Director Profile | The 5 Essential Films of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is one of the most unique voices in World Cinema. Rising to prominence as part of the “New German Cinema” of 1960s and 70s (along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders), he helped revitalise a culture long dormant after the horrors of WWII. His stories about the making of his movies are insane, hilarious and legendary – adjectives that could be used to describe his cinematic output. He is incredibly intelligent, possessing a keen insight on humanity and the world itself, something which is clear by watching his dramatic work, his non-fiction work and even interviews with him. At the age of 73, he is still active. In fact, he’s more prolific than ever with four movies scheduled to come out this year. His latest work Lo and Behold, Reveries of a Connected World is premiering at the IFI’s Documentary Festival on the 23rd of September. To celebrate, I will discuss some of the best movies, while also briefly touching upon his influence on subsequent cinema, his turbulent relationship with Klaus Kinski, his weary but ultimately hopeful worldview, and his imagination and creativity.  

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Herzog’s first epic and masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is essential viewing both for sheer spectacle and the influence it had on subsequent cinema. His recurring acting collaborator Klaus Kinski plays Aguirre, a crazed conquistador who leads a mutiny against his commander during an expedition along the Amazon river in 1560. From the opening shots, one can tell how gifted Herzog is at capturing nature and all its awe. The movie begins with the sublime image of conquistadors and their Indian slaves scaling down the Andes, their bodies like flecks of dust in contrast to the mountain range that looms ominously around them. Herzog’s emphasis on the overwhelming power of natural forces clearly influenced Terrence Malick’s output while his jittery, fluid camera work is all over recent western The Revenant. Perhaps most impressively, the scenes where Aguirre and his men are attacked with arrows by unseen natives as they sail down the Amazon river are almost copied shot for shot in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War-epic Apocalypse Now, made seven years later.

However, despite the vast influence of Wrath of God, there are still moments upon repeat viewing where Herzog’s unique vision shines through. No one blends intensity with humour like the auteur, as exemplified by the juxtaposition of Aguirre’s violent rebellion with a quirky sequence of the new leader listening intently to one of his slaves play a cheerful pan-flute tune. Worth noting also is Herzog and Kinski’s well-publicised volatile relationship due to his lead actor’s often erratic behaviour (Kinski shot an extra’s finger off with a rifle and almost decapitated a crew-member with a sword). Herzog managed to channel Kinski’s mania into his performance, creating in the process one of World Cinema’s most iconic characters.

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Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Ten years after Wrath of God, Herzog and Kinski ventured into the Amazonian jungle again for another chaotic shoot, resulting in the glorious epic Fitzcarraldo. Set in the 1890’s, Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irish entrepreneur living in a small village in Peru. Possessing a great love of music, Fitzgerald (nicknamed “Fitzcarraldo” by the Peruvians) dreams of building an opera-house in the jungle. However, in order to make his dream a reality, he needs capital. Concocting a plan with his lover, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Fitzgerald’s get rich scheme involves hauling a 320-ton steamship over a steep mountain in order to access the well-sought after rubber territory in the Amazon Basin.

While Wrath of God displayed the worst of a weak species driven by greed and fame, Fitzcarraldo is about the power and sheer force of will humanity can muster when needed – a dichotomy which often appears in Herzog’s work. Although Kinski is playing another manic character pursuing of a goal in the jungle, Fitzgerald is a far more lovable character – literally moving mountains in order to share his passion with the Peruvians who gave him his nickname. One could also read Fitzgerald as a stand-in for Herzog, who in order to gain a greater sense of authenticity, actually hauled the three-story ship over a hill without special effects creating the film’s stunning central scene. Fitzcarraldo also features a radiant supporting performance by screen legend Claudia Cardinale, as well the awe-inspiring natural imagery which burns into one’s retinas now synonymous with Herzog. Filmmaker Les Blank documented the anarchic production of the movie in his critically-acclaimed making-of Burden of Dreams. Again Kinski’s behaviour was a tremendous problem. At one point, the Indian natives, hired as extras, offered to kill the actor for Herzog.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Herzog collaborated with Kinski five times [o[others: Nosferatu (1979), Woyzeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987)]efore the actor’s death in 1991. Following this event (whether intentionally or subconsciously), Herzog began to make less fictional films. Instead, he turned his focus to non-fiction or curious blends of fiction and documentary filmmaking like 1991’s Lessons in Darkness and 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder. Although the 2006 war-drama Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale was a critical success, what put Herzog back in public consciousness as a dramatic director was 2009’s Bad Lieutenant – a reimaging of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film centring upon a corrupt policeman. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Nicolas Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, a cop whose back injury has led him to became reliant on pain killers and eventually addicted to cocaine and cannabis. While battling his demons, the policeman goes undercover to arrest the gangsters who killed five illegal immigrants.

If Herzog had waited for another actor to capture a similar sort of craziness to the late Kinski, he found it in Nicolas Cage. Bad Lieutenant briefly reminded people of the great talent Cage was during his hot-streak in the ’90s. Replicating Kinski’s hunchback walk from Wrath of God, the actor is an unhinged delight – blackly hilarious while threatening an elderly woman with a pistol while utterly sympathetic as a weak and broken man. The movie has the same sense of mania as its leading man, particularly as Herzog implements his unique style into a standard crime picture (we get a bonkers shot from the POV of an imaginary iguana). The ravaged New Orleans setting is incredible (another example of Herzog’s ability to convey place excellently), especially in how it mirrors its protagonist. Like McDonagh, the city has seen better days. It’s also interesting to compare the film to the original. While Ferrara’s film (set in New York) has a very nihilistic world view, Herzog’s is more optimistic. The latter acknowledges that his dirty cop is deeply flawed but believes that he can ultimately be redeemed, creating a movie with a real sense of hope.

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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009)

Although a relatively minor work in a vast filmography, Herzog’s second film of 2009 is interesting for many reasons. Michael Shannon stars as Brad, a man who stabs his mother (Grace Zabriske), before taking hostages and locking himself in his suburban home. A SWAT team arrive to try to negotiate with Brad, while two detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena) interview those close to him. From his fiancée (Chloe Sevigny), the two cops learn that Brad was performing in a Greek tragedy involving matricide.

The movie marks Shannon’s first leading role in a Herzog picture (he had a bit-part in Bad Lieutenant). The director has stated that the actor is the best in the world right now and has cast him in his upcoming film Salt and Fire. Although not as outwardly hectic as Kinski or Cage, Shannon is excellent at playing characters that supress insanity and eventually unravel. Roger Ebert wrote that one’s enjoyment of My Son comes from “watching Herzog feed the police hostage formula into the Mixmaster of his imagination” – adding elements, such as flamencos, another trip into the Peruvian jungle and an antique sword, that only he could think of. Produced by David Lynch, the movie feels like Herzog trying to replicate the former’s style – crafting a deliberately funny but unsettling movie which never fully explains itself. However, despite its heavy Lynchian influence, the movie is still very “Herzogian”. If one needs help differentiating between the two, critic Mark Kermode provides the information – “The Lynchian moment would be when they arrive at the strange house with the birds outside. The Herzogian moment would be when the guy explains to you why they are on an ostrich farm … one is visual, the other verbal”.

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Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011)

Most critics would argue that the majority of Herzog’s documentary work deserves a place on this list [other[other examples include Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)]ver, I chose Into the Abyss because it’s a perfect example of the director tackling a murky controversial topic and presenting his argument with precision and clarity. The film addresses the notion of capital punishment by profiling Michael Perry, a convicted murderer on death row. Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett murdered three people in Conroe, Texas because they wanted to drive the first victim’s red Camaro.

While most documentarians, in addressing the cruelty of capital punishment, would focus on a death row inmate where there was evidence that said inmate may be innocent, Herzog did the complete opposite. Instead choosing the type of pointless crime which would often be used as an example of why capital punishment works, he argues the futility of the act. The director tells Perry at the beginning: “When I talk to you it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you but I respect you and you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed”. If one considers this statement, Herzog’s thesis, by the conclusion the auteur has constructed a powerfully persuasive argument. In contrasting Perry with Burkett (who pleaded guilty to the charge, thus avoiding execution) – the director highlights that an entire life spent in prison, not being able to embrace one’s wife and child is punishment enough. On top of this, Herzog clinically analyses the “protocol of death” and interviews the reverend and former guard detail at the Huntsville’s Death Row facility – both of whom can’t help but break down in tears describing their experiences.

However, despite Herzog’s clear bias, the documentary does not feel one-sided. Herzog spends a large portion of the film with the victims’ family. One of whom states that a “weight was lifted” when Perry was finally killed. Ultimately, Herzog does not force his message upon the viewer. He, instead, presents his argument as fairly as possible, enlightening his audience, allowing them to form their own opinion on the troubling subject matter.

Order to watch the five films

  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
  • Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life
  • Fitzcarraldo
  • Aguirre, the Wrath of God
  • My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Also Worth Checking Out:

Herzog’s recent interview with podcaster Marc Maron was delightful, revealing a lot about the filmmaker’s personality. Also if one is interested in Kinski and Herzog’s relationship, seek out Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams or Herzog’s own doc about Kinski, My Best Fiend. Herzog also published some personal writings in 1978’s diary-book Of Walking In Ice.


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