We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

"Bad Lieutenant": Aesthetic Interrupted

Ben Simington

“…I’m not doing the prequel to Aguirre: the Wrath of God, OK? Let me put it that way!”

These were the kindest words Abel Ferrara had to say about Werner Herzog’s upcoming Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans when asked in a 2008 Filmmaker interview about that unapproved reimagining of Ferrara's 1992 cult classic, released in a special edition DVD late last month.  The original film depressingly contemplates Catholicism’s uniquely potent cycle of guilt, shame, forgiveness, and redemption by following Harvey Keitel’s anonymous titular character through an explosive on-the-job spiritual crisis that leaves him flailing through a deadly and delusional self-righteous blindness: perceive slander (often imagined), accuse, rage, repeat.  Ferrara's creation remains one of the most aptly (un)named characters in cinematic history.

The crucifix used as a weapon.  A clue in the case against endemic emotional imbalance.

The violent vindictiveness enabled by his profession increases in proportion to his personal failures.  As he explores almost every conceivable corruption of “The Law” in his daily grind of urban policing, numerous intimate, hand-held or simply setup scenes detail the empty repetitions and occasional personal ecstatic manias of a drug- and gambling-addicted lifestyle as The Bad Lieutenant spirals ever deeper into an inescapable hell of psychosis, hallucination and debt.

I feel high just looking at these people.

In solidarity with Ferrara who has literally cursed Herzog and company to hell, many fans of the original Bad Lieutenant cried sacrilege when an unofficial promotional trailer for the new Nicolas Cage vehicle surfaced on the web in May.  Granted, the Herzog film does come off seeming like an outright absurdist comedy, but given the outcry raised by fans in defense of Ferrara’s original as some untouchably intense drama, I was surprised while watching it recently for my first time to discover within its images and dialogue an actual foundation of pitch-dark gallows humor.  A reaction of uncomfortable laughter to an addict's compromised decision making abilty may seem inappropriate, but in a movie with performances and subject matter this extreme, by no means are we obligated to treat this as reality, either.  That’s the deal.  Ferrara's structure of progressively insane deeds provides as much of a systematically naked and embarrassing mortification of the character's human spirit as Gibson's take on the Passion did for the flesh.

A cheap visual gag: tilt down from a shooting victim’s face to check out her tits.

Classic one-liner shtick:  THUG sez--“That shit’s gonna kill you, man!”  So LT. sez--“What the fuck are you?  A drug counselor or a drug dealer?”

General unclassiness: placing bets during your daughter’s first communion.

Or outright shocking inappropriateness:  Snorting coke off the family photos.

The film does not require its audience to identify deeply with the depravities of its anti-hero, but late in the game, when the full badness of the lieutenant is already well established, Ferrara does implore the audience to sympathize with a clearly irredeemable protagonist through the momentary suggestion of his subjective vision of the Sublime, and it is in that regard that Herzog might be quite aptly suited to tackle similar material, as illustrated through a comparison below.  Bad Lieutenant’s art design and the world it defines (both personal/home spaces and sacred spaces) are decorated by the traditional votive idols of Christ with which its characters surround themselves.  From a church interior that is a grisly crime scene to a living room where the throw rug vividly depicts the Savior, the film documents a stunning legacy of devotional imagery.

These recurring mise-en-scène choices become distilled into their purest expression in the film's culmination when the lieutenant breaks down on the floor of the church and sees Christ.  A cinematic miracle already promised by the preceding pervasive symbolism occurs.  The on-screen image ceases to be just a hallucination within the narrative.  Breaking from the overarching realistic aesthetic of the majority of the film (some scenes even seem to have been shot in a guerilla mode) into a much more stylized image, the sui generis long-take is miraculously transubstantiated into a static piece of devotional art.  For several seconds it seems to be both a cathartic culmination of the film's narrative and simultaneously an autonomous installation within each theatre and upon each TV that it screens.  It is a tremendous, odd moment when an all the film's forgettable squalor becomes encompassed by some other power that is really quite incredible; silent, still, and beyond words.

The apex of delusion and the nadir of the soul?  Or a Holy Fool forgiven and granted a genuine theophany?

Though pronouncedly more secular, Herzog’s features have frequently pivoted on similar stylistic interruptions that emphasize the emotional tone of a moment or illustrate a character’s state of being in a manner typically reserved for a music cue.  Every Man for Himself and God Against All depicts Kaspar Hauser’s dream visions using 8mm travel films taken by one of Herzog’s friends.  Nosferatu repeatedly assails its characters with extreme slow-motion footage of an encroaching bat in flight against a rich, dream-like blue background.  Invincible, a more recent work culminates in Herzog’s first use of CGI and one of his very rare uses of special effects in general when the Breibert’s young brother flies into the sky, an expression of the strongman’s hopes.

Aguirre’s finale is initiated by a ghostly vision of a ship trapped high in the trees of the Amazon riverbank at a section of the river where no known European expedition has ever reached.  The fevered crew debates its corporeality, but Aguirre insists it is truly there, and from his pathetic, dilapidated raft of dying mutineers he commands that the ship will be seized and the crew will sail it to victory, conquering the New World.  Undercutting Kinski's bombast, Herzog cuts to a quiet, contemplative moment of the boat atop the passing shoreline, leaving each viewer to hedge his own bets about whether the crew is hallucinating that it is an illusion or whether Aguirre is hallucinating that it is real or, given the ephemeral visual illusion that is cinema, whether ultimately the distinction even matters.  Surely, it is a ship, right there before our eyes…albeit on a screen.  When one of Aguirre’s delirious crewmembers decries, “That is not a ship” as if protesting the shot itself, it carries about as much authority as a museumgoer who, looking at Magritte’s painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe, accuses it childishly, "Are too!"

The only way we will ever get some closure on the matter is if someone makes a prequel to Aguirre: The Wrath of God.  My vote for best helmer goes to Ferrara.

Ceci n'est pas une shipe!


Abel FerraraWerner Herzog
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.