The Eccentric and Inimitable Genius of Werner Herzog

PopMatters currently is running a huge feature discussing and celebrating 100 of the most important directors. I signed up to tackle Werner Herzog and Stanely Kubrick. As eager as I was to express the joy and wonder these two men have brought into my world, it was exceedingly difficult to try and summarize their accomplishments and impact in a few hundred words. There will be more to say about both of these artists and I’ll look forward to it. Here is my take on Herzog (I recommend checking out the entire series @ PopMatters).

Three Key Films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1974), Fitzcarraldo (1982), My Best Fiend (1999)

Underrated: Stroszek (1977). A stark, disconcerting and unforgettable experience, Stroszekis not a film one returns to for fun. It remains one of the most efficient and ruthless appraisals of the American Dream myth while managing to be amusing, touching and ultimately demoralizing. Using his infallible instincts, Herzog has non-actor Bruno S. embody the unlucky, exploited Stroszek. Fleeing Berlin for what they assume will be the warmer and more prosperous U.S.A., Stroszek and his companions end up in the frigid, desolate landscape of Wisconsin. The final scene, after things have gone predictably off the track, features Stroszek on a ski lift holding a frozen turkey. Beneath him, in coin-operated cages, a duck plays a drum with his beak, a rabbit “rides” a wailing fire truck and a chicken dances while the soundtrack features the ebullient harmonica woops of Sonny Terry. Arguably the most surreal, and satisfying, commentary on the human condition ever filmed: once you’ve seen it, it stays seen.

Unforgettable: After enabling an entire crew, including his daughter, to die during a doomed expedition to the legendary El Dorado, Aguirre is alone. Having watched his group slowly succumb to disease, drowning and Indian arrows, Aguirre is nonchalant when dozens of monkeys swim aboard his raft. As the creatures scramble and scurry, he snatches one and holds it in front of his face. “I am the Wrath of God,” he declares, and the sweeping Amazon suddenly turns claustrophobic. We know Aguirre is near death, and his final disintegration offers an austere commentary on ambition and conquest. The close-up camera angle swirls backward and circles the raft from above, like a silent and definitive judgment from Nature itself. From Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

The Legend: Few artists in any genre are as closely associated with the work they do. All of Werner Herzog’s films are to a certain extent autobiographical. It’s not merely a matter of how much of himself he invests into each project; it’s the nature of the projects themselves. Herzog has long combined creative restlessness with spiritual obsession and the results are often compelling, occasionally awe-inspiring and never less than interesting. He was the quintessential critical darling for entirely too long: he made movies that people admired, but he was anything but a household name. Never seeming to care—and certainly not one to covet notoriety—he quietly plugged along, keeping busy and remaining relevant. During the last decade his genius, and superhuman work ethic, have finally been recognized and rewarded.

It was not always thus. Herzog is possibly the ultimate underdog who inevitably got the acclaim and approbation he deserved. Herzog is undeniably a legend based solely on the stunning body of work he has produced. The real legend, of course, is his life and the excitement, misadventure and barely believable anecdotes it has inspired. There are too many to list, but a handful should suffice in order to convey what a unique force of nature Herzog has always been.

He stole his first camera, an act he considered less a matter of theft than necessity. On the set of his 1970 film Even Dwarfs Started Small (a wonderfully Herzogian title, and concept), after a few near calamities he promised the crew he would jump into a cactus patch if the rest of the filming was completed without incident (it was and he did). During the filming of his first masterpiece Aguirre, The Wrath of God he dealt with the mercurial Klaus Kinski in a fashion that would set the tone for their subsequent collaborations: after Kinski, during one of his typical tantrums, threatened to leave the set, Herzog pulled out a gun and swore he would first shoot Kinski, then himself unless the actor got back to work (it worked). In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, he agreed to eat his shoe (the project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, and the occasion was filmed for posterity). The filming of his film Fitzcarraldo (inspired by a true story) involved moving a 320 ton steamship over a mountain—without utilizing a single special effect. During the filming, one of the Peruvian natives on the shoot, exasperated by Kinski’s histrionics, offered to kill him; Herzog was tempted but declined because he needed the actor to finish the movie. In 2006, while being interviewed for the BBC, Herzog was (inadvertently?) shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle. Naturally, he continued the interview and, after showing the stunned reporter and film crew the wound, calmly remarked “It is not a significant bullet.” (This footage, thankfully, survives for posterity.)

It is, of course, the work that endures and it seems likely that Herzog has amassed a filmography that will inspire and be studied so long as people are making moving pictures. It is difficult to isolate, or even describe what aspect(s) of Herzog’s style makes him so original and indelible. Certainly his penchant for improvisation can be attributed to a desire for emotion over refinement. His brave, if unorthodox decision to utilize unknown actors (or non-acting natives) speaks to his compulsion for authenticity. His challenging, occasionally unfeasible choice of projects and locations illustrates a recalcitrance that has always translated into integrity. Equal parts Joseph Conrad and Percy Fawcett, Herzog obliterates all clichés and encomiums: he is the Sisyphus who refused to fail, embracing tribulations to prove—to the medium, to himself—that they can be overcome. If Herzog did not exist, he would need to be invented, and then filmed by a director like Herzog.


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