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Werner Herzog
Werner Herzogvia

Everything you need to know about Werner Herzog

As the cult filmmaker’s latest deep-dive documentary hits theatres, we look back on a lifetime spent embracing madness and exploring the human soul

Considering everything 73-year-old Werner Herzog has put himself (and others) through over the last five decades, calling this eccentric storyteller a soldier of cinema feels about right. Among the most unhinged expressions of his creative genius: hauling a steamship over a mountain in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, hypnotizing an entire cast of actors, eating a shoe publicly for his filmmaker friend Errol Morris and exposing his crew to an impending volcanic eruption. But for Herzog, who’s literally been shot at during a BBC interview and who ignored The Simpsons when asked to voice a character during the show’s 22nd season, that’s really just scratching the surface.

Once called the “most important director alive” by Nouvelle Vague great François Truffaut, the prolific Bavarian has made it his life’s mission to stare danger in the face and look deep into the abyss of mankind – courageously, merrily, always obsessively. Remind him he’s the only filmmaker to have shot on all seven continents and he’ll cringe at the prospect of being immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records. As the intense, unruly and ridiculously funny German cineaste releases Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, a timely inquiry into our digital dependency, we look back on some of the cult artist’s most delirious, dramatic and downright dazzling career highlights.


This story of a ruthless Spanish conquistador on a doomed 16th-century expedition in search of the legendary El Dorado was passed on by Cannes and panned by many at the time of its release, with Germany even voting it the worst film of the decade. Now, it not only stands as a stunning survey of mankind’s most sinister impulses but also charts in scores of best-of-all-time lists. Besides the infamously grueling shoot on the Amazon River and the tumultuous off-screen outbursts of lead madman Klaus Kinski (see: the letter K), Aguirre offered cinephiles one of the most insane blue-eyed villains in film history, and perhaps the most eerie finale ever: a murderous Aguirre as the last man standing on a raft, surrounded by lifeless bodies and a mass of cackling monkeys. Curious George, this wasn’t.


In a career-topping performance, 2009’s bonkers Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans finds Nicolas Cage nailing the part of a crack-smoking, scummy, hunchbacked officer. Riddled with permanent back pain and heavily medicated, the perverted antihero in this unorthodox police flick is legit lousy at solving crime, which leaves him plenty of time to tell off ‘shit turds’, bang club gals in front of their beaus at gunpoint, and put erratic, amoral cops everywhere to shame. In 2010, Herzog told CBC Radio’s Q programme that Cage wanted to understand why his character was such an odious human being. “Why is he so evil,” Cage asked. “Is it cocaine, Hurricane Katrina, the corruption in the police force, his childhood?” Herzog, God bless the man, didn’t expand on such unnecessary minutiae. “Let’s skip all this,” he told Cage. “There is such a thing as the bliss of evil, you know.”


If anyone were to be granted access to a closely guarded site in southern France that houses the oldest art known to man (Paleolithic paintings on cave walls that date back some 30,000 years), it would be Herzog. French minister of culture Frédéric Mitterand was such a fan that scientists’ preservation concerns were suddenly overlooked to allow Herzog to shoot inside the cavern using low, battery-powered lights. Mitterand’s hunch was right: Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams provides one of the most immersive lessons in art history, with the experience greatly enhanced by the use of 3D to highlight the drawings’ shapes and shadings. As for that albino alligator digression at the end? Icing on the cake.


Given his general reluctance to embrace the Internet (see: “Z for Zombies”), dozens of Werner worshippers and thirsty trolls have created Twitter handles and Facebook profiles to offset his online absence. There’s even a cheeky chatbot called the WernerBot, which bills itself as “the best and only way to chat with Werner Herzog over the Internet,” and which basically implores you to read, read, READ!!! When asked about the clones in 2013, he told The Hollywood Reporter: “I let them be because I regard them as kinds of soldiers. Let them fight their fight out there in my name. They function like bodyguards.” 


If you were to lock Herzog up in a room full of documentary filmmakers who champion the chronology of truth, the tenets of cinéma vérité and the notion of being a “fly on the wall”, shit would hit the fan so, so fast. As articulated in his 1999 Minnesota Declaration, Herzog the storyteller has always been after “deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” He writes off those who take an unobtrusive, self-effacing, purely factual approach to filmmaking as accountants, likening them to security cameras in a bank that wait years for someone to pull a gun. Like I said: things would get ugly. 


Whether he’s teaching film pupils or giving promotional interviews, Herzog will remind all that his most grandiose flights of fancy would never have been put to screen had it not been for outstanding achievements in forgery. Giving a masterclass at the Locarno Festival in 2013, he spoke of promising something on paper to financiers when he needs money to get a project off the ground. “I never really follow what I’ve written,” he clarified. “It’s fraudulent. It’s forgery and it has a certain purpose.” Confronted to a military dictatorship while shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, he proudly forged a shooting permit allegedly signed, sealed and delivered by “El Presidente de la República.”


As assuredly chill-inducing as Herzog’s voice of God narration may be, it falls way short of watching the horrified director listening to recorded audio of American grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Hughenard being eaten alive in southern Alaska. Herzog has always been fascinated by the savagery and ferocity of the natural world, and Grizzly Man allows him to unpack this real-life tragedy in a dignified way, using the wealth of footage left behind by Treadwell. Regarding the activist couple’s altruistic if naïve intentions, Herzog described to NPR’s Fresh Air what he saw as “a tragic misunderstanding of wild nature. Treadwell romanticized it, as if all the bears were in Walt Disney movies – friendly, fluffy creatures. Of course, they are ultimately ferocious. They eat you and they kill you.”


Decades before David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers were dividing audiences with their feats in WTF storytelling, Herzog took cinematic experimentation to peak levels of lethargy in Heart of Glass (1976). The plot, which is frankly beside the point, zeroes in on an 18th century Bavarian town that goes mad trying to figure out the ‘magic secret’ to its ruby glass after the factory’s glassmaker dies. Inspired by the trance rituals of Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous, Herzog decided to hypnotize his entire cast of non-actors (save for the clairvoyant who forefeels the town’s demise) to drive home the idea of collective madness. Jury’s still out on whether the film’s comatose cast actually aids or impairs Herzog’s intentions, but this is seriously bananas.


Herzog has always loved to cast animals in his films, even when he can’t offer up an explanation why. Roosters, snakes, dancing chicken and demented gators all make special guest appearances, hinting at something that’s beyond words. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, when Nick Cage’s lazy-lidded lieutenant wonders aloud: “what are those fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table,” you know his Vicodin-crack-chronic cocktail has given way to a massive head-trip. Shot “iguana-cam” style by Herzog himself, who gets within millimeters of the stocky lizard’s eye, and set to a New Orleans blues singer’s falsetto-melting plea to “Release Me,” it’s the film’s best bit of uncalled for hallucinatory magic.


While location scouting for Aguirre in 1971, Herzog narrowly avoided boarding a doomed plane that crashed in the Peruvian rainforest, killing all but one of its 92 passengers. Long haunted by his brush with death, Herzog revisited the tragedy in Wings of Hope (2000), telling the harrowing story of its then 17-year-old German-Peruvian survivor, who traveled ten days on foot before being rescued by a lumberman. Over the years, Herzog has often reminded us just how treacherous and inhospitable the jungle can be, which makes Koepcke (now a biologist)’s optimism about it being a place of endless beauty – gators, piranhas, bats, bugs and all – that much more fascinating. Koepcke may go down in history as the only human to make Herzog sound like a crybaby.


Conflicts and clashes on the job can sometimes lead to creative breakthroughs, and there’s no denying that’s what Herzog and his tormented muse – the late, charismatic and controversial Klaus Kinski – achieved over five inspired collaborations. That being said, their rocky relationship could have served as the blueprint for Facebook’s “it’s complicated” status. Herzog famously threatened to kill Kinski if he decamped before the end of Aguirre’s shoot, and he once explained to David Letterman that “all [Kinski’s] madness is his real quality; you have to make it productive for the screen.” Their frequent altercations during the catastrophic Fitzcarraldo shoot were documented in 1982’s Burden of Dreams, and Herzog set the record straight about their rollercoaster rapports in his 1999 doc My Best Fiend. By all accounts, a prolifically insane/insanely prolific pairing.


In 1977, when Herzog heard of a Caribbean island being evacuated due to an imminent volcanic eruption that would annihilate everything in its wake, he did what he does best: recklessly risk his life and that of his crew in search of the rare rebels who’d decided to stick around. The apocalyptic La Soufrière finds the ballsy crew making their way through a genuine ghost town – blinking traffic lights, billowing smoke, animals on the loose – in search of those who made survival panic seem prehistoric, having already accepted their fate. 


The capital of Bavaria is a city of great importance to Herzog: it’s where he was born during the Second World War, where he discovered his passion for film as a teen and where he stole a 35mm camera (from the Munich Film School, to be specific), which would be used to shoot many projects, including Aguirre. Munich was also the starting point to a treacherously chilly three-week pilgrimage to Paris in 1974, where he visited his gravely ill mentor, film critic Lotte H. Eisner. He recounted the journey, intended as an act of faith to prevent her death, in his published diary, Of Walking in Ice (1978).


On the heels of other national film movements that radically reimagined what kinds of stories were film-worthy (along with the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and Kitchen sink realism), a handful of uncompromising young directors broke away from the German film industry’s commercial constraints. With Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and many others, Herzog’s focus on gritty realities and avant-garde ideals ushered in a bona fide, low-budget renaissance in German cinema that went well into the 1980s. 

“In 1977, when Herzog heard of a Caribbean island being evacuated due to an imminent volcanic eruption that would annihilate everything in its wake, he did what he does best: recklessly risk his life and that of his crew in search of the rare rebels who’d decided to stick around”


In Herzog’s world, opera isn’t just the insane impetus for his Fitzcarraldo protagonist to haul a boat over a mountain (i.e., to bring opera to South America). A serious enthusiast of extended musical works, he’s also staged operas throughout his career, from Verdi to Wagner (one of his greatest inspirations), and knows he’s good at it. In fact, when Sky Arts and the English National Opera asked him to interpret the first act of Puccini’s La Bohème in 2009, his five-minute visual response to the quintessential boy-meets-girl took the operatic fantasy into uncharted territory. He cast tribal couples from southwest Ethiopia and had them break the fourth wall as their protective elders clutched their Kalashnikovs. 


Herzog, who’s opposed to the death penalty, embarked on the “most intense project I’ve ever done” in 2010: a 105-minute film (Into the Abyss) and TV mini-series (Death Row) exploring the American criminal justice system. Featuring interviews with convicted perps (including a man executed 8 days after their on-camera encounter), their victims’ families and others entangled in the system, it’s easy to see how Herzog and his editor took up smoking again. While interviewing a reverend and ‘Death House Chaplain’ scheduled to stand by an inmate as he gets executed an hour later, Herzog asks him to share “an encounter with a squirrel.” The man’s ensuing emotional breakdown is startling and so unexpected.


In journalism, pull quotes are a precious currency – excerpted interview bits used to lure in potential readers. Few artists offer up more delicious, ready-to-print statements than the Herz man himself. For instance, a recent assessment of Klaus Kinski began with: “Sure, he was the most difficult, biggest pestilence in God’s wide Earth.” Or the following assessment of his creative process: "I do not use a storyboard; I think it is an instrument of the cowards.” The art world needs more of these straight shooters. 


While he wishes film schools would go extinct, Professor Herzog knows that isn’t about to happen, so he founded his four-day-seminar Rogue Film School in 2009. In the press, he’s talked about favouring former sex club bouncers or lunatic asylum wardens – basically, people whose academic journeys haven’t interfered with their ability to experience life to its fullest (“la pura vida”, as it’s understood in Mexico). If you can’t quite shell out $1,500 for a curriculum that includes “The Art of Lockpicking” and “The Neutralization of Bureaucracy,” you can also sign up for the newly unveiled $90 online MasterClass, “Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking” 


Does Herzog eating his own shoe (not the sole, just the leather parts, but still) say anything about the state of pop culture in America? Just something to mull over. But a promise is a promise, and the German artist kept his word after challenging fellow filmmaker and friend Errol Morris to complete his movie about pet cemeteries. At the 1978 premiere of Gates of Heaven, Herzog washed down the leathery delicacy with lots of beer. The heavily masticated stunt was documented in Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.


To his great credit, Herzog has proven time and again to be keenly aware of his erudite, austere media persona. He’s parodied variations of himself to great comedic effect on The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation and even for an audiobook reading of the irreverent Go the Fuck to Sleep. But the most spot-on Herzog impression belongs to podcast star Paul F. Tompkins, whose Werner Herzog Reviews a Hotel on Yelp bit nails the director’s existential anguish and ruminative quirks as only a true fan could.


On the whole, Herzog’s filmography doesn’t leave you ticked pink or high on life. The director’s fiction and documentary offerings chip away at unresolved dilemmas and unexposed tensions that haunt mankind. The German word for discomfort or malaise, “Unbehagen” (as in Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, or Civilization and its Discontents), neatly sums up what many viewers have come to expect from a Herzog flick.


In a fascinating conversation with The New Yorker back in January, Herzog proved reluctant to embrace virtual reality as the future of cinema – for the time being, at least. Refreshingly, at a time when so many seem sold on the industry-wide pitch that “VR is the next technological innovation for expressing the human condition,” Herzog is quite unconvinced. Especially when it comes to the notion that VR would be an empathy-generating machine. To Herzog, one of the few filmmakers to have justifiably incorporated 3D into a project, “the world reveals itself to those who travel by foot.”


Herzog has long believed his writings would outlive his cinema. Only time will tell if that proves to be the case, but his prose is indeed incredibly observant and resonant. Take, for instance, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. On the surface a documentation of a production mired in troubles (illnesses, drunkenness, warring tribes, plane crashes, snakes and Klaus Kinski), it reads more like Hunter S. Thompson in the Peruvian jungle, and that’s a testament to Herzog’s rich, personal voice. On the whole, the author writes just as he speaks, so reading him immediately brings to mind the filmmaker’s signature Bavarian drawl.


From the Peruvian jungle and the island of Guadeloupe to the Himalayas and remote pockets of Antarctica, Herzog has always surrendered to the call of far-flung locations. His chosen settings have always evoked an aura of danger, reminding us that nature can be ruthless and unsentimental. Speaking to CBC Radio’s Writers & Company in 1999, Herzog explained that growing up amidst ruins in post-war Germany might have had something to do with it. “As kids, we enjoyed it tremendously. We had no fathers to tell us what to do and how to behave. We were kings of bombed-out blocks and found the most exciting things, including hand grenades. So it was some kind of paradise for children, although we suffered a lot of deprivation.”


Having called America home for nearly two decades, he’s embraced many facets of life in the U.S., while reminding Esquire that: “I will not become a citizen of a country that has capital punishment. It is a question of principle.” Herzog, ever the contrarian, has also often declared that he lives in the part of the country “with the most substance,” which is “of course” Los Angeles – a high-profile snub for many proud New Yorkers. Let’s be clear: it’s not the hot yoga classes that won him over, but the free-speech movement and the area’s “creative density.” Los Angeles City Hall, you’re in luck.


While Herzog appreciates some of what technology has to offer, he also has harsh words about certain zombified human behaviour. When a writer from The Verge recently explained the concept of Pokémon Go during an interview, he inquired: “When two persons in search of a Pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset and San Vicente, is there violence? Is there murder?”. The director, who didn’t make his first phone call until age 17, recently produced an anti-driving-while-texting campaign to shake us all out of our undead slumber. The 35-minute From One Second to the Next avoided vilifying its subjects, instead presenting us with heart-wrenching stories such as a soon-to-be father behind the wheel, texting “I love you” to his wife as he runs over and kills a family of three. To Herzog, nature can be ruthless and lethal – but so can dullness of mind.