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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

by The Playlist Staff
April 29, 2011 5:21 AM
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“Lessons of Darkness” (1992)
Running a brief 40 minutes long, Werner Herzog's burning-oilfields-in-Iraq doc is like a spiritual sequel to the 1974 doc "Fata Morgana," but whereas that documentary tends to drag, this largely silent tone-poem takes on a hypnotic and meditative quality with shot after shot of burning oilfields raging on and shooting towards the heavens, like a soot-black devil created from mankind's contempt and disregard for one another. Eco-advocates need only point to this doc to illustrate the hazards of war and global disasters. One amazing ecstatic truth moment is a rare voice over from Herzog, that posits because they are "consumed by madness," the firefighters relight one of the oil shafts they have put out. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, but don't try and tell that to Herr Herzog. [B-]

“Little Dieter Needs To Fly” (1997)
Before there was Christian Bale and "Rescue Dawn," there was "Little Dieter Needs To Fly," a documentary about Dieter Dengler, like Herzog, a German expat who migrated to the U.S. in post-decimated WW2 Deutchland, to fulfill his dreams of being of being a pilot. Joining the Airforce and eventually being allowed to fly by the time Vietnam rolled around, Dengler was shot down on his first mission over Laos, survived and was tortured and held hostage in a POW camp, before he miraculously escaped. His harrowing and seemingly impossible tale of survival is one and a million, and it's no wonder Herzog -- who clearly saw Dengler as a kindred spirit -- turned his experience into a feature length drama ten years later as a tribute to his friend who passed away in 2001, at the age of 62. A grueling tale of punishment and survival, some of which Herzog makes Dengler relive by taking him back to Laos and Thailand to recount his ordeal, 'Little Dieter' is also an absorbing and hopeful document about the will to live and the strength to endure despite insurmountable odds. [B+]

"My Best Fiend" (1999)
Two decades after the latter's death, the relationship between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, who starred in five of the director's film, still dominates any discussion of Herzog's career. They arguably brought the best out in each other professionally, but their relationship could most generously be described as 'fiery' -- in his autobiography, Kinski called the director "a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep." In his tribute to his frenemy, Herzog, naturally, claims that the literary description was partially his idea, while also admitting that he seriously plotted to kill the actor more than once. "My Best Fiend" is an oddity -- in places, perhaps among Herzog's most self-revelatory, moving work, as he pays tribute to a man he clearly misses greatly, even as he shows footage of Kinski ranting and raving to a terrifying degree. But it's also oddly self-serving -- a case of history being written by the winner, or at least by the last man left alive, it feels distinctly one-sided, and you sense that Kinski would be rather withering about the project. And then possibly try to set you on fire. At the same time, you're left in awe of the actor's talent, and his madness, which was undoubtedly Herzog's aim with the project. [B-]

“Wings of Hope” (2000)
A little-seen TV documentary from 2000, “Wings of Hope,” deserves just as much attention as any other Werner Herzog documentary and then some, though thematically its very similar to 1997’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Perpetually drawn to the call of the Amazonian jungle it seems, ‘Hope’ once more finds Herzog in the depths of the South American rain forest to document and re-tell an amazing and harrowing story of survival. This time it's recounting the tale of German woman Juliane Köpcke, the sole survivor of Peruvian flight LANSA Flight 508 that crashed in the amazon in 1971. Like 'Dieter,' Herzog takes Köpcke back to the jungles and the very spot where the plane crashed -- they even find remnants of the aircraft -- and she relives, at least in her mind, her painful ordeal. Traveling 10 days on foot without food or water, and with maggots living and festering within her cuts, Köpcke eventually came across a river that took her to three men who rescued her. Admittedly, it's very similar in tone to 'Dieter,' but had you not see the earlier film first you might be just as enthralled and in awe by the end. Herzog seems to bend truths here and there subtly soundtracked to transcendent pieces of music, but the moments are so damn profound and beautiful, its hard to argue with his techniques with such glorious results. [B+]

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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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