Werner Herzog: The Mind of a Visionary Genius

In 1980, Munich-born filmmaker Werner Herzog ate parts of his own shoe.

Why then, you may ask, may one proclaim this man as a visionary genius? Surely he is crazy in the coconut!!

Well, see the shoe thing was actually part of a promise he made to the documentarian Errol Morris a few years earlier in relation to his documentary on dead pets and their owners, Gates of Heaven, where he exclaimed, in no uncertain terms that he would eat his shoe if the documentary ended up being funded. Morris completed the project with funding and true to his word, Herzog flew over from Germany to the US and popped some garlic and Tabasco sauce into his old boot, boiled it and had a go at consuming it. The surreal hilarity was captured by Les Blank in a 20 minute documentary simply titled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The whole exercise appeared to be a gesture to promote Morris’s excellent film but also to encourage other would-be filmmakers to realise their dreams of filming stories about the world. You could also interpret it as a sort of homage to Charlie Chaplin eating his boots in The Gold Rush, or maybe just an indication of Herzog’s own hilarious eccentricities.

All that from this, you may scream – he ate his fucking shoe, didn’t he?!! Yes, but with Herzog, there is so much more to his raison d’etre. He is a very encaptivating individual and, in my mind at least, a magnificent filmmaker. Here I will have a little look back at his outstanding back catalogue, stemming from the late 1960s right up to 2016, in order to show you what the hell I am raving about.

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A young Herzog speaking with Peter Brogle on the set of Signs of Life

Herzog’s first feature film was Signs of Life, made in 1968 (he made several shorts before that). The film roughly accounts for a German soldier’s descent into madness, while stationed on the Greek island of Kos. The island was significant for Herzog as his grandfather Rudolf, who was a respected archaeologist, worked there for a long time translating ancient Greek stone engravings into German. The stones feature in the film too. Indeed the link with the past is evident in many of Herzog’s subsequent films, not least in his spectacular South American-based masterpieces: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1971) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) but also in the recent documentary on prehistoric rock paintings at Chauvet Cave in the south of France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). As an archaeologist and a film lover, I don’t believe there has been another film that has expressed such a sentiment of respect and admiration for the profession as remarkably as this documentary has. For the layperson, it is probably the closest look that can be afforded of extremely rare and ancient human art (Chauvet is closed to the public). It is an absolutely unforgettable experience.

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Upper Paleolithic paintings from Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (c. 30,000 BP)

His films and documentaries have an unavoidable fixation with humanity too, exploring social and cultural anthropological themes with endlessly creative insight. In Happy People, A Year in the Taiga (2010), Herzog provides a narrative to Dmitry Vasyukov’s brilliantly captured footage of everyday life in the remotest of remote places in Siberia – the native Ket people of the Taiga are featured heartbreakingly speaking about their lives in the modern world. Back in 1984, Herzog also travelled to the Northern Territory in Australia to make his first English language feature film, Where the Green Ants Dream – the plot here focused on Aboriginal people who opposed work by a mining company on their ancestral lands, which they believed would be catastrophic for all humanity if destroyed (I am all too familiar with this theme). This superb film was based on an actual land rights case from Australia in the early 1970s where it was found that an Aboriginal group could not prevent mining on their traditional lands based on the fact that ‘native entitlement to land’ was not law under white settlement (incidentally, the Mabo case changed all this in 1993).

You also have the eerie documentary Lessons of Darkness (1992), where Herzog heads to Kuwait after the Gulf War to witness not only the destruction to life left in its wake but also to provide a snapshot of the human effort in attempting to clean it up. Like in his earlier effort from 1972 Fata Morgana, which concerns mirages in the Sahara, Herzog observes the landscape and the characters who inhabit it from the perspective of an alien. The scene where he narrates his bemusement in attempting to understand why a person in strange apparel is frantically gesturing to him from afar, while the oilfields burn furiously in the background is hilariously comic as well as being quite profound (one of the workers is basically telling the crew to get the fuck out of there because it is way too dangerous!). The apocalyptic and ambiguous feel to Lessons of Darkness form a common thread of fatalism combined with romanticism in Herzog’s filmography. Humanity is infinitely strange to him and its meaning is always out of his reach but does he not have a wonderful enthusiasm in exploring it?

Encounters at the End of the World (2007) is my favourite Herzog documentary in that it showcases all of the mans’ eccentricities and fascinations of life in this world – off he goes with a small documentary crew to one of the last frontiers on the planet, the Antarctica, equipped with only a few weird questions and an intent not to make another film about penguins. He asks, in his gentle German accent:

‘why is that human beings put on masks and feathers to conceal their identity?’ and ‘why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilise inferior creatures – he could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset?’

It would take much more than this blog post to attempt an alignment between these questions and the subsequent content of the film (basically, I have no idea how they are related). The scientists, linguists and general personnel he observes and interviews, and the manner in which he does it, is extraordinarily fascinating – believe me, this is not just another Discovery Channel/National Geographic wankathon about nature! The encounters he has with animals are also incredible to watch – singing seals and deranged penguins – as are the surreal and haunting scenes filmed under the ice and in the caves to a background choir of soul-stirring singers.

While I am speaking about animals, I think there is sometimes an inescapable connection between his most emotive moments and creatures that are other than human. Take for example, the bizarre iguana scene in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). What is going on here, you may ask? Well, it would appear that Nicolas Cage is off his rocker on some sort of narcotic and is convinced there are iguanas on the table beside him whilst he is conducting a stakeout – the scene utilises a small handheld camera and Johnny Adams’ ‘Please Release Me’ in an attempt to capture Cage’s leave of senses and it works gloriously. Bad Lieutenant is a fairly good, off-kilter Hollywood crime drama – something that Herzog had never attempted before nor has since, but ever the man of endless possibility.

Then rewind back to his brilliant and bizarre treatise on human struggle and mortality in Stroszek (1977) – specifically to that famous end scene with the dancing chicken. It is locked in a box scratching at the surface obsessively to the sound of a repetitive jingle. The heart of Stroszek is in the enigma of the lead character Bruno S. – a recently released convict, alcoholic, musician, dreamer, recluse and lyrical genius (probably one of the most authentic experiences in acting I ever witnessed – he essentially is himself throughout the film). He, like the chicken, is a tortured soul but nevertheless continues to scratch at the surface of existence in a quest to find…what, exactly, no one can tell. Fatalistic? Possibly, but always searching and providing some deep thought along the way.

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Wilhelm von Homburg, Clemens Scheitz and Bruno S. in Stroszek

The equally bizarre Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is a film about an uprising of dwarfs who are treated sub-humanly by their own dwarf boss on some remote island, you cannot get a more bonkers pitch as this:

‘…The dwarfs gleefully break windows and dishes, abandon a running truck to drive itself in circles, engineer food fights and cock fights, set fire to pots of flowers, kill a large pig, torment some blind dwarfs, and perform a mock crucifixion of a monkey’ (from Wikipedia).

It is a fascinating and disturbing film for its amateur yet authentic feel as well as its fairly relatable story of subjugation and rebellion. Speaking of chickens though, I think there needs to be special mention made of the ones featured in this film. There is a scene where the camera moves its focus onto a group of free-range chooks, one of which is running around with a dead mouse in its beak trying to keep it from the others. We then see a dead chicken and another chicken comes along to peck at it. A later scene shows the chickens being utilised, troublingly, as missiles in the melee that occurs between the master dwarf and the rebels. The recurring imagery of the domesticated chickens is possibly an indication of the entangled cruelty that occurs when humans become interested in more pressing situations than animal husbandry. Or perhaps they are more inconsequential than that. Either way, Herzog is never too obvious is he?

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Some of the actors (including Helmut Doring at front centre) on the set of Even Dwarfs Started Small

In fairness, he always casts his lens wide and he has dealt with a wide range of other material in his films. In Grizzly Man for example (again with the animals), a serious, true story of a man’s death at the paws of a grizzly bear in Alaska is one that emotes the viewer indelibly, not only for the sadness that his death prompts in his friends but also in the inevitability of horror that awaits him due to his stupidity in forming a pet-to-man relationship with dangerous creatures. Herzog, however, finds incredible natural beauty in the footage that the man (his name is Timothy Treadwell) captures in his excursions to the wilderness. One such beautiful interlude stars a cheeky and curious fox which, over time, befriends Treadwell so much to a point that it plays with him in his tent. The tragic conclusion spoils all this as you can imagine.

Then you have The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser from 1974, which translates as ‘every man for himself and God against them all’ from its German title. Here, Herzog marvellously turns moving pictures into pieces of fine art while simultaneously embracing the astonishing circumstances behind an early 19th Century true story. It is about a man (played by the afore-mentioned Bruno S.) who is locked away from the outside world for most of his life only to be released by his cruel and mysterious master, who abandons him at the centre of a small German town early one morning. The film follows his journey from anthropological wonder and circus freak into social conformity. Not unlike David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, it is deeply heartbreaking and hugely emotional, but without showing any signs of melodrama or over-sentiment.

Whereas Herzog’s collaborations with Bruno S. are extraordinary to watch, his on- and off-screen relationship with the late Klaus Kinski is something, let’s say a bit more than just that. By now, the relationship has been mythologised beyond any form of truth but, as the documentary My Best Fiend clarifies that, at the end of the day both men were close collaborators over a long period of time and their occasional tempestuous run-ins were a result of their variant personalities and the high-pressure business they functioned in – not rocket science really. Herzog does say that every grey hair on his head he calls Kinski and Kinski did essentially claim in his autobiography that Herzog was an arrogant, self-centred megalomaniac but I cannot help but recognise all of this as a public spectacle where both men were willingly complicit in fabricating.

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Kinski ‘playfully’ threatens Herzog with a knife on the set of Cobra Verde

Their work together, nevertheless, is outstanding from the first minute to the last – starting with Aguirre in 1971, through the 70s and 80s with Woyzeck, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Fitzcarraldo and ending with Cobra Verde in 1987. The lunacy and utter intensity that Kinski inhabited in every one of these roles can be attributed to Herzog’s diligence as well, indeed, as Kinski’s own magnitude for acting. The documentaries My Best Fiend (by Herzog himself in 1999) and Burden of Dreams (by Les Blank in 1982) outline a lot of the legendary background stories to the filming of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Not that I like to see real mental and emotional human breakdowns but the moments where Kinski loses it and pushes Herzog, as well as his crew, to their outer sanctums of sanity are terrifying and fascinating in equal measure and yes, entertaining too I guess. Both of these Amazon jungle films were huge undertakings, financially and emotionally for all who were involved and not dissimilar to Apocalypse Now, they were projects that had the potential to be more sellable in their makings rather than in their final products. I mean, move a boat across a mountain sans-CGI? Total madness!

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Kinski’s ‘what have I done?’ moment in Fitzcarraldo

If there was one Herzog film to watch above all else, I would have to recommend Aguirre: The Wrath of God – a monumental parable about a failed conquistador quest for gold in the Amazon jungles in 1560. Let’s just say that it has none of the swashbuckling swords and spears action adventures that Hollywood offers in their never-changing ‘historical’ epics. The surreal and existential feel is strong in this one and you can probably put a lot of this down to the sublime out-there soundtrack from krautrock band Popul Vuh. The opening sequence, one of the most amazing things I have ever seen on film, really sums it all up. In fact it probably sums Herzog up in general – he has since claimed that seeing this scene filmed was the moment when he realised his destiny. Now that’s profound. Please take a moment to savour:

So to conclude, I think Herzog’s work is deeply existential, peppered with a slight oddball comedy and a definitive pragmatism about our place in the universe. Now in his seventies, Herzog appears to have evened out in his search for the meaning of life but he has not lost his passion and enthusiasm for film making and continues to push open the gates of possibilities – documentaries Lo and Behold and Into the Inferno, and feature film Salt and Fire were all released last year. He also provides an online masterclass in filmmaking for those who are interested. He is a man who still possesses that combo perspective of self-deprecation and open-mindedness about humanity and environmentalism, and I doubt he will ever change. Listen to his interview with Marc Maron here for an insight into his current state of mind.

Endnote: The moment when he is shot by an airgun from a random whacko off-camera while speaking to the critic Mark Kermode (yes, in real life) is the perfect measure of the man. He reacts casually, much to Kermode’s astonishment and admiration, and accepts very quickly that someone may have done this for whatever reason. Similarly to Graham Chapman’s knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Herzog passes it off as ‘not significant’ and continues to speak to Kermode about his movies. What a genius! What a guy!

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