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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

by The Playlist Staff
April 29, 2011 5:21 AM
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Few filmmakers have had as varied, or colorful, a career as Werner Herzog. A man that Francois Truffaut, who should know, once called "the most important film director alive," Herzog has been knocking out classics, in both the fictional and documentary worlds, for over 40 years now. Perhaps still best known for his tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog produced many of his very best films, the director's oeuvre goes far beyond those five, from minor classics to eye-opening documentaries, from classics of German cinema to a star-driven remake of an Abel Ferrera film.

The behind-the-scenes stories are almost as well known as his films. No other director would make a bet with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter finished and screened his proejct "Gates of Heaven," that he would eat his own shoe -- and yet Herzog not only made the bet, but followed through when Morris won: the act is captured in the documentary short, simply titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe." No other director, in the midst of a BBC interview, could be shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle, only to dismiss the incident, saying, in true Herzog-ian fashion, "It is not a significant bullet." And when Joaquin Phoenix overturned his car in Los Angeles in 2006, who would the only natural candidate to be the man who rescued the eccentric actor? Werner Herzog.

But it's his films that should always be at the forefront of the discussion, and, with Herzog's latest, the 3D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" hitting theaters today, and we've taken the opportunity to look back over his lengthy career. The new project might be far from his best work, but there's a reason that Herzog is more respected now than at any point in his career -- his body of work is one of the most eclectic and fascinating that any director could have. Check it out after the jump.

“Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970)
Leaving its mark on filmmakers like David Lynch, Crispin Glover and Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog's 1971 stark, black and white imprisonment allegory, starring a group of German dwarves is now heralded as an nightmarish, outsider masterpiece. But upon release it enraged critics who felt the director was exploiting his subjects, and depicted animal cruelty acts of cockfighting and monkey crucifixion (no, really) for what appeared to be no good reason. Coming off the heels of his successful debut film "Signs Of Life" (1968), the picture confounded and outraged those who had earlier lauded his inaugural work. Like a strange surrealist dream and yet part documentary in tone, "Even Dwarves Started Small" centers on a group of institutionalized little people, who rebel, attempt to destroy everything around them while the institute's director holds one of their lesser members hostage hoping for the insurgents to calm down. Perhaps the demented spirtitual sequel to Todd Browning's "Freaks," the enduring and bizarre picture is still one of Herzog's personal favorites, and he's said his well-regarded amazonian masterpiece "Aguirre: The Wrath Of God," is "like kindergarten in comparison." Featuring cannibalistic chickens, abused blind little people, and a camel that seems doomed to the indecision of kneeling or standing, 'Dwarves' may not be shocking by modern standards, but is still a haunting and powerful tale of nihilism, lunacy and rage. [B]

“Fata Morgana” (1971)
Constantly cited as a sister film to the much better "Lessons of Darkness," this doc on the Sahara Desert may only exist to make a case for the importance of the Herzog personality - something we may take for granted now, seeing as his unique presence is being abused in stale Internet memes as some kind of ameliorated Chuck Norris. "Fata Morgana" (which means mirage) has all the makings of a typically magical Herzog doc -- beautiful tracking shots enhanced by operatic music (plus the occasional Leonard Cohen song), weird moments with the subjects, a poetic narration -- but it's missing one key ingredient: the energy of the filmmaker exuded by his playful narration. Instead, we're taken by the voice of French-German film critic Lotte Eisner, who reads the director's musings as if she's in second grade and forced to read her homework in front of the class. This, along with the extended running time (though 79 minutes isn't long at all, he's been known to reign them in much earlier), makes the flick a bit of a chore to get through. Still, the shots are beautiful, and the insight into the nearby community is penetratingly human. It certainly doesn't hold up well compared to his later fare, but that doesn't mean it should be completely discredited. [C+]

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  • Frank Joseph Baran | May 3, 2011 7:06 AMReply

    I have to agree with Mr. Arkadin, but considering the significance of the subject matter, there is a definite obligation on Herzog's part to present the work in a straight forward, non partial manner. Luckily, in spite of this, his prints are littered all over the last third of the film. And to Herzog's credit, once he is able to ditch those stuffy archeologists, he enables the gravity of the art and the sheer scope of time to become tangible in a way the first portion simply could not manage.

  • James Bond | May 1, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Hi All,
    Werners documentaries are the best because of his ability to both wonder off topic and his interest in the people as much as the specific subject. White Diamond was a work of true genius.
    If you are in need of a Helium sniffing laugh try my Gasbags site for the worlds only lighter than air comedy web site.
    Regards JB

  • Mr. Arkadin (eating his delicious shoe) | April 30, 2011 1:26 AMReply

    I think you have to be in the right state of mind to fully experience and enjoy "Fata Morgana". I know I did back in the day...

    needless to say I love this guy and this is a nice little retrospective (RWF next, ja?)

  • Christopher Bell | April 29, 2011 12:08 PMReply

    I enjoy his previous three films, but they really don't hold a candle to his older work. Obviously.

    "Cave" was pretty great, methinks, though it did have several moments of PBS-inspired dryness... but I just chalked that up to the head-honchos allowing Herzog to do the film so long as he included a couple purely informative and straight forward scenes.

  • alphabet | April 29, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    enjoyed this piece - Herzog is a giant - cheers gang.

  • Erik McClanahan | April 29, 2011 10:39 AMReply

    I'm with Kevin on Bad Lieutenant. Not a fan. It feels really rushed in execution, and even though Cage is good fun in it, it's a huge mess.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | April 29, 2011 9:58 AMReply

    I'm down. It's one of the most overrated films of the last half decade and definitely overrated when it comes to Herzog's usually awesome body of work. I love the dude, but he's in danger of becoming a parody of himself. Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a snoozer and like note-by-note Herzog documentary.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | April 29, 2011 9:50 AMReply

    Nic Cage getting drunk and arrested in New Orleans in real life was more entertaining than "Bad Lieutenant."

  • Gabe Toro | April 29, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    I, too, am not onboard this Bad Lieutenant review.

  • Kevin Klawitter | April 29, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    " but if it had gone straight-to-video and wasn’t directed by Werner Herzog would anyone have even given a shit?"

    If it wasn't directed by Werner Herzog and went straight-to-video it wouldn't have even been close to the same movie.

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