Late film critic Roger Ebert declared, “Even his failures are spectacular.” French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut called him the most important director alive.
Auteur filmmaker and unconventional provocateur Werner Herzog does not limit himself to only one medium. He directs movies for both film and television, is a producer, voice actor, and has staged operas in Italy and his native Germany. On the side he also writes books, including a German translation of Michael Ondaatje’s classic, the Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
A key figure in the postwar West German cinema scene, the influential director and world traveler has made movies on every continent. He teaches film in a video series for Masterclass. He also has his own Rogue Film School which consists of 4 day seminars. The school’s website describes it as a place for, “those who are willing to learn about lock picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects,” and warns that it “will not teach anything technical related to film-making. For this purpose, please enroll at your local film school.”
Herzog famously stole a camera to make his first movie at age 19. In a much repeated anecdote, Herzog claims to have traveled on foot from Munich to Paris, to visit a film historian friend on her deathbed. Herzog was shot on camera during a recent interview. While speaking to a BBC reporter, he was hit in the stomach with a bullet from an air rifle. Unfazed, the director continued talking, and laughed off the incident. He lifted up his shirt, and said of his bleeding wound, “It’s not significant.”
His personality has made him almost as popular as his arthouse filmography. A tumblr blog called Werner Herzog Inspirationals, and the tribute twitter @WernerTwertzog are a few of the popular social media accounts devoted to his idiosyncratic style.
One of his focuses as a filmmaker is documentary. In this field his work has been varied and ambitious. In 2013 in partnership with AT & T he made From One Second to the Next a 35 minute public safety announcement about the dangers of texting and driving. His subject matter reflects his personal interests and passions that includes everything from remote tribes, prisoners of war, volcanoes, wilderness, wood carver ski jumpers, the dangers of the internet, and America’s death row.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, he described the liberties he sometimes takes to achieve his artistic vision. “In the film I did about the oil fires burning in Kuwait it starts off with a quote from [17th-century philosopher and physicist] Blaise Pascal. And it’s a beautiful one. It says, ‘The collapse of the stellar universe will occur like creation, in grandiose splendor.’ But Blaise Pascal did not say that. I did.”
To inspire your own singular dedication to craft, here is a look at some of the most important films by Werner Herzog.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
In this 2016 documentary, originally commissioned by a tech company, Herzog studies the internet’s impact on humanity, and ponders the central question, does the internet dream of itself? In an interview with Wired he says of the internet, “I like to look back at the evolution of modern human beings. Using fire or electricity was an enormous step for civilization, and this is one of those. And I think the poet must not avert his eyes.”
Queen of the Desert
The 2015 effort has a star studded cast that includes Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, and Robert Pattinson. The historical biopic of archeologist, explorer, and cartographer Gertrude Bell received mixed reviews. The New York Times said of it, “Even the stodgiest biopic would be redeemed by Mr. Herzog’s eye.”
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
In this pair of documentaries from 2010, Herzog explores newly discovered cave paintings in Southern France believed to be the first in human history, and the documenting of a year in the life of village trappers in the Siberian forest. Herzog describes the beautifully detailed pictures found in the caves as, “the beginnings of the modern human soul.”
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicholas Cage is particularly unhinged in this 2009 story of corrupt cops in Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana. Co-staring Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer, Roger Ebert called the film, a sly comedy about a snaky but courageous man, and that Cage and Herzog were born to work together because they are, “both made restless by caution.”
Rescue Dawn, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Both Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale, and a 1997 documentary explore the harrowing story of a pilot shot down over Vietnam during the infamous war, taken as prisoner, and then his escape into the forbidding jungle, his attempted rescue of a fellow POW, and his eventual rescue.
The 2005 examination of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell is one of Herzog’s most famous films. Treadwell who took to the woods to befriend bears, was ultimately, along with his girlfriend mauled to death in the Alaskan wilderness. Herzog’s grim take on the story was, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I can see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
This 1982 film is legendary. The tale centers on a man who wants to build an opera house in the jungle. Eschewing special effects, the production involved the real life hauling of a massive 360-ton boat up the side of a Peruvian mountain.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
An initial flop, this 1972 masterpiece centered on a doomed expedition’s search for a fabled city of gold. In one infamous onset conflict, the temperamental star Klaus Kinski threatened to abandon set and paddle away in a canoe, and the director retorted he’d shoot him if he did. In the DVD track commentary, Herzog insisted he was unarmed, but that after the threat the actor, “behaved for like ten days.”
Author Bio: Tara Collum
Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the volunteer social media coordinator for the Death Row Support Project @COB_DRSP and co-writes a web serial at splitsvilleblog.wordpress.com. She is all about tea, books, mumblecore, music, long walks, and self-improvement. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun
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