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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 29, 2011 at 5:21AM

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.
10

“Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972)
It’s never about the destination in a Herzog movie, but rather, the journey. And no descent into madness has been as meticulously captured on film quite like the mental breakdown that is the darkness of Lope de Aguirre. As the maniacal explorer hellbent on finding the lost city of gold, Klaus Kinski gives a performance powered almost entirely by the fever dreams of a maniac, as his unhinged conquistador leads his charges into almost-certain death, pursuing not riches, but the absolute power a man can hold in his fist. It was the first of several near-deadly collaborations between the memorable duo, though if you knew nothing of their volatile relationship, you would feel this film showcases their final team-up. Shot in dangerous real life locations in the Peruvian rainforest, “Aguirre” feels less like a movie and more like the experience of walking on a tightrope over jagged shards of glass, the push-and-pull between Herzog’s single-minded absorption into the elements (accompanied by a haunting Popol Vuh score) and Kinski’s terrifying all-timer of a performance creating a lightning-in-a-bottle greatness no other filmmaker-actor team could begin to accomplish. [A+]

“The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser” (1974)
It’s a story told fairly often -- that of the wild child found in the wilderness, soon domesticated -- but leave it to Werner Herzog to add a whole new spin. Never judgmental, Herzog’s approach is to illuminate his actors and characters in the same distanced, peculiar way. Kaspar Hauser, chained to the floor inside a cell, is soon lured outside, where the camera studies both this unhinged societal newcomer and the circus (both literal and figurative) in the same curious, awkward manner. As Hauser evolves, he becomes the least peculiar element of his own lifestyle, as Herzog’s focus makes Hauser’s tribulations seem mundane, and the activities of the “civilized” at a dance even more alienated. “The Enigma” seems to be Herzog’s fascination with how some standards are accepted if unexplained, and how some values that we instill on each other to appear “normal” are arbitrary and meaningless, with Kaspar at the center of what ends up being an auteur’s attempt to rationalize the irrational world that surrounds him. [A-]

“Heart of Glass” (1976)
By now, many of the director's bizarre methods and stories concerning his films may be more more widely known than the actual film itself. Such is the case with "Heart of Glass" -- set in 18th century Bavaria, a local community is thrown into disarray when the only glass blower holding the secret to producing their life-blood "ruby glass" passes away. The big story here is that Herzog, in order to get trance-like performances of a society declining into insanity, shot the entire film with most of the cast under hypnosis. But let's not get carried away with the bits of the process, let's focus on the end product: while it hasn't got the swiftest pacing, the entire film has a strange tenseness running through it, and the camera's fascination with the process of glass blowing is absorbing. There's also the insanely dark, moody cinematography -- it's sometimes feels like a terrifying alien planet, making Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" seem light by comparison. It's not a perfect film and definitely rough around the edges, but it, like most of his oeuvre, is a one-of-a-kind experience that can't be found anywhere else nor by anyone else. [B]

“Stroszek” (1977)
While the early work of Werner Herzog tends to be marked by bizarre outréness ("Even Dwarves Started Small," "Kaspar Hauser") or madmen-like performances (the Klaus Kinski years), the German filmmaker's "Stroszek," is a relatively quiet, nuanced and quite effective drama about a trio of Germans trying to make it in America and quickly learning the land of opportunity is not simply paved with gold for the picking. Herzog's beloved Bruno S. (the idiot savant star of "Kaspar Hauser"), stars as Bruno, a former mental patient who falls in with a prostitute who is being abused by her hirsute pimps. Also taking a beating for keeping company with her, Bruno, Eva (Eva Mattes) and an old man decide to set out for America to escape their woes, but soon foreclosures, bankruptcy and the realities of life come crashing in. A dark and pessimistic comment on the illusion of the American dream, "Stroszek," is still an empathetically-made chronicle of hopes and dreams dashed, and by the end, the comical absurdity of it all. [B+]

This article is related to: Feature, Werner Herzog, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Retrospective


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