“He has no fear; nothing stops him,” James Franco remarks in the first episode of SBS VICELAND’s The Vice Guide to Film. He’s chatting about Werner Herzog, his director on 2015’s Queen of the Desert — and that’s just one of many colourful comments used to describe the iconic German filmmaker.
Of course, Herzog himself is as well-known for his awe-inspiring, absurdity-laced explorations of obsession across both narrative and documentary features as he is for his inimitable tones and quotable, observational prose. Hearing Franco wax lyrical about the man the whole world loves to listen to couldn’t be more apt.
Before you dive into Vice’s ode to Herzog, we run through the basics of one of the most distinctive and fascinating filmmakers working today.
The Herzog essentials
In 1961, Herzog started making Herakles, his first short film. He has since dubbed it his “first blunder” in his typical no-nonsense style. It did, however, immediately establish his style and sensibilities as he used scenes of male bodybuilders to step through the tale of Greek hero Heracles. Herzog doesn’t direct films as much as craft them, displaying the same passion as the subjects he chronicles — in this case, both the young men improving their physiques and the mythological son of Zeus they’re compared with.
In the more than five decades that have followed, he has added over 60 other shorts, features, documentaries and television programs to his resume. For a filmmaker born in Munich during the Second World War, who grew up in the alpine village of Sachrang and didn't even discover the existence of cinema until he was a schoolboy, it’s a significant feat. Esoteric early films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small garnered intrigue, while his infamous collaborations with Klaus Kinski helped increase his fame, as much for the movies themselves — including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo — as for the notoriously volatile relationship between the star and director.
Proving as prolific as he is unique, Herzog has become the kind of figure who can only be defined by his name. The term "Herzogian" instantly conjures up his trademark use of mid-shots that probingly observe but never attempt to offer answers, stories of dedicated men determined to toil towards a goal, an embrace of life’s oddities and eccentricities, and the calm sounds of his voice. The latter has become an established part of his career thanks to his growing body of film and television documentaries — spanning everything from the mirage-focused Fata Morgana to the found-footage Grizzly Man to his recent musings on the internet, Lo & Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. It's also become part of popular culture in general. When Herzog played the villain in Jack Reacher, it was his presence more than the character that viewers responded to. In Penguins of Madagascar, he gifted his vocal talents to a documentary filmmaker in another knowing nod to his established reputation and persona.
Three things you mightn’t know
- In 2006, he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from the scene of a car accident. Phoenix reported that, “There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax,'" according to The Guardian. The incident inspired an animated short film, When Herzog Rescued Phoenix, featuring hand-drawn images recreating Herzog’s own recollections.
- When Herzog guest-starred in season seven of Parks and Recreation, playing an elderly, somewhat creepy man selling a house to Chris Pratt’s Andy and Aubrey Plaza’s April, he hadn't seen the show.
- Herzog has only been nominated for one Academy Award, for 2007’s Encounters at the End of the World. Man on Wire won instead.
Five films you really need to see
Aguirre, the Wrath of God: His first collaboration with Kinski is loosely inspired by Spanish conquistador history and takes the duo into the thick of the Amazon in a visually and emotionally stunning journey that rightfully thrust Herzog to broader attention.
Nosferatu the Vampyre: The idea of remaking one of the most revered and influential vampire movies ever made might’ve been sacrilegious in other hands, but Herzog puts his particular stamp on the iconic tale.
Fitzcarraldo: Of all of Herzog’s tales of obsession, this just might be his magnum opus, returning to the jungle with Kinski after Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The filmmaker won the Best Director prize at Cannes for his efforts.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly: A documentary exploration of the Vietnam War experiences of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler. Herzog fictionalised the tale in Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale, a decade later.
Grizzly Man: Using footage found after bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell’s death, as well as interviews with those who knew him, Herzog examines the lure of the wild at its most fascinating and fatal.
Who’s sharing the Herzog love?
James Franco: Perhaps the only other person in the industry that’s as prolific as Herzog, the actor didn’t only work with him on Queen of the Desert, he introduced the director to his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans star Nicolas Cage.
Harmony Korine: A filmmaker with his own distinctive style — as seen most recently in the James Franco-starring Spring Breakers — Korine directed Herzog in dysfunction family drama Julien Donkey-Boy and absurdist comedy Mister Lonely.
Errol Morris: The famous American documentarian behind The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War once caused Herzog to eat his own shoe. Herzog promised he’d go through with the unusual culinary act if Morris ever finished the film Gates of Heaven. The aptly titled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe documents the results.
Zak Penn: A seasoned screenwriter with credits ranging from Last Action Hero to The Avengers to the upcoming Ready Player One, Penn also wrote, directed and starred in the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness with Herzog, satirising Herzog’s fictional attempts to chart the mythical monster.
Ana Lily Amirpour: The Iranian-American director of genre-breaking vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and the cannibal-focused The Bad Batch, Amirpour once tweeted that she’d like to be hypnotised by Herzog.
What should I watch next?
Delve further into Herzog’s work with his most recent television production, Death Row, on SBS On Demand:
StreamThe Vice Guide to Film on SBS On Demand: