For nearly 55 years, he’s chronicled the weird, the wild and the obsessed … and with two new films coming out in April (Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman and James Franco; and Salt and Fire, featuring Michael Shannon and a supervolcano) and having just taught a filmmaking seminar in Cuba, Werner Herzog is showing no signs of slowing down. Over the course of a long, storied career – either 70 or 78 movies, not even Herzog knows for sure – the German filmmaker has explored the notion of “how far is too far?” in both fictional features and way-stranger-than-fiction documentaries. In honor of Erik Hedegaard’s profile of Herzog, and for those who simply know the director as the guy who lent his Teutonic baritone to both foul-mouthed children’s books and The Simpsons, we’ve put together a quick Herzog 101 primer: 10 essential movies that exemplify the genius and the madness that characterizes what’s still one of the most impressive filmographies in modern cinematic history.
In which a group of little people break out of the institutional facility they live in, and proceed to take over their island habitat – yes, it is as weird as it sounds. It’s also a brilliant introduction to Herzog’s singular artistic sensibility, his ability to take allegories into some acid-trip territory and his facility for producing unforgettable imagery (once you’ve seen his cast stage a simian mock-crucifixation, you will never forget it), as well as a great preview of the shape of things to come. After several on-set injuries, the director promised to jump into a cacti patch (!) if the production proceeded sans accidents. The cast stayed unharmed until it wrapped – and Herzog kept his word.
Man and nature, the primal conflict in nearly all Herzog films, finds its fullest, fiercest expression in this tale of conquistadors, colonization and cracked minds. Following a 16th-century Spanish explorer (Klaus Kinski) as he leads a doomed expedition in search of the fabled El Dorado, the director’s breakthrough movie is filled with breathtaking visuals – that winding-through-the-Andes long shot! – and was the first of what would be a long, fruitful and volatile series of collaborations between the auteur and the actor. (The director would later threaten to shoot his leading man, and then himself, when Kinski declared he was leaving the movie midway through production.) And it features what is still the single best madness-and-monkeys climax ever.
Based on the true story of a young man who spent the first 17 years of his life never leaving his tiny room – and then became a public sensation when he finally ventured out into society – Herzog’s cracked biopic would have felt offbeat and intriguing enough on its own. Still, the director thought he’d make things even more interesting by casting a 41-year-old street musician credited as “Bruno S.” who had spent decades in and out of mental institutions and had never acted before. The result is one of the more odd and affecting performances in Herzog’s movies – part guileless, part gimmicky and all genuinely WTF. A bold experiment that paid off in a big way.
In telling the story of a man trying to discover the secret of a late glass-blower’s singular creations, Herzog knew he was looking for performances that suggested a slowly building epidemic of insanity in the film’s small-town locale. So he did what any inventive filmmaker would do: He hypnotized 99-percent of his cast … as in literally hypnotized them. (There’s a great book on the movie’s production that details the complete 411.) To say that this gamble resulted in one of Herzog’s more outside-the-box approaches to acting would be putting it mildly, but watch the far-out faces of the supporting players. You absolutely feel as if you’re witnessing a population held captive under someone’s spell.
Remake one of the most iconic horror movies of all time? Why not! Herzog’s tribute to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film – what the filmmaker has declared is his candidate for the greatest German film of all time – is an indelible take on the Dracula legend, with Klaus Kinski looking unsettlingly rat-like as the title character. The star fully embraces the lovelorn-bloodsucker aspects of the title character; Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy Harker, meanwhile, is the single most erotic take on Bram Stoker’s heroine to date.
Rubber baron Fitzcarraldo (Kinski, more crazed than ever) hires a crew to pull a steamship over a mountain in the jungles of Peru. When it came time to film the sequence, of course Herzog would do it for real – screw special effects! This is the one that most folks point to when they refer to the director as a “madman genius”; it’s one of the few movies to inspire a making-of documentary (Les Blank’s equally essential Burden of Dreams) that’s even more mindbogglingly nuts than the fever-dream film itself.
The limits of one man’s endurance is the theme that attracted Herzog to tell the true story of Dieter Dengler, a pilot taken prisoner and tortured by the Viet Cong. He’d return to the material with actors for a narrative-film take (Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as the P.O.W.); it’s the filmmaker’s verité take on the story that sticks with you, however, as he and the subject return to the scene of the crime decades later and hires locals to play Dengler’s captors. Stunning.
Who else but Herzog could have crafted such a wonderfully affectionate, totally backhanded valentine to the actor that gave him those memorably unhinged performances – and nearly killed him, figuratively and otherwise? This tribute to lifelong collaborator/frenemy Klaus Kinski doesn’t just explore their tempestuous relationship; it also delves into the star’s need for chaos to get his creative juices flowing. (That one-man-show footage is both hilarious and absolutely terrifying.) You will not find a better personal/professional unpacking of this fire-and-ice duo.
Activist Timothy Treadwell lived among the grizzlies of Alaska … until one clawed him to death in 2003. Arguably the peak in Herzog’s biographical documentaries, this intimate portrait is both a master class in nonfiction irony and an unexpectedly moving look at a well-intentioned and highly delusional animal lover. You could not ask for a better case study in what Herzog calls “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
You could argue that a huge portion of Herzog’s filmography, even his fictional entries, might qualify as “nature documentaries” in a broad sense; even something like 1992’s Lessons of Darkness, a narration-less, season-in-hell portrait of Kuwaiti’s burning oil fields, technically fits the category. This journey into France’s Chauvet Caves, home to paintings carbon-dated at 37,000 years old, is as close to a straightforward feature-length nature doc he’s made – and it’s one of the few movies shot in 3-D (a process Herzog had long dismissed as ridiculous) that takes complete advantage of the format. It’s filled with unbelievably beautiful imagery, a staggering number of the director’s parody-ready voiceover nuggets (‘It is as if the modern human soul had awakened here”) and a singular philosophical perspective on the orbiting rock we all live on. It’s truly unforgettable.