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Retrospective: The Films Of Werner Herzog

by The Playlist Staff
April 29, 2011 5:21 AM
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“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.

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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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