When a director’s persona becomes more prominent than the films they create, it can often result in a sharp decline in quality. Quentin Tarantino is arguably the victim of this trend with the highest profile, his personality and character now permeating through every image and line of dialogue drawn from his imagination, completely inseparable from the diegesis of the film. Michael Moore could also be accused similarly, continually building films that orbit around his presence and his inclusion in them being an increasingly essential element in their stability. Sometimes this integration into a body of work is a culmination of overenthusiastic critical acclaim or hyperbolic retrospect fuelling an ego; however, there are multiple directors, past and present, who have wielded their public profile in a way that successfully assimilates it into an artistic expression. Orson Welles, Chris Marker and Woody Allen have all achieved this with extensive success, using the perceptions of the public to manipulate and bend the fabric of cinema and create dizzying paradoxes of the self and vivid illusions of the id.
One of the more surreal and baffling examples of this idea comes in the form of Werner Herzog: Rock-star director and charismatic orchestrator of truth. Over the past half century Herzog has alternated routinely between fiction and non-fiction, dividing his directorial talent between the world of fabricated narrative and extraordinary truth, excelling in both and redefining each. Herzog’s identity has become an integral element within his films, his often constant presence and influence shaping audiences perceptions of both him and his subjects with magnificent ease. He has essentially created a character of himself to insert into his preferred medium, both to explore the content of his films and, simultaneously, the rules and boundaries of the art form itself.
This list is intended to celebrate both aspects of Herzog’s career, featuring a selection of his feverish narrative films alongside the alienating documentaries that have been weaved throughout them.
5) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Possibly Herzog’s most divisive film begins this list, a loose spiritual successor to the Abel Ferrara 1992 debauched odyssey of the same preface. Continuing and expanding on the same themes as its notorious predecessor, with escapism through depravity still very much a driving ideology; Herzog’s film separates itself from Ferrara’s with its darkly comic tone and absurdist approach to the mantra. However, Port of Call’s inclusion in this list is not simply due to its quality and unique nature, but also to function as a demonstration of Herzog’s skill with actors and performers, exterior to the intrinsic bond he held with regular collaborator and madman Klaus Kinski.
Herzog’s direction of Nicholas Cage provided the actor with a, now increasingly rare, career high. In terms of the director’s narrative cinematic excursions, in which he rarely appears, his channelling of a Herzogian spirit through a carefully picked surrogate actor has uniformly produced startling results. The aforementioned collaboration with Kinski worked to such an exquisite degree of frenzied triumph due to their shared rebellious nature and desire to push boundaries and buttons alike. Here, with Cage, he revisits this synergy to a degree, with the actor’s depiction of Terrence McDonagh comprising of a distant tribute to the madness of Kinski alongside the gauntlet of narcotics, wrath and ultimate introspection that Herzog composes.
4) My Best Fiend
However, how can one truly describe Herzog to a new audience without mention of his would be muse? The volatile relationship between Herzog and Kinski generated an environment of warped hostile companionship, one that produced extensive reams of fantastic art. Their almost telepathic kinship is explored here, in Herzog’s documentary chronicling the life of his best friend and bitter nemesis.
My Best Fiend is the point at which Herzog’s non-fiction filmmaking turned the camera around to explicitly investigate the character behind it. Documenting his and Kinski’s involvement in, and interpretations of, their cooperative art, the film examines the fruits, rotten or not, of their friendship with a rose tinted lens – a film that functions both as a eulogy and an intensely damning portrait.
3) The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is Herzog’s love letter to the architecture, landscape and history of his native Germany. Depicting the life of the eponymous Kaspar, a foundling kept isolated for the first seventeen years of his life before being integrated back into society, the film is a dramatised biopic concerning one of the country’s greatest mysteries. Both entering and exiting the world in a strange and mysterious manner, Enigma is driven by the electric central performance of Bruno.S and the visionary direction of Herzog, two elements that combine to generate a slow burning hymn to the human condition and the intricacies of society.
A thoughtful and considered narrative sees Hauser introduced to society and his subsequent entry into it as an inquisitive and innocent mind. As he develops the ability of speech he begins to speak poetically about his own condition and furthermore the ideas of religion, gender and logic. Included here based on the strength of its lyrical script and its mirage like visuals, though under seen in comparison to his more famous films. A shame, as it contains some of Herzog’s most sublimely composed images, symbolic to the point of scholarly and perfectly encapsulating of a wide range of philosophies.
2) The Great ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner
Woodcarver Steiner is potentially the most tranquil and delicate treasure in Herzog’s often caustic and hostile body of work. Focusing on the celebrated ski-jumper Walter Steiner, Herzog’s often overlooked documentary masterpiece has been cited by its creator as one of his most important films. The ecstasy of the title is achieved through the slow motion portrayal of its subject taking flight, as he breaks numerous records in the sport and becomes a legend in its annals. Where his documentaries had previously, and have since, explored harsh conditions, strange or evil people and the furthest reaches of the planet, it is the brief weightlessness of a simple woodcarver where Herzog finds the most human poetry.
With an acclaimed ambient score by Popol Vuh, with who he would collaborate with again to soundtrack the nightmarish task below, Woodcarver Steiner is Herzog at his calmest and most thoughtful, an early demonstration of his insight into the human mind and his talent for finding uniquely fascinating figures to explore in precise detail. Steiner also marked an early example of Herzog himself appearing in front of camera to deliver his thesis directly to the audience, something that he would come to harness to disorientating effect in a vast amount of his following documentaries.
1) Aguirre, The Wrath of God
The frightening culmination of all Herzog’s combined powers. Aguirre, The Wrath of God is a fever dream bought on by the Amazonian heat that descends into the maddening hell of the eponymous Spanish Conquistador obsessed with discovering El Dorado, the lost city of gold. With a behind the scenes narrative as twisted as its filmic counterpart, it is a surprise Aguirre was even made at all, with insistence, as usual, placed on realistic undertakings of colossal tasks such as marching an entire army down the treacherous slopes of the Andes for its epic opening, or stealing a shipment of monkeys to populate its hallucinatory finale.
This spot could realistically have been inhabited by any of the above, and possibly even by the absent Grizzly Man (2005), Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Encounters at the end of the World (2007) all of which would have been worthy of the title. However, it is Aguirre that proves to be the Herzog product with the most staggering longevity, still relevant and thrilling all these years later. A classic of New German Cinema and the cinematic landscape of the 1970’s as a wider circle, Herzog’s masterpiece is a relic of grand filmmaking and, along with the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo and its steamboat dragging shenanigans, his boldest technical statement.
Aguirre is epic in every sense of the word; in terms of scale there are few films that rival its ambition, one that sees Herzog both examine the darker side of the human psyche and deliver profound messages regarding the nature of madness and obsession. Lyrical, raging and intensely charged, the wrath of god truly does flow through its veins.
- Kristofer Thomas