If Germany doesn't have a national holiday in place to commemorate Werner Herzog's birth (September 5, 1942), then they really should consider it. The unpredictable auteur, renowned for not only being part of the German New Wave and his brilliantly eclectic selection of documentaries, but also a propensity for the oddball and inexplicable, has now taken a major Hollywood acting role. The 69-year-old, whose offbeat narrative voice has become a trademark (Hugo Weaving was doing a fairly good Herzog in the recent Captain America), will play a villain opposite Tom Cruise, in the big budget Hollywood adaptation One Shot.
Herzog plays The Zec (short for executive) in an adaptation of Lee Child's highly successful Jack Reacher series that will be adapted and directed by screenwriter turned filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie). The action thriller, which co-stars Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall, had previously drawn attention because fans of the Reacher novels were aghast that the diminutive Cruise was playing a former soldier variously described as being six foot five tall and fearsomely proportioned. Consider that kerfuffle trumped.
Herzog has done the odd piece of acting over the years, most recently guest voicing on The Simpsons, but the idea of him mixing it up with Cruise is a delicious prospect for dedicated moviegoers. He's also featured, to varying degrees, in his own documentaries, although the definitive screen portrait of Herzog remains Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, the infamous chronicle of Herzog's attempt to make 1982's Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon. (Main problems: the remote jungle setting, Klaus Kinski's presence, Herzog's determination.)
Of course, there may well be method to McQuarrie's madness. There is a slender but vital history of directors acting for their fellow filmmakers: think of John Huston as the jovial monster behind the machinations of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, a blithely disdainful Martin Scorsese in Robert Redford's Quiz Show, or Erich von Stroheim, 13 years apart, in Jean Renoir's magisterial Le Grande Illusion and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard; for good measure that's David Cronenberg putting a hired hit on Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant's To Die For.
Some directors were often better in front of the camera than behind, such as Sidney Pollack, while others shouldn't be allowed even a cameo (see: Tarantino, Quentin). Still, there's something fascinating about watching someone used to being unseen and all-powerful act for the camera. And in the case of Herzog, it's hard to believe that he'll settle for merely being the standard issue bad guy. If the producers will just let him make One Shot's on set promotional documentary, then it couldn't get any better.