Over the past sixty years Werner Herzog’s extensive and elaborate filmography has explored both the grand and garish extremes of human experience, astonishing audiences all over the world with his breath-taking insight, innovation and industriousness.
Suitably then, Thomas von Steinaecker’s latest documentary, ‘Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer’, is an intimate, informative and involving tribute to an auteur of the highest order, an individual who transcended his origins in the New German Cinema Movement in the 1960s to become the internationally recognised director, screenwriter, documentarian, author, actor and cultural icon that he is today.
Indeed, as Wim Wenders, the esteemed German director of such classics as The American Friend, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, observes: ‘Herzog is a mythological character. A lonesome rider’.
Both his fictional and factual works frequently pursue protagonists who are driven by destiny, whatever the cost to themselves or to those around them, often along an uncertain or even irrational timeline, as well as almost always against a backdrop of Nature’s savage indifference.
His overarching narrative mission as a storyteller is not necessarily to reach a specific goal or resolution however; rather it is to witness and capture images along the way which human beings like you and me may never have encountered before. In turn, over the duration of a film or maybe even over the duration of a lifetime, these visions will eventually cohere with our perceptions, reflections and imaginations to form an unforgettable ecstasy of illumination.
The trail of conquistadors and tribal slaves snaking down a Peruvian mountainside at the beginning of Aguirre, Wrath of God from 1972; the 320 ton steamboat literally being dragged across dry land by way of primitive levers and pulleys during the production of Fitzcarraldo in 1981; the solitary penguin who is compelled to abandon its colony in Antarctica and wander 5000 miles to certain death in Encounters at the End of The World from 2007.
As the late US film critic, Roger Ebert, reminded us, Werner Herzog ‘has never created a single film that is compromised … or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular’.
While von Steinaecker’s documentary is peppered with A-list personalities such as Christian Bale, Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson proffering their praises, accompanied by various clips from previous documentaries such as Burden of Dreams from 1982 and My Best Fiend from 1999 to provide historical context, it is the up close and personal biographical contributions which make you lean forward. Original interviews with Herzog himself as well as with his brothers, Tilbert and Lucki, together with his former wife, Martje Grohmann, and his current wife, Lena, are fresh, genuine and quite thrilling cinephilic moments.
Abandoned by their father, we learn of the Bavarian village of Sachrang where Herzog and his brothers grew up in poverty during the 1950s and early 60s, their highly educated mother only able to afford a single loaf of bread between the four of them each week.
In turn, we follow them as they eventually move to find employment opportunities in the city of Munich and here, Tilbert tell us, Herzog first worked as a welder at a steel factory, investing his wages in producing short films such as Last Words and Precautions Against Fanatics.
Winning 10,000 German marks in a screenplay competition however was what truly set Herzog on his way since, in 1968, it provided him at the age of 25 with the financial means to write, direct and release his first feature, Signs of Life.
The film, shot by his long-standing cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, centres on three German soldiers who lose their minds on the Greek island of Kos during World War II. It caught the attention of the influential German film historian, Lotte Eisner, who, after informing her close friend, Fritz Lang, of its significance, introduced it to an array of prominent film critics in France. As a result, Signs of Life went on to win the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 18th Berlin International Film Festival.
Arguably, Werner Herzog’s subsequent fictional work enjoyed its vertex over the 1970s and 80s with a succession of five films which forced Hollywood, and the international cultural intelligentsia at large, to critically countenance previously unthinkable levels of moviemaking which were altogether historic, operatic, raw and real. Furthermore, such a death-defying approach to cinema’s mechanics and aesthetics was also illumined incredibly, as well as overshadowed deeply, by Herzog’s singular collaboration with the incendiary German film and theatre actor, Klaus Kinski.
The star of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde was diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder in 1950, and he attempted suicide twice in 1955. It is of little surprise then that, during lengthy soul-sapping shoots in the punishing jungles of Peru, Ghana, Brazil and Columbia, Kinski would often explode with preternatural fury, physically destroying set designs, verbally abusing crew members, threatening their livelihoods while also promising, in the same breath, to murder his director.
As Thomas Mauch comments, Kinski, who died of a sudden heart attack in 1991 at the age of 65, ‘was only interested in himself. He only cared about creating as much turmoil as he could. He did that to make every gesture seem god-like.’
Herzog finally turned his back on Germany in 1996 and moved to Los Angeles. His brother, Lucki, who is also his producer, informs us that this was because not only were his sibling’s films no longer being funded but ‘he was done with the whole system, with all the bureaucracy behind it, with all the smug narrow-mindedness.’
Fortunately, taking flight in such a manner carried the filmmaker to a continent which coursed with creativity, collaboration and conviction and, as a result, his filmmaking career became revitalised as his work ethic and productivity increased at a staggering rate.
That is to say, over the last 27 years Werner Herzog has directed eight original feature films, including Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage; seventeen documentary features, such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams; an eight episode mini-series about Death Row; and, if this wasn’t enough, he has also acted in a number of high-profile feature films and television shows like Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher, The Simpsons and, more recently, The Mandalorian.
And, let us not forget, that he has magically found the time, energy, focus and finance to direct nineteen operas as well.
Ultimately, Werner Herzog is a polymathic phenomenon, a quasi-religious visionary borne out of the 20th century who sings and sweats cinema, literature, theatre and opera and who, at 81 years of age, is still showing no signs of stopping. Consequently, the only real criticism one can direct towards von Steinaecker’s superbly orchestrated documentary is that, with a running time of 90 minutes, it simply isn’t long enough.
‘Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer’ will be available to rent or purchase on a multitude of digital platforms in the US and Canada from December 5th 2023, and in the UK from January 19th 2024. This review originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.
Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).
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