20 Must See Werner Herzog Films

By @NikGroz
20 Must See Werner Herzog Films

“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor” – Blaise Pascal (from Lessons Of Darkness)

Explorer, provocateur, genius, madman. Werner Herzog has been called lots of things, and whether you consider yourself a devoted fan or just a partial admirer, it’s hard to deny the towering presence of the prolific German director’s work in the boundless abyss of film culture and film history. Starting out in his early 20s, during the late 1960s, Herzog has since made close to 70 films. Mastering the short-form visual essay, long-form documentary, and feature film formats, Herzog doesn’t like to make the distinction between features and documentaries, since the point of contact between fact and fiction is ever-so-miraculously blurred in most of his pictures. Indeed, the search for universal truths surrounding the human condition is one of the director’s most prominent themes.

Herzog turns 72 years young today and, partly spurred on by the recent SHOUT! FACTORY Blu-Ray collection, we here at Way Too Indie jumped at the occasion to discuss and celebrate some of this craftsman’s greatest works. Take “greatest” with a grain of salt, of course, because time constraints and similar brutish limitations have prevented us from doing a full-on retrospective of the man’s work (indeed, some of us would argue that any Herzog film is a “must-see” Herzog film.) Ultimately, we believe that the 20 hand-picked films in this feature highlight Herzog’s most common themes, and trace, in greatest accuracy, the various shades of his esoteric, poetic, tender, and cynical imagination, which make his particular brand of cinema so compelling and substantial.

Without further ado, read on to explore four decades of that peculiar, chaotic, Werner Herzog cinematic touch.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Herzog refers to this film as a nightmare filled with gloom and ‘profound despair.’ He believes this quality could make it endure longer than films like Aguirre, Wrath Of God, which is ‘kindergarten’ compared to Even Dwarfs Started Small he says. But, then, why do all the dwarfs look like they’re having an absolute blast? It’s one of the many questions that whirl around this surreal and docu-like early feature from the German mastermind. Filmed on the volcanic Canary Islands, with an all-dwarf cast, Even Dwarfs Started Small is centered around an institution where a group of dwarfs are rebelling and creating chaos with pigs, flower pots, a truck, and some food; cackling and chortling all the livelong day. Watching this world populated entirely by dwarfs, and seeing them interact and juxtaposed with ordinary objects and animals creates some of the most stirring visuals from the director’s career. He’s right about it being disturbing because it touches upon something within us, daring us to challenge our own notions, insecurities, and fears, Even Dwarfs is a grand entrance into the eerie wilderness of Werner Herzog’s imaginative and absurdist creativity. [Nik]

Land Of Silence and Darkness (1971)

Land Of Silence and Darkness

Even with Flying Doctors Of East Africa under his belt, it’s safe to call Land Of Silence And Darkness Herzog’s first proper documentary. Flying Doctors is a 45 minute ‘report’ (Herzog’s own words,) and was incited by some friends as opposed to a burning desire to document something extraordinary in the ordinary. Land Of Silence and Darkness follows Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind woman, as she visits various groups and people (young, old, deaf-blind by birth or with time, etc.) who live with this condition. By Herzog’s surrealist and abstract standards, the documentary is one of his most conventional creations, but I don’t imagine much would be different if Herzog made this documentary today, other than his signature, inquisitive, and poetic narration connecting the images with grand ideas. But some of the captured moments here like a man tracing a tree with his hands, a young boy learning to understand vibrations as language, a visit to the zoo, and Fini’s incredible generosity and kindness are powerful enough to evoke the viewers into making the connection themselves. How is the world perceived by the mind of people who lived most, if not all, of their lives in silence and darkness? [Nik]

Fata Morgana (1971)

Fata Morgana

Despite being shot in 1968 and 1969, Herzog didn’t release Fata Morgana until 1971. The film is one of the director’s most abstract works, a sort-of documentary (but not really) taking place in the Sahara desert. Split up into three sections (Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age), Fata Morgana mostly comprises of stunning expressionist views of the desert. Most of these incredible, extraterrestrial looking shots appear in the Creation segment, where narrator Lotte Eisener reads from the Popol Vuh. In the next two sections the images become less abstract, but Herzog throws in plenty of surreal elements to maintain the film’s otherworldly atmosphere. Fata Morgana will make for difficult viewing to some (including myself), but its cinematography is undeniably excellent. Certainly more experimental than the Herzog people know now, Fata Morgana’s images of the brutal, unforgiving desert sync up perfectly with the filmmaker’s cynical view of nature. [C.J.]

Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972)

Aguirre, Wrath Of God

Set in 1560 and following a megalomaniacal troop leader named Don Lupe de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), and a group of Spanish explorers as they weave through the misted Peruvian rain forests in search of El Dorado, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is creepy, dreamlike, and one of Herzog’s most brilliantly realized visions. Kinski and Herzog disagreed on what Aguirre’s temperament should be, with Kinski wanting to play a rage-filled tyrant and Herzog preferring a more subdued form of oppression. To get his way, Herzog would purposefully infuriate Kinski before each take, shooting only after Kinski had exhausted his anger following his long temper tantrums. Things got so heated that Herzog allegedly threatened to shoot Kinski if he didn’t cooperate. Nevertheless, through the struggle and strife, Herzog and Kinski produced yet another cinema classic. Like Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre is as emblematic of its maker as any work of art could be, with Herzog’s thirst for grand truths and eternal mysteries woven into its every fiber. [Bernard]

The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser

Herzog continues to explore the mysterious with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a story so surreal and layered with sociological conundrums that it’s hard to believe it comes from real life. A boy who grew up in a dungeon, tied to the ground and completely isolated from the outside world, is released to fend for himself. After learning how to walk, write, and speak, he goes on to ladder up in society and become Kaspar Hauser, a major person of interest for the highbrow German crowd. While the film contains Herzog’s signature elusiveness with random, alluring visions, at the center is the man who portrays Kaspar. Bruno S. was a street performer who was abused as a child and grew up in various institutions; it took him some time before warming up to Herzog under the condition that his full name never be revealed. In this way, Kaspar Hauser is a perfect example of socially reclusive art mirroring isolated life. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Kaspar Hauser continues Herzog’s major themes of profound despair and continual exploration of the mysteries behind the human condition, while remaining one of the director’s funniest and most entertaining films. Go figure. [Nik]

Heart Of Glass (1976)

Heart Of Glass

The 70s continue with Heart of Glass, also known as “the one where he hypnotized his whole cast.” Exaggerated gestures, eyes rolling into the back of the skull, eyelids too heavy to keep up; these are some of the off-kilter effects Herzog got from his actors after he decided to put most of them under hypnosis. The result is a transfixing experience, albeit tiresome at times, and when the prophet cowherd Hias says ‘like sleep-walkers, people walk towards their doom,’ a whole new level of meaning expands. Still, with more tangents in Heart of Glass than usual, it’s easily the toughest watch from his explosive output of the 70s. The loose narrative concerns a group of villagers who are trying to move on after their foreman dies, taking the secret of the Ruby Glass, a mythical type of glass with mysterious powers, with him. It’s like Brothers Grimm meeting Franz Kafka in the middle of the woods at the stroke of midnight in terms of vibe, and thanks to some brilliant interior cinematography from Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein (same man who shot Fata Morgana and Kasper Hauser, clearly Herzog’s kindred spirit for ethereal imagery,) it has the familiar magnetic pull of a Herzog picture. Mind you, this one’s for the purest of Herzog fans as the lingering shots of bizarre behavior tend to outstay their welcome just a tad. [Nik]

Stroszek (1977)

Stroszek movie

Herzog’s second film with the irreplaceable Bruno S. was supposed to be Woyzek, but after the director figured Klaus Kinski would better fit the role of a man whose mental faculties are collapsing (because Kinski,) he wrote Stroszek specifically for Bruno. As far as narrative goes, this is the strongest one yet from the Herzog collection; Bruno Stroszek is released from prison and, together with abused prostitute Eva (Eva Mettes) and his buddy Sheitz (effortlessly endearing Clemens Sheitz, appearing in his third Herzog film,) they all go to Wisconsin, USA to make a better life for themselves. Things don’t exactly work out, and Stroszek quickly evolves into one of most intensely bleak films Herzog’s ever made. Long before the infamous dancing chicken chars a hole in your heart, the three central performances and their characters’ attempts at adapting to the foreign surroundings of impoverished America pepper the picture with an almost overpowering sense of disconnect. In typical Herzog fashion, a laugh is never too far from a tear, while the film remains a testament for Herzog’s screenwriting talents because it was written in four days and stands as one of the rare cases where story trumps image in a Herzog film. Having said that, the image of Bruno driving that truck on the mist-covered American highway is one for the ages. [Nik]

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Between the stage and the screen, there have been hundreds of tellings of Bram Stoker’s classic tale of Count Dracula. F.W. Murnau’s silent version, Nosferatu (for which Herzog took the most direct inspiration), used the dark German Expressionist style to create one of the most terrifying movie monsters ever. It is easy to see why Herzog wanted to tell this story — many of his protagonists were moody loners with an air of mystery attempting some otherworldly pursuit. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, he just so happens to be an ancient bloodsucking monster. The major story doesn’t stray from the most known versions of Dracula, but this is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of the character I’ve seen, due to Herzog’s own sympathy for the character and Herzog-regular Klaus Kinski’s remarkable performance. He’s as menacing and creepy as you’d expect (he doesn’t really need the makeup to accomplish that), but there is a sadness in the Count that adds depth to a character we thought we already understood. Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t the best adaptation of its source material (I will still stump for the 1958 Hammer Horror of Dracula) but Herzog’s curious and sympathetic eye and Kinski’s fantastic performance add enough to make this worth the retelling. [Aaron]

Woyzek (1979)

Woyzek movie

Taking advantage of his star’s exhaustion after shooting Nosferatu the Vampyre, Herzog cast Klaus Kinski in the title role and began shooting Woyzeck mere days after Nosferatu wrapped. Woyzeck might be the least popular of Herzog’s collaborations with Kinski, and it’s easy to see why. Shot over 18 days, and adapted from Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck follows a soldier as he succumbs to madness due to medical experiments done by a local doctor; one experiment, for instance, has the doctor forcing Woyzeck to only eat peas. The fragmented story and hasty shooting schedule reflect the messy, unsatisfying final product, but there are plenty of admirable qualities in the picture. Kinski is absolutely convincing as Woyzeck, the demented score of warped classical music goes a long way to setting the mood, and the film’s slow-motion climax is a sight to behold. And here’s an interesting piece of trivia: Herzog initially cast Bruno S. as Woyzeck, only to change his mind and replace him with Kinski. As a way to apologize for the re-casting, Herzog started writing Stroszek, which ended up getting released two years before Woyzeck. [C.J.]

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo movie

Of all of Fitzcarraldo’s grand statements, perhaps the grandest is this: Werner Herzog is a crazy son-of-a-bitch, and cinema needs him. Herzog’s epic quest follows the mission of Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald (Kinski), a man determined to build an opera house in the middle of a South American jungle who enlists natives and puts them through the ringer to help him do so. Staggering in scope and packed with enough ambition for 100 films, Herzog’s film is infamous for its epically fraught production, which included Herzog’s legendary insistence on moving an over 300-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects and a scary incident involving the chief of the native extras offering to murder Kinski for Herzog. Yes, the film is arguably as faulty as the agonizing ordeal that led to its completion (it’s bloated and indulgent), but the insanity and shoddiness of it all makes the film completely unique, and in that sense, completely perfect. It’s fitting, then, that the only Best Director award Herzog won at Cannes was for Fitzcarraldo. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams documents the making of Herzog’s tortured passion project, and is just as fascinating. [Bernard]

Where The Green Ants Dream (1984)

Where The Green Ants Dream

How do you follow up a movie as crazed, epic, and instantly classic as Fitzcarraldo? For Herzog, the answer was found in directing an entirely different kind of picture. Viewers who aren’t familiar with Herzog’s themes and style would be forgiven if they thought Where The Green Ants Dream feels like a movie from a completely different director than the one who demanded a steamship be dragged over a mountain. But for those familiar with Herzog’s work in the 70s, the bridge between Fitzcarraldo and Green Ants is quite visible; the relationship between nature, man, and machine being the most prominent common denominator. Set in the Australian desert, Green Ants tell the story of a group of Aboriginal people who refuse to move from their land after a mining company threatens to destroy it for uranium extraction. They befriend geologist Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence) who begins to take their mythology of green ants as creators and dreamers of the universe to heart. As far as Herzog’s filmography goes, Green Ants would fall somewhere in the mid-to-lower tier, partly because the acting doesn’t support Herzog’s grandiose ideas as well, partly because the central conflict feels too mired in its own idiosyncrasies. It was Herzog’s first English-language film, which explains some of the clunky dialogue, but Herzog devotees will be able to find more than enough to grab onto here. [Nik]

Cobra Verde (1987)

Cobra Verde movie

The last of Herzog and Kinski’s collaborations, Cobra Verde is also one of their best. Kinski plays the title character, a Brazilian rancher turning to crime after a drought destroys his ranch. A plantation owner, ignorant of Verde’s reputation as a bandit, hires him to work on his farm. After Verde impregnates all of the man’s daughters, the plantation owner sends Verde off to West Africa to complete the suicide mission of restarting the slave trade with an insane African king. Herzog’s ability to capture the ethereal and savage qualities of nature are stronger than ever here, combining images of serene beauty and visceral brutality, all of them memorable. But nothing makes more of an impact here than Kinski’s performance, an utterly mesmerizing and intimidating showcase. All it takes is a shot of Kinski staring down the camera to convince viewers of Verde’s intensity and rage. Cobra Verde is, to put it bluntly, Herzog at the top of his game. [C.J.>]

Lessons Of Darkness (1992)

Lessons Of Darkness

You could be wondering why we decided to include this particular 50-minute documentary (and not, say, Bells From The Deep or Flying Doctors Of East Africa) as part of the 20 highlighted works from Werner Herzog, but if you are then it’s likely you haven’t seen Lessons Of Darkness. More visual essay than documentary, more nightmare than essay, Lessons Of Darkness plays out like an epic ballad depicting the deformed state of Earth’s scarred surface after being ravaged by the first Gulf War. Admirers of Fata Morgana will attach themselves to Lessons Of Darkness like white on rice; the eerie atmosphere, cloaked in a biblical sort of effervescence, coupled with the jaw-dropping Martian-like visuals, most resembles Herzog’s psychotropic 70s desert odyssey. Narrated by Herzog himself, split into 13 chapters with titles like “Satan’s National Park” and “Life Without The Fire,” Lessons Of Darkness contains some of the director’s darkest imagery. As bold as that statement sounds, we implore you to seek this film out (made all the more easier by being included in the Shout! Factory set) and experience it for yourself. [Nik]

Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997)

Little Dieter Needs To Fly

Sometimes all you need to make a great documentary is a great subject, and in the case of Dieter Dengler, Herzog hit a gold mine. A German-born immigrant to the United States, Dengler realized his childhood dream of becoming a pilot when he joined the Air Force. While fighting in the Vietnam war, Dengler’s plane was shot down. He was captured and tortured for 6 months by Viet Cong soldiers before making a daring escape. Dengler is the classic definition of an eccentric, a vivid storyteller filled with one surprising detail after another. Amazingly, Dengler goes back to Vietnam, re-enacting his imprisonment for Herzog’s camera while calmly explaining the endless horrors he went through. And Herzog, ever the cynic, frames Dieter’s story as one of rejection rather than perseverance. According to Herzog, death didn’t want Dieter, and that kind of unique take elevates the doc beyond mere biography. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is gripping from frame one, an incredible tale of survival told elegantly through Herzog’s direction. It comes as no surprise that, one decade later, Herzog adapted Dengler’s tale of survival into the film Rescue Dawn. [C.J.>]

My Best Fiend (1999)

My Best Fiend 1999

Klaus Kinski died of a heart attack in 1991, leaving behind a plethora of films and theater work and a temperament that made him equally hated and admired. His five leading roles with Werner Herzog are no doubt the pinnacle of the actor’s work; you can pop in any of the five films (from Aguirre to Cobra Verde) to see how the man pillaged into every role, stretching his own limits and infusing Herzog’s mythos with every breath and gesture. It’s only fitting, then, that Herzog made My Best Fiend as a way to remember a difficult professional, an eccentric performer, and – for better or for worse – a successful collaborator. Herzog traces his relationship with Kinski, as he walks and visits the homes, places, and film locations, at times reminiscing with others, like Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale. You’ll see the moment that made Herzog realize Kinski was perfect for Aguirre, and the actor’s outburst on the set of Fitzcarraldo, and you’ll hear how Herzog and Kinski wanted to murder each other. But you’ll also see a certain, surprising, tenderness and a strong bond between the two legends (the Telluride footage is gold) and by the time it’s over, there’ll be no separating the two. My Best Fiend is essential in understanding Herzog as much as it is in getting an idea of the complex dimensions that made Kinski such a unique personality. [Nik]

Grizzly Man (2005)

Grizzly Man documentary

Grizzly Man begins with bear-fanatic Timothy Treadwell confiding to the camera that wild bears can bite, can kill, and can decapitate. This becomes bone chilling when it’s revealed a short while later that he ended up being killed by an attack. Before his death, Treadwell captured over 100 hours of footage while spending 13 summers with grizzly bears. Treadwell repeatedly get dangerously closer to crossing the invisible line between wild animals and man. Werner Herzog frequently reminds the viewer of the tragedy, making Treadwell’s wild antics even more polarizing. The director uses the colossal supply of footage and combines interviews with close friends to create a nature documentary like you’ve never seen before. The documentary premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival where it won its first of many awards and nominations. Grizzly Man extends beyond just a nature documentary or found footage material, providing insight into the man in front of the camera as only the legendary Herzog could–void of any bias or resentment. It might be Herzog’s most accessible documentary, but don’t let that scare you; it’s also one of his best. [Dustin]

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Rescue Dawn

Herzog’s highest profile Hollywood production and highest grossing film ($5.5 million domestic), Rescue Dawn is a blockbuster summer release on the surface, but much different than the standard. In a lot of ways, it is a throwback war film, with more suspense and character study than pure action. Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, an American war pilot who is taken as a prisoner of war in a brutal Viet Cong camp in Laos. The tale, which also inspired Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is a harrowing account of man vs. nature and men. Unlike many Vietnam War films, Rescue Dawn doesn’t take a strong anti-war take — it showcases the horrors of war, but its ultimate point is the extraordinary strength of will men can possess in extraordinary circumstances. Rescue Dawn features a fantastic lead performance from Bale, fresh off his star-making Batman Begins, and equally good supporting performances from Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn, in a career turn that should have made him a star. [Aaron]

Encounters At The End Of The World (2007)

Encounters At The End Of The World

Encounters at the End of the World is the quintessential Werner Herzog documentary. It takes a look at a strange, natural place (in this case, Antarctica), and ponders the existential questions involved — all with Herzog’s gleefully curious narration. At time, though, Herzog puts focus more on the people in this environment than the environment itself. If any other filmmaker were given Herzog’s access to Antarctica, no one else would have made Encounters at the End of the World. What other filmmaker would have spent so much time on people walking around with buckets on their heads (with smiley faces drawn upon them, no less)? Who in their right mind would have been able to interview a leading mind on penguins and asked them about homosexual or deviant sexual behaviors? Encounters at the End of the World doesn’t ignore the incredible views, however, making this his most beautifully shot film — cinematographer duties were held by Peter Zeitlinger, who became a close contributor to Herzog after Little Dieter Learns to Fly, and has worked with the director on nearly every film (doc and fiction) ever since. [Aaron]

The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Police officers behaving badly has essentially become its own film genre, though by 2009 it hadn’t been fully formed. With recent history of police egregiously overstepping their bounds, this sort of film shouldn’t work — especially one that looks at the bad behavior through cartoonish comedy instead of harshly realistic moralizing. Somehow The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a raucous thrill ride anchored by a supernatural performance from an embattled Nicolas Cage. As a pseudo-remake/spiritual sequel to Abel Ferrara’s landmark Bad Lieutenant, it really only keeps the central conceit of a lieutenant on the edge while changing the rest of the particulars. It moves from noted crime center early 1990s New York City to post-Katrina New Orleans and exchanges the rape of a nun to the murder of a family of illegal immigrants. Cage’s lieutenant has a manic nature, replacing Harvey Keitel’s frightening sneer. The main attraction of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is certainly seeing Nic Cage at his most Nic Cage-iest, bad haircut and buggy eyes, but the film is much more than a freakshow performance (besides the fact that it is a pretty damn good performance). The film never really forgets the actual crime plot, which is more compelling than it needs to be, and the depressed New Orleans environment is fantastically rendered. This is a bizarre outlier in Werner Herzog’s career, though it might be his best film over the past two decades. One particular through-line here is the presentation of power and madness. Terence McDonagh may not be on the same level as an Aguirre or a Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, but Cage is a fascinating alternative to Klaus Kinski’s power-hungry protagonists. [Aaron]

Into The Abyss (2011)

Into The Abyss

The last feature Herzog directed to see release was 2011’s Into The Abyss, spawned from a series of interviews with death row inmates as a way to explore the nature of death, the worth of human life, and the ethical, moral, and philosophical implications behind capital punishment as law. It’s a subject close to Herzog’s heart, as he’s wanted to explore prison culture for decades, and once he got the opportunity to interview death row inmates he ended up doing so many that he extended the work into a television series entitled simply On Death Row. The much more Herzogian-sounding Into The Abyss focuses on a particular case involving Michael Perry (serving death row) and Jason Burkett (serving a life sentence), and extends into exploring the emptiness felt by the victim’s families. The most fascinating thing here is that Herzog makes his own personal stance on capital punishment crystal clear right from the outset, but the documentary unravels in such a way that shows you why the debate still rages on. With no grandstanding or preaching, Herzog disguises vital questions of life and death through simple and effective interviews, and shows that at almost 70 years of age, he isn’t taking his foot off the gas. [Nik]

Werner Herzog’s latest feature film, Queen Of The Desert starring Nicole Kidman and James Franco, has been temporarily stalled from appearing in this year’s festival circuit so look for it to surface at some point next year. Needless to say, it can’t come soon enough.

Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Herzog: The Collection, before copies run out!

“Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism.” – Werner Herzog (from Herzog on Herzog)

Best Of The Web