• German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. (Vice Guide to Film)Source: Vice Guide to Film
Cult German filmmaker Werner Herzog is both transgressive and prolific, which means we have a lot of Teutonic strangeness on offer this month.
Travis Johnson

11 Nov 2021 - 1:00 PM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2021 - 1:00 PM

Some filmmakers become legends in their own lifetime. Werner Herzog is more like a myth – some Arthurian figure who pulled a movie camera instead of a sword out of a stone. Like Kaspar, he is enigmatic, like Aguirre, he is wrathful, and like so many artists he started small, stealing a camera from the Munich Film School to experiment with while still in high school and working nights to fund his projects. He got his money’s worth out of that camera too, still using it years later to shoot Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

Since that enterprising start, he has been both prolific and provocative, making 20 fiction features, 32 documentary features, 15 short subjects, and two seasons of television. He’s made movies in every continent, including twice in Australia. His sheer passion for cinema is both intimidating and infectious.

A key figure in the New German Cinema, Herzog quickly developed a reputation as an uncompromising filmmaker with a singular vision. His films are characterised by a number of recurring themes: an affection for and fascination with outsiders, an awe of the natural world that is untempered by romanticism or anthropomorphism, a disgust of colonialism and imperialism, and a dark but robust sense of humour.

Herzog is the filmmaker’s filmmaker, an artist driven to tell his stories and forge his works no matter what. Stories abound of him going to impossible lengths to make movies, and during one memorable interview with critic Mark Kermode in 2006, an obsessed fan shot him in the stomach with an air rifle. Unperturbed, the director completed the interview in what might be described as “typical Herzogian fashion”.

For his troubles, he has received a slew of accolades, including the Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear for Signs of Life, Best Director at Cannes for Fitzcarraldo, and Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize for his acclaimed documentary, Grizzly Man. More, he’s achieved a higher level of pop culture reverence than any director this side of Tarantino, which has seen him lend his stentorian voice to animated characters on American Dad and Rick and Morty, and take acting roles in projects as varied as the Tom Cruise vehicle, Jack Reacher; Star Wars’ The Mandalorian and even a guest spot on the sitcom Parks and Recreation.

And yet his passion has sometimes spilled the banks of acceptable behaviour. He is known to be tyrannical on set, and drew criticism for the production of 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, during which several Indigenous Peruvian extras and crew members were injured or killed. The representation of little people in his second feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), has also been a point of contention; Herzog apologised for a number of on-set injuries during that production by allowing the cast to film him hurling himself into a cactus patch. There have been allegations of animal cruelty in everything from 1972’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God to 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans.

Which means that viewer discretion is advised. Engaging with Herzog’s body of work means challenging yourself not only with what is depicted on screen, but also your understanding of how those images were captured. Herzog is very much of the “Ask forgiveness rather than permission” school of art, and his quest for what he calls “ecstatic truth” is not casualty-free. And yet the artistry of his work is undeniable, as these films, all part of the 11-strong batch now streaming at SBS On Demand, attest.


Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Under the command of power-mad Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski in the first of five collaborations with Herzog), a group of 16th century conquistadors torturously make their way down the Amazon River in search of the legendary (not to mention non-existent) City of Gold, El Dorado. Driven by greed and a lust for conquest, the would-be conquerors soon prove themselves to be more savage than their conception of the Indigenous peoples whose land they covet. It all descends into horrific bloodshed and madness, a harrowing but unforgettable indictment of colonialism. In English, German and Quechuan languages.


The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Herzog’s fascination with outsiders and the marginalised finds its ultimate expression here in the true story of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S), a young man found wandering in Nuremburg in 1828. It transpires that Kaspar has been confined to a cellar with almost no human contact for the first 17 years of his life, and so Professor Georg Friedrich Daumer (Walter Ladengast) attempts to socialise him, but Kaspar’s unique view of the world makes this difficult.

There are parallels with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man in this tale of an abused innocent thrust into the limelight, but Herzog is more interested in using Kaspar as a lens through which to view the hypocrisies of “civilised” society. In German and English.


Stroszek (1977)

Bruno S. is the titular alcoholic street busker who, with his prostitute girlfriend Eva (Eva Mattes), decamps to a small town in Wisconsin after a run of bad luck in Berlin. From there unfurls an episodic, satirical, fish out of water story as the dour Stroszek grapples with all the American Dream has to offer and finds it lacking. Narratively shapeless but hypnotic, this black comedy was a favourite of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, which speaks volumes. Compare fellow German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ observations of Americana in Paris, Texas for dinner party talking points. In German and English.


Woyzeck (1979)

Adapted from the unfinished stage play by Georg Büchner, this sees Klaus Kinski as a lowly soldier stationed in a small, 19th century German town who is driven to madness and ultimately death by the petty cruelties of his commanding officer, a doctor who performs experiments on him, and the general indifference of society at large. Herzog threw this one together, beginning production a mere five days after shooting Nosferatu the Vampire and using the same crew, who were on the brink of exhaustion. Using long single takes, the film was shot in 18 days and edited in four, and the result is a brittle, unsettling portrayal of a man crumbing in the face of adversity. In German.


Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Another collaboration with maniacal actor Klaus Kinski, this one is based on the true story of Irishman Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald, a would-be rubber baron in early 20th century Peru whose dreams of building an opera house lead him to, among other things, attempt to haul a 320-ton steamship halfway up a mountain. Herzog, ever the pragmatist, recreated this by hauling a 320-ton steamship halfway up a mountain. Easily one of the most difficult and arduous shoots in the history of cinema, the result is a powerful portrait of obsession set against a backdrop of brutal colonial exploitation – a recurring theme in Herzog’s filmography. In German, Spanish and Asháninka.


Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)

Herzog’s first film to be made in Australia is a docudrama of sorts, combining professional actors with Indigenous activists who fought the Gove Land Rights case in the early ‘70s, the first Native Title case in Australian legal history. In Herzog’s film, the clash between a mining company and the Yolngu people who would very much prefer their lands not be dug up for uranium is dramatised in the exploits of Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence), the young exploratory geologist on point for the resource giant, who finds his sympathies aligning with the Yolngu. Indigenous activist, musician and painter Wandjuk Marika co-stars. In English.


Cobra Verde (1987)

Based on Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah (Chatwin himself is the subject of Herzog’s recent documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin) this fifth and final collaboration with Klaus Kinski sees the feral-eyed actor as the fictional Francisco Manoel da Silva, a failed Brazilian farmer who takes up a life of outlawry and slave-trading, becoming the feared bandit Cobra Verde – the Green Snake. This is Herzog’s anti-epic, inverting the assumptions inherent in stories of colonial heroism by centring a truly awful human being in the narrative, asking us to question our own understanding of European exploration and exploitation of the Global South. In German.


The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

If you imagine Herzog’s take on The Man Who Fell to Earth, you’re not far off. Brad Dourif is an extra-terrestrial who has fled to Earth after his home world has experienced a devastating ice age, only to find our own planet is not doing too well. What unfolds is a strange mix of documentary and near-mystical meditation on the importance and fragility of our natural world, as Dourif’s monologue links together NASA space photography, underwater footage, and interviews with scientists and mathematicians as Herzog attempts to portray both the beauty of the world and the perils it now faces.


These films, plus Herzog’s Signs of Life (1968, in German), Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970, in German) and Heart of Glass (1976, in German) are now streaming at SBS On Demand.

Episode 1 of Vice Guide to Film, the ultimate insider’s guide to today’s great directors, focuses on Werner Herzog. It is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.

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