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Lieutenant Werner

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Werner Herzog would like to make something very clear about his new film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. You know that 1992 film called Bad Lieutenant? The one directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Harvey Keitel, and the “inspiration” for Herzog’s film (at least according to the studio press notes)? Forget about it. There’s no relation.

“I know you changed the location from New York to New Orleans,” says a journalist at a roundtable interview with Herzog during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “but how else did you make this remake your own film?”

“Explain ‘remake,’” intones Herzog gravely in his deep German accent.

“Uh…”

“What is a remake? Explain it.”

“Uh…uh…”

He leans forward, and continues talking in a foreboding monotone. “Explain it. You are the one who is challenged now.”

“Uh… well, it’s based on the film by Abel Ferrara…”

“No, it is not. How is it based on the film by Abel Ferrara?”

The journalist is practically quivering. “Uh…well, it has sort of a similar…I mean…”

“It is not. What is similar? Not one scene.”

“You’re right. It’s not similar,” she interjects.

“Okay, so why do you use that term?” A pause, before his voice lightens. “Because it is floating around?” Herzog’s famously frowning mouth breaks into a smile, and everyone laughs. “It was just a title that was owned by one of the producers, and they hoped to own some sort of a franchise. It’s nothing to do with the other film.”

No kidding. Both films centre around a corrupt police lieutenant plunging into sex, drug, and gambling addictions, but where the original was gritty, intense, and charged with Catholic guilt, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is more of a weird, over-the-top ride. If the lieutenant were asked to make a film about himself while at his most intoxicated, it would look something like this.

The film is set in a pungently atmospheric post-Katrina New Orleans, a nightmare version of the city where prostitutes are on every street corner and the sun shines on the demolished Lower Ninth Ward so brightly that it’s almost cruel.

“The screenplay was written either for New York or Detroit,” says Herzog, “and there was a purely financial reason. The producer, Avi Lerner, said, ‘Could you consider to do it in New Orleans? Because we have these fantastic tax incentives in Louisiana.’ And I said, ‘Sure! Wonderful! Can’t get any better! Let’s move it along!’”

“You can see that the city in a way is a leading character,” he continues, “but I always avoided [having] the kinds of New Orleans clichés: Bourbon Street, and jazz musicians, and you just name it. There’s dozens of clichés that I circumnavigated…I think New Orleans apart from the postcard clichés becomes very palpable.”

This is one of the best movies of the year, but here’s the real surprise: it’s the funniest movie Herzog has ever made. Framed by a brilliant, maniacal lead performance by Nicolas Cage, Bad Lieutenant starts as a standard police procedural drama and quickly, unashamedly descends into crazy-town. Who but Herzog would fill a cop drama with lines like, “Don’t you have a lucky crack pipe?” Who else would have the lieutenant say, “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” and then actually show a corpse’s soul dancing? Who else would be mad enough to have our hero hallucinate iguanas, and then linger on the iguanas in extreme close-up for a full minute?

Herzog describes Bad Lieutenant as a new kind of film noir. “In the classic ’40s, ’50s film noir, the darkness is an all-pervading, oppressive force that stifles everything. In this film noir, it’s all joyful: a bliss”—he practically licks his lips on this word—“a bliss of evil…[Cage] asked me why is [the lieutenant] so bad? And I said, ‘Oh come on, don’t bore me with conceptual questions! Let’s focus on one single thing: there is such a thing as the bliss of evil.’”

“It seems to me,” I say, “that you took the archetypes of film noir and sorta kicked them into high gear.” He smiles broadly. “It’s probably in overdrive! It’s somewhere beyond it. It spins not out of control, but it spins into a different stratum.”

An octogenarian journalist chimes in. “I don’t understand this ‘bliss of evil.’ I’ve never felt it. I’ve felt bliss of goodness, but I don’t get ‘bliss of evil’ at all.”

For a moment it appears that Werner Herzog, that fearsome warrior of cinema, willing to risk life and limb to pull a steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo or climb an active volcano in La Soufrière, is actually at a loss for words. He smiles again. “Uh…you are speaking of personal life, and I am speaking of movies—figments of fantasies. So, sure, we have to make a distinction.” A pause. “And you have probably lived a blessed life so far.”

She shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head. Herzog sighs. “Well, whatever…”

*Bad Lieutenant is in theatres Nov. 20.*