Werner Herzog, retrospective

It was 2011 when we first attempted our own "Fitzcarraldo"-like endeavor in writing a comprehensive retrospective on the films of the notoriously prolific Werner Herzog. Since then, not only has he added six or so more titles to his filmography, he's been feverishly at work on the seventh—the much-anticipated "Queen of the Desert" which we were hoping to see pop up on a Fall festival announcement list, but no news there yet... However, to tide us all over, today Shout Factory are releasing a limited edition, highly covetable collection of sixteen Herzog films on Blu-ray, and that has given us the excuse to go back and relook, update and generally spruce up our retrospective (which includes all sixteen of those, incidentally). And that's something we're going to do pretty much any chance we get, being huge fans of the utterly unique, brazenly individual German-born director. 

Because who that loves not just film, but the lore of filmmaking, could fail to be a Herzog fan? The behind-the-scenes stories are almost as well known as his films. Has anyone else bet documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter finished "Gates of Heaven," he would eat his own shoe? (Herzog not only made the bet, but followed through when Morris won: the act is captured in the documentary short, simply titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe.") Has any other filmmaker, in the midst of a BBC interview, been shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle, only to dismiss the incident, saying famously "It is not a significant bullet." Did any other famous director happen to be on the scene when Joaquin Phoenix overturned his car in Los Angeles in 2006 to stop him from lighting a cigarette in the gas-soaked vehicle and pull him from the wreckage? Has any other Cannes Best Director ever attempted to place his entire cast under hypnosis? Of course not. Impossible, ridiculous things happen to Werner Herzog, and Werner Herzog makes impossible, ridiculous things happen. It is a source of endless excitement to witness.

While he's hardly slowing down now, even at 71, recently he has diversified somewhat, making a rare acting appearance as the baddie in Tom Cruise flick "Jack Reacher," lending his voice to the U.S. release of Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises," directing a 35-min PSA about the dangers of texting while driving, and using his profile as a documentarian to executive produce and passionately champion last year's groundbreaking "The Act of Killing." But more importantly he's still making films of his own: aside from "Queen of the Desert," he's attached to an upcoming adaptation of "Vernon God Little" and a TV show with the promisingly Herzogian title of "Hate in America," in addition to producing projects and, erm, sending himself up in animated penguin comedies. Here's our manful attempt to tilt at the windmill of the inimitable Herzog's ever-expanding back catalogue. Long may his prodigious productivity continue.

Signs of Life

"Signs of Life" (1968)
Hypnotized hens; a bloated dead donkey; incipient insanity in a remote, sunny locale; Herzog’s first feature is an early document of what have proven enduring fascinations—even the main character’s name, Stroszek, would be recycled later on. But at the same time you can see how it could have been misinterpreted as a statement of a different sort of intent by those critics who found his follow-up “Even Dwarfs Started Small” perversely shocking by contrast. “Signs of Life” starts almost in a realist tradition. Stemming from this story about a trio of German WWII soldiers absented from the theater of war and living out the duration instead in the idyllic surroundings of a Greek Island village, Herzog could have evolved into a Rossellini or even a Varda. But he evolved into a Herzog, and there’s a distinctly Teutonic doominess to the film, especially in its increasingly absurdist second half, as the men lapse into destructive boredom and Stroszek into insanity, that we can see in retrospect is a far better signal of what’s to come. Couched in glorious black and white, using an omniscient narrator, “Signs of Life” marks an astonishingly assured debut less about the madness of war than the internal, futile war that is madness, and Herzog’s odd respect for it as a valid response to the unknowable world at large. [B/B+]

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970)
Herzog's 1971 stark, black-and-white imprisonment allegory (which we included in our round up of Asylum Movies), starring a group of German dwarves, is now heralded as an nightmarish, outsider masterpiece. But upon release it enraged critics with the perceived exploitation of his subjects, and the animal cruelty (cockfighting and monkey crucifixion). Like a strange surrealist dream and yet documentary-style in tone, "Even Dwarves Started Small" centers on a group of institutionalized little people who rebel and attempt to destroy their prison, while the institute's director holds one of them hostage. Perhaps the demented spiritual sequel to Todd Browning's "Freaks," the enduring and bizarre picture is still one of Herzog's personal favorites, and he's said his better-regarded Amazonian masterpiece "Aguirre: The Wrath Of God," is "like kindergarten in comparison." Featuring cannibalistic chickens, abused, blind dwarves, and a camel that seems doomed to the indecision of kneeling or standing, 'Dwarves' contains some unforgettable imagery that seems transmitted direct from Herzog's nightmares to our own, and remains a haunting and powerful tale of nihilism, lunacy and rage. [B+]

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana” (1971)
Often retrospectively cited as a sister film to the much better "Lessons of Darkness," this doc on the Sahara Desert may only exist to make a case for the importance of the Herzog personality, something we may take for granted now, but back in the early '70s wasn't yet established. And "Fata Morgana" (which is a complex type of mirage) has all the hallmarks of what we'd come to know as a typically magical Herzog doc—beautiful tracking shots enhanced by operatic music (plus the occasional Leonard Cohen song), weird moments with the subjects, poetic voiceover—but it's missing one key ingredient: the energy the filmmaker can deliver with his own playful narration. Instead, it's the voice of French-German film critic Lotte Eisner, who reads the director's musings as if she's in second grade and forced to read her homework in front of the class. It makes the 79 minutes of the film seem a great deal longer, and renders it a bit of a chore to get through. Still, the shots are beautiful, and the insight into the nearby community is penetratingly human, even if now feels insignificant in comparison to his later heights in the format. [C+]

Land of SIlence and Darkness

"Land of Silence and Darkness" (1971)
Documentaries by Werner Herzog are often characterized by the filmmaker himself: his presence, his solemn, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, overly grave Germanic voiceover, and his occasionally manipulative editorializing. Regular documentaries, he often has stated, are for "accountants." And while not quite bookkeeping, in contrast to latter-era documentaries where the presence of Herr Herzog threatens to (enjoyably) overshadow the subject at hand, “Land of Silence and Darkness” is one of his most reserved and unaffected. Herzog makes no appearance and utters not a word. Instead, fittingly, this documentary about Fini Strabinger, a Bavarian woman who went deaf and blind at the age of 18 and then worked to help other women with similar disabilities, grants its handicapped subjects the utmost dignity it can by simply letting Fini and her friends tell their own stories. Effective and powerful in its simple and unembellished, verite presentation, Herzog illustrates a deep empathy for these marginalized people living lives of joy and richness despite the inability to see or hear. Unsentimental and yet moving, Herzog's portrait does not traffic in pity, sympathy or pedestrian notions of "celebrating" the unfortunate. The filmmaker simply treats Fini and her forgotten friends as regular documentary subjects and therefore vividly captures all the traits that color them as unique as you or I, while simultaneously exploring the nature of communication. [B/B+]

"Aguirre: the Wrath of God"
"Aguirre: the Wrath of God"

Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972)
It’s never about the destination in a Herzog movie, but rather the journey. And no descent into madness has been as meticulously captured on film as the mental breakdown that is the darkness of Lope de Aguirre. As the maniacal explorer hellbent on finding the lost city of gold, Klaus Kinski gives a performance powered almost entirely by the fever dreams of a maniac, as his unhinged conquistador leads his charges into almost-certain death, pursuing not riches, but the absolute megalomaniac power of man over men, and over nature. It was the first of several near-deadly collaborations between the inextricably paired actor and director, though if you knew nothing of their volatile relationship, you would imagine this film showcases their final team-up. Shot in dangerous real-life locations in the Peruvian rainforest, 'Aguirre' feels less like a movie and more like the experience of walking on a tightrope over jagged shards of glass, the push-and-pull between Herzog’s single-minded absorption by the elements (accompanied by a haunting Popol Vuh score) and Kinski’s terrifying all-timer of a performance creating a lightning-in-a-bottle greatness no other filmmaker-actor team could begin to accomplish. [A+]

Woodcarver Steiner

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner” (1974)
If you’re looking for 45 minutes of documentary perfection, you can find it on YouTube under the heading “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.” Herzog’s film about Swiss sky-flying champion Walter Steiner was made for German TV (who apparently mandated that Herzog appear on camera—something he had not tended to do to that point) but is as fine an exemplar of what at extraordinary documentarian Herzog can be as anything we’ve seen on the big screen. Steiner’s pre-eminence in his field (the film follows him winning his first gold medal in Planice in 1972) is remarkable, but it’s coupled to a prickly, aloof, serious personality—he is as much about rules and safety and fear for himself and other jumpers as he is a maverick who just wants to fly, baby. The running time is lean, but somehow every beat that Herzog finds; every snippet of interview; every beautiful, still-breathtaking slow motion shot of the skiers flying through the air, bodies almost horizontal, while the excellent Popol Vuh music plays; every piece to camera Herzog himself delivers—everything feels perfectly judged to deliver an instantly compelling snapshot portrait of exceptionalism. And it culminates in a story about Steiner’s childhood pet, a raven he raised himself, which is so apropos that it approaches transcendent and layers a very Herzogian, almost mythic resonance onto an already fascinating study. [A]