Werner Herzog - The Eccentric Film-maker


                       Werner Herzog is renowned for pushing the boundaries of conventional cinema, especially those between the fictional and the factual, the fantastic and the real. Werner Herzog is a legend for many reasons. There's the films of course, but there's also the stories behind the films. Like how Herzog threatened to shoot Klaus Kinski if he dared walk off Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and how he promised to eat his shoe if his friend Errol Morris ever managed to get the film he was always talking about made. He did, which led to a curious short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).

Herzog's Vision

                 Werner Herzog, more than any director of his generation, has through his films embodied German history, character, and cultural richness. While references to visual and verbal arts would be out of place in treating most film directors, they are key to understanding Herzog. For his techniques he reaches back into the early part of the twentieth century to the Expressionist painters and film-makers; back to the painters and the writers for the luminance and allegorization of landscape and the human figure. In all these technical and expressive veins, one finds the qualities of exaggeration, distortion, and the transformation of the ugly. 


              The use of an actor like Klaus Kinski, whose singularly ugly face is transformed by Herzog's camera can be best described as a example of his quality. Persons with physical defects like deafness and blindness, and dwarfs, are given a type of grandeur in Herzog's artistic vision. Herzog's vision renders the ugly and horrible sublime, while the beautiful is omitted and, when included, destroyed or made to vanish (like the beautiful Spanish noblewomen in Aguirre).  
  • Born Werner Stipetic in Munich on September 5, 1942, Herzog came of age in Sachrang, Bavaria, amid extreme poverty and destitution.
  •  In 1962, 20-year-old Herzog enrolled in the University of Munich as a history and literature student, and produced his first motion picture, the twelve minute Herakles, his second short Game in the Sand. In 1963, he established his own production banner, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, to give him complete autonomy over all of his projects.
  • In 1968 he directed his first feature film, Signs of Life who gets a special prize at the Berlin Festival.  It is a story about a stricken German infantryman who lapses into unbridled insanity. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, depicts the daily activities of a bunch of dwarfs and midgets in a German penal community. Horrified, the German authorities banned it, but critics everywhere raved over its disturbing allegorical portrait of life.
                    
  • Herzog embarked on the first of a series of collaborations with the intense actor Klaus Kinski, Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972). This story of insane Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre, (Kinski) and his ill-fated quest to locate El Dorado, the Incan city of gold, forced Herzog and the crew to venture deep into the heart of the Peruvian jungles, where they battled now-legendary conditions to obtain the images. Critics and the public instantly heralded the film as a masterwork. 
  • Herzog emerged with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in 1975 and Heart of Glass in 1976, which takes place in a village in Bavaria in the eighteenth century.  Herzog produced his 1977 Stroszek, a tale of three German social outcasts who immigrate to Wisconsin. In the late seventies, Herzog masterfully re-filmed F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu (1978) with Kinski as his vampiric lead.
  • Between 1980 and 1982, Herzog managed to top the insanity of that film shoot with the most difficult production in movie history. With Fitzcarraldo, he sought to tell the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a 19th century eccentric opera lover, determined to bring the music of Enrico Caruso to the Peruvian Indians by actually pulling a steamship over the top of a mountain.
                   
  •  Famed documentary director Les Blank foresaw the calamities prior to the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, and filmed the ordeal in his haunting documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), a work that was itself lauded as a masterpiece.
  • In 1984, Herzog filmed two acclaimed shorts: The Green Glow of the Mountains and The Ballad of the Little Soldier. Later on, Herzog embarked on his final collaboration with Kinski, the adventure drama Cobra Verde.
  • In the 90s and 2000's, he directed several documentaries, including Intimate Enemies portrait of his favorite actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he maintained a relationship of attraction and repulsion of the shootings. He continued his career in documentary making with Wheel of Time, about Dalai Lama in 2003, then 'The White Diamond,' where an engineer creates a blimp to fly over the forests of Guyana. 
                      
  • He expresses his passion for the great outdoors again with his film Grizzly Man. It is comprised of footage shot by ill-fated “Grizzly Bear expert” Timothy Treadwell just before his death in a bear attack He returned to feature film in 2006 with the war film Rescue Dawn. He directed "Bad Lieutenant" starring Nicolas cage in 2009.  In 2011, Herzog’s documentary revives and turns The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Which focuses on the discovery of very old natural caves containing paintings by Neanderthals.
  • Trade Mark :  His films contain long, extended landscape shots. Driven protagonists who often seem to be on the brink of madness. His films frequently feature characters or real people who attempt to change nature but are ultimately overwhelmed by it.
  • Only feature-film director to have made a film on every continent. Was voted the 35th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Werner Herzog Quotes

" Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness."

"Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism."

"If I had to climb into hell and wrestle the devil himself for one of my films, I would do it."

"The biggest danger, in my opinion, is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossing hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials. Television kills our imagination and what we end up with are worn out images because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones."

                     Herzog is a satirist who demonstrates what is wrong with the world but, as yet, seems unwilling to articulate the ways to make it right; indeed, one is at a loss to find in his world view any hope, let alone, prescription, for improvement. Right from the beginning, with early films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), all the way through his collaborations with Klaus Kinski and Bruno, up to the Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog has been captivated by stories of madness. 

                   Werner Herzog is a constant champion of outcasts, he celebrates the unusual and sees worth and beauty in capturing crazy, random, glorious moments on film.


*Quotes are from Werner Herzog's biography on IMDb

Comments

Great post for a master director. I am just getting to know him. I have seen two of his films Aguirre and Nosferatu; Aguirre is an absolute masterclass, never seen such images in a film before and Nosferatu is such a haunting and a sad film. He explored the nooks and corners that Murnau only suggested at.
Shalu Sharma said…
He does seem to make exceedingly good movies.
Arun said…
@Sandeep, Thanks for the comment, and don't miss out other classics of Herzog especially, Enigma of Kasper Hauseur, Stroszek, Fitzcarraldo. Keep visiting.