‘With a singular vision continually blurring the fine line between reality and fiction, Werner Herzog has become one of cinema’s most controversial and enigmatic filmmakers. A strong authorial presence pervades each of his films, whether fictional features or documentaries. For Herzog, there is no distinction between the two styles – they are all just “films” – because real life and fiction feed off each other for mutual poetic inspiration. His worldview often seems bleak and anti-humanistic, featuring quixotic outsiders who reject or are rejected by society, only to be crushed by the weight of their own ambitions. Civilisation is always teetering at the edge of self-destruction, “like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness”, with faith and superstition minding the tattered border. An air of Romanticism finds human kind dwarfed by the terrifying might and majesty of nature, while strange landscapes exist as reflections of inner mental states. Although keenly aware of his nation’s violent past, Herzog’s films generally eschew specific historical and political considerations in the face of a universe filled with murder, destruction and the demise of the individual. These themes gradually emerge throughout a body of work at once stunning and perplexing. As with the subject matter in his “documentaries”, it is often difficult to separate the “real” Herzog from the myriad fictions that have sprung up around him, either as myths perpetuated in the media or as subtle fabrications maintained by Herzog himself.
‘Born in 1942, Herzog grew up amid post-World War II destruction in the small Bavarian village of Sachrang. He saw his first movies at age 11 and quickly discovered film technique by taking heed of continuity errors and generic conventions in cheap B-movies. At age 14, he began a short period of intense Catholic devotion, around the same time that he discovered the virtues of travelling on foot and became determined to make films. As a teenager, Herzog learned about filmmaking from an encyclopaedia entry on the subject, but because of his youth and lack of formal training, he was unable to find producers for his early screenplays. Consequently, he founded Werner Herzog Filmproduktion and began producing his own films. He has written, produced, directed and often narrated virtually all of his own films since then, becoming an auteur in the proper sense.
‘A surge of interest in New German Cinema was emerging during the late-1960s (especially after the 1968 Oberhausen Film Festival) and Herzog became seen as one of its key filmmakers, along with others like Fassbinder, Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders – all members of the first important generation of German filmmakers to emerge in the post-war era. However, Herzog never saw New German Cinema as a cohesive movement, nor did he consider himself a part of it. Furthermore, he disliked many German films of the time period for being “impossibly provincial” and explicitly ideological, whereas he made many of his own films outside Germany, aiming for an international audience. His films have rarely been successful within Germany itself, for he claims that Germans mistrust their own culture. Nevertheless, he seems to consider New German Cinema’s project of reconstituting a domestic national identity to be less important than gaining “legitimacy as a civilized nation” abroad, a continuing struggle even today. Part of seeking this legitimacy meant reaching back to the period of pre-Nazi German cinema, and film historian Lotte Eisner (author of influential studies like The Haunted Screen) provided the link between the two eras. Eisner was an early champion of Herzog’s work and New German Cinema in general. She provided a voiceover for Fata Morgana (1970) and would be a great inspiration to Herzog in later years. Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) would solidify his aim of gaining legitimacy by bridging the history of German cinema.
‘A trio of films emerged from a near-fatal journey to Africa in 1969. Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika (The Flying Doctors of East Africa, 1969), a documentary about doctors travelling Africa to prevent the eye disease trachoma, was (in Herzog’s estimation) more of a practical “report” than a proper film, much as Behinderte Zukunft (Handicapped Future, 1971) would be several years later. The second film, Fata Morgana, is one of Herzog’s boldest and most experimental “documentaries”. Surreal images of mirages, landscapes and desert dwellers are arranged into three parts – The Creation, Paradise and The Golden Age – accompanied by narration from Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation myths and history. Though it was released in some places as a psychedelic picture, the film’s original concept was to be a sort of documentary pieced together from footage shot by extraterrestrials that have landed on a strange planet and discover people waiting for an impending collision with the sun; the film would allow humans to see how aliens might perceive our planet. Although this concept was scrapped during filming, the idea for a sort of science-fiction documentary would persist in Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), two other deeply impressionistic documentaries that form a sort of loose trilogy with Fata Morgana. Herzog has repeatedly said that in Fata Morgana and his other films, he is capturing the “embarrassed landscapes of our world”, places where human colonisation has desecrated the earth. Likewise, his eerily beautiful landscapes are not meant to be picturesque and idyllic, but rather evocative of inner states, collective dreams and nightmares. This dual characteristic of his landscapes also suggests that basic human consciousness has been desecrated by the forces of capitalism and modernity, an idea that can be found in films ranging from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser to more “ethnographic” films like Where the Green Ants Dream, and Ten Thousand Years Older. Landscapes often form the core of his films, and he lingers upon them in his overarching mission to find fresh images; he considers civilisation threatened by an exhaustion of images (linked to consumerism and mass media technology like television) and a death of the imagination.
‘Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972) was his first international success and the first of five collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski. Very loosely based upon Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre’s doomed expedition to find El Dorado, the film (perhaps Herzog’s best) details one man’s descent into madness as he rebels against the Spanish crown and nature alike. Aguirre is a quintessentially Herzogian (anti-)hero, encompassing both the “over-reacher and prophet or underachiever and holy fool”, put in bizarre locations and situations “often in order to let a strange and touching humanity emerge from impossible odds”. Aguirre’s mission becomes a quixotic, even existential exercise in absurdity, especially as he proclaims himself superior to the laws of nature – though not without nature’s final retribution. Elsaesser notes that Herzog’s heroes – “solitary rebels, incapable of solidarity but also incapable of success” – typically exist in an ontological void due to their determination to investigate the limits of what it means to be human; from one film to another, they oscillate between being super-human and sub-human characters, both types being dialectically linked via an eventual shared failure “that redeems their vaulting ambition and their hubris”. The attempted transgression or transcendence of humanity’s limits is a common theme in films ranging from The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner to Scream of Stone to Grizzly Man. Aguirre was widely read as an allegory for Nazism, but Herzog maintains that this was not his intent, regardless of how German art is misunderstood in light of its national history.
‘His next film, Die Grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, 1973), would document ski-jumper Walter Steiner’s flights and crashes, focusing on the “ecstasy” of defying gravity while leaping almost suicidally against the fear of death. Facing these fears becomes another common theme for Herzog (who was an avid ski-jumper as a youth), for many of his films focus upon dreams of flight or the defiance of gravity (as transcendence of human limits) that are then broken by sudden catastrophe, but later revisited and overcome. For Steiner, catastrophe comes in an injurious crash from which he must pick himself up to go on jumping. But in other films, it is a more traumatic event, often involving a family member’s death; examples include The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wings of Hope and The White Diamond. Scaling mountains (as in Fitzcarraldo or Scream of Stone) is a recurrent means of defying gravity.
‘His next feature, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974 – its German title means, appropriately enough, “Every Man For Himself and God Against All”) would bring Herzog’s interest in language to the fore again, this time based on the true story of a young man who was imprisoned for his first 16 years and then turned loose into an early 19th century German city without any conception of civilisation. Unable to speak more than a few pre-rehearsed sentences, Kaspar is able to see the world with completely fresh eyes (much like the aliens in the original concept for Fata Morgana) and must quickly learn to communicate with his surroundings. The townspeople take an immediate interest in him, whether by exhibiting him as a freak or by trying to study and educate him. He is finally murdered under suspicious circumstances (perhaps having been related to royalty) and the town is delighted to learn that Kaspar’s autopsied brain shows abnormalities, confirming their secret hopes that he truly is somehow different from them. Herzog describes Kaspar as “full of basic and uncontaminated human dignity” (not unlike his descriptions of indigenous tribes in other films), for although Kaspar is an outsider, bourgeois society is what is truly at fault for his eventual destruction. Elsaesser suggests that Kaspar is also a metaphor for the filmmakers of the New German Cinema: left abandoned and without a father generation, they are uncertain about the means of socialisation, “attempting to survive between a good father substitute and a bad father image”. Filled with visions of Kaspar’s dreamed landscapes, the film seems to maintain an uneasy balance between Herzog’s anti-humanist views about civilisation and his genuine sympathy for the very human Kaspar. Many of Herzog’s films feature this tension between the innate purity of humanity, the corrupting influence of society, and the all-powerful might of nature.
‘After the critical success of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog followed with another period film, Herz Aus Glas (Heart of Glass, 1976), about the fragility of civilisation in a pre-industrial Bavarian village. The village is renowned for making a special red glass, but when the master glass blower dies with the secret to make it, a collective madness begins to take over as the town turns upon itself. Meanwhile, a prophet on the outside of society makes ominous predictions about the future of the town and the wider world. John Sandford sees the film’s central thesis as that “one day factories may be as obsolete as castles are today”, and the uneasy passage of time in Heart of Glass seems to bear this out. The film’s deliberately slow pace is in ironic contrast to the relativity of time suggested by a town huddling the brink between different industrial eras, captured in a web of prophesies inextricably linking past and future to the present diegetic moment. To create a sort of “waking dream” quality for the film’s action, virtually all of the actors perform under hypnosis. The characters drift about almost aimlessly, their actions emerging abruptly from beneath an eerily emotionless stupor; the effect is strange but gives the film a glacial pace that many viewers did not appreciate. Though the film contains some of Herzog’s most beautiful landscapes, the unfolding of events is so slight that most critics responded negatively to Herzog’s experiment. It was followed by Mit mir will keiner spielen (No One Will Play With Me, 1976), a darkly humorous short documentary about a preschool-age boy ostracised from interactions with his classmates until a girl who has become interested in his pet crow provides the link to social acceptance.
‘How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) is a documentary capturing the World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers in Pennsylvania. The almost unintelligible speed, skill and repetition with which the auctioneers conduct business fascinated Herzog because it seemed to be “the real poetry of capitalism”, a form of language pushed to the extremes of efficiency and (literal) economy. This system is juxtaposed with the pre-modern Amish farmers who come to watch the auction. Herzog would then return to the American Midwest to film Stroszek (1976), a fictional feature about an alcoholic man who moves from Germany to Wisconsin with his neighbour and a prostitute, only to find poverty and fatal disillusionment in place of the “American Dream”. Capitalist America becomes another society that destroys the individual, but Herzog sees the film as less a critique of the United States than “a eulogy” in the wake of the American Dream, for such shattered hopes could develop in virtually any country. Very documentary-like in style, Stroszek is one of Herzog’s most natural features, and is certainly one of his strongest.
‘The documentary La Soufrière (1977) brought Herzog and his two-man crew to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe just before a volcano was set to obliterate it. They speak with the few people who have refused to evacuate, several natives too poor to leave and start a new life elsewhere. Herzog has later noted that this picture was one of the only times that he consciously put himself in real danger while filming, but that there is “an element of self-mockery in the final film”, for the volcano so precisely predicted to erupt never actually did so, leaving the film as a sort of banal chase towards a catastrophe that never occurred. Events such as this have earned Herzog a rather exaggerated reputation as a risk-taker and an inviter of danger.
‘His next two features (both starring Kinski), filmed back-to-back in 1979, saw Herzog looking to earlier, “legitimate” German culture: Nosferatu the Vampyre (from Murnau’s 1922 film) and Woyzeck (from Georg Büchner’s dramatic fragment, posthumously published in 1879). Although many scenes and images (e.g. the vampire’s physical appearance) are obvious adaptations from Murnau’s film, Herzog’s retelling of the well-known Dracula story feels overall closer to the revived Gothicism of Bram Stoker’s 1897 source novel than Murnau’s Expressionism. The vampire is another of Herzog’s existential heroes, an outsider who transcends the limits of human possibility through his undead-ness, evoking the terrors of nature (i.e. the plague) in his wake. As in Heart of Glass, bourgeois society is turned inside out by a sudden change when the plague arrives, and after Dr Van Helsing finally drives a stake through the vampire’s heart, the insipid town bureaucrats attempt to arrest him for murder, forgetting that the plague has already wiped out the town’s government, police force and judicial system. As in many of Herzog’s other films (e.g. Heart of Glass, Bells From the Deep), faith and superstition still exist at the limits of civilisation, a remnant from earlier periods of human development when monsters and myths constituted all of the unknown forces beyond the bounds of society. This relates to his interest in our collective dreams and nightmares – whether dreams of surpassing human limits or nightmares about civilisation falling into chaos. Thematically similar to Signs of Life, Woyzeck is a very different film, showing a petty soldier abused by virtually every social and economic force around him. As he struggles to make sense of his existence and give his life some semblance of meaning, he finally goes mad and brutally murders his wife. Given the film’s source material as a dramatic fragment, it is staged almost theatrically, shot in a series of deep-focus, four-minute long takes that would make André Bazin proud. Though Woyzeck is not as readily “cinematic” as many of Herzog’s other works, it does afford Kinski a relatively restrained performance punctuated by the seemingly unending slow-motion murder that closes the film.
‘Two contrasting documentaries about religious faith in the United States were produced in 1980: Glaube und Währung (God’s Angry Man) and Huie’s Predigt (Huie’s Sermon). Originally titled Creed and Currency, the first of these documents the eccentric televangelist Dr Gene Scott, whose California-based broadcast is a humorously aggressive and absurdly fanatical plea for financial pledges. Declaring that “God’s honor is at stake every night”, Scott represents a radical yoking together of zealotry and consumer capitalism. Herzog describes him as “appeal[ing] to the paranoia and craziness of our civilization” – but this is in marked contrast to Brooklyn-based Bishop Huie Rogers, the subject of the second documentary. Although both figures are very successful in their aims, Rogers is the antithesis of Scott’s fanaticism. Huie’s Sermon is a straightforward look at how an unassuming clergyman can bolster faith and significantly engage his listeners without the exploitative and deliberately alarming means used by Scott. Each film captures a different form of faith in action, but Rogers emerges as easily the more sympathetic of the two men. Figuring it as a “distant religious echo” from his teenage period of intense Catholic belief, Herzog’s films often focus upon faith, whether a faith in one’s own ambitions, a Romantic faith in the shadow of all-powerful nature, or a faith in religious or superstitious idea(l)s seemingly at odds with society or conventional reason.
‘These forms of faith would converge in Fitzcarraldo (1982), one of Herzog’s finest and most well known films, as much the product of his faith in filmmaking (see Les Blank’s documentary about the film’s production, Burden of Dreams) as in the power of the cinematic image. Described by Herzog as his best “documentary”, it is a fictional feature that details a wealthy industrialist’s obsessive quest to bring European opera to the Amazon. To finance his dream of building a new opera house, this “Conquistador of the Useless” travels upriver and, with the help of local indigenous peoples, literally pulls a huge steamboat over a mountainside to access a fertile tributary. After the boat reaches the other side of the mountain, the natives cut it loose, sending it into violent rapids to appease the spirits residing there. Fitzcarraldo ultimately fails in his mission, but limps back to port with a compromised version of his dream – a dream that money alone cannot buy – still intact. A chaotic four years in the making, the film’s completion was as much a Sisyphean task as Fitzcarraldo’s own quest to elevate his dreams over reality – especially because Herzog used no miniatures or special effects in order to pull the full-sized steamboat up and over the mountain, determined to give the film a wholly natural sense of wonder and physical magic. Despite many wild controversies surrounding the film’s making, it earned Herzog a Best Director award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.’ — Senses of Cinema
Werner Herzog Official Site
Werner Herzog Teaches | The Essentials of Filmmaking
Werner Herzog @ IMDb
‘I’m not a pundit. Don’t push me into that corner’
‘Piracy Has Been The Most Successful Form of Distribution Worldwide’
Werner Herzog Talks Role in Star Wars Series
The 10-minute interview: Werner Herzog on Meeting Gorbachev
Werner Herzog Narrates a Kooky Cat Video
‘Valentine, I would travel down to Hell and wrestle you away from the devil if it was necessary.’
Popol Vuh – The Werner Herzog Soundtracks
WERNER HERZOG HAS NEVER SEEN A “STAR WARS” MOVIE
14 Insane Stories From The Strange Life of Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog: “J’irais bien tourner un film sur Mars”
“A Friendly Person Who is Easier to Handle Than a Dog”: Werner Herzog’s Masterclass at Visions du Réel
Werner Herzog Reflects on 50 Years of Filmmaking
The Strange Allure of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski
At 75, Filmmaker Werner Herzog Says Cinema Remains His ‘Connection To Life Itself’
The Art of Being a Death-Defying, Gonzo Filmmaking Genius
Werner Herzog on the future of film school, critical connectivity, and Pokémon Go
Werner Herzog on Volcanoes, North Korea, and the Internet
Inside the Mind of Werner Herzog, Luddite Master of the Internet
NEW AGAIN: WERNER HERZOG
The Inner Chronicle of What We Are – Understanding Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog tout en images – Blow Up – ARTE
The Hypnotic VoiceOver of Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog on Virtual Reality, the Future of Humanity, and Internet Trolls
The A.V. Club: Do you eat fast food?
Werner Herzog: Sometimes, yes. french fries.
AVC: Is there one place you prefer them from?
WH: Anyone that does decent french fries.
AVC: What makes a decent french fry, in your opinion?
WH: Well, everybody knows they have to look good, they have to be enticing, they have to be tasty and crisp, and they have to be as bad to your health as it gets.
AVC: If you could re-live an event or moment in your own life, what would it be?
WH: Hm. I wouldn’t know, because I’m plowing through life without ever looking back.
WH: No, I wouldn’t like to relive any of my moments in my life. We are drawing a blank here.
AVC: Why not?
WH: Because I’m not living in the past, or looking at my past, or looking at myself. I don’t even know the color of my eyes because I do not look at myself in the mirror.
WH: Well, I do when I shave, but I do not look into my eyes.
AVC: Who’s your favorite fictional villain?
WH: I think in Batman, what’s the name of the villain there? You’ll have to help me.
AVC: What’s their schtick?
WH: No, but what is the name of the villain in Batman?
AVC: Well, there are a few.
WH: There is one who is the clown—
AVC: Oh! The Joker.
WH: The Joker, yes. The Joker was played—what was his name, who died very young?
AVC: Heath Ledger.
WH: Heath Ledger, yes. Heath Ledger as The Joker, that’s my answer.
AVC: What appeals to you about that?
WH: Because he’s a real quintessential villain. Nobody does it better, except maybe me as the villain in Jack Reacher. I had to be frightening, and I did my best. Heath Ledger as The Joker, that is a wonderful one.
AVC: I don’t know if you’ll have an answer for this one, but we’ll try: is there a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary? That you like to quote, or something like that?
WH: No, not really.
AVC: Who would play you in the movie of your life?
WH: It should not be played by anyone as long as I have control of it. I would never permit to have a film made about me.
AVC: For the same reason that you would not relive an earlier event in your life?
WH: It certainly will be an embarrassment for anyone: those who make the film, and those who watch the film. That can be prevented as long as I’m alive—when I’m dead eventually, I should try to give instructions clear enough that nobody should do it. You cannot prevent it. Some idiot will do it, but don’t watch it.
AVC: What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?
WH: No, but when I’m in a hotel room, I will eventually try to watch news from unlikely sources like Al Jazeera, or Japanese television, whatever. If there’s a good soccer match, I would watch a soccer match. I would watch Wrestlemania or something like that.
AVC: Is it a hinderance to you if you don’t speak the language when watching the news?
WH: It doesn’t matter. No, sometimes it’s fine to watch South Korean TV news in the Korean language. Al Jazeera, for example, has a very good news program. It’s real news, and in English language. It’s much more informative than the BBC, for example, or any of the news in the United States.
AVC: What possession can you not get rid of?
WH: There is a leather rucksack from [English travel writer] Bruce Chatwin, who gave it to me when he died. It is a major item in my film Nomad. Its secondary title is In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. I made three films in the last 12 months, and all three films are being released now within days. Today is Meeting Gorbachev, which has a theatrical release in a few days. At Tribeca, in only three days, I’m showing the Bruce Chatwin film. A few days later, I have a feature film that I shot in Japan (that) is also having its world premiere. I can’t even attend my own world premiere for Bruce Chatwin.
But his rucksack plays a major part in one chapter in the film. Also, we’re traveling on foot a lot. He has traveled thousands of kilometers with his rucksack, and I carry it for him now. It’s of deep significance for me. It’s not that I can’t get rid of it. I do not want to get rid of it. It has too much meaning.
AVC: Are you the type of person who likes to be busy at all times?
WH: I think no. I’m a lazy bum like everyone else. Even though I have made three films in the last 12 months, including a feature film, I am not a workaholic. My shooting days are short, my writing of a screenplay doesn’t exceed a week. Everything goes pretty fast. I’m not hectic at all.
AVC: What specific skill would you bring to a post-apocalyptic society?
AVC: Let’s say society collapses and you couldn’t make films anymore. What skill would you bring?
WH: You have to know how to make fire without matches.
AVC: You’re pretty good at that, I assume?
WH: Yes, I can do that. Second, you have to be able to catch a trout with your bare hands, which I can do. Third, you have to be able to milk a cow with your bare hands.
AVC: How many times have you caught a trout with your bare hands? Is it a common occurrence?
WH: It’s fairly easy to catch a trout with your hands when they’re in a creek. They take refuge under a rock or under an overhanging embankment, and they’re holding still in there. You have to understand how the trout is thinking.
AVC: Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?
WH: Buster Keaton.
AVC: You mean his legacy isn’t as strong as it should be?
WH: Yes. I think he should be on Mount Rushmore in his silence, looking out over the landscape. There should be another silent one next to the American presidents on Mount Rushmore: It should be Muhammad Ali, who was forced into silence by illness.
WH: So let’s wait until somebody chisels their faces. Buster Keaton more than anyone else.
AVC: If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?
WH: I’ve never been into bands. I know very little about them.
AVC: Is there any artistic group that you would’ve liked to have been part of? Any movements, anything like that?
WH: No, no, for god’s sake.
AVC: Have you ever heard of the film The Purge? Are you familiar with this?
WH: No. I do not watch movies much. I read, I do not watch movies.
AVC: Okay, well the premise of these films is that there’s one night where all crime is legal, and you can do anything illegal and not be punished for it. If this were real life, what would you do on that night?
WH: I do this all my life. As a filmmaker, you have to have enough solid criminal energy and then you will be a filmmaker.
AVC: So it’s nothing new to you.
WH: Nothing new.
AVC: Fair enough. Is there one work of art that you would remove from history if you could? Why or why not?
WH: I would never do that, even if this piece of art is very controversial. Let it be out there for judgment. I am against burning of books, for example. It has had catastrophic repercussions. You just do not do it. Iconically, we’ve made one of the huge mistakes of history. We shouldn’t go into that.
AVC: The last part of this interview—and thank you for sitting with me through all of this—is to pose a question for the next person. Do you have a question you’d like to pose, not knowing who it is?
WH: Yes: Do you know how to open safety locks? Illegally, of course. Do you know how to forge a document, let’s say a shooting permit, in a country that has a military dictatorship?
AVC: I’d be willing to bet that most people would say no.
WH: They better get busy and learn how to open a safety lock with a set of surgical tools.
AVC: That’s one of the things you teach in your guerrilla filmmaking workshops, isn’t it?
WH: That’s the only thing I teach. The rest is conversations, and listening to the visions and obstacles and fears of young filmmakers.
18 of Werner Herzog’s 73 films
‘No filmmaker’s career has been more defined and structured by their musical choices than that of Werner Herzog. This claim is evident from his first full-length feature, Signs of Life / Lebenszeichen (1968), which he made when he was 24 – three years after having written the screenplay. (He claims he got the idea for it when he was 15 or 16, apparently from a story by German author Ludwig Achim von Arnim [1781-1831].) Though made by a newcomer, Signs of Life is an extraordinary film – not because it is technically brilliant, but because it offers such a mature artistic touch. A good counterpoint to Signs of Life would be Martin Scorsese’s film debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? Even though it shows much talent, Scorsese’s first effort is the art of a young man for in the film the protagonist suffers an angst pervasive among young men. By contrast, the hero of Herzog’s film debut is suffering from something far deeper – the sort of psycho-spiritual ravages that beset one in a midlife crisis. Yet, it’s not merely the protagonist’s crisis that makes Signs of Life a mature work, but how said crisis is represented. Herzog’s approach to his subject matter shows why he would become the most daring – if not the greatest – filmmaker of the last forty years.’ — Alt Film Guide
Precautions Against Fanatics (1969)
‘The film features several horse trainers and other track workers talking about their roles at the track, always eventually interrupted by an older man who claims to be the true authority, and demands that they be thrown out. One recurring young man, the first to appear, claims that he protects the horses from enthusiastic racing fans. He does not appear to be employed by the track, but seems to provide his services voluntarily. His protection from “fanatics” gives the film its title. The film is shot in a documentary style, but the sheer implausibility of the dialogue leaves the exact nature of the film ambiguous.’ — letterboxd
the entire film
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
‘Whether viewed as a powerful political/philosophical allegory or a grotesque display of willful perversity (and it’s a lot easier, though probably less rewarding, to see it as the latter), Even Dwarfs Started Small is not easily forgotten: By its conclusion, it truly assumes the quality of a nightmare.’ — AV Club
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
‘The documentary Silence and Darkness strips away practically all audio-visual adornments in deference to its subject matter: the middle-aged Fini Straubinger, a sweet-natured German woman who went both deaf and bind in her teen years following a terrible fall and blow to her head (the neighbor assumed the report of her head cracking came from a gun—in itself an interesting reflection of the malleability of how sound is processed). Rather than attempt to evoke the sensation of what Straubinger might be feeling with the same strategies of Fata Morgana, Herzog instead chooses to structure his aesthetically spare and verité footage (perhaps taking a cue from the therapist who somewhat questionably explains “it’s much harder to teach [deaf-blind children] abstract ideas; we must give them practical examples”) in a spiraling descent into greater and greater adversity. Not for Straubinger herself, who proves remarkably capable (she is able to speak with clear diction) and mentally equipped to function normally with the aid of her translator, but rather the other deaf-blind people she visits out of philanthropy and her unshaken belief in the ability to reach even the most extremely afflicted souls.’ — Slant Magazine
the entire film
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
‘Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God was last rereleased here more than 10 years ago; now, with a new restoration, the sound of gobs being smacked will resound in British cinemas once again. It looks more magnificent and mad than ever, one of the great folies de grandeur of 1970s cinema, an expeditionary Conradian nightmare like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Just as for that film, the agonies of its production history have entered into legend, almost equivalent to the movie fiction itself. (Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, about his leading man Klaus Kinski, tells the incredible story of the insanely dangerous shooting conditions and near-murderous rows between director and star.) It is based loosely on the true story of 16th-century conquistador Lupe De Aguirre (Kinski), the second-in-command of a Spanish force journeying down the Amazon in search of the mythical riches of El Dorado. Driven half-mad by the heat, hunger and danger from native attack, the commander declares a retreat – but Aguirre mutinies, kills the leader and announces they must carry on. Kinski’s piercing, china-blue eyes are those of a natural-born tyrant, a visionary who can see only his delusions.’ — The Guardian
Werner Herzog on Aguirre, The Wrath of God
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1973)
‘Despite such ravishing and apparently ‘pure’ achievements as the beginning and ending of Aguirre, Wrath of God and the beautiful slow-motion ski-jumps in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, the present vogue for Werner Herzog as a ‘visionary’ artist is in some respects a curious phenomenon. Acclaimed for the strangeness of his various depictions and/or expressions of ‘madness’ and ‘obsession’, he is a director who approaches these topics with an abandon that invariably seems checked by his manner of presenting them. Perhaps because the transparency of his language is itself so mundane that any amount of ‘crazed’ material can pass through this medium without threatening the spectator’s safe, voyeuristic distance from it, he has managed to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable realms of ‘humanism’ and self-centered fanaticism without ever forcing the contradictions between these positions into an audience’s consciousness.’ — Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
‘In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy. “Kaspar Hauser” tells its story not as a narrative about its hero, but as a mosaic of striking behavior and images: A line of penitents struggling up a hillside, a desert caravan led by a blind man, a stork capturing a worm. These images are unrelated to Kaspar except in the way they reflect and illuminate his struggle. The last thing Herzog is interested in is “solving” this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.’ — Roger Ebert
the entire film
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976)
‘ It is a 44 minute film documenting the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship held in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Herzog has said that he believes auctioneering to be “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism.”‘ — learn-out-loud
the entire film
Heart of Glass (1976)
‘It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than Herzog would have wanted to make a film like Heart of Glass. It returns to the formal and conceptual extremism of his work before Kaspar Hauser: almost the entire cast are performing under hypnosis throughout, and the plot unfolds in increasingly oblique fragments, making it Herzog’s most stylised film to date. It’s certainly extremely bizarre, but by no means unapproachable. The tale it tells is plainly allegorical: a glass factory declines into bankruptcy when its owner dies without divulging the formula for its special ruby glass, and the village that depended on the factory for employment goes down with it. But one doesn’t have much chance to mull over the implications during the film itself: Herzog directs attention squarely at the performances (which are almost agonisingly intense) and at the imagery (which is very beautiful in a German Gothic way).’ — Time Out (London)
‘Werner Herzog’s Stroszek is in my view one of the great films, but it has a difficult-to-categorize nature that has always made it a challenge for many viewers and as a consequence has led to its neglect. Nevertheless, the film’s peculiar nature is precisely what makes it both an important work and a revelatory element of Herzog’s oeuvre. The key idea here concerns the nature of expressionism. Some people view Stroszek as a tragedy, while others see it as a comedy (an offbeat comedy, to be sure). Others see it as a whimsical quasi-documentary on rural America. Still others go further and see it as a more profound condemnation of American materialism. The root cause of this viewpoint panoply can probably be credited to Herzog’s cinematic style, which delivers its expressionistic rendering in a unique fashion.’ — Film Sufi
La soufrière (1977)
‘La Soufrière is a 1977 West German documentary film in which German director Werner Herzog visits an island on which a volcano is predicted to erupt. The pretext of this film was provided when Herzog “heard about the impending volcanic eruption, that the island of Guadeloupe had been evacuated and that one peasant had refused to leave, [he] knew [he] wanted to go talk to him and find out what kind of relationship towards death he had” (Cronin). Herzog explores the deserted streets of the towns on the island. The crew of three treks up to the caldera, where clouds of sulfurous steam and smoke shift drift like “harbingers of death” (Peucker), an example of the sublime Herzog seeks to conjure in his films. Herzog converses in French with three different men he finds remaining on the island: one says he is waiting for death, and demonstrates his posture for doing so; another says he has stayed to look after the animals. In the end, the volcano did not erupt, thus sparing the lives of those who had remained on the island, including Herzog and his crew.’ — collaged
the entire film
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
‘Eerily beautiful and remarkable in many respects (not least for the acting – notably the expressionist performances of Kinski and Isabelle Adjani, but also that of Bruno Ganz), Nosferatu the Vampyre is at once a tribute to Murnau’s original and the golden age of German filmmaking and a musing on the vampire myth and the gothic tradition. In its various divergences from its hallowed predecessor, it is also – perhaps inevitably, I’d say, given that this is a Herzog film – a wry, haunting meditation on the human condition. Death, as Dracula reminds us, is not the worst thing that can befall us.’ — bfi
‘People don’t seem to understand that I hate to make difficult films. I hate to have all these problems. That’s the reason I liked making WOYZECK so much. I shot that film in just eighteen days, and edited the film – an entire feature film – completing the final cut in only four days! That’s how films should be made. That was perfect!’ — Werner Herzog
God’s Angry Man (1981)
‘Account of Werner Herzog’s meeting with the Californian TV preacher Dr. Gene Scott, who raises hundreds of thousands of dollars through his 30-minute programmes. Extracts from these surrealistic broadcasts are alternated with revealing interviews, demonstrating that media religion has completely gone off the rails because of greed. Herzog sees Scott as a symptom of the degeneration of the United States, where not God but money is worshipped. In this film, Herzog again portrays a man who is obsessed by power and who sees the world as his biggest opponent.’ — idfa
the entire film
‘Shooting Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog undertook the most insane project of his entire career as a filmmaker. Has the eccentric director already been infamous for obsessive, fanatic and titanic filmic attempts to portray reality itself, with Fitzcarraldo he was about to go even further than before. Everything in Fitzcarraldo is real. No camera tricks, no special effects, no miniatures – Herzog insists on framing nothing else but the truth. Statements on Fitzcarraldo extremely vary: some critics regard the film as a masterpiece, others as “cinematic wanking” – However, one can generally say, that the story behind it, is more interesting than the film itself. More remarkable than the final result, is that what Herzog accomplished on the process of filming. In a way, Fitzcarraldo is a film, Herzog made mostly for himself. Few movies have as troubled a production history as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Principal photography was 40 percent complete when the actor playing Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards, became so seriously ill that he was forced to quit the production. After many production delays, the movie’s other main actor, Mick Jagger, had to leave for a prior commitment (a Rolling Stones’ concert tour). Virtually all of the film footage shot by this point was now unusable. After a year of filmmaking, director Herzog had to start over from scratch.’ — guido-boehm
Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)
‘Herzog plays on stereotypes of aborigines in Where The Green Ants Dream. He never peeks past the implacable faces, and cool obstinacy. We are never given a glimpse of the way they live. They might be visitors from another planet, even though the story takes place on their territory. Their function is to sit on judgment on us, as they squat in dust and rags on an airstrip or hunker down in front of bulldozers. Herzog grants Wandjuk Marika a stern, opaque dignity, but you would never know he has expertly manipulated the Australian political system for indigenous rights. Who the aboriginals are and what they want are explained by intermediaries. In a cheaply efficient bit of exposition, a foreign biologist lays out the myth of the green ant for the baffled geologist. The biologist even uses a visual aid-a glass box that contains some green ants – giving the whole thing the air of a high school science experiment.’ — Cultural Survival
Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)
‘Account of a journey to the territory of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, who are on a war footing with the Sandinistas. The documentary largely consists of interviews with Indian guerrillas: boys of ten to twelve years old. In their eyewitness accounts from the refugee camps, they talk almost stoically about the tortures and executions. The Miskitos used to support the Sandinista revolution, because they also regarded the Somoza government with disfavour. But as soon as the Sandinistas had assumed power, the Indians were driven into camps. The insurgents were killed and their livestock was set fire to. During a screening in the United States, Sandinistas protested against the pro-Indian tenor of this film, claiming that Herzog conspired with the Contras and the CIA. Herzog retorted that he, as he did more often, had given a voice to an oppressed minority.’ — idfa
the entire film
Gasherbrum Der Leuchtende Berg (1984)
‘The image of the Olympian mountain – the towering intermediary between the physical and spiritual realms – has long loomed as an icon and motif in Germanic culture. Sub-heavenly summits have served as perches of Nietzschean pontification (what is Zarathustra without his peak?), have inspired Richard Strauss’s bombastic Eine Alpensinfonie, and, in the interwar years, were valiantly scaled by beautiful Aryans in mountain films (Bergfilme) such as Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Arnold Fanck and G. W. Pabst, 1929) and Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, Leni Riefenstahl, 1932). Werner Herzog’s 1985 television documentary Gasherbrum, Der Leuchtende Berg (literally, Gasherbrum, The Luminous Mountain, though usually known in English as The Dark Glow of the Mountains) could well be an attempt to moderate the overweening mythology implicit in this symbolism of the mountain. Balancing the metaphysical and the humanistic, and eventually tipping in favour of the latter, Herzog’s 45-minute documentary demystifies – or, if you like, de-Aryanises – the German cult of alpinism. At the same time, the death-defying trials of his mountaineering heroes allow Herzog to indulge his characteristic themes: the madness of quixotic obsession, the limitations of man in the face of infinite Nature, and, most of all, the ephemerality of human ambition.’ — Andrew Grossman
the entire film
Cobra Verde (1987)
‘When Francisco Manoel de Silva (Klaus Kinski) impregnates the three daughters of his plantation-owning employer, he is sent to West Africa to round up slaves. The irate land baron hopes the cynical and libidinous Francisco will meet certain death in the African jungles at the hands of hostile natives. Francisco instead manages to overthrow a mad monarch and set himself up as king. Despite enslaving the tribe, he shows signs of humanitarian benevolence. The character portrayed by Kinski in this feature is a cross between his insane portrayal in Aguirre and the comic madness in Fitzcarraldo. Francisco tries to escape from the natives when his employer swindles him and slavery is abolished. This fifth and final collaboration between director Herzog and Kinski is considered the weakest of the five features.’ — RT
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I didn’t mean that you were bamboozled by Frenchness, that was just me typing quickly. I just meant that sometimes the mere foreignness of a film seems to be persuasive on audiences, and that that quality seems to, in some cases, mask a film’s weaknesses and make them seem like style choices or something. A recent example for me is how many people are expressing enthusiasm for that terrible, in my opinion, obviously, new Claire Denis film. Anyway … Everyone, Mr, Ehrenstein has a generous suggestion that would really help him out. Please listen up and reach out if you can. David: ‘To all those readers in the L.A. area, I am greatly in need of funds and I’m selling DVDs, CDs and books at bargain prices today. Contact me at email@example.com and head on over.’ ** _Black_Acrylic, You won’t be sad if you read that spotlit Tillman. The new The Call is looking mightily gorgeous in fetal blue, man. ** Derek McCormack, Hey, Derek! I am very much in agreement with you, maestro! <3 ** Sean, Hi there! Ha ha ha. Nice. Thank you! ** Sypha, I was hunting around in the graveyard, and I found that post, and I was, like, Oh, wow, and the rest is history. I’m not on Twitter and don’t check there unless encouraged to, so thanks for the good news! ** Bill, Hi, Bill, The screening went really well, thank you. ‘Praying’ the lag died a sudden, unexpected death in your sleep just prior to the SFMOMA thing. And … did it … ? ** Kyler, Hi, K. Great, I have the weekend to watch the prized bit of your reading, thank you. Everyone, Golden opportunity arisen alert: You can watch a 4 minute sample of Mr. Kyler James’ recent reading from his still spanking new novel ‘Mercury’s Choice’ by clicking these words, and do! ** Steve Erickson, Curious interview there, I look forward to reading it. Everyone, Why not read Mr. Erickson’s new interview with director, of feature films and music vids (Bowie, Rihanna, Perfume Genius, Yves Tumor, Katy Perry, a.o.), Floria Sigismondi? Thusly, and, if you’re in NYC’s environs, mark your late August calendar right this minute because … cue Steve … ‘I can finally announce a date and time for my post-punk video program at Anthology: Aug. 23rd at 9:15 PM. That’s a Sunday evening. Admission will be free, so I’d encourage anyone here who lives in the New York area to drop by.’ ** Right. I thought I would give the blog’s weekend over to the years when Werner Herzog could virtually do no wrong. Have fun. See you on Monday.