Notebook Primer: Werner Herzog

The German director's career-long presentation of a mysterious, multifaceted world is an overwhelming collective body of work.
Jeremy Carr

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

Above: Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams.

In the perpetual pursuit for what he terms an “ecstatic truth,” Werner Herzog has, for nearly six decades and over the course of more than 70 features, shorts, and documentaries, taken audiences on an astonishingly variable journey of cinematic revelation. Born Werner Stipetić, Sept. 5, 1942, Herzog was raised in a remote Bavarian village and later traveled extensively throughout the world, studying multiple artistic and historical disciplines and eventually integrating his accumulated interests into an enduring, endlessly fascinating filmmaking career. Although his humble origins prevented him from even seeing a movie until he was almost a teenager, Herzog nevertheless became enamored with the medium and its enlightening potential. “I always, from a very young age, had the feeling I had to invent cinema,” Herzog once stated. “Even today I feel like the inventor of cinema. Now you have to take that with a grain of salt, because of course I’m not the inventor of cinema.”

Following his debut feature, 1967’s Signs of Life, Herzog emerged as one of the leading figures of the New German Cinema, a movement he regularly denied any connection with, and indeed, his subsequent output was at a distinct remove from the other films and directors associated with the alliance. Herzog’s singular, often surreal vision has been largely evinced in a proclivity for unsettling and unfamiliar terrain, where the settings not only serve as vivid, illustrative backdrops but assume a conspicuous character of their own.By turns bleak and vibrant, Herzog’s “indifferent” universe, as he terms it, can be one of desolate peril, seeming to envelop its inhabitants. And yet, such environments appear to function in a profoundly, paradoxically incompatible harmony with the passions and plight of these individuals. This cinematic trek has spanned dozens of nations and explored a topographic array of locations, some hazardous to the point where critics have questioned the sanity of Herzog and his accomplices; see, for example, La Soufrière (1977), in which Herzog and a small crew travel to the island of Guadeloupe where a volcano is primed for eruption.

Above: Heart of Glass.

Tales abound concerning Herzog’s impassioned determination, his unconventional methodology (hypnotizing the cast of 1976’s Heart of Glass), and his tendency to brave pitiless environments while resisting peripheral upheavals of a social or political stripe. The resulting productions are as arduous as they are undeniably amplified by the friction. Largely avoiding overt political statements, however, Herzog’s focus on war’s ravages — impacting both the land of conflict (1992’s Lessons of Darkness, depicting burning Kuwaiti oil fields in the wake of the Gulf War) and the soul of those involved (1984’s Ballad of the Little Soldier, about child soldiers in Nicaragua) — are as powerful as any explicit condemnation or celebration. His ambitious subjects, consumed by an unbridled enthusiasm, are as varied as those found in the work of any other filmmaker: a televangelist in God’s Angry Man (1981), Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Meeting Gorbachev (2018), a death row inmate in Into the Abyss (2011), a woman, both blind and deaf, in Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), and a whole host of ski-jumpers, auctioneers, pioneers, mad geniuses, and visionaries. His characters — real and fictional — frequently defy the odds of existence, persevering against the apparently impractical as they precariously traverse literal and figurative realms of civility and turbulence.

As distinctive as most of Herzog’s oeuvre is, there are surprising exceptions, such as his revisiting of established films — his homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and his riff on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) — and his appearance in commercial fare like 2012’s Jack Reacher and the 2019 Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, which Herzog participated in despite having never having seen a Star Wars film (the paycheck was used to fund his latest feature, Family Romance, LLC, which he shot in Japan, on video, using non-professional actors). Adding to his popular renown, Herzog, who has been critical of traditional film schools, taught an online MasterClass and in 2009 founded his Rogue Film School. His inimitable narration, by now a hallmark of his documentaries, has also produced an iconic aural presence, which, no matter how objective the form of the film, distinguishes his work with an inseparable authorial personality.

This seems fitting for Herzog, who didn’t make his first telephone call until he was 17 years of age, as communication has been a key component of his filmography. Considering a multiplicity of linguistic means and the nature of human interaction as a bonding, disengaging, and even a destructive force (2013’s From One Second to the Next, a short documentary about the dangers of texting while driving), this concentration also aligns with larger issues pertaining to humankind’s association with technology, the fundamental subject of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016). In his filmmaking practice, though, save for his exceptional use of 3-D in 2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where the format was utilized to film prehistoric paintings, Herzog has seldom employed technical gimmickry, even if he by no means eschews stylized formal arrangements.

Above: Fata Morgana.

Becoming something of an existential philosopher in the process, Herzog’s career-long presentation of a mysterious, multifaceted world is an overwhelming collective exhibition. While he is not religious, his films — transcendent meditations on faith, superstition, and sublime experience — have a pronounced spiritual constitution. He finds humanity within pure chaos and mysticism in the ostensibly banal. Perhaps more than anything, however, Herzog is driven by an unceasing search for new visual encounters. As he notes when discussing the enigmatic mirages of Fata Morgana (1971), he remains occupied by a “quest for images that you haven’t really seen yet,” and, he affirms, “I’ve not stopped searching.”


Above: My Best Fiend.

Though Herzog did not direct the picture, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), about the anarchic making of Herzog’s 1982 feature Fitzcarraldo, is the most complete realization of what Herzog was willing to attempt in the name of his filmic mission. Here one sees a film-in-the-making where the dragging of a 300-ton steamship over a Peruvian mountain was but one of the assorted obstacles confronted. “Both the filmmaker and the fictional character are portrayed as grandiose dreamers attempting the impossible,” critic Mark Richardson wrote, cited in a 2018 TIME article by Joseph Hincks. “You see both these movies, time passes, and you kind of forget which scenes happened in the fiction film and which scenes happened in the documentary.”

Drawn to triumphant idealists, nomadic wanderers, loners, outcasts, and marginal individuals in marginal societies, Herzog’s cinema is a never-ending expedition of eccentricity and heartfelt sincerity. Somber, contemplative, and occasionally harrowing, these characteristic themes coalesce in one of his most successful documentaries, 2005’s Grizzly Man, which examines the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, an American who spent an extensive amount of time living with wild bears in Alaska and fatally suffered for his single-minded, fervent aspiration.

While Herzog has worked with actors as diverse as Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage, Nichole Kidman, and Christian Bale, his most memorable collaborations are those with Klaus Kinski and Bruno Schleinstein (credited as Bruno S.). In Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the first of five films Herzog made with Kinski, Spanish explorers venture into uncharted territory and endure an escalating series of mental and physical breakdowns. The depicted hostility ran parallel to the contentious and violent and yet somehow routinely fruitful relationship between the director and his antagonistic star, a relationship that would be the eventual focus of Herzog’s 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend. With Schleinstein, on the other hand, Herzog managed to elicit from the street musician with a history of mental illness phenomenally thoughtful and sensitive performances, first in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) then in Stroszek (1977), a downbeat dissection of the American dream where one perceives the quintessential Herzogian motifs of disenchantment and isolation.

Aside from broaching occasionally controversial subject matter, as in the alleged call for radical rebellion by way of a dwarf revolt in Even Dwarves Started Small (1970), Herzog has also blurred the fine line between reality and fiction, recounting meticulous stories that exceed the imagined and the necessarily factual. This is epitomized in his films Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), about Dieter Dengler, a Vietnam War-era POW who essentially reenacts his wartime ordeal for Herzog’s camera, and the 2006 fictional film, Rescue Dawn, about Dengler’s traumatic trial. Is one more authentic than another? Where does the truth lie? For Herzog, these questions are not easily answered, nor need they be.


Above: Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Author of several books, director of numerous operas, and the recipient of awards the world over, Herzog has, in recent years, achieved a curious place in pop culture partly derived from his personal idiosyncrasies and bizarre public encounters. Such is the topic of the amusing (if mostly irrelevant in relation to his actual films) rundown collected by Dazed magazine and titled “The most Werner Herzog things Werner Herzog has ever said and done.” Included in this assembly, sometimes with video examples, are how Herzog “started his career by stealing a camera,” “ate his shoe,” “was shot,” “rescued Joaquin Phoenix after a car crash,” and “can hypnotize chickens.” Rarely shying away from interviews, the best authority on Herzog has usually been the man himself. A 2019 GQ piece by Gabriella Paiella, while principally looking at Herzog’s repeated references to WrestleMania(!), links to more than a dozen interviews with the always-engaging filmmaker. In print, “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed,” in which Herzog is in lengthy conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin, has been described by Maria Popova as “unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.” Though it was written in 2006 and is therefore void of Herzog’s more recent output, David Church’s Senses of Cinema profile offers a detailed summary of his career to that point, while arguably the most wide-ranging, cursory resource on Herzog is, which offers information on his many films, original photos, and details on the Werner Herzog Foundation, the purpose of which is “the preservation, conservation and pervasion of the cultural heritage of the cinematic and literary works of Werner Herzog for the general public in behoof of science, art and culture.”

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