Really interesting German director whose idea is that we don't have enough "adequate images" as humans, so he attempts to provide them for us by going out of his way and dragging his cast and crew out of their way for his visions. It's no wonder he's almost been killed (and almost killed) once or twice. He once ate his shoe for Errol Morris.
Signs of Life (1968) -- Werner Herzog's first movie might not look like a lot now, but he somewhat invented a new way of telling stories and making movies with this one. The title explains a lot of what is going on here, where less time is spent with a plot or developing characters and more is spent showing interesting images, landscapes, or odd situations such as a guy who makes a roach-catching contraption, the hypnosis of a chicken, panting cats, fireworks going sideways, or miles and miles of thousands of windmills. So while you're not exactly sure why the main character Stroszek goes crazy (the other primary characters are much more interesting, by the way), it doesn't end up mattering much. Herzog develops a lot of the images and themes (like insanity) in greater ways in later movies, but this was a great start from such a young guy.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) -- Apparently Herzog doesn't have dreams when he sleeps, so that helps to explain some of the images that end up on the screen. The primary image/idea behind this movie is that the world is populated by dwarfs, but the world itself (the houses, furniture, etc.) is normal sized. So unlike Tod Browning's Freaks, where the circus freaks rebelled against the normal people, this movie has a group of midgets rebelling against someone who runs their institution, who is also a midget. There's even a tiny person who just happens to be passing through town, demonstrating that the world simply consists of dwarfs, and in fact the movie never once calls attention to this fact (other than the obvious: people can't reach doorknobs, people can't get on beds, people have trouble riding cars, etc.). The entire movie is about rebellion and chaos, and some of the other images that appear are cannibal chickens, a car spinning in a circle for half the movie, pots of flowers on fire, cockfights, piglets nursing from a recently-killed pig, and (my favorite) a mock-solemn parade carrying a crucifix with a live monkey spread out like Jesus. Like most Herzog movies, some of it feels slow going at first (there's always something happening, but the overload has a dulling effect), but it's best to watch again immediately in order to really absorb everything. Also like lots of Herzog movies, the insanity escalates to the end and he lifts a scene from the Trickster cycle where the head of the institution mistakes a tree stump and branch for a pointing man and has a point-off with him. After that there's nothing left but to have the scariest of all midgets giving his creepy laugh at a defecating camel. I love it.
Fata Morgana (1971) -- A movie where Herzog attempted to capture mirages on film, and succeeded. This could be called a documentary, but it is one that has an imposed narrative three part structure telling the story of the creation of the world, paradise, and the golden age. The first part contains narration from the Popul Vuh and the second two parts has more insane and funny (yet equally sacred) narration written by Herzog. Every image is beautiful or horrible or both, beginning with lovely desert landscapes littered with cars and the mirages themselves and ending with an absurdist, distanced, yet loving look at the oddest of humans, no doubt giving Errol Morris the style for all of his early documentaries. (You could easily claim that the third part of this movie "invented" Errol Morris' style, which is saying a lot for Herzog.) In its way, a perfect movie.
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) -- Released around the same time as Fata Morgana, this is a much more typical documentary, though with plenty of Herzog touches, most especially painfully holding the camera on hard-to-watch subject matter. This is the story of a woman who is basically a blend of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, someone both deaf and blind who attempts to help others like her and show them that there is a way to connect to others and to life. Unfortunately, it's not as interesting as it should be. Most of the movie is watching deaf-blinds communicate to each other by rubbing each others' hands using their own communication code. Some of the more interesting set pieces come near the end, but the slow editing of the beginning makes us wait too long for it. Great compared to other documentaries, but below par for Herzog.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) -- Insane movie starring Klaus Kinski swaggering and gimping around in his conquistador uniform. There are lots of movies and stories about people going into the jungle and going crazy, but this one is more about the jungle actualizing the previous insanity more than simply "causing" insanity. Dreamy, slow, and increasingly good as the movie goes on and as you later think about it, this movie certainly provides the "adequate images" that Herzog is interested in giving us humans, including the final scene in which men wax poetic as arrows are driven into them and Aguirre becomes the King of the Monkeys who completely cover his boat.
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1975) -- A 45 minute documentary about a ski flyer, using lots of slow-motion, Riefenstahl-like shots of Steiner flying through the air (and crashing more often than landing).
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1975) -- Originally titled Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Based on the true story of the "foundling" Kaspar Hauser who was shut up in a dungeon the first part of his life and provided food while he slept so he had no contact with the outside world. Eventually someone found him, taught him a sentence and how to write his name, and left him in the middle of a village. Herzog takes advantage of this unique person's story with scenes that are -- to me -- pretty heartbreaking. The first is Kaspar's first introduction to fire which he touches, draws back, and begins to cry quietly without facial expression: not only from pain, but from something else. It's the "something else" that Herzog explores in this movie, and it's hard for me to explain it any better than that. Kaspar says that his entry into this world "must have been a great fall" and that the people who have newly helped him in the world are "like wolves." Society is seen in the movie not necessarily as evil, but as non-human. None of this could have been pulled off without the non-actor Herzog found -- named in the credits only as "Bruno S." -- who perfectly demonstrates what the gruntings and scratchings of a dungeon-locked man might be like and eventually developing into someone who deliberately, slowly, loudly, emphatically, and with difficulty speaks words that are elevated far beyond daily conversation. When he asks, "Why are things so hard for me?" and "Why can't I play the piano as easily as I breathe?" you realize that this is pretty much how you feel as well (at least I do). Of course, "logical" explanations of Kaspar's enigma are ridiculed, from the freak show which guesses that he might be a long-lost prince (etc.) to the hilarious and sad ending where they've "figured out" what was going on because his brain and liver was slightly deformed. On top of the story, Herzog layers his usual surreal images (the return of the hypnotized chicken, camel on its knees, and monkey--this time on a horse) and dreams of Kaspar, notably the dream of the mirage mountains in the desert and the City of the North.
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck? (1976) -- Herzog focuses on fast-talking auctioneers in this 45-minute documentary, something he does to better effect in a scene from Stroszek.
Heart of Glass (1976) -- Famous for being the movie where Herzog hypnotized the cast to give everyone a dreamy acting style. Everything else is dreamy too, with lots of landscapes, glass blowing, and haunting music. Unfortunately, even though you can tell this is a movie personal to Herzog, it doesn't have much of a story to hang this stuff on (the "plot" -- or situation, really -- is that a glassmaker has died without teaching the secret of making ruby glass, while a prophet has shown up in town to warn them of their impending doom) and it's hard to be truly affected by it in the ways that many of his other fictional movies have done. The fact that such a breakthrough movie is seen as a "lesser" movie (by me, anyway) is only proof of how great Werner Herzog is.
Stroszek (1977) -- Bruno S. from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser returns for his second and final film. Where Kaspar Hauser got to me in a "large question" sort of way, this one got to me on a more "real life" sort of way, and is just as heartbreaking. I'm not sure why I identify with and love Bruno S. so much, but I do. He's pretty much what I wish all human beings were. Herzog is on top of things here, with a story that unfolds perfectly and is relevant to anyone who's ever noticed how the world harshly treats anyone who's weak, poor, creative, sweet, trusting, etc. And specifically how it's done here in the good ol' USA. Don't forget, of course, the insane ending with the dancing chicken and all his friends.
La Soufrière (1977) -- A 30-minute documentary about a town that was deserted because a volcano was predicted to erupt--and the two or three men who stayed behind anyway, waiting to die. Lots of great Herzog images, philosophies on life, and danger crammed into a short space.
Woyzeck (1978) -- This was the last Herzog/Kinski collaboration I saw, and until seeing this I thought Kinski could play only domineering and insane characters, but Woyzeck is a kind of downtrodden Forrest Gump, and Kinski plays him in a way that makes you feel truly sorry for him, especially in some of the scenes between him and his wife. Still insane, though. The movie, though good while you're watching it, doesn't add up to a whole lot, but -- remarkably -- it's almost completely saved by a simple "afterward" written on the screen at the end.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) -- A worthy remake of the 1922 silent movie Nosferatu, though this one actually retains the names of the characters in Dracula (F.W. Murnau changed the names for his). What's really being remade is the makeup of Dracula/Nosferatu, and Klaus Kinski does a great job with it and the character. The movie begins its opening credits with creepy images of pretty frightening corpsy skulls and weird music by the electronic band Popul Vuh. The first really creepy scene after that is when Dracula wants to suck the cut on Jonathan's finger, then does so, then stares him into a corner. Lots of the movie has this kind of menace to it, mixed with surreality. The most interesting thing to me was the connection with Dracula and the Black Plague, making the Count a more evil person than someone who can just bite one neck at a time. The movie isn't perfect, but neither is any other movie based on Dracula I've seen: the Bram Stoker book was flawed to begin with, and the ending almost entirely falls apart or just becomes boring. But this one probably does the best job.
Fitzcarraldo (1982) -- The movie gets better the more you think about it, though this doesn't necessarily mean you want to watch it over and over again (though you might), but just think about it. Something about the slow, drawn-out scenes (which seems to be a Herzog staple, as if he doesn't like to "tighten" footage in the editing room) works well for memory. One of the better movies about ambition and "moving mountains," not to mention making mountains out of seemingly tiny dreams/molehills. All the actors (especially Klaus Kinski) are interesting and likeable. The sight and sound of a steamboat actually (yes, actually) being hauled over a mountain makes this movie worth anyone's two and a half hours. (It's also a good idea to watch Les Blank's "making of" documentary Burden of Dreams.)
Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) -- For some reason, this is considered a "lesser" Herzog work, maybe only because it followed the masterpiece Fitzcarraldo and began a string of movies that -- though exceptional in comparison to other movies -- weren't quite as large or profound as his work from the 70s or with Kinski. There are also simpler "answers" in this movie. I am now referring to all the "Greenpeace" stuff: Aborigines telling the white man that he doesn't understand the land, etc. This was the only part of the movie that bugged me (and then, only slightly), and -- in listening to the commentary -- I learned that it now bugs Herzog too. That aside, this contains landscapes reminiscent of Fata Morgana, a fantastic lead actor (Bruce Spense), and is maybe the funniest movie Herzog has done. Lots of odd static shots give the movie a creepy, cartoony feel. And, I gotta say, the main Aborigine just looks freakin' weird.
Cobra Verde (1988) -- Not as strong as many of the other Herzog movies with Kinski, it covers some of the same territory and doesn't have as strong a center. However, Kinski himself is as good as ever as an actor and Herzog gives us plenty of interesting stuff to look at, the best scene being the training of hundreds of African women for war.
Lessons of Darkness (1992) -- Images of the destruction of Kuwait accompanied by classical music, narration, and chapter headings in the style of Fata Morgana. Sad, pretty, and a little hard to watch.
Giovanna D'arco (1989) -- I watched this because it was directed by Herzog, but it might as well have been directed by anyone with three tripods and a video switcher. A standard tape of an opera performance, perfectly fine for someone who wants to see the show, but not any sort of cinematic experience.
Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997) -- Great documentary about a truly interesting (and sweet) person. Boldly, Herzog asks Dieter Dengler to return to Vietnam -- where his plane was shot down and he became a POW -- and recreate some of his circumstances, including having armed Vietnamese tie his hands up and lead him through the jungle. Dengler's story is so exceptional that Herzog eventually made it into a fictionalized movie (Rescue Dawn) almost ten years later.
My Best Fiend (1999) -- A made-for-TV documentary about Herzog's relationship with Klaus Kinski, the star of five of his most famous movies. Fans of Herzog and Kinski will already know most of the information here, but there are some insightful moments and the entire thing is interesting. Where Kinski's insanity was apparent, Herzog is himself a sort of insane man (perhaps more so), just more quiet, and his lies are often just as outrageous as Kinski's were. A documentary made by a third party might have been more rich (Les Blank's Burden of Dreams does a better job covering some of the same aspects of this movie), but the personal touch is also nice. The best thing about this movie is seeing how good Kinski really was as an actor, and the best example of that is when Herzog shows his footage of Jason Robards (the original star of Fitzcarraldo before having to back out--certainly no shabby actor) followed by the same scene as performed by Kinski. The difference is amazing, and it's perhaps the best contrast I've ever seen of what art is and what art isn't.
Invincible (2001) -- One of Herzog's most mainstream-looking movies. While watching it, I wondered why it wasn't up for all sorts of awards. It seems like the kind of thing they jump on, especially the pre-WWII aspect of the story. Tim Roth really stood out in this movie, which is why it's a shame that he wasn't as central a part as he should have been; we're not even sure what to think of him by the end, and once he goes away, there's still lots of movie left, so there's a bit of a problem there. In spite of its problems, still interesting and new.
2000 Years of Christianity: Episode IX: God and the Burdened (2002) -- This is an episode of the thirteen part German series (each episode lasting 45 minutes). Even though it was made as part of a larger series, it stands alone as a short Herzog documentary.
Wheel of Time (2003) -- For a Herzog film, and though it certainly had its moments that made it watchable, this was fairly uninteresting. Herzog is attempting to get across some spiritual feeling about this place and event, but -- since he's just pointing and shooting -- none of that comes across. The movie feels insistent that we feel something but doesn't let us know why. I think he expects you to have a pre-existing respect for Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, which I don't.
The White Diamond (2004) -- First of all, even though I ultimately like it, this is a pretty flawed movie, and its Herzog's fault that it is. He's got good stuff: a scientist (Graham Norrington) who's designed a cool-looking flying machine that he's taking out to the beautiful and exotic Amazon. But since Herzog apparently doesn't find Norrington himself interesting, his camera drifts to other people and things, notably one of the natives (Marc Anthony Yhap) helping with the project. And that would be fine (though muddled) if Herzog didn't screw this up too. The best example of this is when Herzog is taken out to a place where you can see a huge waterfall in a drop of water hanging from a leaf and Herzog says, "Marc Anthony, can you see an entire universe in this tiny drop of water?" C'mon! In his younger years, Werner would have been smart enough to just show the image, but now he's trying to force things. He attempts to force narrative as well instead of letting it flow naturally, and this is also best seen in how he shoves Marc Anthony into a plot he has little to do with, leaving the real subject behind. Still, in spite of these flaws and annoyances, it's hard to totally screw up a movie like this, and so you get some good stuff that stays pretty interesting throughout.
Grizzly Man (2005) -- "There but for the grace of God goes Woody Harrelson." Timothy Treadwell doesn't get the part of Woody on Cheers and instead goes off to live with bears and videotape them. He does okay for a while, taking good pictures and -- you know -- not being eaten alive, but then he becomes increasingly paranoid and feels everyone is out to get him and the bears, including the park services who are there to protect the bears and keep humans out, not to mention fans who visit the location to leave him friendly notes. Eventually he overstays his welcome and he and his girlfriend gets eaten alive. Herzog has nicely edited together the beautiful footage Treadwell shot (he was an idiot, but he got some great images of the bears, foxes, and nature) with his own voice-over narrative and interviews with people associated with Treadwell. An interesting documentary throughout, with great original music.
The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) -- Weird and funny mish-mash of documentary footage used to create a science fiction story about an alien (Brad Dourif acting zany) who left his dying planet, arrived on Earth, and discovered that our own astronauts were going to his planet in order to try to live there since ours was also dying. The blending of media doesn't work perfectly, but it's a good experiment and works better than you'd imagine. Dourif holds it together nicely, and the underwater stuff and the haunting music (that Herzog had created before he shot or edited anything) is especially nice.
Rescue Dawn (2006) -- The documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly was great, but the whole time you're watching it, you picture his story and dramatize it in your head. Rescue Dawn does it for you, with Christian Bale doing a perfect Dieter Dengler, capturing all his wonder, naivety, apparent stupidity which is constantly disproved, and everything that made him and his story remarkable. Steve Zahn breaks out of his usual comedy roles (though this movie is a comedy in many ways) and is a perfect Duane. This is the most mainstream of Herzog's movies, but that's by no means an insult. The story is captivating throughout and is his best since 1982's Fitzcarraldo.
Copyright (c) Jun 2005 - Apr 2008 by Rusty Likes Movies