Though a slight disappointment, the recent release of Werner Herzog’s Gertrude Bell biopic Queen of the Desert has Renowned For Sound thinking about the one-of-a-kind German director and his impressive cinematic oeuvre.
Join us as we count down the Top 10 films that made us fall in love with Werner Herzog, a man who sincerely believes that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder”.
10. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner
This 1974 made-for-television documentary a opens with a single, achingly beautiful slow motion shot of Swiss ski-flyer Walter Steiner gliding slowly through the air, accompanied by the serene, otherworldly music of frequent Herzog collaborators Popol Vuh. We learn later that this jump easily could have been fatal for Steiner, who narrowly avoided landing on completely flat ground in his bid to break the world record for ski flying. Steiner himself admits that he and his fellow athletes have pushed the limits of their sport into truly dangerous territory. The pure bliss of that opening shot is so powerful though, that you understand why someone would be willing to risk pain, injury and even death in order to experience the great ecstasy of flying like Walter Steiner.
9. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Herzog is at his most humane in this 1974 drama inspired by a real historical figure in early 19th century Germany who claimed to have spent the first seventeen years of his life chained to the floor of a dark cellar. Hauser is portrayed by Bruno Schleinstein, a non-professional actor who himself spent over two decades in a psychiatric institution. When Kaspar’s mysterious captor deposits him on the streets of Nuremberg the town residents do their best to civilize the feral young man. Kaspsar does indeed learn to walk, talk, read and write, but he never truly learns to feel happy in the world outside his cellar. While his story is ultimately tragic, Kaspar’s extreme otherness does give him a fascinating perspective on life, touchingly expressed in one scene where he asks his host’s housekeeper “why are women allowed only to knit and to cook?”.
8. Encounters at the End of the World
Herzog travelled to Antarctica to shoot this 2007 documentary after seeing underwater footage captured by his friend and frequent collaborator Henry Kaiser. The director notes that Kaiser and his fellow research divers describe the world under the ice as a “separate reality”, and it truly is a strange, spellbinding place, at once incredibly beautiful and acutely unnerving. You feel simultaneous relief and regret when Herzog’s camera returns to the surface to study the more mundane reality of life at the McMurdo research station, where he finds “PhD’s washing dishes and linguists on a continent with no languages”. Herzog interviews a range of engagingly peculiar people, asking what drew them to this isolated, inhospitable place at the end of the world. One man responds that he and his colleagues at McMurdo are “professional dreamers”, and if there’s one thing Werner Herzog understands, it’s the burden of dreams.
Fitzcarraldo is a strangely engrossing film about an insane Irishman living in early 20th century Peru who comes up with a money-making scheme that involves dragging a three hundred ton steamship over a steep hillside. Although he was not Herzog’s first choice for the role, Klaus Kinski is perfectly cast as a charming lunatic who plans on using the profits from his crazy venture to build an opera house in the small Amazonian settlement of Iquitos. Both the scheme and the goal are absurd, but Herzog and Kinski make it impossible not to root for Fitzcarraldo and identify with him in moments of triumphant joy and devastating defeat alike. Like many Herzog protagonists, Fitzcarraldo’s irrepressible and inexhaustible commitment to following his dreams far beyond the point of safety and sanity make him a captivating character.
6. Burden of Dreams
Okay so this one is sort of a cheat. Directed by the late, great American documentarian Les Blank, this 1982 classic chronicles the gruelling, turbulent, almost four-year production of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, shot on location in the jungles of Peru. The behind the scenes footage captured by Blank and his crew reveals Herzog at his doggedly determined best and casually callous worst. Even as Herzog loses his lead actor to dysentery, several crewmembers to severe injuries and the support of his financial backers, the stoic German never wavers from his commitment to his vision. The entire film is a marvel, but its greatest and most memorable moment involves Blank asking an exhausted and frustrated Herzog how he feels about the jungle and nature in general. The resulting monologue from Herzog is legendary.
5. Rescue Dawn
Dieter Dengler is the quintessential Werner Herzog protagonist in many ways, so it’s not surprising that the director ended up making two movies about the German-American Navy pilot; 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and this 2006 war drama starring Christian Bale. Dieter shares Fitzcarraldo’s irrepressible spirit, Lope de Aguirre’s almost pathological strength of will, Walter Steiner’s lifelong obsession with flying and Timothy Treadwell’s dangerous idealism. However Dieter also differs from the Herzog norm in that his story is less of a solitary struggle and more about friendship, devotion and camaraderie. The bond that forms between Dieter and his fellow P.O.W.’s (particularly with Steve Zahn’s Duane Martin) after he is shot down over Laos and captured, imprisoned and tortured by Pathet Lao soldiers is the core of Rescue Dawn, not Dieter’s individual fight for survival.
4. My Best Fiend
The exact opposite of a loving tribute, My Best Fiend is a sometimes disturbing, frequently very funny glimpse into the fractious working relationship between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Behind the scenes footage and commentary from former extras and crewmembers reveal Kinski to be an unstable, narcissistic bully given to explosive tantrums and violent outbursts. Herzog displays a more subdued but no less shocking lunacy when he calmly admits to threatening to put eight bullets in Kinski’s skull when the actor tried to leave the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God in the middle of production. Herzog also seems perfectly sincere when he describes how his attempt to murder Kinski by firebombing his home was foiled by the actor’s loyal Alsatian.
3. Nosferatu the Vampyre
Inspired by and based upon F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, this 1979 horror movie stars Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula. Herzog and Kinski’s Dracula is a curiously vulnerable creature, diminutive, sickly and ancient, he lacks the strength and seductive beauty of most modern cinematic and televisual vampires. His true, sinister power is revealed over the course of the film however, as something akin to a disease, like smallpox or bubonic plague. When the Count pursues a young woman called Lucy (played by the eerily lovely Isabelle Adjani) to the 19th century German city of Wismar people begin to die in droves, but not from sudden, violent attacks. The death that follows Herzog’s Dracula wherever he goes is gradual, insidious and inescapable, a creeping, consuming horror that makes you wish for the quick release of fangs piercing your throat.
2. Grizzly Man
One of Herzog’s most widely seen efforts, this 2005 documentary explores the life and gruesome death of Timothy Treadwell, a former alcoholic who found solace and salvation through his interaction with wild grizzly bears before being killed and eaten by one in 2003. Without ever mocking his subject, Herzog uses Treadwell’s own footage and interviews with ecologists and other experts to explain how Treadwell’s highly sentimental and dangerously misguided beliefs about bears caused his death. Herzog’s refusal to indulge Treadwell’s delusions about protecting the bears from poachers when in fact he was putting them at greater risk by habituating them to human contact proves to be a compassionate act. It makes it possible for the viewer to appreciate Timothy Treadwell’s many positive qualities and gifts.
1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
This 1972 epic follows a small group of 16th century Spanish conquistadors as they journey down the Amazon River in search of a city of gold and are slowly devoured by madness, greed and death. Klaus Kinski, in his first collaboration with Herzog, plays Lope de Aguirre, the expedition’s increasingly mutinous and malevolent second-in-command. Aguirre’s power grows as the expedition loses men to drowning, starvation and attacks from hostile natives, and he gradually reveals a truly terrifying capacity for delusional grandiosity and tyranny. In the film’s mesmerizing final scene Aguirre stumbles around a sinking raft littered with dead bodies and hundreds of screeching monkeys, ranting about his plans to conquer all of New Spain, marry his daughter and found “the purest dynasty the world has ever seen”. The utter contempt for humanity and reality emanating from Klaus Kinski’s remarkably expressive eyes as he declares himself to be the Wrath of God is unforgettably chilling.