Few filmmakers have had as varied, or colorful, a career as Werner Herzog. A man that Francois Truffaut, who should know, once called “the most important film director alive,” Herzog has been knocking out classics, in both the fictional and documentary worlds, for over 40 years now. Perhaps still best known for his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog produced many of his very best films, the director’s oeuvre goes far beyond those five, from minor classics to eye-opening documentaries, from classics of German cinema to a star-driven remake of an Abel Ferrera film.
The behind-the-scenes stories are almost as well known as his films. No other director would make a bet with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter finished and screened his proejct “Gates of Heaven,” that he would eat his own shoe — and yet 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.” No other director, in the midst of a BBC interview, could be shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle, only to dismiss the incident, saying, in true Herzog-ian fashion, “It is not a significant bullet.” And when Joaquin Phoenix overturned his car in Los Angeles in 2006, who would the only natural candidate to be the man who rescued the eccentric actor? Werner Herzog.
But it’s his films that should always be at the forefront of the discussion, and, with Herzog’s latest, the 3D documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” hitting theaters today, and we’ve taken the opportunity to look back over his lengthy career. The new project might be far from his best work, but there’s a reason that Herzog is more respected now than at any point in his career — his body of work is one of the most eclectic and fascinating that any director could have. Check it out after the jump.
“Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970)
Leaving its mark on filmmakers like David Lynch, Crispin Glover and Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog’s 1971 stark, black and white imprisonment allegory, starring a group of German dwarves is now heralded as an nightmarish, outsider masterpiece. But upon release it enraged critics who felt the director was exploiting his subjects, and depicted animal cruelty acts of cockfighting and monkey crucifixion (no, really) for what appeared to be no good reason. Coming off the heels of his successful debut film “Signs Of Life” (1968), the picture confounded and outraged those who had earlier lauded his inaugural work. Like a strange surrealist dream and yet part documentary in tone, “Even Dwarves Started Small” centers on a group of institutionalized little people, who rebel, attempt to destroy everything around them while the institute’s director holds one of their lesser members hostage hoping for the insurgents to calm down. Perhaps the demented spirtitual sequel to Todd Browning’s “Freaks,” the enduring and bizarre picture is still one of Herzog’s personal favorites, and he’s said his well-regarded amazonian masterpiece “Aguirre: The Wrath Of God,” is “like kindergarten in comparison.” Featuring cannibalistic chickens, abused blind little people, and a camel that seems doomed to the indecision of kneeling or standing, ‘Dwarves’ may not be shocking by modern standards, but is still a haunting and powerful tale of nihilism, lunacy and rage. [B]
“Fata Morgana” (1971)
Constantly 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, seeing as his unique presence is being abused in stale Internet memes as some kind of ameliorated Chuck Norris. “Fata Morgana” (which means mirage) has all the makings of a typically magical Herzog doc — beautiful tracking shots enhanced by operatic music (plus the occasional Leonard Cohen song), weird moments with the subjects, a poetic narration — but it’s missing one key ingredient: the energy of the filmmaker exuded by his playful narration. Instead, we’re taken by 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. This, along with the extended running time (though 79 minutes isn’t long at all, he’s been known to reign them in much earlier), makes the flick a bit of a chore to get through. Still, the shots are beautiful, and the insight into the nearby community is penetratingly human. It certainly doesn’t hold up well compared to his later fare, but that doesn’t mean it should be completely discredited. [C+]
“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 quite like 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 power a man can hold in his fist. It was the first of several near-deadly collaborations between the memorable duo, though if you knew nothing of their volatile relationship, you would feel 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 into 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 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 the same distanced, peculiar way. Kaspar Hauser, chained to the floor inside a cell, is soon lured outside, where the camera studies both this unhinged societal newcomer and the circus (both literal and figurative) in the same curious, awkward manner. As Hauser evolves, he becomes the least peculiar element of his own lifestyle, as Herzog’s focus makes Hauser’s tribulations seem mundane, and the activities of the “civilized” at a dance even more alienated. “The Enigma” seems to be Herzog’s fascination with how some standards are accepted if unexplained, and how some values that we instill on each other to appear “normal” are arbitrary and meaningless, with Kaspar at the center of what ends up being an auteur’s attempt to rationalize the irrational world that surrounds him. [A-]
“Heart of Glass” (1976)
By now, many of the director’s bizarre methods and stories concerning his films may be more more widely known than the actual film itself. 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 trance-like performances of a society declining into insanity, shot the entire film with most of the cast under hypnosis. But let’s not get carried away with the bits of the process, let’s focus on the end product: while it hasn’t got the swiftest pacing, the entire film has a strange tenseness running through it, and the camera’s fascination with the process of glass blowing is absorbing. There’s also the insanely dark, moody cinematography — it’s sometimes feels like a terrifying alien planet, making Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre” seem light by comparison. It’s not a perfect film and definitely rough around the edges, but it, like most of his oeuvre, is a one-of-a-kind experience that can’t be found anywhere else nor by anyone else. [B]
While the early work of Werner Herzog tends to be marked by bizarre outréness (“Even Dwarves Started Small,” “Kaspar Hauser”) or madmen-like performances (the Klaus Kinski years), the German filmmaker’s “Stroszek,” is a relatively quiet, nuanced and quite effective drama about a trio of Germans trying to make it in America and quickly learning the land of opportunity is not simply paved with gold for the picking. Herzog’s beloved Bruno S. (the idiot savant 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 hopes and dreams dashed, and by the end, the comical absurdity of it all. [B+]
“Nosferatu The Vampyre” (1979)
Remakes always have a stigma attached to them before they’re even out the door, with fans holding certain films tightly to their bosom as if they were delicate, precious offsprings. If there was one production that was not only completely bereft of those feelings, but instead lathered with excitement, it’d be this Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski joint. Taking cues from Murnau‘s classic, the filmmaker makes a masterpiece of his own by neglecting the “Dracula” source material and cracking open the silent film to see what made it work. This newer version contains 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 by his wife Lucy, played by Isabelle Adjani, back home), Harker discovers he’s a vampire and will use the land to reek 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 completely vulnerable. Herzog’s powerful command of the material elevates it above your standard vampire fare, allowing the gorgeous locales of Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands to devour every frame. The story is told both quietly and distantly with an undercurrent of foreboding dread, something that is immediately snapped once Kinski’s confident possession of Dracula sneaks onto the screen. A highly successful union between a genre picture and an epic, “Nosferatu the Vampyre” is such an engrossing and satisfying experience that it makes the director’s newer, more satirical romps that more disappointing. [A]
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”‘s 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 18 days, and edited in 4, and that pace is reflected in the finished film, which is one of the director’s briskest and tightest. But it’s not one of the best, unfortunately. The performances are certainly striking — 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 never uninteresting, and, while it might be a minor work, has plenty to recommend it — particularly the unforgettable ending. [B-]
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 starring an even more unpredictable Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, AKA Fitzcarraldo. The story behind it is one of a man who despite being penniless, is obsessed with building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, and is a story seemingly tailor made for its director’s own preoccupations. The fact that it involved moving a 300-odd ton ship up and over a mountain without the aid of special effects was just a bonus and is still today one of the most infamous tasks in film making history – and another case of Herzog defying nature, and common sense, in pursuit of his own vision. The parallels between the protagonist and Herzog are impossible to ignore as they both share an unshakable dedication to seemingly impossible pursuits. 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,” it turns out, is Herzog’s own style of mash note to obsessive love and went on to win him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. [A]
“Cobra Verde” (1987)
The last collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, and 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 among their team-ups. 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 extraordinary, even if he’s particularly unhinged here, verging on becoming an animalistic force of nature at times, and at times, Herzog matches him in the gonzo stakes — the rush of imagery, somewhere between a spaghetti western and “Apocalypse Now,” is brutal, yet beautiful. The film teeters so close to the edge that it frequently risks toppling over, so it’s never quite as satisfying as its earlier counterparts — the plot never really coheres, and, while it’s arguably the most political of Herzog’s films, feels a touch 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+]
“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 and disregard for one another. Eco-advocates need only point to this doc to illustrate the hazards of war and global disasters. One amazing ecstatic truth moment is a rare voice over from Herzog, that posits because they are “consumed by madness,” the firefighters relight one of the oil shafts they have put out. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, but don’t try and tell that to Herr Herzog. [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 migrated to the U.S. in post-decimated WW2 Deutchland, to fulfill his dreams of being of being a pilot. Joining the Airforce and eventually being allowed to fly by the time Vietnam rolled around, Dengler was shot down on his first mission over Laos, survived and was tortured and held hostage in a POW camp, before he miraculously escaped. His harrowing and seemingly impossible tale of survival is one and a million, and it’s no wonder Herzog — who clearly saw Dengler as a kindred spirit — turned his experience into a feature length drama ten years later as a tribute to his friend who passed away in 2001, at the age of 62. 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 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 film, 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 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. At the same time, 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, though thematically its very similar to 1997’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” 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 10 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 see 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 the moments are so damn profound and beautiful, its hard to argue with his techniques with such glorious results. [B+]
The truth matters not to Werner Herzog, who wisely pursues the innate truths of our humanity through celluloid, 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 1920’s but instead a significant player in the growing tensions between the Jewish and the Nazi Party, bumping the timeline of Breitbart’s death closer to the Holocaust. Despite a fairly superficial change, what this does is illuminate both Herzog’s notion that Breitbart, a towering Polish strongman, was a walking piece of art, and the idea that the Nazis were killing thousands but also destroying ideas. “Invincible” features several digressions as the notably-fickle Herzog grows bored with his subject matter, 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. We are nothing if not aquatic creatures, Herzog seems to argue, unable to control our fate. [A-]
“The White Diamond” (2004)
Werner Herzog’s most dangerous films — like, man confronting a bear dangerous, or Nic Cage suffocating old women 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 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 filmmakers. [A]
“Grizzly Man” (2005)
Werner Herzog’s perverse, funny, deeply-touching documentary 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. With Werner Herzog’s liberal narration, the movie becomes less about a man consumed with his love of nature (and bears), 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 a haunting prophecy. [A-]
“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 on the brutality of his method acting. Herzog must have identified a kinship early on, 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 an occasional slog but in depicting the capture of Dengler after being shot-down and the POW relations, Herzog finds a sweet spot, once again exploring how men function under extreme conditions. Bale hits all of his marks, but it’s Steve Zahn (along with, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Davies) who resonates, delivering a complete about-face from his frequent doofus sidekick roles, to reveal Duane W. Martin, an emotionally fraught, but kind-hearted, man scheming for freedom alongside Bale. [B]
“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007)
Herzog clears everything up pretty early on in “Encounters at the End of the World” — this is no “March of the Penguins.” Instead Herzog wonders in his film “Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?” The doc is also seemingly laden with Herzog’s eternal search for ‘ecstatic truth’ in documentary form. Filmed with a tiny crew consisting only of Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, ‘Encounters’ was filmed almost entirely on the fly in a short seven weeks. The style of film making creates an observational diary style, rather than anything more typically narrative driven — though Herzog’s deadpan narration helps to string it together. Though some of the most beautiful and poetic moments are found in the long underwater shots – some of the most fascinating moments emerge from the ramblings of the above ground inhabitants of the makeshift McMurdo Station. The depiction of the scientists — each working hard in their respective fields, swinging between discovering new species and letting languages die, all in the name of progress at the furthermost tip of the world — has a somewhat sinister undertone that our explorations may be hastening the end of the world, rather than the opposite. [C+]
“Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans” (2009)
We’re not sure why this film became a cause celebre for hipsters (other than their predictable predilection for ironic performances), but if it had gone straight-to-video and wasn’t directed by Werner Herzog would anyone have even given a shit? Yes, there are some distinctly Herzog-ian camera tricks, some out-and-out WTF moments that are amusing, and Nicolas Cage hasn’t been this interesting in years (though when you’ve spent a decade making an endless string of crap anything with a gram of integrity is going to stand out). But the film itself is an uninteresting police procedural, that feels like a hastily cobbled together paycheck gig and it’s so drastically uneven, the two hours it takes to watch it feels like an entire afternoon. Val Kilmer recently revealed his role was pretty much made up just so he could star in the film and hang out with Herzog and Cage and yeah, we could easily see that. And when the biggest talking point Herzog could muster in interviews for the film was that it was delivered on time and under budget and shot using a minimum of takes, that pretty much tells you all you need to know about Herzog’s second-closest flirtation to date with the mainstream (after “Rescue Dawn”). [C-]
“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (2009)
Mix David Lynch and Werner Herzog, and you’re bound to get something that peers straight into the darkness. As a result, this serio-comic horror picture, about a delusional man who acts out the seminal stage play “Oresteia” by murdering his mother with an antique saber, touches on some very unexpected notes. Herzog seems less interested in the gruesomeness and transparent evil at the heart of matters, instead focusing on how Mark Yavorsky’s actions created his own little sub-community, where the cops interact with a host of people who influenced Yavorsky’s earlier, unhinged days. While there can never be another Kinski, Michael 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 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-]
And Let’s Not Forget: So, what have we omitted (purely for reasons of time, space and unavailability)? Well, there’s his 1968 debut “Signs of Life,” a WW2-set tale that established the interest in human madness that Herzog would follow for pretty much his entire career. There’s the remarkably humane “Land of Silence and Darkness,” a documentary following a group of deaf-blind people, followed, thirteen years later, by his next non-fiction work, “The Dark Glow of the Mountains,” tracking an ambitious mountaineering expedition, which demonstrates that Herzog’s studies of obsession and madness weren’t going to be limited to his fictional work.
The same year brought “Where The Green Ants Dream,” another vaguely anthropological tale starring “Mad Max” star Bruce Spence, which, sandwiched between the similarly themed, but superior “Fitzcarraldo” and “Cobra Verde,” has drifted into obscurity. 1990’s “Echoes From A Somber Empire” takes a no-frills documentary take on post-colonial subject matter, with Herzog taking a rare back seat to journalist Michael Goldsmith’s recollections of his torture in the Central African Republic, while he returned to mountain-climbing the next year for the fictional “Scream of Stone,” although Herzog has mostly disowned the finished product.
1993’s “Bells From The Deep” is a rather fascinating look at Russian mysticism, and the legend of the lost city of Kitezh, while he turned his hand to Buddhism in “Wheel of Time” a decade later. Finally, 2005’s sci-fi oddity ‘The Wild Blue Yonder” is one of Herzog’s less well received pictures of recent times, but does at least feature a captivating performance from Brad Dourif, who’s become something of a regular for the director in the last twenty years. — Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Samantha Chater, Kevin Jagernauth & RP.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.