Werner Herzog – five of the best from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo

Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Aguirre (Credit: Werner Herzog Facebook page)

Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre (Credit: Werner Herzog Facebook page)

Werner Herzog’s incredible film Aguirre, Wrath of God is now 45 years old and Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks the five best films from the maverick director.

When New German Cinema exploded in the late 60s and throughout the 70s it was often a direct rejection of traditional societal values, shameless consumerism and Cold War pragmatism.

As such, the work of Schlondorff, Wenders and Fassbinder in particular, were necessary cinematic rejoinders to the repressive, not to mention selectively amnesiac, society of post-war Germany.

One of this new, invigorating breed of German auteurs who was not quite so ideological (at least, not in a Marxist, progressive sense) was Werner Herzog. Even amongst his fellow boundary pushers, Herzog appeared transgressive in a genuinely thrilling way and steadfast in his determination not to follow the herd. His interests would be defiantly focussed on the primal, the savage and the ‘real’ nature of man and the world around him.

Werner’s childhood involved periods of relative isolation and a surprising degree of ignorance of modern mediums like cinema. Certainly he was not immersed in film as a teen in the manner of somebody like the delinquent Fassbinder.

Consequently, Herzog’s visions and ideas, which would only later become cinematic, were internalized via a deeply introspective personality. Nonetheless, Herzog combined this philosophical reflection with a broad openness to a range of realities and perspectives – no lived experience was without interest.

Similarly, he did not seek to make moral judgements upon any of his subjects or their environments. His driving passion was not to change the world or society necessarily – instead, he embraced the ethical and physical chaos of existence as inevitable. We would not go so far as to say that Werner relished this cacophony of struggle with any kind of malicious glee, but there was never any doubt that Herzog was, and is, fascinated by concepts of Darwinistic stresses, doomed individualism and complex webs of mutual exploitation.

Furthermore, Werner’s films were rich in contrasts, not least because he made more documentaries than works of cinematic fiction. Moreover, he allowed elements of dramatic construction (scripts, rehearsals etc) to bleed into his documentary film productions. Cinema Verite was abhorrent to Herzog and he has consistently rejected theories that demand that the camera simply record events in a vain attempt to capture objective ‘truth’.

Rightly, in our view, Herzog was trenchant in his scepticism over this goal being either achievable or indeed desirable. Ever the ‘poet’, his was a manufactured reality designed to reflect interior narratives and Herzog’s own concerns or preoccupations. The artifice involved in achieving this was often transparent, either during or after production. It soon became clear that Herzog was a filmmaker consumed with meta-cinema – that is, he wanted to make movies about the process of filmic storytelling and cinematic reflection as well as about individual subjects or narratives.

Before, however, you all run for the hills screeching ‘pretentious’ or ‘austere intellectual wanker’, let’s be clear upon one thing – Herzog was, and is, a director focused upon action.

There was no idle theorizing involved, for Herzog’s films were to be based upon endured experience and physical processes as metaphors for larger truths. One need only watch the enthralling Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, to understand that Werner was no fatuous blow-hard.

He lived and created as he preached – for once in the world of cinema where hyperbole and exaggeration often predominate, most of the myths surrounding Herzog proved to be all too true. That fact alone guaranteed respect, and not a little awe, from peers and viewers alike.

As a consequence of his earnest commitment to a ‘cinema of dreams’, Werner has come dangerously close to parody and is often subject to satire and mockery. This is to be expected and does not make Herzog any less worthy of interest. Risks and leaps of faith are what make his films so compelling.

Werner Herzog on the set of Grizzly Man (Credit: BFI Facebook page)

Werner Herzog on the set of Grizzly Man (Credit: BFI Facebook page)

If, as in say, Heart of Glass, we have to stifle the odd giggle at the po-faced intensity on display, we should also appreciate his efforts to articulate the (almost) inexpressible in a way that few others attempt to do so.

We fully accept that our choice of premier Herzog films falls squarely within his early prolific period of 1971-1982. Yet this is not to say that his later work is without meaning, relevance or potency. Far from it.

Documentaries like Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) or oblique, surreal character studies such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) are proof positive that Werner still has plenty to contribute to the wider film ‘conversation’.

We don’t dismiss this work and nor should you.

Nevertheless, any investigation of Herzog should begin with his best, his most vivid and his most striking work…

Fata Morgana (1971)

The title for this early Herzog film is taken from the term describing an ‘unusual or complex form of mirage’ – an apt epithet for this experimental production.

In fact, Fata Morgana would be just as appropriate for an art installation as it was suited for the Silver Screen. It would be impossible (not to mention foolish) to attempt a concise summary of this movie – it defies easy labelling and that is all to the good.

If anything, it feels like a visual meditation on life, creation and human impact upon our immediate environment. It adroitly interweaves Mayan mythology, dystopian landscapes and seductive music -be it the Kosmische of Popul Vuh or the melancholic musings of Leonard Cohen – in order to create a stridently esoteric film.

As is Herzog’s wont, there is an exhausting physical journey behind this film, one that included a 13 month shoot in Africa which was punctuated by sandstorms, floods, imprisonment and Herzog contracting a disease of the blood.

Despite the improvisational, lo-fi techniques employed during the film’s production, it succeeds in providing the audience with an otherworldly lens through which to consider our own existence and the potentialities that (may) exist.

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

This was Herzog’s first collaboration with the notorious Klaus Kinski – a partnership which would finally end with Cobra Verde in 1987 amidst considerable acrimony.

These two tempestuous, volatile men would generate enough dramatic tension for 10 films (as it was, they only made five), which made for an enthralling cinematic spectacle in every movie that they crafted together.

Supposedly based upon a monk’s diaries (an assertion which would appear to be palpably untrue), the film depicts the descent of an ambitious conquistador into madness as he seeks the fabled city of El Dorado.

The bravura opening shot of the explorer’s journey down a precipitous Amazonian mountain slope sets the tone for a daring exercise in dynamic filmmaking, one that makes man’s internal traumas physically manifest.

Kinski is maniacal as Don Lope de Aguirre, a facet of his performance which is underlined in the most unforgettable manner by a truly iconic closing scene. There is a studied approach to performance by the rest of the cast that adds further hypnotic lustre to the film, as does the beguiling Popol Vuh score.

Aguirre is one of the most robust and startling films of the 70s.

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser was the first of two hugely successful films which featured the inimitable Bruno S, a social outsider with idiosyncratic verbal tics and mannerisms.

His naturalistic performance in the lead provides a weighty anchor for this eerie mystery surrounding an abandoned ‘man-child’ in 19th Century Germany who, after ruthless exploitation by some, is finally adopted by a kindly academic and begins to display unique talents in music and philosophical discussion.

The riddle of Kaspar Hauser’s origins is just the pretext for Herzog to ruminate upon society’s interaction with those who do not fit easily amongst accepted norms and collective identities, and the profound lessons that we can learn from them.

There is little doubt that without Bruno S, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser would have subsided into caricature or whimsy. Instead, it becomes something sublime and deeply affecting.

One of Herzog’s most pronounced skills is that of empathy with his cinematic subjects without succumbing to clumsy moralising, cloying sentimentality or arch irony. A delicate curio of a film.

Stroszek (1977)

There have been more than a few deconstructions of the ‘American Dream’ in the history of film but few that would have matched the existential despair of Stroszek.

The substance of the film’s plot is superficially slight, as an eccentric vagrant is released from prison and, increasingly repelled by his harsh environment, seeks his fortune across the Atlantic. His companions, a prostitute and a kindly but unbalanced neighbour, are just as vulnerable to the exploitation and dreadful vicissitudes that bedevil them once they are ensconced in America.

The tragedy of the film is the inability of any of the protagonists to distinguish between crushing reality and an illusory land of opportunity that haunts their imagination. Once more, Herzog called upon Bruno S to perform the role of the itinerant dreamer who ends up being lost in the wilderness of the backwoods of the USA.

Stroszek provides a perceptive commentary on America’s societal underbelly and remains a frank challenge to the political and sociological romanticism that many Europeans were susceptible to at that time, and that many Americans themselves are still susceptible to when reflecting upon their own country.

It is fair to assert that Stroszek offers little hope or prospect of redemption. It does, however, provide an unflinching truth, the flinty glare of which we may find troubling but is absolutely necessary nonetheless.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

The first essential point to make about Fitzcarraldo is that once you’ve seen it, you really do need to watch Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams about the making of this unrepeatable epic of maniacal defiance of, well, everything!

It was a monstrous undertaking by Herzog, one which involved prominent cast members exiting the project, violence erupting between rival Amazonian tribes, excruciating tensions amongst cast and crew and enormous logistical challenges. To say that this film production cost lives is no exaggeration.

Yet, much of this ‘chaos’ no doubt suited Herzog in a perversely masochistic way, as it exemplified his desire to use Fitzcarraldo’s struggles as a metaphor for wider themes.

The central character, just like Herzog, is a visionary. His dream is to bring Caruso and opera to the South American jungle. How he attempts to do this, either in terms of raising capital or in his engineering feats of insanity, forms the crux of this film and surely provides numerous parallels for Herzog’s own experience of making movies.

The narrative makes much of the extreme folly of Fitzcarraldo’s obsession but equally, it does not treat him with absolute contempt. Like so much of Herzog’s work, the film respects the bravery of the world’s dreamers, however unhinged they might be.

This self-awareness, for surely Herzog falls within this category of individual, deserves fulsome praise and provides us as an audience with ample opportunity for reflection upon our own attitudes and convictions, as well as the general artistic process.