Winter 2015

In Search of the Miraculous

For almost half a century, Werner Herzog has been circling the globe capturing extraordinary images for both documentaries and features. Look closely and you can see the wonder of it all.


DGA QuarterlyWerner Herzog Encounters End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World (2007), (Photo: Think Film/Courtesy Everett Collection)

“Seemingly empty moments have a strange secret beauty,” says Werner Herzog on the soundtrack of his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, as the screen shows just such a moment: an image of tall reeds swaying, on a hillside in the middle of nowhere. “Sometimes,” he continues, “images themselves develop their own life, their own mysterious stardom.” The image of the reeds, like most of the footage in Grizzly Man, was shot by the film’s subject, Timothy Treadwell, an odd sort of self-styled environmentalist who lived among bears in the wild for 13 Alaskan summers; Herzog came upon the story after Treadwell’s death in 2003. But it’s the kind of image—strange, beautiful, mysterious—that has been starring in Herzog movies for nearly half a century. He’s roamed the world in search of just such radiantly empty moments, and has found more than a few all by himself: a line of people winding down a narrow mountain trail in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); the long grass waving in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974); the smoldering volcano of La Soufrière (1977); the endless Antarctic landscapes of Encounters at the End of the World (2007), in which demented penguins wander.

The narrative features that Herzog made in the 1970s and 1980s established his reputation, and they’re at the core of Shout! Factory’s recent Blu-ray boxed set Herzog: The Collection; in addition to Aguirre and Kaspar Hauser, the set includes Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Heart of Glass (1976), Stroszek (1977), Woyzeck (1979), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), and Cobra Verde (1987). Also in the collection are half a dozen documentaries of varying lengths, the strongest of which is the early Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), about people who are both deaf and blind. A couple of his best nonfiction films of the period, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974) and La Soufrière, are missing but are available on DVD elsewhere. The Internet Movie Database credits him as the director of 67 films; anyone setting out to watch every Herzog movie would be in for something of an ordeal—which, given the customary subject matter of his films, seems entirely appropriate.

DGA Quarterly Werner Herzog The Enigma Kaspar Hauser
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), (Photo: Werner Herzog Archive-Deutsche Kinemathek)

Herzog has the temperament of an explorer: He claims to be the only filmmaker to have shot on every continent. And he favors demanding, even grueling, environments—jungles, deserts, outbacks, frozen wastes—in which the denizens of his films, whether actors or real people, are put to the test. (The obsessives, generally, are the ones who come out best.) In the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot named Dieter Dengler goes back to the Laotian jungle in which he was held captive after being shot down in the early days of the Vietnam War. Nearly a decade later, Herzog revisited the story himself for the fictional narrative Rescue Dawn (2006), and that film is, if anything, even more harrowing than Dengler’s first-person account. What’s remarkable in Herzog’s dramatic features is how little they rely on technical wizardry. When something physically arduous is happening on the screen, he keeps the cameras rolling, to preserve the integrity of the action. In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale seems to be going through everything the real Dieter Dengler did; in Invincible (2001), about pre-Nazi-era Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart, Herzog cast an actual weightlifter (Jouko Ahola) and shot his painful-looking feats without cuts.

Herzog is, that is to say, an unusually straightforward director. His movie magic is of the most basic sort; like the filmmakers of the silent era, he seeks out people and places that haven’t been seen before and shoots them as plainly as he can. He will, on occasion, deploy a special effect or two to enhance reality. The death-defying ski jumps in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner are filmed at varying speeds, including extreme slow motion, which generates first awe and then a kind of contemplation in the viewer: The technique deepens and complicates our natural wonder at what we’re seeing. And in Woyzeck, Herzog’s bracing adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished early 19th-century drama, he uses speeded-up motion in the credit sequence, which establishes the title character’s hectic state of mind, and slow motion for the drama’s tragic climax, in which Franz Woyzeck, deranged by stress and jealousy, murders his lover, stabbing her repeatedly, each blow seeming to last an eternity. For a jagged poetic drama like Woyzeck, the effects feel right, especially since the film is otherwise shot rather serenely, in long, fluid takes. (Herzog says he edited the picture in five days.)

DGA Quarterly Werner Herzog Cave Forgotten Dreams
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), (Photo: Werner Herzog Archive-Deutsche Kinemathek)

For the most part, though, his technique is unfussy—you could almost call it innocent. His editing is functional, not flashy. He rarely uses anything other than a straight cut; intricate crosscutting doesn’t interest him at all. In Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, an entertaining new book of conversations between Herzog and Paul Cronin, the director tells a story about his reaction to the producers’ concerns that he wasn’t shooting enough coverage on Rescue Dawn: “I took my assistant aside and asked, ‘What do they mean by coverage? I have insurance coverage for my car, but coverage when making a film?’ They wanted me to get a range of intermediate shots, close-ups, and reverse angles, all for safety’s sake. But I have always filmed only what I need for the screen, and nothing else. When you do open-heart surgery, you don’t go for the appendix or toenails; you go straight for the beating heart.”

This is, after all, a filmmaker who made his actors and crew haul a rather large riverboat up a steep hill for a scene in Fitzcarraldo. (A moment of insanity immortalized in Les Blank’s brilliant 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams.) Herzog isn’t a man to do anything “for safety’s sake.” For La Soufrière, he took a tiny crew to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where a volcano was predicted to erupt. The streets and the countryside are deserted, except for animals and a handful of extreme fatalists, whom Herzog interviews, when he’s not running away from the massive plumes of smoke emanating from the angry mountain. The volcano does not erupt. The director—narrating, as always, in his soft, intense, Bavarian-accented voice—sounds a little disappointed.

It’s in documentaries like La Soufrière that Herzog seems happiest, most fully engaged in his work. Part of it, clearly, is the risk. He even tries to inject some of his daredevil aesthetic of filmmaking into his dramatic features, by casting actors who are not, let’s say, always in full control of their effects, like the peculiar Bruno S. in Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, or the professionally alarming Klaus Kinski, with whom he made five films; eight years after Kinski’s death, Herzog made a movie, My Best Fiend (1999), about their explosive collaboration. For Heart of Glass he hypnotized virtually the entire cast, just to see what effect it would have on their performances. What this idiosyncratic approach to acting suggests is that Herzog is at heart more a documentary filmmaker than a dramatic artist—he’s more concerned with discovering things than with shaping them.

DGA Quarterly Werner Herzog Aguirre
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), (Photo: Werner Herzog Archive-Deutsche Kinemathek)

That preference does, at times, impart an eerie shimmer of almost-reality to his fiction films: It works best in Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, Woyzeck, and his elegant, unsettling Nosferatu. In later movies like Invincible and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009), the narrative and dramatic machinery seems like a weight, a burdensome piece of equipment that keeps him from going where he wants to go. His documentaries feel freer, lighter, more accommodating of the kind of wonder he’s always looking for.

And in that form, he has been doing some of the best work of his career in the past decade. Grizzly Man, with its found footage, is less about Timothy Treadwell the misguided eco-warrior than it is about Treadwell as a filmmaker with whom Herzog feels a weird kinship—taking a camera to forsaken places and recording what he sees is pretty much Herzog’s whole idea of cinema. The movie—which won Herzog a DGA Award in 2006—isn’t a self-portrait, exactly, but perhaps the portrait of a shadow self, of the dying-for-your-art sort of filmmaker he has sometimes aspired to be. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is about art, too—the extraordinary 32,000-year-old cave paintings discovered in the Ardèche region of France in 1994. “Of all my films,” Herzog says in A Guide for the Perplexed, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams probably comes closest to the definition of a documentary as we are accustomed to using the word. It was my duty to document as clearly as possible the work of people who lived 32,000 years ago.” That he does—in 3-D, because the paintings use the contours and textures of the rocky, uneven walls—with admirable plainness, just allowing the camera to caress the art in the dim, flickering light. The effect is rapturous.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams was shot, like Herzog’s early documentaries, with a minimal crew, and so, too, was his Encounters at the End of the World, which, although not a meditation on art or film, might be seen as an illustration of its maker’s ideas about landscape in cinema. He has said of Aguirre: “I imagined the atmosphere with a strange precision, and when I arrived in the jungle for the first time, everything was exactly as I had pictured it. It was as if the landscapes had no choice; they had to fit my imagination and submit themselves to my idea of what they should look like.” The bleak, bright vistas of Antarctica have that look, as if they matched something deep in the director’s imagination. They have the kind of beautiful emptiness Werner Herzog has spent his life chasing.

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A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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