Where to begin with Werner Herzog

A beginner’s path through Werner Herzog’s visionary cinema of eccentric adventure and ecstatic truth.

1 January 2024

By Leigh Singer

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Why this might not seem so easy   

A leading light of the New German Cinema movement (alongside Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and others) that re-energised 1970s European film, Werner Herzog forged his own idiosyncratic path from the outset – one he’s continued to follow for well over half a century.

How a youth who’d never seen a movie until he was 11 years old, stole camera equipment to teach himself his craft, then regularly put himself and his collaborators under extreme physical and mental duress to enact it, is a story as flamboyant and eccentric as any in his wide-ranging work. These 70-plus features and documentaries – though Herzog, naturally, refuses to acknowledge such banal categorisations – has taken him from the depths of the Amazon to the wastelands of Antarctica, from Middle Eastern deserts to the cold mundanity of America’s Midwest. He is famously the only director to have shot a film on every single continent.

His major preoccupations appear to be twofold: marginalised human beings driven by intense passions or obsessions that often completely destroy them; and, despite, his penchant for remote, often hostile locations, to photograph an “ecstatic truth”, as he puts it, beyond mere travelogue.

Werner Herzog preps a clapperboard on location in Peru for Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Werner Herzog Film GmbH. Courtesy Collection Deutsche Kinemathek

Herzog strives for a kind of spiritual illumination, as enigmatic as it can be elusive, beyond normative, surface reality. As such, there’s often an introspective, philosophical quality to his buccaneering adventures, particularly in those non-fiction films structured around his distinctive, often-parodied, Teutonic-toned narration. Likewise, the emotive soundtracks that accompany these visions – choral requiems or the eerie grandeur of experimental German band Popol Vuh – help evoke new ways to contemplate the world around us.

None of which makes a starting point to his work particularly straightforward. How to choose whether to first engage with the deaf-blind Fini Straubinger in Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) or ill-fated volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft in The Fire Within (2022)? The anarchic comedy of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) or a no-holds-barred Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)?

Almost every film Herzog made between 1970 and the mid-1980s was significant in founding his offbeat professional credentials and distinctive, perhaps divisive, maverick reputation. Naysayers decry, for example, the idea that he employed Bruno S., a non-professional actor with a history of mental institution incarceration, as the social outcast lead for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974); or that he hypnotised most of the cast of Heart of Glass (1976) to convey the spiritual malaise of its village community. However, as entry points, it’s hard to look beyond the two films he made with volatile German actor Klaus Kinski deep in the South American rainforest…

The best place to start – Aguirre, Wrath of God

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) details the quest by 16th-century Spanish conquistadors to find the mythical treasures of El Dorado. As the spectacularly naive expedition (opulently attired women carried in sedan chairs, soldiers in full, weighty armour) descends deeper into geographical and emotional isolation, surrendering to hubris, madness and greed, the film appears to take on a strange, metaphysical life of its own.

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
Werner Herzog Film/Deutsche Kinemathek

We’re aware that cast and crew are engaged in recreating historical events; but there’s also the unnerving feeling that we’re watching the production itself – Herzog’s own recounting of the fraught shoot certainly contributed too – almost succumb to the elements. Kinski’s grimacing, scheming mania feels beyond acting, and some images, particularly the opening and closing sequences, have a near-hallucinatory power.

What to watch next

Seemingly undeterred by Aguirre agony, Kinski and Herzog reteamed a decade later for Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of an early-20th century Irishman driven to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. It was another utterly gruelling shoot, once abandoned entirely, with accusations of exploiting, sometimes fatally, indigenous workers. The local tribe even approached Herzog and offered to kill Kinski, so outrageous did they find his behaviour.

The defining image of the film, and perhaps of the director’s entire career, is of a 320-tonne steamship actually being dragged over a hill, for Fitzcarraldo – and Herzog – to realise his project. Les Blank’s documentary about the production, Burden of Dreams (1982), is a potential corrective to anyone wanting to make such films for a living, but it’s hard not to be in awe of Herzog’s relentlessness, and results.

Stroszek (1977)

So striking was Bruno S.’s ‘performance’ in Kaspar Hauser that Herzog rehired him as the title character in Stroszek (1977), a contemporary fictional tale (rare for Herzog at the time) about three unlikely German travelling companions, an ex-convict street performer, a prostitute and a pensioner, searching for a better life in wintry Wisconsin, USA. In this bleakly humorous, unusually tender paean to the almost accidental desolation and exploitation of modern life, Herzog doesn’t just pick off easy targets. Instead, he finds potent, quirky imagery – most famously, the climactic dancing chicken that so delighted him – as the film offers a miniature parallel-of-sorts to Aguirre’s doomed El Dorado pursuit.

For more Kinski-Herzog collaborations, rather than the Georg Büchner stage adaptation Woyzeck (1979) or Africa-set colonial drama Cobra Verde (1987), try Nosferatu the Vampyre (also 1979), a quietly haunting reverie of a Dracula film in which Kinski appears alongside Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog Film/Deutsche Kinemathek

Of Herzog’s later dramatic features, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale as a downed US fighter pilot fighting to survive in Laos, is maybe the most gripping, in addition to being a fascinating fictionalisation of his earlier documentary on the same story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997).

Grizzly Man (2005)

The most famous and accessible of Herzog’s many documentaries is Grizzly Man, his 2005 study of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, an animal activist who lived wild among Alaskan bears until one killed him. It’s effectively Essential Herzog: a delusional dreamer up against implacable, savage nature, allowing the director to brilliantly utilise Treadwell’s own stunningly intimate footage and reframe it to his own interpretations. Herzog has long disdained so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ observational non-fiction, declaring that a filmmaker should “rather be a wasp, and sting!” Here, over Treadwell’s bucolic nature shots, he can confidently contradict his subject. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony,” he opines in his unmistakable soothing-yet-sinister cadence, “but chaos, hostility and murder.”

Touching down amid the destruction of post-Iraq War burning Kuwaiti oilfields, a key earlier Herzog doc is Lessons of Darkness (1992), a visually overwhelming overview of a conflict-scarred planet as an otherworldly hellscape. As a companion piece to 1971’s Sahara-set Fata Morgana, it’s a powerful meditation on man’s terrible impact on the natural world, the most effective scenes eschewing narration, instead harnessing the power of Verdi, Mahler and Wagner.

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Still, if Herzog’s own commentary is your preference, his stunning Antarctica exploration (and, to-date, only Oscar-nominated film), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), is a comfort – if indeed that’s the right word for hearing him describe a lone penguin’s inexplicable suicide mission across frozen tundra.

Where not to start

Even Herzog’s most ardent admirers would struggle to compare his patchier, recent dramatic features to his earlier work. Though his reputation means that big Hollywood names – Cage, Bale, Nicole Kidman – are keen to appear, the likes of Gertrude Bell biopic Queen of the Desert (2015) or eco-thriller Salt and Fire (2016) mix spectacular vistas with tin-eared dialogue and awkward pacing.

Fortunately, his peripatetic curiosity remains unabated and more rewarding in documentary. It’s telling how many later non-fiction titles could sum up Herzog’s entire ethos and oeuvre: The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Into the Abyss (2011), and perhaps most perfectly, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016). As long as Herzog trains his lens on the roads less travelled, we’re fortunate enough to share the burden of his dreams.

Journey into the Unknown: The Films of Werner Herzog runs at BFI Southbank throughout January 2024.

The new documentary Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is in cinemas nationwide from 19 January.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is back in cinemas nationwide from 19 January.

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