Werner Herzog is one of the only filmmakers in the world more famous than his own movies. Modern cinema’s maddest adventurer, a man whose interests lie in the furthest reaches of human experience, Herzog has cultivated a reputation for eccentric behavior: He’s eaten a shoe on camera, shrugged off an insignificant bullet, and traveled from Munich to Paris on foot. There is also his fairly recent practice of narrating his own documentaries in English—an approach that allows each film to double as a guided tour of the German director’s complicated thought process. A cult of personality has formed around his heady philosophical musings and cynical insights into the ferocity of the natural world; if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he should be honored by the sheer volume of parodies out there, all offering a reasonably convincing facsimile of his Teutonic deadpan.
Truth is, Herzog’s character—his dry sense of humor, his bleak worldview, his fascination with hardship and perseverance—has always been detectable on-screen, long before he started affixing a kind of non-optional director’s commentary track to his movies. That much will become quickly clear to anyone digging into Shout! Factory’s lovingly crafted, gorgeously packaged Herzog: The Collection, which offers something close to a definitive crash course on the auteur’s first three decades of work. Sixteen features—a mixture of narrative and documentary films, spanning from 1970 until 1999—are spread across 13 Blu-ray discs. Beyond the individual merits of these invariably interesting projects, the box set offers a cumulative vision of an artist tackling the extremity of man, history, and nature by meeting it halfway.
“You don’t make small movies and you don’t have small ideas,” Roger Ebert told Herzog in a 2004 interview, excerpted among the gushing essay content of the collection. (Ebert, a longtime champion of the director, is heavily quoted throughout—almost to the extent that the release doubles as a tribute to their artist-critic relationship.) Herzog called his third feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), but the sentiment couldn’t be applied to his already ambitious work. Dwarfs, the set’s oldest inclusion, is an anarchic semi-comedy about a violent mutiny at a remote island compound. Every character is played by a little person—a possibly metaphoric choice that ends up making the film feel like a playful stunt. Herzog’s confidence behind the camera, however, was already firmly established, and the film adopts a nearly plotless, hang-out vibe he would perfect in the later Heart Of Glass (1977), a kind of proto Béla Tarr film about an 18th-century Bavarian village that succumbs to mass insanity. Famously, most of the actors delivered their lines while under hypnosis; when one character stumbles upon a pair of dead bodies, her screams come in waves, breaking her trance every few seconds. It’s a haunting moment in a haunting movie.
Herzog’s early work, like that of many master filmmakers, offers a nascent peak at a gestating creative process. Land Of Silence And Darkness (1971), about a blind and deaf woman traveling across Europe to meet with the similarly afflicted, features only faint glimmers of the more involved, less silently observational documentarian he would become. Fata Morgana (1971), on the other hand, is just a mythic hodgepodge of barren-Earth imagery—an abandoned sci-fi epic, shot against real remote locations, that became a vaguely spiritual avant-garde essay film. (Its best moments, the brief interactions with the locals, suggest that the director’s interests were already shifting from landscapes to the landscapes of the mind.) Herzog’s true breakthrough—and his masterpiece—arrived in 1972: Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, a fever dream of a historical epic, is the first of five films (all included here) that Herzog made with his bug-eyed, short-tempered muse, Klaus Kinski. The actor, seething with corrupt emotion, plays a conquistador who betrays his commanding officer, then goes mad, during the search for the fabled city of El Dorado. Everything clicks: the intensity of Kinski’s acting, the raw energy of Herzog’s shooting style, and the mythic awe and terror of the Peruvian jungle locale—the latter especially potent during a final shot of scurrying wild life.
Kinksi would lose his marbles again in the Georg Büchner adaptation Woyzeck (1979), which casts the performer as a real-life military man who went unglued and committed an act of barbaric violence in 1821 Leipzig. (Herzog shot the film in crisp, static medium shots; it is one of his most carefully controlled efforts—and one of the set’s most beautiful transfers.) Released the same year, Nosferatu The Vampyre is an affectionate homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic, casting Kinski in the role Max Schreck originated (and, honestly, perfected). It’s no patch on the original, but nonetheless contains some memorably grotesque imagery—a swarm of rats around the dinner table, an opening montage of mummified bodies, etc.
Herzog and Kinski were kindred spirits of mad aspiration and inspiration, but their working relationship wasn’t always stable. Cobra Verde (1987), the pair’s final collaboration, barely survived the creative differences that developed between them: Though Kinski was able to channel his ferocious anger into his slave-trader role, resulting in one of his most grippingly volatile performances, the same volcanic emotion drove crew members away from the project.
Lots of footage of the men’s battles shows up in My Best Fiend (1999), Herzog’s tribute to his deceased leading man, which Shout has smartly included in the collection. Though poignant and often funny, the film perhaps downplays the director’s own instability—a quality inseparable from his genius, at least as far as something like Fitzcarraldo (1980) is concerned. Just as engrossing as Aguirre, the film features Kinski as an Irish rubber baron determined to drag an enormous steamboat over a steep hill. Herzog, mirroring the fanatical obsession of his subject, opted to depict this ordeal without special effects. The fruit of his difficult and dangerous labor is right up there on-screen, the frustration of the cast and crew bleeding into the finished film. (Burden Of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the notorious making of Fitzcarraldo, would have been a nice addition to the set.)
Herzog’s other fruitful actor/director relationship was with Bruno S., a mentally unstable German street musician he cast in two of his best dramas. Another fact-based tale of the incredible, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974) casts the performer in its title role of a man who spent his entire childhood locked in a dungeon, before being released into 19th-century Nuremberg. A kind of fish-out-of-water period piece, the movie uses its stranger-than-fiction premise to speculate on how a mind might operate when freed of society’s patterns of youth indoctrination. Bruno brings an alien, bizarrely charismatic quality to his character, and he’s even better in Stroszek (1977), a funny but pitiless immigrant story in which a street performer—loosely based on the actor himself—and a prostitute move from Berlin to rural Wisconsin, but find a new set of problems in the Land Of Opportunity. The film is perhaps best remembered for a non sequitur involving a dancing chicken—a scene Herzog would reference three decades later in his Bad Lieutenant sequel/remake/reboot.
Cannes contender Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) is one of the auteur’s stranger efforts, a mixed-modes curiosity set in Australia and starring an ensemble of nonprofessional actors. Blurring the line here between fiction and non-fiction, Herzog would soon begin to focus more often on the latter. Two of his most compelling documentaries are included, both featuring his now trademark voice-over accompaniment. Lessons Of Darkness (1992), an awe-inspiring vision of flame and ruin, surveys the devastating aftermath of war. So, too, does Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997), though its focus is on the psychological, not the environmental, toll of war. Meanwhile, the only short of the collection, the 45-minute Ballad Of The Little Soldier (1984), examines combat through the perspective of gun-toting child warriors in Nicaragua. Few filmmakers have dealt with the horrors of war as soberly.
Nitpickers could quibble that Herzog: The Collection isn’t quite comprehensive, even within the limits of its chosen timespan: In addition to the absence of short films, the set leaves out Herzog’s earliest work and a few features along the way. Furthermore, to not include anything past 1999 is to ignore a pretty vibrant, high-profile chapter of the director’s career—one in which he produced some of his most enduring documentaries (Grizzly Man, The White Diamond) and some memorable narrative detours (the aforementioned Bad Lieutenant film, the Little Dieter companion piece Rescue Dawn). Those omissions, of course, could largely be a matter of home-video rights. Regardless, Herzog offers a true embarrassment of riches and an essential career overview for anyone whose familiarity with this living cinematic legend is limited to his instantly recognizable voice. Speaking of which: Just about every film features audio commentary by Herzog, meaning that those hungry for more of his accented anecdotes won’t have to wait until his next journey to the end of the Earth.
Herzog: The Collection is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.