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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

“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]

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


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