I've got Herzog on the brain.
A renegade; as much a fictitious titan as he is grounded in reality. From his tumultuous relationship with the controversial Klaus Kinski (like I can’t get into it), mythic feats of filmmaking, utterly tender depictions of humanity and the exploration of ‘pure images’ and ‘ecstatic truth’, themes of man vs nature and of impossible dreams, Werner Herzog is a force beyond nature.
The Bavarian-born filmmaker and documentarian is more than just that, however; he’s written and directed operas, penned novels, and poems and runs a renegade film his school in the jungle. He made his first films on stolen equipment, believes filmmaking should be pursued on a combination of hard work and theft – straight up – and is never afraid to get his hands dirty. Oh, and one time he trekked three weeks with only a duffle bag, compass and new pair of boots from Munich to Paris to see his mentor Legendary Lotte H. Eisner, reportedly on her deathbed, in an attempt to prevent it.
Like if you don’t like his films you can’t deny he’s simply fascinating – remember when he got shot with an air rifle during his interview with Mark Kermode for BBC: it was ‘insignificant’.
He’s quotable too; ‘Storyboards are the instruments of cowards’ anyone? His voice is soothing and the embodiment of severe nihilism, a genuine delight to listen to over and over. Beyond that he’s also become something of a pop culture icon with his mad cameos (Parks and Recreation win by a landslide) and roles in major franchises. Oh, he also ate his shoe for a bet.
But strip it back, he is also one of cinemas most unique and powerful storyteller’s, warping fiction and reality until all his works merge – in his documentaries he will sometimes add elements, reshoot interviews. A pioneer in New German Cinema, travelling all over the world to capture it at its most astounding, his works are instantly recognisable and utterly compelling with each new discovery. He is ever curious, intense in his interpretation of this mercurial life, and we feel that in each of his stories.
Even the elements of analysis I desire to make he would scorn. Herzog immediately becomes and academic conundrum – whilst rejecting the form of theory and criticism his work is prime for consumption
It’s crazy actually that I haven’t done anything on my favourite German filmmaker; all who know me are acutely aware of my insufferable phase instigated by a bargain sale on the BFI boxset some years ago. Now that it has settled, the haze of mania lifted, I can sit back and revel in some of my favourite watches
Remember this is my personal list. By no means comprehensive, I have simply wrangled and arranged my absolute favourites from Herzog’s long and fruitful career. His filmography is vast so I struggled on concise. I simply had to settle on a top twenty to broach the scope of his shorts, documentaries and fictional features.
· Bells from the Deep (1993)
· Wheel of Time (2003)
· The White Diamond (2004)
20. Family Romance, LLC (2019)
The concept of paying people to be stand-ins at significant events and moments in our lives is bizarre. However, in Japan there are company’s explicitly for this very practice; to rent themselves out as family, friends. Following a man who runs such a business as he is hired to stand in as the lost father of a twelve year old girl, Herzog explores loneliness and the desire to craft our reality, for control.
No, this is not his best film but it’s one of his most fascinating subjects that perfectly embody his merging of genre and even platforms. Is this truth or fiction? He plays with the documentary format, uses non-actors in the Japanese language, yet the story is crafted. We can’t tell who’s in on what. Yet he still sits back and allows moments play out as much as he rehearses others. The film is a hybrid, a strange concoction of all Herzog revels in; ultimately this is a surreal experience but also touching.
19. Woyzceck (1979)
Kinski and Herzog collaborations were also intense no matter the quality of this film. This one is infused with a palpable desperation. Shot back to back with Nosferatu the Vampyre, Kinski’s feckless soldier Woyzeck is trembling with exhaustion. To make money for his lover and illegitimate child, he takes jobs around the small town they live which leads to him the local doctor conducting experiments, placing him on a diet of peas. Teetering on the edge of madness, his life begins to unravel when he discovers his lover’s affair.
It may not be the best film they made together; however, Herzog’s film is infused with an urgency that leaves its viewer creeping to the edge of their seat. There is not room for happy ever afters, just one man who seemingly has further to fall. Kinski may just not have been acting in this.
18. Meeting Gorbachev (2018)
The only time I can think when Herzog got political and it was through one of History’s most significant figures. Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who dismantled the USSR makes for interesting viewing anyway. Paired with Herzog in conversation, they explore topics of Nuclear arms, the reunification of Germany and much more that the man achieved whilst in office.
Herzog grounds his subject, or should I say extracts the humanity in someone who is on the cusp of being an immortalised historical figure. There is a playfulness and respect in the film, one of the few in which Herzog stars on screen (he will usually speak off camera or simply narrate) but the end result is great. Two interesting men sit down and have a conversation about history.
17. Heart of Glass (1976)
Do I wanna love it? Yes. It's just not my favourite! The imagery is so powerful and frames linger in my mind – that time-lapse. On a technical level, it is nirvana heights. He hypnotised the cast which is why they have such an uncanny quality to their performances. It’s not a favourite however, even if it does deserve to be on this list for good reason. With all I stated alone, that’s enough. And the study of existentialism.
In a Bavarian village, the local craftsman behind enrapturing glass sculptures dies. With no one left who knows of his trade, the villagers desperately try to recover his lost knowledge, gradually becoming enraptured by the ‘secrets of glass’ until they descend into eventual madness.
16. Fata Morgana (1971)
The phenomenon of ‘Fata Morgana’ is a complex mirage; the term translates from the Italian ‘Morgan the Fairy’, in which an illusion forms on the band above the horizon. It refers to the way the illusion seems to be hovering in the air, the fairy element being like a fairy castles conjured by magic floating in the sky. Of course there’s a whole lot of science behind this but in the end isn’t the world magical?
Herzog’s film is quite simple. With Lotte H. Eisner narrating the Mayan Creation Myth, accompanied to the music of Leonard Cohen, the film is essentially a series of images. He captures this phenomena at its most beautiful; an other-worldly experience. Where he will often manipulate his figures in his films, re-shooting scenes form documentaries, playing with involvement in his stories when it comes to his goal to seek out ‘true images’, turning the camera on nature itself, here Herzog is unable to morph it into what he wants. In the end, the environment reveals its truth.
15. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
The most interesting thing about Herzog is how he can make any topic seem fascinating. If I was told to watch a film about American scientists in an Antarctic research centre, I would ask; “Are there any million-year-old space worms that’ll drive ‘em crazy?”
No, there aren’t, but they are kind of already crazy and brilliant for it. Risking their lives to study the continents wildlife, the beautiful natural wonders and to endure the extreme conditions whilst leaving behind civilisation, their lives are anything but ordinary. Herzog shares their daily work and in many ways depicts this seemingly uninhabitable place as not just the end of the world but out of this world. How he finds his subjects is a mystery, but he knows how to get the most interesting people and discover their fascinating worlds.
14. Into the Abyss (2011)
This film and his eventual series Death Row are focused on a topic I never thought Herzog would explore and yet I was pumped when I found them. With his own unique voice, he delves into capital punishment in the American justice system, exposing its hypocrisy and barbaric practice that seems out of place in a first world country whilst posing a balanced examination of the crime itself. Through interviews with the convicted killer, victims’ families and professionals in the Texas criminal justice system, he is thoughtful and reserved as much as he is lyrical and even stern towards his subjects as he puzzles over such an archaic practice.
He can’t offer answers but for sure he takes us through the harrowing experience from both sides, troubled by the punishment that sometimes offers comfort. There is no doubt that the perpetrator was guilty. The tougher stance is that capital; punishment has brought some families relief. Herzog’s approach is utterly unique, his line of inquisition always compelling.
13. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Somehow Herzog has the magic touch. He asked German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, POW survivor, to re-enact certain tortures enacted on him (hired locals to play the torturers). Furthermore, they return to the place he was held prisoner during the early years of the Vietnam War in Laos, and his eventual escape from his captors. How Dengler was so obliging is proof.
Dengler transports us to that troubling time, thirty years before, candid in his depiction of his experience and how he survived. How Herzog convinced him to relive his past so honestly is fascinating and it can be assumed that Dengler trusted him immensely. There is a kindred connection between these two men. Herzog follows subjects he is fascinated and perhaps it is experiences like this that draw him back to the documentary format again and again. In 2005, Herzog adapted Dengler's experience into the feature Rescue Dawn.
12. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
I don’t watch sports. I don’t ski. How can I enjoy this short documentary as much as I do? Cause Herzog makes it phenomenal. Contemplative and high-octane all in one, it’s a brief peek behind the veil of a thoughtful sportsman at the peak of his career.
Walter Steiner; record-breaking world-class ski jumper - winner of the silver medal at the 1972 Winter Olympics – worked full-time as a carpenter. Herzog examines the Steiner, a world away from his fellow competitors, choosing simple and quiet life in place of the fanfare around his achievements. The appeal is obvious as a subject. In slow-motion footage of his jumps and interviews with Steiner, we are shown the ecstasy of the sport, the danger and the strange peace that settles watching humans take flight, if for a brief moment.
11. Even Dwarves Started Small (1970)
In the 1970’s, Herzog produced some of his best fictional features. It’s often forgotten now, though he has always made documentaries, that there was a time this was what he was most predominantly known for. But one of his best early films has to be Even Dwarves Started Small.
An example of the absurdist storytelling that runs prevalent in much of his work, the story follows a group of troubled patients who break out of their asylum after they’re not allowed out for an excursion. With their freedom they partake in various ridiculous activities to both grotesque and comedic effect.
10. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Herzog once cited F. W. Murnau’s almost lost classic Nosferatu as one of the most important films made in Germany. So it seems peculiar that he attempted to remake it. One would even be tempted to argue it was a fruitless venture. However it fast became one of Herzog’s most recognisable films.
An exercise in genre filmmaking, something he was yet to delve into, he revelled in the talents of Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz to retell the iconic story of Count Dracula (he could use the novels names this time, the copyright had expired by then). It’s also Herzog’s most sensual film, though horrifying.
You don’t need the plot, only to know that Kinski gives a surprisingly understated and passive depiction of the much loved character. One of the first truly meditative vampire flicks, as he battles with his immortality, it also stands out for its elaborate set-pieces and its blend of naturalism and Gothicism (in my opinion anyway). I would have loved to see Herzog explore further supernatural narratives; his style lends itself to magical-realism. Fog and pulsing nature at odds with high-contrast, stark phantasms lurking in the shadows; it’s delectable visual artistry.
9. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
The images Herzog captured in this film are some of the most unsettling and harrowing ever put to film. Let’s say that first. With aerial footage Herzog narrates from the perspective of a confused alien visitor, pondering the landscape ablaze below. The oil fields of Kuwait burn; set aflame by the retreating Iraqi army. The destruction is caught in beautiful sweeping shots, horrifying and mesmerising whilst below firefighters struggle to control the situation and Kuwaiti women recount the atrocities committed by the Iraqi.
It truly is disturbing, the kind of footage every filmmaker dreams of capturing, manufactured by the horrors of man. It’s anti-war, without ever going into any politics at all. It gave me the feeling of Night and Fog, that impending dread, that stark picture exposing the extent of our harm to this earth and others. It all feels apocalyptic and so engrossing. Yet you fill the gaps yourself, get the sense that you don’t recognise this earth anymore, and find it strange and puzzling much like our narrator.
8. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)
This was my first journey though the wilds of Werner Herzog – bless that BFI box set. I didn’t pause; I stayed in my seat and tried to comprehend the vastness and depth of this bizarre film. The shot of them crossing the mountain pass, as thick fog forms to one side is one of many beautiful coincidences that Herzog was fortunate enough to capture. Herzog battles big ideas, his characters dream on epic proportions and everyone is expendable in the face of that dream. With that, they are driven to madness, filled with melancholy. The environment only lends itself to this, this time as they are swallowed by the Amazonian jungle.
A ruthless Spanish conquistador, Aguirre, struggles for power in deepest Peru, as a band of soldiers seek out the mythical El Dorado. Accompanied by his daughter, the dissolution of ranks sees the eventual descent into madness. Once again Herzog is revelling in it. Man is always at odds with nature but in this also legend.
Kinski was notoriously troublesome on set, and it is from this shoot that we have one of the most notable legends surrounding Herzog; that he held Kinski at gunpoint to finish a scene. He argues this was not the case, the situation more so that after weeks of raging and violence on location (Kinski shot an extras finger off…), Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski and then himself if he did not return to set. It was the beginning of an intense partnership.
7. My Best Fiend (1999)
And speaking of that partnership, five films worth, Herzog shared and explored their collaboration in his touching, candid and intense documentary My Best Fiend. A retrospective of Kinski’s work as an actor and his troubled life, Herzog allows himself to feature in as he confronts his intense relationship with the man. There was both a tenderness between constantly at odds with their egotism (Herzog was no saint), intent on dominating one another form hour to the next.
'Every grey hair on my head I call Kinski' says Herzog with a smile. Made up of behind the scenes footage, interviews with other cast, crew and those from Kinski’s past he attempts to form a clearer picture of the intense man. He includes unsavoury footage of his rantings, from before film stardom, the set of Fitzcarraldo. Yet only he could also pen a strangely touching eulogy to a nemesis, as much a friend, with no better moment captured as the Kinski and the butterfly. One can gather that no one really knew Kinski; he was mercurial and frothing with energy yet capable of powerful performances. Like Kurosawa and Mifune, Herzog knew how to wield Kinski to get the very best out of him, ravings be damned.
6. La Soufrière (1977)
When I want encapsulate the essence of Herzog in one film, I often cite this. How best to describe him, really, than the man that takes a small crew to an island where an active volcano is about to erupt. The island of Guadeloupe is shrouded in smog, the city abandoned with pets and wild animals rifling through houses. There is another man still on the island, who has accepted his fate. Years before a neighbouring island was completely destroyed by a volcano eruption, in one swift rupture. Will this island see a similar fate? It’s only thirty minutes, check it out.
The footage is breath-taking, my anxiety sky-high as each minute passes. The world has frozen; it’s waiting for the end. Something I have failed to mention is Herzog's excessive use of classical music in his features, utterly sincere in his use, often epic such as here with Rachmaninov's Adagio Sostenuto from Piano Concerto No. 2 in his. he will often write to classical music, which I suppose lends to the gravitas and sweeping sensation of his stories, with storytelling akin to conducting an intense orchestra. All his stories feel big, but more so connected to some higher power, or that is how I find this use of music works for me. We transcend with his stories, feel that music as much in our hearts as we feel the timelessness of it.
5. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
Probably one of the most elusive titles when discussing the great Herzog films, it often slips under the radar despite being one of his most gentle and engaging projects. Following Fini Straubinger into her world as a woman who had deafblindness since her teens, as she dedicated her life to support those with similar conditions, we are shown a glimpse of their lives.
Certainly a taboo subject for its time, Herzog steps back completely for this film. Some many powerful moments are captured in this film, it’s both life-affirming and moving and wholly humbling experience. I don’t know what more to say other than see it as soon as you can.
4. Grizzly Man (2005)
Probably my most re-watched Herzog and the quintessential documentary from the legendary filmmaker, certainly the gateway one, there is not much to say about Grizzly Man that hasn’t already been said. The recurring theme of man vs nature is at its most complex here as this time man wanted to be one with it.
Pieced together from the Timothy Treadwell’s actual footage captured during his expeditions in the wild, alongside interviews with park rangers, family and friends, Herzog explores the man’s attempt to live among the wild grizzly bears on an Alaskan reserve. His attempts at conservation were often considered devastating to the wildlife; Treadwell believed he bridged the gap between human and beast. It was these animals that led to his eventual demise. As he and his girlfriend were mauled by a bear, his camera captured the audio of the incident.
Herzog’s examination is far from accusatory, disclosing his stance that in Nature and the bears he sees nothing but a beast, the eyes of a predator. For him nature is the clash of the elements and animals, of pain and horror, of disharmony as beauty. He does not share the view of Treadwell, nor does he attempt to romanticise his efforts. But he does acknowledge the tragedy and attempts to understand the man and those he left behind, even admires the sacrifices he made for his cause, for his dream.
3. Stroszek (1977)
Y’all thought I forgot about Bruno S.? As important to Herzog filmography as Kinski, Bruno S. was a fascinating figure in both real life and the few works me made with the director. A self-taught musician, he spent much of his youth in and out of mental institutions, it was through a documentary about his life and his street-busking that Herzog saw in the early seventies that led to him casting him in his first film. Later on, with Stroszek, his life inspired much of the story.
A busker in Berlin, Bruno Stroszek falls in love with a prostitute (Eva Mattes – a recurring actress in Herzog’s films and an interesting actress). Getting into trouble with local thugs, they decide to emigrate to America with their neighbour in order to escape their nowhere lives. However, upon landing in the U.S, Stroszek’s luck runs out as he is faced with culture-shock and poverty each passing day, until their worlds begin to unravel.
Like a Wim Wenders flick, a key citation when discussing New German Cinema, Stroszek is an existential road movie, harrowing viewing whilst also absurdist comedy at its finest. I love it, obviously. That ending scene is something else, alone worthy of one of the greatest films ever made and truly unforgettable. I’ve never seen Wisconsin look so dreamy and stark, with sunsets that glow even as the world comes crumbling down around the characters.
2. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
‘I live my life or I end my life with this project’ said Herzog, deranged after months of filming and failures in the jungles trying to capture his dream. We think Kinski was maddening on all the other sets. Fitzcarraldo was the ultimate culmination of both his and Herzog’s blinding ego’s and monumental visions. Kinski was so insufferable, apparently the chief of the Machiguenga tribe who were used as extras, asked if they should kill him after enduring many of his rages. Herzog politely declined.
And to think the film was supposed to star Jason Robardes and Mick Jagger (even partly filmed too until the former caught dysentery). But I don’t think it would be quite so legendary. It’s Herzog’s amazing vision, his stunning footage, his dedication to reality including dragging a boat over a mountain at the expense of all else (of which I do not condone at all) combined with genuinely marvellous work of Kinski that somehow comes together. It’s not surprising he didn’t attempt anything quite like it ever again.
Fitzcarraldo is a foreigner in love with Opera and desires to build an opera house in his Peruvian city. To make his dream a reality he must succeed in his rubber business, and to do this he hatches a plan that requires moving a boat over a mountain with the help of natives.
This project brought us the brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams directed by Les Blank, which provided such iconic moments including Herzog’s ‘Obscenity of the Jungle’ speech with its ‘overwhelming and collective murder’. Blanks’ film is a must-see companion piece to this brilliant film.
1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
This film has stayed with me. My all-time favourite Herzog film, where everything else on this list is malleable, this is always right on top and for good reason. Frames straight out of romanticism, like a Caspar David Friedrich, I was deeply moved and lost in the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser, based on true events of sixteen year old boy who claimed he had grown up in a dark cell in total isolation.
Herzog takes liberties, in fact the whole historical account is now up for much debate, but from this list we know that is what he does for ‘ecstatic truth’ and for this feature he gets to the very soul of the matter. That man has complicated the way of living, must be so contrived in nuances and decorum yet insists on logic where ultimately none can be found.
When a young German man is released from his confinement and abandoned by his ‘captor’ he is forced to join regular society. Barely able to communicate with little understanding of the space around him, he is exploited by a circus sideshow before being taken in by a kind professor who attempts to teach him how to live a ‘normal life’. However, as time goes by it becomes apparent that there are some things Kaspar will never understand, his formative years in solitude hindering his development until his past begins to plague him.
Starring Bruno S. in the first role Herzog cast him in, his own life-experience and unique way of being infuses Kaspar with a marvellous gentleness and naïveté. The scene known as ‘The Problem with Logic’ is perfectly, encapsulating the themes of the film. Sometimes funny, often heart-breaking and very moving, I will forever be contemplating The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
There we have it. It was a titan of an article and one I had no right to leave so long. But I couldn’t think of anything worth saying, until I started re-vibing with my man Herzog. Hope you found a new favourite or better yet look forward to revelling in the marvels of Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.
Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog (Vintage, 1978)
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections for the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog (Ecco, 2009)
The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth by Brad Prager (Wallflower Press, 2007)
Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin (Faber, 2019)