Herzog has made many films, both in fictional narrative and documentary form. I’ve seen nearly all of them (only a few short films remain) and here, on the man’s 71st birthday, are my favorite of his wildly eclectic oeuvre.
7. Rescue Dawn (2007)
In early 1966, German-born Navy pilot Dieter Dengler was shot down in Laos and subsequently captured, tortured and thrown in a prison camp. Months later, Dengler organized a prison break that resulted in yet another battle, this time with the unforgiving denseness of the jungle.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Rescue Dawn is that it was a story Herzog had already told, when he followed Dengler in his post-war life in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. But after Dengler’s peaceful death, Herzog knew there was more of the story to tell, so he assembled a small cast and crew, flew to Thailand, and recreated Dengler’s struggle. Christian Bale (in his most fearless performance to date) is utterly captivating as Dengler, while Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies are revelatory as disturbed prisoners. Rescue Dawn was the first narrative Herzog film I saw. I was transfixed from frame one and have remained taken with Herzog’s craft ever since.
6. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Bad Lieutenant is a stylish, brilliant mindfuck that makes little actual sense, without caring if it makes actual sense. In many ways, it is Herzog’s ultimate middle finger to the Hollywood system. He collected a pool of talented but often misused actors, went to the harsh ghettos of New Orleans, and shot a story of a corrupt cop who never hints at reforming his evil ways. There is no grand catharsis in Bad Lieutenant. No harsh consequences for grotesque actions. This is a movie where the bad guys look like the good guys, and get away with it all the same. Whenever I watch this film, I can picture Herzog standing slightly off camera, a small smirk on his face, knowing all well that his soul’s still dancing.
5. Stroszek (1977)
Stroszek is Herzog’s harshest indictment of the American dream. The film tells the story of Stroszek, a troubled, mentally unstable performer (played by the real life troubled, mentally unstable performer, Bruno S.) who travels from Germany to America with a prostitute in hopes of a fresh start. Once in Wisconsin, Stroszek drinks heavily, spends frequently, and watches his life slowly unravel.
Stroszek isn’t a straight story. In fact, it’s one of the most odd films Herzog has ever made. But there’s something about it; an unfamiliar magnetism that draws you in and begs you to care for the people you’re watching. The final scene of this film is one of the most quietly unnerving sequences Herzog has ever committed to film.
4. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Fitzcarraldo will forever remain Herzog’s most autobiographical film. In it, an eccentric artist goes to vast lengths to bring art to a world that doesn’t have any. To do this, he travels to the unforgiving jungles of Peru and heads down river with a dream. But there are obstacles, namely, the requirement to pull a 320-ton boat over a mountain, which Herzog and his crew actually achieved.
There’s an obsessiveness to Fitzcarraldo (as played with haunting brilliance by Klaus Kinski) that echoes Herzog’s work ethic so blatantly. Knowing what Herzog endured to bring Fitzcarraldo to the screen (Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, captures these tribulations flawlessly), it’s impossible to not appreciate Fitzcarraldo as more than just a film. A perfect, terrifying, masterpiece of a film.
3. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
You can thank Klaus Kinski’s sensual lead performance, or Herzog’s continual cue of Prelude to Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, but whatever the reason(s), Herzog’s Nosferatu creeps in and stays in a way that F.W. Murnau’s original simply doesn’t. For me, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, the legacy of Murnau’s film will justly outlive us all, but there’s something about Herzog’s mystery that I’m more drawn to. All those goddamn rats… they just mortify me.
2. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God was, and remains, many things. It was the film that put Herzog on the map as a courageous voice of cinema. It was Herzog’s first collaboration with Kinski, a relationship that was as vehement as it was creatively fruitful. And, perhaps most importantly, Aguirre was an unparalleled cinematic achievement.
In the film, we follow several Spanish conquistadors as they travel through the jungle in search of El Dorado. After a mutiny occurs, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) puts himself in charge, and we watch as this self-appointed leader slowly descends into the madness of his own mind. Aguirre takes place in 1560, was made in 1972 and, today in 2013, remains as unique a film as I’ve ever seen.
1. Woyzeck (1979)
Five short days after filming Nosferatu, Herzog used the same crew and star to make the spectacular Woyzeck, about a mentally anguished solider who is constantly mistreated by the people around him. As Woyzeck, Kinski gives his best performance in a role only he could play. Woyzeck is emotionally tortured (as Kinski’s characters often were) but he’s also scared, which is something we rarely saw from Kinski. There is no confidence in Woyzeck, only humility, confusion and shame.
According to the book “Herzog on Herzog,” Woyzeck was filmed over the course of 11 days and edited in another four. To achieve this, Herzog filmed most of the picture using long, extended takes. He used a series of four-minute long shots to make up a film of just 25 cuts, which is an incredible feat for any filmmaker. During the production of this film, Kinski was very well behaved, and did exactly what Herzog demanded of him, which was a rarity in their work together. As a result, Woyzeck feels anguished, but not rushed. It’s mad, but not graphic.
Woyzeck will always be my favorite Herzog film. You can credit the film’s brisk execution, or the passion from which it was born. Either way, like the best of Herzog’s work, I’ve never seen anything remotely like it.
7. My Best Fiend (1999)
Full disclosure: My Best Fiend is only a decent documentary. Little care is paid to the construction or fluidity of the film itself, but for fans of the Kinski/Herzog collaboration, My Best Fiend is pure gold. Klaus Kinski died of a heart attack in 1991, and in many ways, My Best Fiend is Herzog’s fair and unflinching dedication to him. The documentary traces Herzog’s initial fascination with the actor, to their hellacious working relationship. While on the set of Herzog’s films, the two fought tirelessly and threatened to kill each other regularly. But the work, as perfect as it is, will forever remain. And that is precisely Herzog’s grand realization: it doesn’t matter if they didn’t get along. The movies are the only thing of consequence.
6. Into the Abyss (2011)
Many of Herzog’s documentaries are made as a way for the filmmaker to challenge himself. For Into the Abyss, the challenge was for Herzog, a vocal critic of the death penalty, to understand why people do the things they do. If you’re against the death penalty, but you listen to people openly confess to gruesome murders they’ve committed, without a hint of remorse, does that person indeed deserve to die? Herzog himself says no, but with this film, he lets his subjects do the talking, and his audience form their own opinions.
5. Grizzly Man (2006)
Herzog’s most famous documentary chronicles the gloriously odd (and tragically short) life of Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who spent 13 consecutive summers living among Alaskan bears. After a bear killed Treadwell and his girlfriend in 2003, Herzog became entranced with Treadwell’s story, and sought to bring it to the screen. To do this, Herzog was given access to Treadwell’s personal videotapes, which included hundreds of hours from his time with the bears.
When we watch Grizzly Man, we watch a confused, passionate man living out his dream. Although it may not be a dream we understand, Herzog is fully aware that the world is filled with unique dreamers; people who have lived and died for their cause, even if that cause was never clearly stated. Watching this film, I always become entranced by Treadwell’s footage, and by Herzog’s narration describing it.
4. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
As mentioned, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog takes the real Dieter Dengler back to the area in which he was imprisoned, and has Dengler reenact his capture and escape on film. But that’s actually not true. Yes, this is the real Dengler discussing his horrific experience in Laos, and yes, Herzog goes to great lengths to document it, but Herzog and Dengler didn’t return to Laos to face the scene of the crime. Instead, they traveled to Thailand and made it look like Laos. So, in many ways, Little Dieter Needs to Fly is as artificial as Rescue Dawn. Herzog is no stranger to adding truth to his fictional films, and exaggerations to his documentaries. If it were any other filmmaker, I’d be offended. But because this is all a part of Herzog’s unyielding quest for truth, I suppose I’m thankful it exists, by whatever means necessary.
3. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
Fini Straubinger is the type of person who was meant to cross paths with Werner Herzog. Living as a deaf-blind woman in Germany, Straubinger is forced to communicate in different ways, which Herzog’s brings to light with poetic melancholy in Land of Silence and Darkness. In fact, this film is about as heartbreaking as it is endearing. You’ll feel sorry for Straubinger and her deaf-blind friends, but there’s solace in the fact that Herzog doesn’t want us to pity them. He wants us to watch and accept. Herzog never uses his camera as a tool for judgment, but rather, exploration.
2. La Soufrière (1977)
News breaks that a volcano is about to erupt on the island of Guadeloupe. The island is evacuated, and the world waits for the explosion. So I ask, who in their right mind would travel to an island facing an impending volcanic eruption? Werner Herzog, that’s who. Watch La Soufrière to see what Herzog discovered. It’ll floor you.
1. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
When I drafted my recent list of my Top 15 Documentaries, I included Encounters at the End of the World. At the time, I had trouble understanding why I was drawn to Encounters more than Herzog’s other documentaries. I discussed the film’s uncanny ability to observe human isolation, while cutting in gorgeous, epic shots of the Antarctic landscape. The truth is, Encounters at the End of the World isn’t better than the best Herzog documentaries. Nor is it worse. It’s a film that quietly, gently speaks to the nature of the man who made it. A man who is captivated by the compulsions of the misunderstood. Had I not watched Encounters at the End of the World, I would have never known that that world existed. You can always credit Werner Herzog for showing us something new.