few sporadic, slow-paced introductory notes and often the music fades away with conversation from the film. Also, I highly doubt the natural sound of an organ on the set is Popol Vuh mastermind Florian Fricke at work.

Also, as  interesting as it might be to hear more music from the sessions that produced the pieces used in “Sculptor Steiner,” there is no doubt that some of the impact of the music comes from how it compliments the imagery. Though the DVD might be hard to find at a decent price, the entire film is available on YouTube, albeit with Italian subtitles (the spoken language is in its original German, too).  At 3:50 in the video below, the beautiful melody I mentioned earlier begins with the sparse, delicate picking of piano keys that gradually grow as chords and more cohesive rhythm take shape. Herzog offers the image of true natural fliers: the release of a flock of pigeons before cutting to Steiner’s record-breaking flight in super slow motion as the music builds to aural ecstasy.

The theme recurs at 11:55 to take us out of the movie. But I would highly recommend you seek out the entire film for the dramatic accumulation to these scenes. If you understand either Italian or German and want to see he entire movie, here are parts one and two:

Lastly, I am still most curious if the sessions for this music exist in any other form. Please let me know, as I found many other mutual fans on the Internet pining for their release.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)