The Films Of Werner Herzog: A Retrospective

The Films Of Werner Herzog: A Retrospective

It was 2011 when we first attempted our own "Fitzcarraldo"-like endeavor in writing a comprehensive retrospective on the films of the notoriously prolific Werner Herzog. Since then, not only has he added six or so more titles to his filmography, he’s been feverishly at work on the seventh—the much-anticipated "Queen of the Desert" which we were hoping to see pop up on a Fall festival announcement list, but no news there yet… However, to tide us all over, today Shout Factory are releasing a limited edition, highly covetable collection of sixteen Herzog films on Blu-ray, and that has given us the excuse to go back and relook, update and generally spruce up our retrospective (which includes all sixteen of those, incidentally). And that’s something we’re going to do pretty much any chance we get, being huge fans of the utterly unique, brazenly individual German-born director. 

Because who that loves not just film, but the lore of filmmaking, could fail to be a Herzog fan? The behind-the-scenes stories are almost as well known as his films. Has anyone else bet documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter finished "Gates of Heaven," he would eat his own shoe? (Herzog not only made the bet, but followed through when Morris won: the act is captured in the documentary short, simply titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe.") Has any other filmmaker, in the midst of a BBC interview, been shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle, only to dismiss the incident, saying famously "It is not a significant bullet." Did any other famous director happen to be on the scene when Joaquin Phoenix overturned his car in Los Angeles in 2006 to stop him from lighting a cigarette in the gas-soaked vehicle and pull him from the wreckage? Has any other Cannes Best Director ever attempted to place his entire cast under hypnosis? Of course not. Impossible, ridiculous things happen to Werner Herzog, and Werner Herzog makes impossible, ridiculous things happen. It is a source of endless excitement to witness.

While he’s hardly slowing down now, even at 71, recently he has diversified somewhat, making a rare acting appearance as the baddie in Tom Cruise flick "Jack Reacher," lending his voice to the U.S. release of Hayao Miyazaki‘s "The Wind Rises," directing a 35-min PSA about the dangers of texting while driving, and using his profile as a documentarian to executive produce and passionately champion last year’s groundbreaking "The Act of Killing." But more importantly he’s still making films of his own: aside from "Queen of the Desert," he’s attached to an upcoming adaptation of "Vernon God Little" and a TV show with the promisingly Herzogian title of "Hate in America," in addition to producing projects and, erm, sending himself up in animated penguin comedies. Here’s our manful attempt to tilt at the windmill of the inimitable Herzog’s ever-expanding back catalogue. Long may his prodigious productivity continue.

"Signs of Life" (1968)
Hypnotized hens; a bloated dead donkey; incipient insanity in a remote, sunny locale; Herzog’s first feature is an early document of what have proven enduring fascinations—even the main character’s name, Stroszek, would be recycled later on. But at the same time you can see how it could have been misinterpreted as a statement of a different sort of intent by those critics who found his follow-up “Even Dwarfs Started Small” perversely shocking by contrast. “Signs of Life” starts almost in a realist tradition. Stemming from this story about a trio of German WWII soldiers absented from the theater of war and living out the duration instead in the idyllic surroundings of a Greek Island village, Herzog could have evolved into a Rossellini or even a Varda. But he evolved into a Herzog, and there’s a distinctly Teutonic doominess to the film, especially in its increasingly absurdist second half, as the men lapse into destructive boredom and Stroszek into insanity, that we can see in retrospect is a far better signal of what’s to come. Couched in glorious black and white, using an omniscient narrator, “Signs of Life” marks an astonishingly assured debut less about the madness of war than the internal, futile war that is madness, and Herzog’s odd respect for it as a valid response to the unknowable world at large. [B/B+]

Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970)
Herzog’s 1971 stark, black-and-white imprisonment allegory (which we included in our round up of Asylum Movies), starring a group of German dwarves, is now heralded as an nightmarish, outsider masterpiece. But upon release it enraged critics with the perceived exploitation of his subjects, and the animal cruelty (cockfighting and monkey crucifixion). Like a strange surrealist dream and yet documentary-style in tone, "Even Dwarves Started Small" centers on a group of institutionalized little people who rebel and attempt to destroy their prison, while the institute’s director holds one of them hostage. Perhaps the demented spiritual sequel to Todd Browning‘s "Freaks," the enduring and bizarre picture is still one of Herzog’s personal favorites, and he’s said his better-regarded Amazonian masterpiece "Aguirre: The Wrath Of God," is "like kindergarten in comparison." Featuring cannibalistic chickens, abused, blind dwarves, and a camel that seems doomed to the indecision of kneeling or standing, ‘Dwarves’ contains some unforgettable imagery that seems transmitted direct from Herzog’s nightmares to our own, and remains a haunting and powerful tale of nihilism, lunacy and rage. [B+]

Fata Morgana” (1971)
Often retrospectively cited as a sister film to the much better "Lessons of Darkness," this doc on the Sahara Desert may only exist to make a case for the importance of the Herzog personality, something we may take for granted now, but back in the early ’70s wasn’t yet established. And "Fata Morgana" (which is a complex type of mirage) has all the hallmarks of what we’d come to know as a typically magical Herzog doc—beautiful tracking shots enhanced by operatic music (plus the occasional Leonard Cohen song), weird moments with the subjects, poetic voiceover—but it’s missing one key ingredient: the energy the filmmaker can deliver with his own playful narration. Instead, it’s the voice of French-German film critic Lotte Eisner, who reads the director’s musings as if she’s in second grade and forced to read her homework in front of the class. It makes the 79 minutes of the film seem a great deal longer, and renders it a bit of a chore to get through. Still, the shots are beautiful, and the insight into the nearby community is penetratingly human, even if now feels insignificant in comparison to his later heights in the format. [C+]

"Land of Silence and Darkness" (1971)
Documentaries by Werner Herzog are often characterized by the filmmaker himself: his presence, his solemn, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, overly grave Germanic voiceover, and his occasionally manipulative editorializing. Regular documentaries, he often has stated, are for "accountants." And while not quite bookkeeping, in contrast to latter-era documentaries where the presence of Herr Herzog threatens to (enjoyably) overshadow the subject at hand, “Land of Silence and Darkness” is one of his most reserved and unaffected. Herzog makes no appearance and utters not a word. Instead, fittingly, this documentary about Fini Strabinger, a Bavarian woman who went deaf and blind at the age of 18 and then worked to help other women with similar disabilities, grants its handicapped subjects the utmost dignity it can by simply letting Fini and her friends tell their own stories. Effective and powerful in its simple and unembellished, verite presentation, Herzog illustrates a deep empathy for these marginalized people living lives of joy and richness despite the inability to see or hear. Unsentimental and yet moving, Herzog’s portrait does not traffic in pity, sympathy or pedestrian notions of "celebrating" the unfortunate. The filmmaker simply treats Fini and her forgotten friends as regular documentary subjects and therefore vividly captures all the traits that color them as unique as you or I, while simultaneously exploring the nature of communication. [B/B+]

Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972)
It’s never about the destination in a Herzog movie, but rather the journey. And no descent into madness has been as meticulously captured on film as the mental breakdown that is the darkness of Lope de Aguirre. As the maniacal explorer hellbent on finding the lost city of gold, Klaus Kinski gives a performance powered almost entirely by the fever dreams of a maniac, as his unhinged conquistador leads his charges into almost-certain death, pursuing not riches, but the absolute megalomaniac power of man over men, and over nature. It was the first of several near-deadly collaborations between the inextricably paired actor and director, though if you knew nothing of their volatile relationship, you would imagine this film showcases their final team-up. Shot in dangerous real-life locations in the Peruvian rainforest, ‘Aguirre‘ feels less like a movie and more like the experience of walking on a tightrope over jagged shards of glass, the push-and-pull between Herzog’s single-minded absorption by the elements (accompanied by a haunting Popol Vuh score) and Kinski’s terrifying all-timer of a performance creating a lightning-in-a-bottle greatness no other filmmaker-actor team could begin to accomplish. [A+]

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner” (1974)
If you’re looking for 45 minutes of documentary perfection, you can find it on YouTube under the heading “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.” Herzog’s film about Swiss sky-flying champion Walter Steiner was made for German TV (who apparently mandated that Herzog appear on camera—something he had not tended to do to that point) but is as fine an exemplar of what at extraordinary documentarian Herzog can be as anything we’ve seen on the big screen. Steiner’s pre-eminence in his field (the film follows him winning his first gold medal in Planice in 1972) is remarkable, but it’s coupled to a prickly, aloof, serious personality—he is as much about rules and safety and fear for himself and other jumpers as he is a maverick who just wants to fly, baby. The running time is lean, but somehow every beat that Herzog finds; every snippet of interview; every beautiful, still-breathtaking slow motion shot of the skiers flying through the air, bodies almost horizontal, while the excellent Popol Vuh music plays; every piece to camera Herzog himself delivers—everything feels perfectly judged to deliver an instantly compelling snapshot portrait of exceptionalism. And it culminates in a story about Steiner’s childhood pet, a raven he raised himself, which is so apropos that it approaches transcendent and layers a very Herzogian, almost mythic resonance onto an already fascinating study. [A]

The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser” (1974)
It’s a story told fairly often—that of the wild child found in the wilderness, soon domesticated—but leave it to Werner Herzog to add a whole new spin. Never judgmental, Herzog’s approach is to illuminate his actors and characters in a distanced, peculiar way and Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein), who starts off chained to the floor inside a cell is no different. Soon lured outside, this unhinged societal newcomer and the circus (both literal and figurative) into which he emerges are observes by a detached dispassionate camera in and almost trademark curious, awkward manner. And then, as Hauser evolves, he becomes the least peculiar element of his lifestyle, as Herzog’s focus makes Hauser’s actions seem almost mundane, while the activities of the “civilized” feel ever more bizarre and alienated. ‘The Enigma‘ seems to be Herzog’s fascination with how some standards are accepted if unexplained, and how some values that we instill in each other to appear “normal” are arbitrary and meaningless, with Kaspar at the center of what ends up being part of the auteur’s ongoing attempt to rationalize the irrational world that surrounds him. Or at least to marvel at its frightful, undiscriminating irrationality. [A-]

Heart of Glass” (1976)
By now, the director’s bizarre filmmaking methods are often more widely known than the actual films themselves, and such is the case with "Heart of Glass." Set in 18th century Bavaria, a local community is thrown into disarray when the only glass blower holding the secret to producing their life-blood "ruby glass" passes away. The big story here is that Herzog, in order to get the trance-like performances of a society declining into insanity, shot the entire film with most of the cast under hypnosis. But without getting carried away with the process, let’s focus on the end product: while it hasn’t got the swiftest pacing, the entire film does have a strange tension running through it, and the camera’s fascination with the process of glass-blowing, of all things, is absorbing. There’s also the insanely dark, moody cinematography—it’s sometimes feels like it’s all set on a terrifying alien planet, making "Nosferatu the Vampyre" seem light and frothy by comparison. It’s not a perfect film and definitely rough around the edges, but like most of Herzog’s oeuvre, is a one-of-a-kind experience that can’t be found anywhere else and couldn’t have been made by anyone else. [B]

Stroszek” (1977)
While the early work of Werner Herzog tends to be marked by bizarre outréness ("Even Dwarves Started Small," ‘Kaspar Hauser‘) or madman-like performances (the Klaus Kinski years), the German filmmaker’s "Stroszek," is a relatively quiet, nuanced and effective drama about a trio of Germans trying to make it in America and quickly learning the streets are not simply paved with gold for the picking. Herzog’s beloved Bruno S. (the star of ‘Kaspar Hauser) stars as Bruno, a former mental patient who falls in with a prostitute who is being abused by her hirsute pimps. Also taking a beating for keeping company with her, Bruno, Eva (Eva Mattes) and an old man decide to set out for America to escape their woes, but soon foreclosures, bankruptcy and the realities of life come crashing in. A dark and pessimistic comment on the illusion of the American dream, "Stroszek," is still an empathetically made chronicle of cherished hopes and dreams dashed in the so-called land of opportunity, and, by the end, the comical absurdity of it all. [B+]

"Nosferatu The Vampyre" (1979)
Remakes have a stigma attached to them before they’re even in the can, with fans holding onto certain films as though they were sacred texts. But if there was one production that not only avoided this stigma, but actually caused great anticipation and excitement, it’d be this Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski joint. Taking cues from Murnau‘s classic, the filmmaker delivers a masterpiece of his own by neglecting the Bram Stoker source material and instead cracking open the silent film to see what made it work. This newer version has the same premise, following estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) on his visit to see Count Dracula (Kinski) in order to settle a property sale. After a few perturbing nightmares (also shared back home by his wife Lucy, played by Isabelle Adjani), Harker discovers he’s a vampire who wishes to wreak terror on the surrounding area. Unfortunately, Dracula takes off in the night to claim his newly purchased land, leaving Harker locked in the castle and everyone else, especially his toothsome wife, vulnerable. Herzog’s powerful command of the material elevates it above your standard vampire fare, and in telling the story slowly, quietly and distantly he builds an undercurrent of foreboding dread, that flares to all-out uncanniness whenever Kinski’s Dracula snarls onto the screen. A highly successful union between a genre picture and an auteurist epic. [A]

"Woyzeck" (1979)
A surprisingly faithful adaptation of George Büchner‘s play (or as faithful as you can be for a play that only survives in fragments, which can be performed in more or less any order), photography on "Woyzeck" began only five days after filming wrapped on "Nosferatu The Vampyre," and the exhaustion certainly shows on its star Klaus Kinski (a last minute swap for "Kasper Hauser" lead Bruno S.)—the actor might have specialized in madness, but he never looks quite as close to the edge as he does here. But somehow, Herzog doesn’t seem cowed. The film was shot in a mere eighteen days, and edited in four, and that pace is reflected in the finished film, which is one of the director’s briskest and tightest. Still it’s not one of the best—the performances are certainly striking, and Eva Mattes deservedly won Best Supporting Actress at Cannes for her performances as Woyzeck’s mistress—but the film’s a slave to its form, never quite escaping a certain stagy quality, while also failing to really dig into the heart of the play. As ever with the director, however, it’s hardly dull, and, while it might be a minor work, it has plenty to recommend it even beyond the acting, particularly the unforgettable ending. [B-]

Fitzcarraldo” (1982)
From cast illness, recasts (Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were the leads originally), re-shoots, budgetary shortcomings, "Fitzcarraldo" must have been one of the trickier film shoots on record, particularly considering that it lensed in the unpredictable Peruvian jungle, and starred an even more unpredictable Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, aka Fitzcarraldo. The story of a man who, despite being penniless, is obsessed with building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, feels tailor-made for its director’s preoccupations, with the fact that it involved moving a 300-odd ton ship up and over a mountain without the aid of special effects just the kind of batshit bonus that Herzog seemed to thrive on. Indeed it is still today one of the most infamous tasks in filmmaking history, and another case of Herzog defying nature, and common sense, in pursuit of his vision. The parallels between the protagonist and Herzog are impossible to ignore as they both share an unshakable dedication to seemingly impossible, quixotic pursuits and Kinski puts in one of his most charming performances as the enthusiastic and sincere Fitzcarraldo, adding tender notes to his obsessive venture against the odds. "Fitzcarraldo," is an obsessive film about obsession and went on to deservedly win Herzog a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, partially, we have to presume, for simply surviving the shoot. [A]

"Where the Green Ants Dream" (1984)
Whether every film has been creatively successful or not, perhaps Herzog’s greatest contribution to cinema is his genuine cultural curiosity, which has taken him all over the globe. Having been fascinated with South America and exploring as far as Antarctica and Siberia, it should be no surprise that Herzog also made a pit stop to the Australian desert early in his career (right after the Peruvian madness of "Fitzcarraldo," no less). Blending fact and fiction, Herzog’s first English language movie chronicles a group of Aboriginal activists protesting the excavation of a mining company on what they claim is a sacred ground "where green ants dream" (the disturbance of which will, they believe, destroy humanity). Starring Aussie Bruce Spence as the company man who turns sympathetic to their cause (you’ll remember him as the wiry pilot from the “Mad Max” films), the movie was based on a real-life case and even employed one of the protesters. But there is a reason why this picture is far lesser seen and regarded then Herzog’s other dramatic features from the 1980s—sandwiched in between "Fitzcarraldo" and "Cobra Verde," it’s lacking a similar bite. It’s also dramatically slow-moving and low on Herzog’s trademark odd observations (as a movie about conflict, there’s not a lot of real tension either). It’s of course peculiar, but in a restrained key, so those who never believed Herzog was capable of muted drama, could do worse than check out this minor effort. [C+]

"Ballad of the Little Soldier" (1984)
Peripatetic Herzog globe-trotted all over the world in his day, but perhaps the call of the Americas has always been strongest with him. More politically inquisitive than his other docs which normally focus on human behavior, obsession and endurance, "Ballad of the Little Soldier" is a portrait of children in Central America recruited to fight the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980s. Conscripted by Miskito Indians in their resistance against their (former allies) the Sandinistan “communists,” with various political agendas at play, these innocent adolescents, some as young as nine or ten, are enlisted as pawns to wage war. Many are orphaned or suffering from the loss of siblings and family members, and their anger, loss and confusion is exploited for the gain of this marginalized group, who were allegedly funded by the CIA in their overall scheme to fight communism. Plainly rendered, mostly focusing on interviews with Miskitos in refuge camps and drawn without the need for violent imagery, at a brief 45 minutes, Herzog clearly and chillingly communicates the horrors of war and the film acts as sober lament for the loss of innocence. [B]

"Cobra Verde" (1987)
The last collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, the film that finally dissolved their always tempestuous relationship is also the least-praised, and the least well-known—it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 2007, remarkably. But it’s something of a hidden gem. Based on Bruce Chatwin‘s novel "The Viceroy of Ouidah," it’s very much a companion piece to ‘Aguirre‘ and "Fitzcarraldo," casting Kinski as a Brazilian rancher-turned-outlaw who becomes involved in the slave trade in Africa. As ever, the star is extraordinarily magnetic, even if he’s particularly unhinged here, verging on becoming an animalistic force of nature, and at times, Herzog matches him in the gonzo stakes; the rush of imagery, somewhere between a spaghetti western and "Apocalypse Now," is beautiful but also brutal. The film teeters so close to the edge that it frequently risks toppling over, and it’s never quite as satisfying as its earlier counterpart in that the plot never really coheres, and, while it’s among the most political of Herzog’s films, it feels a little pat when it does touch on the slave trade. But there’s also more brilliance on display here than in 90% of films, and it certainly deserves reevaluation. [B+]

"Echoes from a Somber Empire" (1990)
Herzog’s documentary investigation the rumored cannibal dictator of the Central African Republic, self-proclaimed “Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, can’t help but feel somewhat compromised. While an impressionistic idea of Bokassa does build from archive footage and the fragmented, contradictory points of view of those whose lives he touched, and often ruined, it all feels like it’s building to a coup de theatre—an interview with the man himself—that never comes. In fact Herzog did intend to meet Bokassa, then in prison, and had secured the consent of everyone involved, including Bokassa himself, but the film team was expelled from CAR before the interview could take place. It’s a great shame, not just because it would have given us a better insight into Bokassa, but also because it would have more visibly involved Herzog. As it is, he remains largely silent for the majority of the film, and instead Michael Goldsmith, a journalist once sentenced to death for spying by Bokassa, is the interviewer. Goldsmith’s instincts as a reporter do get to some interesting nuggets, but we can’t help but believe that the film would have benefited from more of Herzog’s provocative, eccentric, elliptical approach, which is only really revealed at the very start and the very close of the film—especially with the iconic footage of a caged chimp smoking a cigarette which in one single image evokes almost as much pathos and resonance as the whole film to that point.  [B-/C+]

Scream of Stone” (1991)
It’s hard to remember now, but Herzog went through a relatively fallow period in the early ‘90s—he was as industrious as ever but, following the dissolution of his fruitfully ferocious relationship with Klaus Kinski (who’d die in November 1991), it felt like the films, often made for TV, lacked the urgency and relevance and focus of his best work, and were certainly more mutedly received. “Scream of Stone” is perhaps the nadir of that period—it’s not terrible and the mountain climbing scenes are good-to-excellent, but unfortunately they only make up the last twenty minutes or so in any real way. All the rest is the uninteresting maneuvering between old clichés: an experienced climber and a hot-shot rookie who thinks he knows better. The acting is creaky, aside from a low-key Donald Sutherland turn as the TV journalist along for the ride and Brad Dourif cameoing as a fingerless Mae West-obsessed climber, and the uninvolving love triangle subplot, along with a wacky role for a pompous TV producer later on feels wholly misjudged. Of all Herzog’s many projects, this is the one he’s come closest to disowning, and you can see why. Still, a pity, because working with famed mountaineer/explorer Reinhold Messner on a story that involves an intractable rivalry to conquer an unclimbable peak sounds like it ought to be some sort of Herzog boss-level bonanza—which just makes the anodyne drama it is all the more disappointing. [C]

Lessons of Darkness” (1992)
Running a brief 40 minutes long, Werner Herzog’s burning-oilfields-in-Iraq doc is like a spiritual sequel to the 1974 doc "Fata Morgana," but whereas that documentary tends to drag, this largely silent tone-poem takes on a hypnotic and meditative quality with shot after shot of burning oilfields raging on and shooting towards the heavens, like a soot-black devil created from mankind’s contempt for the planet and disregard for one another. Eco-advocates need only point to this doc to illustrate the hazards of war and global disasters, but that doesn’t really seem to be the aim of the film’s literally alien-seeming standpoint. And even this slender, pared-back film contains at least one amazing "ecstatic truth" moment: a rare voiceover from Herzog, that posits because they are "consumed by madness," the firefighters relight one of the oil shafts they have put out. It’s a moment that a casual observer might draw an entirely different, and more prosaic conclusion from, but in Herzog’s Wagnerian worldview it provides the occasion for him to wonder, "Has life without fire become unbearable for them?" [B]

Bells from the Deep” (1993)
Ever in pursuit of his “ecstatic truth,” Herzog occasionally plays a little fast and loose with the idea of documentary in its strictest terms, and “Bells from the Deep,” his study of mysticism, faith and superstition in rural Russia is a good example of that. On the surface it’s a portrait of the faith healers, exorcists, priests and prophets that command the faith of thousands, and the people who follow them, portrayed with curiosity but an admirable absence of judgement, whether they’re telling folk tales of hearing the bells from an underwater village, or going into religious hysteria when touched by a sorcerer, or indeed, claiming to be Jesus reincarnated (one of his main subjects operates as a sect leader in Russia to this day). There’s a deep absorption to Herzog’s almost anthropological treatment of his subjects here that is slightly tempered when its discovered afterwards that some of the “pilgrims” were local drunks Herzog paid to roll around on the ice, and some of the folk hymns the Siberian nomads sing are in fact not spells to ward off evil, but love songs. It certainly makes for a magnetic, eerily bewitching hour of filmmaking, and Herzog believes the sleight of hand is justified, but we’re not quite so sure. [B-]

Little Dieter Needs To Fly” (1997)
Before there was Christian Bale and "Rescue Dawn," there was "Little Dieter Needs To Fly," a documentary about Dieter Dengler, like Herzog, a German expat who immigrated to the U.S. from WWII-decimated Deutschland, to fulfill his dreams of being of being a pilot. Joining the Air Force and eventually being allowed to fly by the time Vietnam rolled around, Dengler was shot down on his first mission over Laos, was captured, tortured and held hostage in a POW camp, before he miraculously escaped. His harrowing and seemingly impossible tale of survival is one in a million, and it’s no wonder Herzog—who clearly saw Dengler as a kindred spirit—filmed the story twice, also turning his experience into a feature-length drama ten years later as a tribute to Dengler who passed away in 2001. A grueling tale of punishment and survival, some of which Herzog makes Dengler relive by taking him back to Laos and Thailand to recount his ordeal, ‘Little Dieter’ is also an absorbing and hopeful document about the will to live and the strength to endure despite apparently insurmountable odds. [B+]

"My Best Fiend" (1999)
Two decades after the latter’s death, the relationship between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, who starred in five of the director’s films, still dominates any discussion of Herzog’s career. They arguably brought the best out in each other professionally, but their relationship could most generously be described as "fiery"—in his autobiography, Kinski called the director "a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep." In his tribute to his frenemy, Herzog, naturally, claims that the literary description was partially his idea, while also admitting that he seriously plotted to kill the actor more than once. "My Best Fiend" is an oddity—in places perhaps it’s among Herzog’s most self-revelatory, moving work, as he pays tribute to a man he clearly misses greatly, even as he shows footage of Kinski ranting and raving to a terrifying degree. But it’s also oddly self-serving—a case of history being written by the winner, or at least by the last man left alive, it feels distinctly one-sided, and you sense that Kinski would be rather withering about the project. And then possibly try to set you on fire. Still, you’re left in awe of the actor’s talent, and his madness, which was undoubtedly Herzog’s aim with the project. [B-]

Wings of Hope” (2000)
A little-seen TV documentary from 2000, “Wings of Hope,” deserves just as much attention as any other Werner Herzog documentary and then some. Perpetually drawn to the call of the Amazonian jungle it seems, ‘Hope’ once more finds Herzog in the depths of the South American rain forest to document and re-tell an amazing and harrowing story of survival. This time it’s recounting the tale of German woman Juliane Köpcke, the sole survivor of Peruvian flight LANSA Flight 508 that crashed in the amazon in 1971. Like ‘Dieter,’ Herzog takes Köpcke back to the jungles and the very spot where the plane crashed—they even find remnants of the aircraft—and she relives, at least in her mind, her painful ordeal. Traveling ten days on foot without food or water, and with maggots living and festering within her cuts, Köpcke eventually came across a river that took her to three men who rescued her. Admittedly, it’s very similar in tone to ‘Dieter,’ but had you not seen the earlier film first you might be just as enthralled and in awe by the end. Herzog seems to bend truths here and there, subtly soundtracked to transcendent pieces of music, but when they result in so many moments so damn profound and beautiful, its hard to argue with his techniques. [B+]

Invincible” (2001)
The facts don’t matter so much to Werner Herzog, who wisely pursues the innate truths of our humanity through celluloid instead, even when dealing with fairly concrete stories. An example of this is the re-invention of the "Jewish Samson," Zishe Breitbart, not as a significant cultural icon of the 1920s but instead a significant player in the growing tensions between the Jewish population and the Nazi Party, which required bumping the timeline of Breitbart’s death closer to the Holocaust for this fictional retelling. It might seem a fairly superficial change, but what this does is illuminate both Herzog’s notion that the towering Polish strongman was a walking piece of art, and that the Nazis were killing thousands but also destroying ideas. The terrific, unjustly neglected “Invincible” features several digressions, including constant detours into the life of Jewish cabaret owner Hanussen (an understated Tim Roth), and a brief focus on the local sea life that catches Breitbart’s fancy, and which provides a recognizably Herzogian conclusion: like these aquatic creatures, he seems to argue, we are unable to control our fate. [A-]

Wheel of Time” (2003)
To observe the wild man of the international film scene turn in such a gentle and meditative examination of some of the most arcane and deeply pacifist rituals of the Buddhist religion feels a little like watching a ship battered by years on rough seas come in to port: oddly restful and comforting. Gaining unprecedented access to some never-before-filmed scenes as the Dalai Lama, his monks and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims congregate for a festival of enlightenment, Herzog’s fascination with his subjects, his awe at their self-sacrifice and his admiration for their philosophy is almost palpable. Complemented by breathtaking photography of crowds swarming over the Tibetan landscape, and tiny moments of sand grains dropping one by one to form the intricate mandala at the film’s heart, Herzog’s narration is by turns wry and deeply, profoundly absorbed, making him the perfect outsider through whose eyes to see these truly exotic and uncanny spiritual sights. It may not be the most urgent of Herzog’s documentaries, but it is among his most mesmerizing. [B+]

"The White Diamond" (2004)
Werner Herzog’s most dangerous films (like, man-confronting-a-bear dangerous, or man-confronting-NicCage dangerous) tend to gather the biggest crowds, but really, it’s Herzog’s more introspective queries on man’s complicated relationship with nature that linger in our consciousness longest. His endearing and subtlety strange arctic travelogue, "Encounters at the End of the World," is one good example, and "The White Diamond," an intoxicatingly gorgeous journey through the rainforest of Guyana by way of a Jungle Airship, might be the best of his docs in the ’00s. It pairs its National Geographic-ready wildlife profile with an achingly personal character study; in this case, Herzog’s madman fighting the odds is Dr. Graham Dorrington, an aviation engineer who embarks on a trip to Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls to study the rainforest’s canopy. In Dorrington’s ambition (modest compared to other Herzog protags), the filmmaker evokes his classic theme of man’s struggle to achieve symbiosis with nature. But there’s a sorrowful lilt (evidenced in the lingering memory of a passed-away friend) that’s somewhat rare in Herzog’s oeuvre. His cinematography, too, is imbued with a shimmering beauty appropriate for this often overlooked gem in the canon of one of our most versatile, singular filmmakers. [A]

"Grizzly Man" (2005)
A more recent success, Werner Herzog’s perverse, funny, deeply-touching documentary is about Timothy Treadwell, a granola-eating, press-loving nature freak who wants to be absorbed, "Jungle Book"-style, into a family of grizzly bears. While this could be the set up for some bizarre but heartwarming, nature doc, "Grizzly Man" is really a whacked-out tragedy delineating the utter hubris and naivety of Treadwell’s desire: he may adore nature and the grizzly bear, but that is no guarantee that either loves him back. With Werner Herzog’s liberal narration, the movie becomes less about a man consumed with a noble pursuit, but more a psychological profile of a man so unwell he would kill himself (and someone he loved) through a misguided sense of purpose. In this context, a brief scene with David Letterman interviewing Treadwell and joking that one day he’ll be eaten by a bear becomes an ironic prophecy, and the story overall, while true, feels like it sprang directly from Herzog’s brain. [A-]

The Wild Blue Yonder” (2005)

A rare example of a swing and a miss from Herzog, “The Wild Blue Yonder” is a rather tedious recontextualization of a lot of documentary footage, much of it from NASA, into a ginormous interstellar shaggy dog story. Starring a windswept and wild-eyed Brad Dourif as an alien who came to earth when his own planet underwent an ice age, the film relies too much on archive footage that now feels somewhat familiar and on live action filmed scenes that seem calculatedly banal (mousy men writing incomprehensible equations on whiteboards; Dourif speaking to camera in abandoned, broken-down locales). Dourif himself is well-cast and the film finds itself in some of his speeches, but while the story he describes is intermittently interesting, especially where it intersects with known human history (Roswell; the CIA; aviation pioneers) eventually it does start to feel like listening to the railing of a crazy guy on the street: his delusion may be detailed and comprehensively imagined, but it’s never convincing. Allied to a trancy soundtrack of wailing vocals and drones the film has a lethargic, soporific quality—odd that the unearthliness and sense of alien wonder that Herzog so often can impart should be absent from his one film about a literal alien. [C-]

Rescue Dawn” (2007)
Christian Bale’s emaciated turn in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” signaled a turning point for the skilled actor, but also raised questions about the brutality of his method acting. Which is perhaps where Herzog identified a kinship, since he cast Bale as Dieter Dengler in the narrative recreation of a topic he’d broached before with the real Mr. Dengler in 1997’s “Little Dieter Needs To Fly.” The resulting film is perhaps not as narratively taut as we’d like, but in depicting the capture of Dengler after being shot down and the POW relations, Herzog hits a sweet spot, once again exploring how men function under extreme conditions, pitted against not just their fellow man but antagonistic nature too. Bale hits all of his marks, but it’s Steve Zahn (along with, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Davies) who really resonates, delivering a complete about-face from his frequent doofus sidekick roles, to reveal Duane W. Martin as perhaps the film’s most touching character: an emotionally fragile but kind-hearted man inspired by Dengler to try for freedom. [B]

Encounters at the End of the World” (2007)
“Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?” Herzog sets up early on that his Antarctica doc ain’t no "March of the Penguins." Indeed he makes that explicit with a shot of one doomed penguin walking determinedly, it seems, in the wrong direction, away from the crowd toward certain, isolated death. Filmed with a tiny crew consisting only of Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, ‘Encounters‘ was shot almost entirely on the fly in a short seven weeks and is delivered in an observational diary style, rather than anything more typically narrative-driven or shaped, though Herzog’s glorious, deadpan narration helps to string it together. But as fascinated as he is by the strangeness of the people living above-ground around the makeshift McMurdo Station, some of the most beautiful and poetic moments are found in the long underwater shots, the uncanny alien world that lies just beneath the surface. It’s not simply a nature doc, or even an anthropological one, it’s far more philosophical, even ontological, than that—and is occasionally breathtaking for its ideas as well as its images even if it doesn’t quite rank among the director’s best.[B]

"Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans" (2009)
Cleaving Playlist opinion down the middle, Werner Herzog’s most atypical project is definitely best enjoyed as a Herzog film, rather than as a genre movie that happens to be from an auteur director, because anyone approaching it with ideas that the Hollywood star and generic setting are going to make for a less weird Herzog experience is going to be soundly disappointed. Ostensibly a sequel/remake of Abel Ferrera‘s "Bad Lieutenant," this film however retains none of that film’s stars, story or even tone instead casting Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer in a completely gonzo, inexplicable detective story that has Herzog’s camera often wander away from the action to focus on a lizard on a rock or some alligators or something. It’s far from Herzog’s best, being an incoherent marriage of generic thriller with quasi-metaphysical who-knows-what, but wild as it is, it’s a fascinating watch for the Herzog aficionado if only for the sense of looking through his eyes. Rightly or wrongly, we’ve always felt that Herzog thinks he is being normal here, and that puts his effort of similar genre tales like "Lethal Weapon" or a "Die Hard." Delirious, awkward and featuring one of the most outre Nicolas Cage performances in recent memory ("shoot him again, his soul’s still dancing") ‘Port of Call‘ absolutely doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but has rewards in store for anyone who goes in prepared for a huge heaping portion of crazy. [B-] 

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (2009)
Mix David Lynch (here exec producer) and Werner Herzog, and you’re bound to get something that peers straight into the darkness, and finds the darkness peering back. And as a result, this serio-comic horror picture, the second of two 2009 dalliances with genre territory that take pleasure in disappointing all genre expectations, follows a delusional man (Michael Shannon) who acts out the seminal stage play “Oresteia” by murdering his mother with an antique saber, and touches on some very unexpected notes. Herzog seems less interested in the gruesomeness and transparent evil at the heart of this true story, and instead focuses on how the man’s actions created his own little sub-community, where the cops interact with a host of people who influenced his earlier, progressively more unhinged days. While there can never be another Kinski, Shannon steps up admirably in a performance guided by the intellectual curiosity of a demon, his flat facial features contrasted against possibly the most expressive brow in Hollywood, the character actor morphing into a leading-man force of nature before us. While he can be casual and deadly, it’s Shannon at his most relaxed that appears most fearsome, as if he is coiled up, and best prepared to strike. How he will strike is Herzog’s crafty, gleefully demented secret. [B-]

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (2010)

Despite receiving some of the most breathless accolades given to a documentary in recent years (it wasn’t solely the 3D surcharge that made it the most lucrative documentary of all time on its release) “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” left us a lot cooler, and lot less engaged than many of Herzog’s other documentaries. An undoubtedly intelligent and well-intentioned exploration of the ancient caves in which were discovered some of the earliest ever cave paintings, dating back some 30,000 years, the wonder of that discovery wears off rather early and that, along with the occasionally queasy effect of the 3D, conspired to let our attention wander. But perhaps most detrimental of all to our enjoyment was the strange straight-up reverence that Herzog delivers here—there are but few of his trademark digressions (which are so often more fascinating that the subject under discussion) and he largely leaves it up to the interviewed experts to provide (dry and sometimes academic) context. Rarely does Herzog’s innate solemnity come across as anything but grand, but here it feels hemmed in and resolutely small-scale despite the extra dimension and the enormous span of time (all of human history nearly) that he’s dealing in. We’re not sure Herzog’s physically capable of turning in an uninteresting film, but ‘Cave’ is certainly one of his less involving. [C+]

"Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" (2010)

An intermittently interesting but overall rather ordinary documentary about the seasonal cycle of life amongst the sable trappers of the Siberian Taiga region, we can chalk the unusually PBS-feel of this project down to the fact that Herzog is only its co-director (and in fact, second-billed). Seemingly engaged more as an editing consultant (filmmaker Dmitri Vasyukov originally shot a great deal more footage for a TV project), Herzog also lends his trademark heavily accented voiceover to the film, but otherwise it feels a great deal more anonymous than we’d expect from him, and is quite small-screen in scope. Which is not to say that the power of the subject doesn’t come across—the procedural, observational camera observes the planing of a tree trunk into a canoe or nighttime journey across frozen wasteland with a kind of detached, unmanipulated interest. But the thrust is just less grandiose than we’re used to from Herzog, less allied to epic themes, and occasionally his admiration for the hard-won philosophy of these rugged men rings a little off. He’s by no means dissembling, but there is a slight edge of romanticism to his view of these hard lives as somehow nobler and purer than modern life elsewhere, which is enhanced by the sense we get of Herzog himself never having really interacted with them, just having watched the footage and recorded the narration in a warm studio many miles away. [C+]

"Into the Abyss" (2011)

The feature-length, theatrically released segment of the “On Death Row” series (see below) in which Herzog interviews death row inmates, their families, the families of their victims, correctional officers and policemen involved in the original case, “Into The Abyss” focuses on a triple homicide, and the two men, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, convicted of the crime. Perry is sentenced to death, whereas Burkett got life imprisonment, and Herzog (whom we hear as interviewer but do not see) is upfront about his anti-death penalty stance. But the film is less polemic than that might imply: Herzog in no way attempts to exculpate either convict, and spends a great deal of time emphasizing the heinous nature of the crime, the awful impact of the killings on relatives of the dead. Indeed, it’s not even really an act of journalism, despite being funded by Investigation Discovery, instead it’s an artist’s exploration of the warring instincts in human nature, and nature overall, between violence and chaos and justice and retribution, in which Herzog’s dogged respect for even the grimmest life emerges from the moral morass. Who else would start an execution documentary with a chaplain relating an anecdote about squirrels and end it with an ex-death house officer talking about hummingbirds? [B+]

"On Death Row" (2012)
Originally four 50-minute-long episodes in the same death row series that was kicked off by the theatrical release of "Into the Abyss," (followed by four more which aired in 2013), if anything, "On Death Row" is a more fluid, gripping and persuasive examination of the nature of legally-sanctioned execution than the feature that preceded it. Here the individual stories are pared back to the essentials, or rather what Herzog believes those essentials to be, and it makes for deeply engrossing viewing. Herzog mostly lets the camera linger on the subject, whether it’s the victim’s sibling, the investigating officer, the lawyer, or most often and most fascinatingly, the inmate him/herself. And yet the wider themes of justice vs. retribution, punishment vs. crime and circumstance vs. character are not lost, it’s more like Herzog himself becomes so caught up in the stories these people tell to him, to the public and perhaps to themselves, that he largely stays out of the way. This focus on the victims, the perpetrators and those involved in the legal system in their own words makes clear his anti-death penalty stance much more eloquently than an overt manifesto ever could: Herzog is not against killing these men and women because they are good people, but because they are people, whose humanity cannot be denied no matter how inhuman the acts they’ve committed. [A-]

Like a Herzog protagonist, we too cherish a crazy, all-but-unobtainable dream—that one day we’ll have a complete and absolutely comprehensive Herzog retrospective that includes all his TV work and his short films as well as his features. Maybe "Queen of the Desert" will inspire us to track down those more obscure nooks and crannies, but for now, we think we’ve covered all but one of his feature-length films above, both documentary and narrative, for TV and theatrical release, as well as a good few of his shorter-format TV docs. That said, we have been unable to track down 1985’s TV mountaineering documentary "The Dark Glow of the Mountains" at all, which we’re eager to watch especially in compensatory light for his other Reinhold Messner collaboration, the disappointing narrative film "Scream of Stone."

Elsewhere, Herzog has seven fiction shorts to his name, at least that number again of documentary shorts, with another ten or eleven documentary titles of 45 minutes and upward that we’ve yet to cover, including early TV doc "The Flying Doctors of East Africa," "Herdsmen of the Sun" and the feature-length documentary on Richard Wagner‘s music at the Bayreuth Festival humbly titled "The Transformation of the World into Music." Good to know there’s still plenty in store for our next go-round then. Let us know your own favorite Herzogs, especially from the less trafficked reaches of his filmography, in the comments below. 

 — Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Samantha Chater, Kevin Jagernauth.

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It's true, Gesualdo is missing, and I think La Soufrière, at least, should be mentioned. And then Gasherbrum, Handicapped Future, How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, Last Words…. in fact, he has made too many masterpieces! My favourites? Maybe Lessons Of Darkness, or Even Dwarfs Started Small. Very good retrospective, anyway. I can't wait to see Queen of the Desert and all his next certainly amazing projects (what about Buckin Fastard?!?!)


Loved this, extensive too.


I was sad to read that you were not a fan of "Forgotten Dreams". I found it to be a truly breathtaking film going experience. Maybe more akin to visiting the natural history museum, the subject matter seemed to stand alone in the canon of Herzog films. Where he is mostly concerned with how people choose to spend their time on Earth or the legacy they intend to leave behind, here he is focusing on time itself. Many of his films seem like a mystery that only he knows the answer, "Cave" felt like we were just as unsure of the "artists'" intentions as he was. Without delving too much into my fascination with 3D, I loved the use of the medium. Who else is daring enough to use the most modern of technologies (well maybe not modern but certainly contemporarily prominent) to dissect the oldest of technologies and art. Form and function follow each other wonderfully here.


you missed Gesualdo….

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