[Diving into a certain cinematic topic can be daunting. This series seeks to provide some suggestions on where to begin exploring a director’s body of work, a genre, style or theme. The three suggested films serve as a brief introduction; they’re not complete or authoritative, but will in some way be representative of the topic and will hopeful inspire you to watch more, outlined in recommended further viewing.]
Werner Herzog is a German director who has made over 50 documentary and narrative films since the 70s. With his inimitable deadpan voice, Herzog is always a major presence in his films and has over the years developed an outsized persona, known for his adventurous spirit, maddening shoots and fascination with extreme personalities. Herzog is a master of both documentaries and fiction films, though the distinction is often blurred and irrelevant. His narrative films are set in far-flung locations around the globe, and feature local people and organic situations, while his documentaries have included staged events and scripted dialogue. Herzog isn’t interested in the formal distinction, but rather in an “ecstatic truth” that drives all of humanity. He often finds this in the obsessions and follies of his protagonists, particularly in their destructive clashes with the forces of nature. Over the course of these films, pay attention to how Herzog’s characters are undone by the very thing that drives them and makes them human.
Primer: This clip from Burden of Dreams, a documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, neatly outlines Herzog’s views on nature, as well as his inflated (often hilarious) delivery.
1) Grizzly Man (2005)
Herzog’s most popular film is about Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric bear enthusiast who was killed by the animals he loved after living among them in the Alaskan wilderness for 13 summers. Mostly culled from Treadwell’s own remarkable footage, the film is nonetheless a very Herzogian examination of what the clash between a man’s passion and the danger and ambivalence of nature. The miracle of the film is how sympathetically Herzog treats Treadwell, for, although their philosophies clash, he is deeply moved by the passion that drives Treadwell. Herzog is always drawn to characters like these: after all, he is one himself.
2) Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The first of Herzog’s five collaboration with the explosive and mercurial Klaus Kinski is about a crazed Spanish conquistador’s quest for El Dorado along the Amazon. Although it’s not a documentary, the film is fascinating for its authenticity. Herzog’s crew, like Aguirre’s, had to battle the harshness of the Peruvian jungle, and the madness of the mission is as much Herzog’s as Aguirre’s. His films are visually straight-forward but are engrossing for the very detailed and specific realities they capture. Aguirre is a knockout, featuring a terrifyingly real performance from Kinski, no stranger to madness and obsession himself. Watch the final shot, brilliantly capturing the absurdity of the man’s single-minded pursuit.
3) Stroszek (1977)
Herzog also collaborated twice with Bruno S., who, like Stroszek, led a troubled life and may have been mentally challenged. In the film, which Herzog wrote for Bruno in just four days, Stroszek and his two companions on the fringes of society travel from Germany to Wisconsin in hopes of a better life. As always, using real locations and local non-actors, Herzog captures the specific rhythms of life in the area and dramatizes the tragicomedy of the outcasts’ struggle to survive. Of course, they can’t and Stroszek’s tenuous grip on sanity begins to slip. Herzog is often derided as pretentious, but detractors miss the wry, sarcastic humor on display here. This humor, and perhaps Herzog’s whole cinematic pursuit, is captured in the film’s gonzo finale, at once devastating and absurdly comic.
Recommended further viewing:
Fitzcarraldo, The Land of Silence and Darkness, Cobra Verde, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner