Werner Herzog, a legend of film-making if there ever was one, is 72 today. To celebrate the German maverick, Nick Mitchell looks back at five films from his long and varied career you have to see.
Werner Herzog has transcended the role of the conventional film director to become something like a symbol of cinematic courage, Teutonic eccentricity and wide-eyed wonder.
Thanks to his often ridiculously ambitious ideas, his fascination with extreme places and experiences and, more recently, his unmistakable narration over his documentaries, he has come to represent the kind of boundless vision most mere mortals could only dream of.
To distil such an extraordinary career into five films doesn’t quite do it justice of course, but watching this selection will act as a good introduction to Herzog’s style.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
Arguably Herzog’s masterpiece, Aguirre, Wrath of God is like nothing you’ve ever seen. A German New Wave film set in the Amazonian jungle, telling the story of an ill-fated 16th century attempt to find El Dorado, starring one of cinema’s craziest actors and featuring the pioneering Krautrock music of Popol Vuh. Shouldn’t really work, should it?
But in an unbelievably challenging project (the whole cast and crew had to climb mountains, ride on rafts over rapids, hack through rainforest and even trap monkeys to be included in scenes), Herzog proves himself to be peerless as a hands-on filmmaker. Aguirre is haunting, mysterious and impossible to shake after a first watch.
The penultimate film that Herzog made with Kinski – when the erratic star was in his mid-50s – saw the pair return to the same milieu of Aguirre, albeit in a different century. Kinski plays a would-be rubber baron, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman known as Fitzcarraldo in Peru, whose goal is to somehow transport a steamship over a hill to reach a plantation, fuelled by his dream to build an opera house in Iquitos.
This being a Herzog film, no special effects were used. They really did haul a 300-tonne steamship over a hill and – rather surprisingly – only three people were injured in the filming. Herzog’s biggest challenge wasn’t health and safety though; it was containing the egomania of Kinski. But more of that next…
My Best Fiend (1999)
After the death of Kinski in 1991, Herzog evidently had time to reflect on the remarkable dynamic between himself and the tempestuous actor. This documentary is a must-watch if you enjoyed either of the first two films featured in this article, as it delves behind the scenes, detailing some of the jaw-dropping antics that went on (including the famous time Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski if he left the set of Aguirre), as well as the time they first met in Germany (Kinski threw an epic tantrum, destroying everything in a bathroom to the point where you could “pass every bit through a tennis racket”).
But Herzog also pays tribute to Kinski’s acting abilities, and tries to show the sensitive side of the man when he wasn’t glowering like a maniac at the camera. A sequence where Kinski plays with a butterfly is magical, an image that jars with the disturbing accusations of childhood abuse made by his daughter Pola last year.
Grizzly Man (2005)
The story of Timothy Treadwell almost seems as if it was conceived for a Werner Herzog film, so we can be thankful that it was the German visionary who saw the potential for a portrait of a tragic eccentric. Treadwell spent 13 summers in the company of grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness, in an attempt to document the behaviour of the wild animals at close quarters, before he was killed and eaten by one of the creatures in 2003.
Herzog treats the footage retrieved from Treadwell’s camera with sensitivity, paying tribute to his skills as a filmmaker, and commentating with gravitas on the late animal lover’s life and times, when it would be all too easy to just poke fun at a misguided, troubled individual. In typical Herzog fashion, he places himself in the film, meeting Treadwell’s family and loved ones in a series of moving interviews that add much-needed context to the narrative.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Inspired by a New Yorker article he read on the Chauvet cave in southern France, Herzog indulged another of his fascinations to make this visually beautiful documentary about he 32,000 year old paintings. You also suspect, however, that it was the challenge involved in filming that sparked his imagination: only three crew were allowed inside the carefully preserved cave at a time, and they could only use battery-powered equipment so as not to damage the interior.
Despite being against the widespread use of 3D in cinema, Herzog used the technology because he believed it was the only way to do justice to the physicality of the paintings on the curved and contoured walls. The result is strange, unsettling and awe-inspiring – qualities that typify Herzog’s career.