Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: the unflappable German director Werner Herzog, whose adept hand at narrative and documentary films alike elevated him out of the German New Wave and into the status of a living legend.
Werner Herzog 101
When you get right down to it, Werner Herzog is really strange. The man who stole his first movie camera, continued an interview even after being shot (“It is not a significant bullet”), and talks about nature as if it were his archenemy has an idiosyncratic streak a mile wide. This helps account for his aptitude for all sorts of films, and has prevented him from falling into any of the easy categories that frustrate the careers of lesser directors. His first major feature, 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, in some ways sets the patterns he would follow throughout his career—an odd title, a bizarre concept (a gang of dwarfs confined to a mysterious institution stage a revolt against their confinement and run amok), and a focus on how isolation can lead to madness. The eventual DVD also introduced another Herzog hallmark: the extremely strange audio commentary. On this one, he’s joined by Crispin Glover, one of the only people on the planet who can go toe-to-toe with the great man for straight-faced craziness.
But Herzog always had more in him than simple hip-pocket surrealism of the sort that can easily be conveyed by little people on motorcycles. Only two years later, he had found his themes, and made his first masterpiece. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972) found him assembling a team he’d work with again and again (including cinematographer Thomas Mauch, producer Lucki Stipetic, and actors Peter Berling and Klaus Kinski, the latter of whom became his demented muse), and together, they made an unforgettable film. Kinski portrays a conquistador sent on a doomed mission into the Peruvian rainforest, and his bug-eyed, sneering performance perfectly encapsulates the way the enormity of nature can drive men, with their petty ambitions, to madness. But there’s so much more here than Kinski’s stunning performance: There’s the amazing soundtrack by Popol Vuh, the gorgeous use of location, and a searing, unforgettable final scene.
A decade later, Herzog delivered his second masterwork. 1982’s Fitzcarraldo was drawn from a true story, about an Irish impresario who tried to build an opera house in the remote Amazon. If he’d been alive, Herzog would surely have made a documentary about him. Instead, the lunatic lengths Herzog went to, trying to replicate his subject’s obsession, threatened to overwhelm the film itself, but nothing should take away from Herzog’s achievement. The real Brian Fitzgerald couldn’t possibly have been possessed of the flashing madness with which Klaus Kinski portrays him, and Fitzcarraldo is a magnificent piece of work, filled with indelible imagery that drives home the filmmaker’s well-traveled theories of the way men fatally dash themselves against the implacability of nature.
Herzog returns to that theme again and again, nowhere to greater effect than in Grizzly Man, his astonishing documentary about activist and self-appointed ursine expert Timothy Treadwell. Herzog inserts himself front and center into the film, making no secret of what he thinks led to Treadwell’s gory demise, but he’s no Michael Moore: Alternately compassionate and implacable, Herzog speaks only when it’s most effective, and makes a masterful use of timing to slowly reveal the depths of his subject’s madness. In the end, Treadwell is no different than Aguirre or Fitzgerald, and though he thinks of nature as a friend rather than an enemy or obstacle, he shares the same fate.
Though Herzog often speaks of the natural world as if it were personally out to get him, few directors are as skillful at portraying it onscreen, and nowhere is that more evident than in 2007’s Encounters At The End Of The World. In keeping with his thematic obsessions, it portrays the vast, lethal beauty of nature with jaw-dropping footage of the Antarctic and the impenetrable, frigid seas beneath, and the charming follies and obsessions of the humans who are drawn to such a place. His keen sense of juxtaposition delivers both in placing these people against a backdrop that makes humanity seem irrelevant and in showing humanity’s ultimate revenge, as the icecaps slowly melt and people airlift ATMs down to the frozen pole.
When you work with someone who looks as much like a monster as Klaus Kinski, the temptation to make a monster movie must be irresistible. Herzog clearly had no interest in the traditional trappings of the vampire legend, though, and had his own ideas about what scaring people meant. His Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979) is a slow, meditative piece full of creepy atmosphere, but almost completely free of the gothic accoutrements and mystical folderol that normally mark vampire films. Instead, Herzog—abetted by an amazing Kinski and a team of outstanding supporting characters, including Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz—approaches the story of Dracula the way he does his other biographical films: as a study of a willful obsessive whose compulsions make him terrifying and hypnotic.
One of many Herzog films that blurs the line between narrative and documentary, 1984’s Where The Green Ants Dream portrays the conflict between an Australian mining company and the aboriginal people who oppose its plans. Here, Herzog uses a cast of amateurs who share the concerns of the characters they play. Herzog is often accused of sacrificing plot for image, and this film could be Exhibit A for that argument, but it’s hard to cavil when the images are so gorgeous and full of meaning. One shot alone makes the film worthwhile: an image of tribal natives perched in the aisle of a supermarket, attempting to revive a magical quality of the Earth that’s long been tiled over.
There are few instances where Herzog’s attempts to re-create the vanished realities of his subjects become more surreal than in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. In telling and retelling the story of Dieter Dengler, an Air Force pilot who became a prisoner when his plane when down over Laos in 1966, Herzog literally places his subject in the exact same locations he’s recalling for the cameras—to the point that some of the people on camera become distinctly unnerved. How Herzog manages to track down so many distinctive characters who combine obsessive goals with a striving against nature and a biography that sounds like wild invention, we may never know, but Dengler is one of his choicest catches.
As if to up the meta-fictional ante—and to provide the world with the most concrete example of his twin aptitudes for narrative and documentary film—Herzog actually went on to remake Little Dieter Needs To Fly (a documentary he infused with storytelling elements) as Rescue Dawn (a fictional film based on the events recalled in the documentary) in 2006. It’s almost unimaginable that anyone other than Herzog would even try such a thing, let alone that it would be so successful. It’s easy to imagine Herzog made the film just to capture some of the unspeakable horrors Dengler went through that weren’t reproducible in a documentary, but the film is still very much a worthy companion, buoyed as it is by a wonderful lead performance by Christian Bale.
Speaking of wonderful performances, Herzog got a lot of them out of Klaus Kinski, but the relationship between the two of them was complicated, to say the least. (Kinski came close to murdering the director more than once.) In his hilarious, bittersweet remembrance of his late collaborator, 1999’s My Best Fiend, Herzog recounts Kinski’s massive rages, overweening ego trips, and unstoppable talent in a clever combination of archival footage, documentary snippets, and interviews. In the end, it becomes clear that one thing that drew the two together is that Kinski was the only man Herzog ever met who was even more insanely focused than the director himself.
Another tragic, compelling character study of the kind of character Herzog clearly wishes he could have met, 1974’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (also known by the far superior title of Every Man For Himself And God Against All) tells the story of a mysterious young man who appeared, seemingly from nowhere, in the middle of the 19th century. Hauser is played by German street musician Bruno S., who became another of Herzog’s regulars, and who himself seems as odd and otherworldly as the man he portrays. Terrifying and unnerving, Kaspar Hauser is one of Herzog’s hardest films to watch, but likewise one of his best.
Heart Of Glass (1976) is one of Herzog’s least-seen feature films, which is a pity, since it’s undeniably one of his most affecting, and arguably one of his best. A top-notch cast and remarkably spooky location filming in a fog-soaked Bavarian village come together to tell the story of a legendary glass-blower who dies without passing on his trade secrets. This leaves the whole town fearful that they’ll go broke, since his craftsmanship was their primary source of income. Herzog famously hypnotized his cast in order to create in them a constant feeling of imminent dread. That obviously worked, as Heart Of Glass is one of the most unnerving works in his oeuvre.
It’s a cheap gimmick unworthy of a filmmaker of Herzog’s stature to say that a movie should be watched at your own risk, but maybe there’s something to it when it comes to Stroszek (1977). Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis and playwright Sarah Kane both watched the movie just prior to their respective suicides. Written as a showcase for Bruno S., it tells the story of a pair of impoverished German immigrants who find small-town Wisconsin no less brutal and unforgiving than the homeland they fled. It’s almost unbearably depressing, with one of the bleakest and strangest endings of any of Herzog’s films, but once seen, it’s never forgotten.
After a steady immersion in the works of Werner Herzog, some viewers might ask “What would it look like if he let Klaus Kinski go completely off the chain?” The answer lies in 1987’s Cobra Verde, in which Kinski, playing a plantation owner turned pirate turned slave overseer, completely flips out and stalks around in front of the camera, virtually daring the universe to strike him dead. Nobody but Herzog could make a movie capable of keeping up with this utterly unhinged performance.
Short enough to barely qualify as feature-length, but powerful enough to stay with viewers for a lifetime, Lessons Of Darkness (1992) is one of Herzog’s most chilling documentaries. Surveying the devastation caused by bombings, sabotage, and oil fires following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he finds equal horror—and equal wonder—in the natural state of the land, and the human perversion of it following prolonged acts of madness. Forsaking his usual tendency to put a few central figures in the film to provide a center to the narrative, Herzog instead lets the shattering images of fire, black crude, and endless smoke tell his story.
Diversions & Demerits
The “Demerits” section is where we would normally single out a creator’s missteps. Though many would argue the point, though, it’s a challenge to find anything resembling a bad Herzog film; even his lesser efforts contain scenes, performances, images, or ideas that make them worth seeing. That said, there are movies where he seems less engaged than usual; Woyzeck (1979) is one of them. Though it features another fantastic performance by Klaus Kinski and a few memorable scenes, this story of a soldier driven to madness by seemingly random pressures doesn’t seem focused enough to know where it wants to go or what it wants to say.
2001’s Invincible certainly seems like the kind of movie that Herzog could turn into something weird and wonderful; it tells the story of a Jewish strongman (Jouko Ahola) who comes under the influence of Nazi occultist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Tim Roth, who tries, and doesn’t always fail, to bring some of Kinski’s manic energy to his role). Ahola can’t compete with the rest of the cast, and at times Invincible seems to suffer from the lack of focus that sometimes hits Herzog when he’s not entirely in his element, but it’s still a movie worth the investment of time. The madness of the Nazi era filtered through his unique visual sensibilities is something to see.
The weakest of Herzog’s latter-day documentary efforts, Wheel Of Time (2003) suffers from his departure from the themes that motivate him. His story of the creation of a massive, intricate Buddhist mandala seems overly respectful and fussy at times, and brief interview footage of the Dalai Lama isn’t particularly effective, since he’s a gentle, thoughtful figure instead of the sort of all-consuming obsessive Herzog normally spotlights. A detour into a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, focusing as it does on man’s attempt to layer human meaning onto immovable natural surroundings, works much better, but takes up too little of the film’s running time for Wheel Of Time to be considered one of Herzog’s best efforts.
Those who think Herzog only became a documentarian in recent years may be surprised to learn about Land Of Silence And Darkness (1971), one of his first films. It deals with a Bavarian community suffering from blindness and deafness (focusing on the remarkable Fini Straubinger) and how they cope with a world where their primary means of communication have been taken away. Likewise, Fata Morgana from the same year was intended to be a documentary about an African military coup, but after Herzog and his crew were briefly arrested and mistreated by paranoid military police, it transformed into a highly symbolic, deeply weird tone poem in which striking footage of the African landscape plays over a voice intoning ancient creation myths. It’s a useful illustration of how a deliberate blurring of artistic narrative and documentary approaches has always been a part of Herzog’s arsenal.
Of Herzog’s recent documentary work, two of the oddest are 2004’s The White Diamond and 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder. In the former, he gathers his usual group of obsessives (a small number of scientists) in his usual merciless natural environment (the jungles of South America) with the usual crazy-but-daring plan (to explore the environs in a lighter-than-air balloon). But Herzog never pulls the trigger, and in spite of some gorgeous visuals, it remains more of a showcase for the quirky crew of the balloon. The latter is an altogether odder affair; Herzog takes a lot of fascinating footage of natural and man-made events and blends them into a bizarre narrative about alien visitations to a dying Earth, delivered in high style by a hammy Brad Dourif. That isn’t entirely successful either, but its overwhelming sense of strangeness makes it rise above The White Diamond.
The jury is still out on Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009). Why anyone needed to make the film, and in particular why it had to be Werner Herzog, is a bit of a mystery, but the fact is, the movie—a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant in no immediately discernable manner—is far better than it has any right to be. Nicolas Cage delivers a Kinskian performance as the titular cop-gone-sour, the script is packed with weirdness that blasts onto the screen as if delivered by shotgun, and the whole enterprise bears hints that Herzog, who has been keeping enigmatic secrets his whole career, has finally revealed the biggest one of all: He has a finely developed sense of humor.
1. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Herzog’s elaborate recreation of the passionate dreams of an Irish showman who wanted to bring culture to the jungles is an elegiac masterpiece, and a perfect reflection of how Herzog captures and reflects his subjects’ visionary madness.
2. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)
Herzog’s first masterpiece may be his most enduring, and it sets the tone for his future projects both thematically and philosophically: A Spanish conquistador declares himself the instrument of heaven, only to be destroyed by the eternal persistence of the earth.
3. Heart Of Glass (1976)
Perhaps Herzog’s most underrated film, the story of how the loss of one man’s irreplaceable talent throws a whole town into a doomstruck panic carries his thematic obsessions to a new level, and shows how insanity can be a communicable disease.
4. Grizzly Man (2005)
The story of Timothy Treadwell is reflected and distorted in Herzog’s documentary: The self-appointed protector of bears had the filmmaker’s eye for nature, but not his respectful fear of it. The result was a life tainted by lunacy and ending in tragedy.
5. Encounters At The End Of The World (2007)
Some of Herzog’s most striking images of the natural world appear in this documentary about life—human and otherwise—in the wastes of Antarctica. So do some of his most powerfully ambivalent feelings about the role of man in the discovery and shaping of nature.
Notes: Largely due to their lack of availability—and to keep this Primer from being 50 pages long—we’ve only listed Herzog’s feature films, and left out his shorts and extensive television work. But it’s still worth seeking out. Additionally, we were unable to track down a copy of his very first feature, 1968’s Signs Of Life. 1990’s Echoes From A Somber Empire, 1991’s Scream Of Stone and 1995’s Bells From The Deep: Faith And Superstition In Russia are all unavailable on Region 1 DVD. And last year’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done hasn’t seen wide enough release yet for us to include it.