Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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

“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007)
Herzog clears everything up pretty early on in "Encounters at the End of the World" -- this is no "March of the Penguins." Instead Herzog wonders in his film “Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?” The doc is also seemingly laden with Herzog's eternal search for 'ecstatic truth' in documentary form. Filmed with a tiny crew consisting only of Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, 'Encounters' was filmed almost entirely on the fly in a short seven weeks. The style of film making creates an observational diary style, rather than anything more typically narrative driven -- though Herzog’s deadpan narration helps to string it together. Though some of the most beautiful and poetic moments are found in the long underwater shots - some of the most fascinating moments emerge from the ramblings of the above ground inhabitants of the makeshift McMurdo Station. The depiction of the scientists -- each working hard in their respective fields, swinging between discovering new species and letting languages die, all in the name of progress at the furthermost tip of the world -- has a somewhat sinister undertone that our explorations may be hastening the end of the world, rather than the opposite. [C+]

"Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans" (2009)
We're not sure why this film became a cause celebre for hipsters (other than their predictable predilection for ironic performances), but if it had gone straight-to-video and wasn't directed by Werner Herzog would anyone have even given a shit? Yes, there are some distinctly Herzog-ian camera tricks, some out-and-out WTF moments that are amusing, and Nicolas Cage hasn't been this interesting in years (though when you've spent a decade making an endless string of crap anything with a gram of integrity is going to stand out). But the film itself is an uninteresting police procedural, that feels like a hastily cobbled together paycheck gig and it's so drastically uneven, the two hours it takes to watch it feels like an entire afternoon. Val Kilmer recently revealed his role was pretty much made up just so he could star in the film and hang out with Herzog and Cage and yeah, we could easily see that. And when the biggest talking point Herzog could muster in interviews for the film was that it was delivered on time and under budget and shot using a minimum of takes, that pretty much tells you all you need to know about Herzog's second-closest flirtation to date with the mainstream (after "Rescue Dawn"). [C-]

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (2009)
Mix David Lynch and Werner Herzog, and you’re bound to get something that peers straight into the darkness. As a result, this serio-comic horror picture, about a delusional man who acts out the seminal stage play “Oresteia” by murdering his mother with an antique saber, touches on some very unexpected notes. Herzog seems less interested in the gruesomeness and transparent evil at the heart of matters, instead focusing on how Mark Yavorsky’s actions created his own little sub-community, where the cops interact with a host of people who influenced Yavorsky’s earlier, unhinged days. While there can never be another Kinski, Michael Shannon steps up admirably in a performance guided by the intellectual curiosity of a demon, his flat facial features contrasted against possibly the most expressive brow in Hollywood, the character actor morphing into a force of nature before us. While he can be casual and deadly, it’s Shannon at his most relaxed that appears most fearsome, as if he is coiled up, and best prepared to strike. How he will strike is Herzog’s crafty, gleefully demented secret. [B-]

And Let's Not Forget: So, what have we omitted (purely for reasons of time, space and unavailability)? Well, there's his 1968 debut "Signs of Life," a WW2-set tale that established the interest in human madness that Herzog would follow for pretty much his entire career. There's the remarkably humane "Land of Silence and Darkness," a documentary following a group of deaf-blind people, followed, thirteen years later, by his next non-fiction work, "The Dark Glow of the Mountains," tracking an ambitious mountaineering expedition, which demonstrates that Herzog's studies of obsession and madness weren't going to be limited to his fictional work.

The same year brought "Where The Green Ants Dream," another vaguely anthropological tale starring "Mad Max" star Bruce Spence, which, sandwiched between the similarly themed, but superior "Fitzcarraldo" and "Cobra Verde," has drifted into obscurity. 1990's "Echoes From A Somber Empire" takes a no-frills documentary take on post-colonial subject matter, with Herzog taking a rare back seat to journalist Michael Goldsmith's recollections of his torture in the Central African Republic, while he returned to mountain-climbing the next year for the fictional "Scream of Stone," although Herzog has mostly disowned the finished product.

1993's "Bells From The Deep" is a rather fascinating look at Russian mysticism, and the legend of the lost city of Kitezh, while he turned his hand to Buddhism in "Wheel of Time" a decade later. Finally, 2005's sci-fi oddity 'The Wild Blue Yonder" is one of Herzog's less well received pictures of recent times, but does at least feature a captivating performance from Brad Dourif, who's become something of a regular for the director in the last twenty years. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Samantha Chater, Kevin Jagernauth & RP.

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


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates