Three Tales of Displacement

Man is a god when he dreams and a beggar when he thinks. –Friedrich Holderlin

 

 

I

In the early morning hours of January 12, 1963, a coup took place on the island of Zanzibar. It was a small, relatively silent uprising; those over whom the hand of government had switched in the middle of the night awoke none the wiser. As day broke, insubstantial rumors began to trickle in. The sun climbed in the sky like a fiery balloon, and with it rose the tide of hearsay.

A name began to circulate. It hummed in the narrow, shaded streets, along the brilliant beaches and quays where bobbed the boats of ragged fishermen. It ran through the fields of corn and cassava, beneath the coconut palms and clove trees. Soon a message, freshly composed by the revolutionaries, quaked over the radio.

John Okello, a warrior, had apparently given Zanzibar, until so recently ruled by a minority population of Arabs, back to the Afri- cans. He cut a magnificent figure, the listeners were led to believe and until quite recently had been a high-ranking officer in Kenya. He could construct, with his own two hands, 500 guns in a single day, 100 grenades in an hour, and a bomb with a blast radius of three miles—and he had been planning the liberation of Zanzibar for months.

But very little of this, as it would later emerge, was true. Seizing the opportunity to reinvent himself, Okello had disseminated a stream of fictions so rich and vermiculate that it would be months in the disentangling. The madness, turmoil, and attendant void of information associated with the revolt provided an exceptionally fertile launch pad for this reformation.

The man who post-revolution would pompously deem himself “Field Marshal” of the military was, in reality, a semi-literate laborer—variously a bricklayer, a housepainter, a stonecutter—who had raised himself after being orphaned at ten. Furthermore, he was a spiritual man, in his own mind a prophet. God spoke to him of the righteousness of the revolution, whispered at his ear in the dark night hours. Sometimes he was so bowled over by these inspirations that he retreated to the forest to contemplate his dreams in silence.

He had had no hand in planning the revolution but had merely been the firebrand, the instigator. At first a rank-and-file rebel, it was during the actual fighting that he had distinguished himself, his singular confidence and viciousness exalting him to the position of military hero and, eventually, to figurehead of the revolution.

Immediately following the revolution, Okello held great sway in Zanzibar. What followed was a confusing period of about two months. Though he had no formal position in the new government, Okello was essentially running the country, while more legitimate leaders—those who had actually planned the revolution Okello had usurped—tried to mitigate his power.

Okello made daily radio broadcasts during this period, claiming, outrageously, that 11,995 people had died during the revolt. He made strange threats, such as:

“We, the army, have the strength of 99 million, 99 thousand...Should anyone be stubborn and disobey orders, then I will take very strong measures, 88 times stronger than at present.”

He would cut, drown, burn, and shoot dissidents. The foreign press was banned, and he began to make insane demands. Off the radio, he strutted about, gussied up and armed to the teeth with pistols, knives, and a Sten gun. He burst in on private meetings and proceeded to act the buffo. He posed for an endless number of photographs.

In short, he was an embarrassment. Fortunately for his opponents, Okello’s violent Christian rhetoric, combined with the ravenous looting his armada of ruffians undertook in regular waves, was beginning to alienate his less zealous supporters. On March 8, on returning from a trip to Uganda, Okello was met at the airport by a host of guards. Unfortunately, they explained, he would not be allowed back into Zanzibar.

He was set to wandering. He still felt the desire to liberate; he still retained his taste for grandeur. With only a handful of loyal men, he halfheartedly stomped around East Africa, dreamily plotting uprisings in Rhodesia, Mozambique, even South Africa.

In 1971, he dropped off the map entirely. Speculation has it he was assassinated by a president or warlord who felt vaguely threatened by his high volatility. Regardless, his misbegotten plans, his synthetic past, the tentative grandeur of his future all disappeared, swept briskly under the rug of history. The magnificence of his illusions dissipated, their energy spreading ineffectually across the whole geography of his wanderings. He burst forth like a flame and petered out, underfed

 

II

It was during his exile of the late 1960s—before his disappearance—that Okello began a correspondence with German filmmaker Werner Herzog, then a relatively unknown director. Okello wanted Herzog to translate a book he’d written on the Zanzibar Revolution into German, while Herzog simply wanted a chance to film Okello, whose grandiose antics he’d followed closely as they’d trickled into the western media. The two never managed to meet, however; Okello, having learned little from his ostracization and still inclined to boil over with vitriolic language, had landed himself in jail.

Even a cursory understanding of Herzog’s filmog- raphy would seem to justify his interest in Okello. As Dana Benelli notes in his essay “The Cosmos and its Discontents,” Herzog’s films, particularly the early efforts, tend to focus on “central characters out of synch with, if not in open rebellion against, the societies within which they live” (89). The “re- bellious response” subsumes the individual, and the revolt escalates, self-augmenting, until the characters are revolting against the universe itself: Stroszek in Signs of Life (1968) demands that the sun cease its constant rising; The President in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) runs into the desert and orders a branch to quit pointing at him.

These Herzogian protagonists tend to be characterized by their mythopoeic strivings, by the attempt at self-reinvention through a reckless and mad grab for power—elements found abundantly in Okello that no doubt attracted the director. Okello’s absurd and unsustainable demagoguery, marked by a penchant for flagrantly impossible threats, was in itself a bid for transcendence. As Herzog recalled in a 1971 interview:

Okello delivered these incredible speeches from an airplane. He circled around Zanzibar...and before he landed, he had the aircraft’s radio switched to the local radio station and delivered a short speech: “I, your Field Marshall, am about to land. Anyone who steals so much as a bar of soap will be thrown in prison for two hundred and sixteen years!”

The figure of John Okello—mad revolutionary, boastful weaver of absurd fictions—would come to influence not only Herzog’s style of filmmaking, but also the themes he undertook to excavate, most prominently in his 1972 feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a film which includes a character named after Okello and which marked Herzog’s first collaboration with another mad, transcendent person- ality: Klaus Kinski.

The wonderfully strange, frequently violent, and wildly germinative relationship between Herzog and Kinski has become a bit of a commonplace in cinema history. Herzog himself has emerged as a weird wizard of cinema, with various anecdotes attesting to his eccentricity; Kinski, the blonde powder keg, has always remained a larger than life figure, renowned for the shortness of his temper, the force of his outbursts.

At the time of filming, Kinski, in his mid-forties, had a respectful though stunted career. He could act, all agreed, but his frequent and vociferous tantrums—which often bled into the physical realm— had garnered him a foreboding reputation. Many directors were afraid to touch him, but it was precisely this volatility that attracted Herzog. He was intent on making a film about revolt—who better than a revolting actor to play the lead?

The film, which follows a doomed expedition down a mid-16th century Amazon River to find the mythic golden city of El Dorado, was filmed in Peru. The jungle was hot, unbearably hot, and Herzog, hoping to draw real performances out of his actors, allegedly kept them hungry and thirsty for most of the shoot. It was nearly impossible to drag the large crew and cast through the often perilously thin mountain paths, through the webs of viridescent foliage that sprung from the soupy ground. Sickness and fever were a perennial threat; the nearest large city was often dangerously distant and only sometimes in communication.

Early in the filming, Kinski, per his wont, began to act up. “His behavior was impossible, and he raved like a lunatic at least once a day,” Herzog later recalled in an interview. “He also wanted to leave the set—he wanted to go home.” Accounts differ as to how Herzog confronted this last issue; the most frequently circulated rumor is that he forced Kinski to act at gunpoint. Herzog denies this, however. He claims, rather, to have simply threatened to kill Kinski, and then himself: “From then on, every- thing went very smoothly.”

As filming progressed, so, too, did Kinski’s antics. At one point, an extra, waiting off-screen in a hut constructed for the filming, spoke while Kinski was filming a scene. Kinski, who carried a functional Winchester rifle with him at all times, “got so worked up that he took his Winchester and shot a hole through the roof.” (Some accounts have Kinski taking off three of the extra’s fingers with his shot.) Herzog—operating on a hunch, a nugget of inspira- tion—encouraged these tantrums; he egged Kinski on, working him into a lather and watching as Kinski’s rage bled into his acting. All of which, it goes without saying, he captured on film. The environ- ment that Herzog fostered was essentially hostile: the actors should feel uncomfortable and Kinski himself should feel transgressed upon, singled out. This displacement—the alienation engendered by being treated cruelly in a foreign land—would ideally result in a purer, distilled form of acting.

Miraculously, the shoot wrapped up, and the film proved a massive success, catapulting Herzog into the spotlight of European art cinema while simultaneously reinvigorating Kinski’s career. Herzog and Kinski, battered by the process though pleased with its results, would go on to collaborate on several more critically acclaimed films, entangling themselves in a relationship that produced marvelous fictions while at the same time being, in a sense, another fiction.

In his 1988 autobiography, Kinski, who had most recently worked with Herzog in 1987’s Cobra Verde, viciously derided his partner, claiming that Herzog was an execrable, self-obsessed filmmaker—a dabbler, a dilettante. Herzog, for his part, later claimed that much of Kinski’s autobiography was pure fiction, crafted retroactively, and that he had even assisted Kinski in penning some of the more acerbic insults on his own person.

It seems fitting that Kinski’s last say on his relationship with Herzog should be undecipherable, an unresolvable entangling of the virile threads of rage and fiction.

III

Aguirre, the Wrath of God plays fast and loose with historical figures. It follows an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro in late 1560 and early 1561, despite the fact that the historical Pizarro died in 1548. Herzog places the historical figures on expeditions they never attended, displacing them temporally. They are pawns in an aesthetic game, their very shifts and anachronistic arrangements contributing to the film’s sense of compositeness, of incompleteness.

Early in the film, the official expedition is stalled. A small party, led by Don Pedro Ursua with Don Lope de Aguirre (our hero, so to speak) as second-in-command, is sent down the river on a fleet of rickety skiffs to scout for food or help.

Throughout this developing drama, Kinski, who has donned the armor of his character, a shabby suit of leather with oversized pauldrons, is preoccupied with delivering the most menacing performance he can manage. He fully utilizes his diseased-looking habitus and the thick, Cro-Magnon ossature of his skull; Aguirre struts about vampirically, brooding and scowling and blaring with his wild, sunken eyes. Before long, his treachery is out in the open. Ursua is deposed, and Aguirre establishes the overweight and simpleminded Don Fernando de Guz- man as the expedition’s new leader—while he, of course, retains his position as second-in-command.

From then on, the film charts a general decline in sanity. The doomed party drifts down the river on a large raft that begins to resemble, with its various small additions and substructures, the barest bones of a theatrical stage. No minor significance to this, in fact. In a 1973 interview, Herzog discussed his understanding of the relation between history and theater:

[A]s a theme, this horde of imperialistic ad- venturers performing a great historical failure, this failure of imperialism, of the conquerors, the theme is really quite modern. The meth- od by which history was then made is actually one that can still be found today in many Latin American countries. History there is staged as theater, with theatrical coups.

To echo this sentiment, Aguirre claims in the film’s final moments that he “will stage history, like others stage plays.” And, of course, the platform on which he crafts his fictions is fundamentally destabilized, a portable stage that bucks and trips and in its disturbance agitates its occupants’ minds, their thoughts, and the fictions that trend from those thoughts.

Herzog indeed is interested in the essence of revolt, of rebellion, but he is even more interested in the relationship between revolution and the crafting of fictions. In his early work, he has limned a triumvirate of madness, associating these two propensities with his “out of synch” characters, snipped cleanly from their contexts, historical or other. As John Okello emerged from a dim personal past and found himself suddenly at the head of a revolution, Aguirre was transported into the tropical wilds of South America, torn from his comfortable lands in Spain—and it is no minor joke that Herzog like- wise tore Kinski, a stunningly German actor, out of Germany and thrust him into the unlikely role of a Spanish conquistador. While the other actors display the fine Spanish features so often associated with the conquistadors, Kinski stands out, his lanky blond hair and brutal features purposely inhibiting the authenticity of his role.

For Herzog, the displaced man’s propensity for revolt is irrevocably connected to his greater-than-av- erage ability (or opportunity) to remake himself— that is, his ability to craft fictions. Without a proper social context, the displaced man will expand indefinitely, revolting and creating fictions of grandeur, of power. The revolt begins to feed the fiction, while the fiction in turn feeds the revolt. It this recursive loop that becomes the madness that leads the displaced Herzog protagonist to “rebel against the universe.”

The last 15 minutes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God constitute a subtle phantasmagoria. The crew of the raft, merely a handful of tatterdemalion survivors struck with hunger, thirst, and fever, begin to hallucinate freely. They spot a complete boat—its sails billowing fluidly, dreamily—suspended in the uppermost branches of a tree and declare that it is merely an illusion. The line between fiction and reality, enervated by the crew’s physical weakness, begins to blur. Aguirre, for his part, claims the boat is real; he makes plans to retrieve the boat and use it to reach the Atlantic.

The slave Okello—so named because Herzog owed the revolutionary’s “craze, hysteria, [and] atrocious fantasies quite a bit for [the] film”—lies crumpled on the raft’s floor. With a skyward glance, he whispers, “That is no ship. That is no forest.” In a stunning moment, an arrow sinks quickly and forcefully into his thigh. He reacts calmly, continuing his delirious ruminations: “That is no arrow. We just imagine the arrows, because we fear them.” Meanwhile, Aguirre hurries about the raft as arrows and spears bombard the remnants of his crew; he fires off rifles and makes noise, insisting with supreme confidence that the arrows are real, that the danger exists.

It is then that Flores, Aguirre’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who has been carried preposterously in a sedan-chair through all these rough environs, is killed by an arrow. Aguirre cradles her, staring menacingly off into the jungle whence the missile came. We might expect reality to rush in now like a torrent, to bring Aguirre to his knees and cleanse his mind of any illusions. But, as it happens, Aguirre sets the corpse of his daughter down. He proclaims that he will marry her and in so doing found “the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.” A procre- ative loop is established; the father will feed off the daughter, just as the fictions will feed off the revolt, the revolt the fictions.

The raft twirls and yaws down the river. It might be going to the sea.