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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

by The Playlist Staff
April 29, 2011 5:21 AM
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“Invincible” (2001)
The truth matters not to Werner Herzog, who wisely pursues the innate truths of our humanity through celluloid, even when dealing with fairly concrete stories. An example of this is the re-invention of the Jewish Samson, Zishe Breitbart, not as a significant cultural icon of the 1920’s but instead a significant player in the growing tensions between the Jewish and the Nazi Party, bumping the timeline of Breitbart’s death closer to the Holocaust. Despite a fairly superficial change, what this does is illuminate both Herzog’s notion that Breitbart, a towering Polish strongman, was a walking piece of art, and the idea that the Nazis were killing thousands but also destroying ideas. “Invincible” features several digressions as the notably-fickle Herzog grows bored with his subject matter, including constant detours into the life of Jewish cabaret owner Hanussen (an understated Tim Roth), and a brief focus on the local sea life that catches Breitbart’s fancy. We are nothing if not aquatic creatures, Herzog seems to argue, unable to control our fate. [A-]

"The White Diamond" (2004)
Werner Herzog's most dangerous films — like, man confronting a bear dangerous, or Nic Cage suffocating old women dangerous — tend to gather the biggest crowds, but really, it's Herzog's more introspective queries on man's complicated relationship with nature that linger in our consciousness longest. His endearing and subtlety strange arctic travelogue, "Encounters at the End of the World," is one good example, and "The White Diamond," an intoxicatingly gorgeous journey through the rainforest of Guyana by way of Jungle Airship, might be the best of his docs in the 00s. It pairs its National Geographic-ready wildlife profile with an achingly personal character study; in this case, Herzog's madman fighting the odds is Dr. Graham Dorrington, an aviation engineer who embarks on a trip to Guyana's Kaieteur Falls to study the rainforest's canopy. In Dorrington's ambition (modest compared to other Herzog protags), the filmmaker evokes his classic theme of man's struggle to achieve symbiosis with nature. But there's a sorrowful lilt (evidenced in the lingering memory of a passed away friend) that's somewhat rare in Herzog's oeuvre. His cinematography, too, is imbued with a shimmering beauty appropriate for this often overlooked gem in the canon of one of our most versatile filmmakers. [A]

"Grizzly Man" (2005)
Werner Herzog's perverse, funny, deeply-touching documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a granola-eating, press-loving nature freak who wants to be absorbed, "Jungle Book"-style, into a family of grizzly bears. While this could be the set up for some bizarre, but heartwarming, nature doc, "Grizzly Man" is really a whacked-out tragedy. With Werner Herzog's liberal narration, the movie becomes less about a man consumed with his love of nature (and bears), but more a psychological profile of a man so unwell he would kill himself (and someone he loved) through a misguided sense of purpose. In this context, a brief scene with David Letterman interviewing Treadwell and joking that one day he'll be eaten by a bear becomes a haunting prophecy. [A-]

“Rescue Dawn” (2007)
Christian Bale’s emaciated turn in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” signaled a turning point for the skilled actor, but also raised questions on the brutality of his method acting. Herzog must have identified a kinship early on, since he cast Bale as Dieter Dengler in the narrative recreation of a topic he’d broached before with the real Mr. Dengler in 1997’s “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”. The resulting film is an occasional slog but in depicting the capture of Dengler after being shot-down and the POW relations, Herzog finds a sweet spot, once again exploring how men function under extreme conditions. Bale hits all of his marks, but it's Steve Zahn (along with, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Davies) who resonates, delivering a complete about-face from his frequent doofus sidekick roles, to reveal Duane W. Martin, an emotionally fraught, but kind-hearted, man scheming for freedom alongside Bale. [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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