Spring 2020

Coppola's Heart of Darkness

Susanne Bier revels in the seduction of power and evil in Apocalypse Now

By Emily Zemler

Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen arrives at the compound of the unhinged Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (Photo: Photofest)


Sometimes there's this thing where there's magic," Susanne Bier says as the opening scene of Apocalypse Now appears, marrying vibrant images of a jungle in turmoil with the Doors' hypnotic track "The End." "This music with this image brings a lot of mystery and depth. And pain, maybe."

It's been years since Bier has watched Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic, but it's a film to which she always returns. The Undoing director first saw the movie during film school in Denmark, and she's been captivated by it ever since, often taking inspiration from Coppola's choices. "There are two movies I always come back to: this movie and The Deer Hunter," she explains, sitting in the editing suite of The Undoing's post-production office in London in February. "I don't know why. They're both Vietnam War movies. They have stayed with me in a really profound way since I saw them the first time."

As the camera fades in on Martin Sheen's Captain Benjamin L. Willard inside his hotel room, Bier says she is less drawn to war films than she is to "evocative storytelling," adding, "and I think I might have an affinity for lonely characters."

Because Bier was pursuing another career path before becoming a filmmaker, most of her film education came late, while attending the National Film School of Denmark in the late '80s. "I got the gift of watching those movies that somehow become part of who you are and what you are," says Bier, who studied architecture and set design before focusing on "script and the entity of moviemaking."

Bier's favorite scene arrives within the first 10 minutes: Willard's briefing over lunch, during which he first learns of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz and is ordered to terminate him. As the officers bring Willard into the room, the heat palpable with sweat, Bier reflects, "I think the reason why the spectacular bits work so well is because the opening is so accurate and beautiful. It's hard to say with a masterpiece, 'This is my favorite scene.' But this is the scene that I always come back to."

The dialogue is slow and deliberate, yet indirect, leading Bier to note, "There's so many layers in this scene." The camera fixates on a plate of glistening pink shrimp, a jarring extreme close-up that acts as a juxtaposition between the pretense of civility and the raw, uncompromising heat. "If you eat it, you'll never have to prove your courage in any other way," a character quips.

Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, who remains impassive through most of the movie—the better to carry out his assignment without emotion or reason getting in the way. (Screenpulls: Paramount Home Video)

"That close-up taught me 10 years of film school," Bier says. "When I saw this it was like, 'OK, this I understand.' If you look at my films, they're definitely impacted by this—by allowing yourself to go into irrational images, which are not part of the plot but are intrinsic to the understanding of character and the character's trajectory." Coppola, she adds, "builds the scene with elements which don't necessarily tie into the plot [but] are incredibly efficient in building the tension surrounding the plot. Coppola is a genius and he does it so well."

The camera pans left from the dining table to the window, where the curtains are blowing in the breeze. "The scene doesn't become about delivering a mission," Bier continues. "The scene becomes about a situation: the heat, the food, the shrimp that goes bad in the heat, the anxiousness. A super-high-level group of important men who are clearly worried but not saying anything. It does all the exposition without anybody realizing it's exposition."

Bier takes note of Willard's appearance, "who we know has the biggest hangover ever but still looks clean-shaven." The dichotomy of his physical beauty vs. the inner rot at his core is not unlike a latter-day Dorian Gray. "That perfection covers up [what's inside]," she says. "And I want to feel that's part of Coppola's theme—the perfect man who beneath the surface is this lurking insanity or lurking anger or lurking desperation. And I feel it's always there. It's almost like (Michael) in The Godfather; he's kind of immaculate, and yet it's an incredibly dangerous kind of perfection."

For Bier, Apocalypse Now is all about moments of balance, which set intimacy and grandeur side by side. She says the opening works because it's small and enclosed, allowing what's to come to feel even more expansive. As we follow Captain Willard deeper into the jungle, his voiceover detailing the mission, Bier suggests a narrative similarity to Sam Mendes' 1917, another war film where a soldier is tasked with an impossible mission, while the viewer trails him as he encounters extreme obstacles along the way.

When it's time for what is perhaps the film's most iconic scene, where a group of helicopters carries the soldiers into battle set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," led by Robert Duvall's Colonel Bill Kilgore, Bier leans forward and says, "And now it comes." The camera cuts between close-ups of the soldiers' faces as the choppers soar forward toward a seemingly peaceful village of women and children. Explosions and smoke begin to decimate the buildings. The locals scream and run. The Wagner grows louder. It feels aggressive and chaotic but also meticulously planned.

"I've probably seen it a zillion times, and there's always detail where I wonder, 'Was that staged or did that happen?'" Bier reflects. "Everything is so dynamic and organic, and seemingly unstaged. Duvall's insane, bigger-than-life character works beautifully in the context of everything being so real and so visceral. He's drinking coffee while this happens and his coffee cup is a specific coffee cup. There isn't one single small bit which isn't naturally integrated into the whole thing, and yet there's still space for life. I sometimes feel when things are too staged and too arranged, they die."

A blitzkrieg of helicopters close in on a village set to the music of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." (Screenpulls: Paramount Home Video)

She adds: "I think of movies that are too choreographed and they bore me. This is deliberate and conscious, but with a hell of a lot of the feeling of the unknown, and that's part of the impact. There's a chaos element, which also comes from being masterful enough to embrace the gifts that come along, which Coppola is doing."

It's essential, she says, that a war film draws you in but not overwhelms you.

"It's very authentic and yet still heightened," she says of Apocalypse Now. "You totally embrace that it can happen, but it's not so real that it just upsets you. This is more about the absurdity of war without lessening the pain of it. "

Looking at Apocalypse Now again, she's struck by how timely the story feels. "It is fundamentally about being seduced by evil and being seduced by the craziness of power," she says. "All the great war films have a moral red line that's the undercurrent of the story. It needs to have a discussion about what we are, who we are and why we are."

As Captain Willard and his fellow soldiers forge deeper into the heart of darkness, Bier is struck by the film's use of sound, and the absence of it. Asked if she could draw a parallel between Apocalypse and the blindfolded characters' perilous journey on a boat seeking sanctuary in her 2018 feature Bird Box, she's unequivocal.

"Oh, absolutely," she says. Apocalypse is "sort of the bible: This is how you play with these elements. This is how you play with silence, and how silence can be this insane threat. Just to be very clear, I feel incredibly indebted to Coppola. I don't want to in any remote way come across as pretentious, to be considered (his equal) or to be so brilliant. (But) the atmosphere of the unseen unknown, which is really prevalent in Apocalypse—even just the scene where they (get off the boat) expecting the enemy but it's a tiger—it's that constant type of worrisome thing, which I was aiming for in Bird Box, but of course, it's very, very different.

A plate of glistening shrimp in ghastly heat takes on special significance in Bier's view. (Screenpulls: Paramount Home Video)

"And then the specificness of the noises, the specificness of whenever the music comes in. It's so accurate. This is what I learn from. Whenever I don't know what to do, I look at it and I go, 'Oh, I see.'"

Captain Willard's squad shows up to a bombastic USO show at a village along the river. Three Playboy Bunnies leap out of a helicopter as the surging crowd of male soldiers holler and whistle. "Today you wouldn't be able to make a scene like this," Bier remarks.

The raging testosterone and the surreality of the situation is pronounced. "I have to say," Bier observes, "for a woman, there is a certain amount of maleness in the film that I kind of enjoy. As a female director being obsessed with the movie, which basically takes place in a man's world, I think what it has done for me is reflect upon gender in a different way. When I did interviews, particularly at the beginning of my career, I was always asked who were my female heroes. And I guess I felt a need to understand something else. And (Apocalypse) is so extreme the other way. It made me understand a lot about myself in a weird way.

As the squad continues up the river, with Willard learning more and more about Colonel Kurtz from his files, we hear Sheen recounting new details in a voiceover, dropping hints sporadically rather than all at once. It becomes increasingly obvious that the colonel has gone dangerously rogue, perhaps even more so than Willard was led to believe in his briefing.

Sheen's Willard remains impassive throughout, like a detached gumshoe in the Raymond Chandler mold. "It's a detective thriller," Bier asserts. "That's why we accept that he can't give out his emotions. It's kind of interesting having a main character who just never really, profoundly interacts with anyone throughout the entire film. He's acting with a kind of blank surface. The inner turmoil is reflected in the world around him. It's all taking place on the outside but really in the inside."

The beginning of the end arrives far ahead of the film's actual conclusion. Clean, a kid soldier played by an almost unrecognizably young Laurence Fishburne, is the first to perish in a surprise attack by the Vietcong. "And now they begin to die," Bier says. She sighs as the rest of the squad holds an impromptu funeral for him on the river. The camera cuts to a plantation home where the remaining soldiers sit down for dinner with a well-to-do French colonist family. "The movie plays constantly with civilization and unruliness," Bier says. "And they manage to have Martin Sheen being sexy all the time; he's this beautiful, handsome, almost serene presence in the midst of all of that."

Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. (Screenpulls: Paramount Home Video)

The French woman makes eyes at Captain Willard across the table before offering him a drink. "The last breath of civilization before the complete chaos," reflects Bier.

As the boat arrives at the colonel's compound, there are decapitated heads and dead bodies strewn about as Captain Willard assesses the situation. Dennis Hopper's American photojournalist bursts out of the jungle and manically leads Captain Willard to a waiting room for the colonel. "Just listen to how quiet it is," notes Bier again about how sound, or the lack of it, builds tension. "The quiet is threatening."

Finally, Captain Willard is led into a darkened chamber. Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz sits in the shadows as he speaks, his face obscured. "It's almost filmed like it could have been a seduction scene, right?" Bier says. Coppola employs the shadows again a few scenes later as Kurtz tosses a severed head in Willard's lap. "You feel like a lot of contemporary things are indebted to this," Bier notes as the colonel begins to recite T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."

As shot by Vittorio Storaro, who won an Oscar for his cinematography, Kurtz's face plays between the shadow and the light, which passes across his eyes like a silent threat. "I love it," Bier grins. She adds, referencing the poem, "Just imagine a script like that at a studio today. They'd say, 'We really love the story, but can you please get rid of that poem?'"

The visual of Sheen's assassin rising out of the water in the black of night, his face covered in war paint, the steam rising around him, is one of the film's most arresting. "Even the jungle wanted him dead," the character intones as he prepares to carry out his brutal deed, to terminate Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."

"This image," Bier says. "It's the movie in the history of movies. There's probably dozens of iconic shots, at least [in Apocalypse Now], and they're totally integrated. They aren't just there for the spectacle."

Sheen stealthily closes in on his mission to terminate Kurtz "with extreme prejudice." (Screenpulls: Paramount Home Video)

As Captain Willard completes his mission, killing Colonel Kurtz with a machete, the scene is interlaced with the indigenous locals sacrificing a water buffalo. The cross cutting is both metaphoric and graphic. "It's bloody, but it's not random," Bier says.

"The horror," Kurtz mutters as he dies, "the horror." It's a line lifted straight out of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, from which Apocalypse Now is loosely adapted. Willard, armed with a newfound power, emerges above the crowd of villagers, who acknowledge him as their leader. His hair is slicked back and shadows cross his face. The music shifts, the score becoming more ominous, and the natives kneel.

"I think it's a completely different tone," Bier says of the finale. "Even the music is so different. It's almost like a silent movie. It's a very poignant fairy tale about evil and the power of evil, and for me it definitely works. It works that he (Willard) increasingly gets the face of Marlon Brando. They look more and more alike throughout the entire sequence."

Willard leaves the scene of devastation behind. His stoic visage is superimposed over an image of the boat departing, a technique Coppola employs numerous times throughout the film. "That's double exposure," Bier comments. "That was very innovative and extremely expensive. That was all we wanted to do when we were in film school, to make double exposure, and we would never be allowed. Maybe one image. Now it's nothing. I do remember wanting to do it—all the film school students wanted to do it. It's soft, in a way, but it's very evocative."

As the end credits roll, Bier leans back on the couch and reflects on the film's lasting power. "It isn't that [Apocalypse] is just insanely rich [in production values], insanely detailed and insanely concrete and accurate, it's also that it [taps] into the ambiguity of the inner voyage and the outer voyage. Because it's very real, it's very concrete. And yet it constantly has that metaphorical level, which is just so seductive. I almost feel it's more relevant [today]. With whatever's going on in the world, the seduction of evil feels spot on."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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