Once, in 1977, Werner Herzog read a news item about a volcano that was supposed to erupt in Guadeloupe and one man living there who refused to evacuate with the rest of the island’s population. Herzog being Herzog, he immediately gathered a two-man crew and flew in to talk to this Caribbean peasant, to film the empty streets, to climb as far as they could into the sulfurous clouds and stare into the volcano’s mouth. It could’ve erupted at any moment but it didn’t. Herzog made an expansive, freewheeling short doc out of the journey, La Soufrière, but the act and the risk and the questing that preceded it were what mattered.
This is how you watch Herzog—you climb the volcano, right beside the man, on the balls of your feet, smelling the carbonic charge of unexpected reality. Cinema’s most indefatigable Quixote, renegade missionary, preeminent volcano lover, and extreme-travel trouble-maker, Herzog doesn’t make films so much as muster experiences, for himself and his hirelings in the filming, and for us after the fact, experiences that often seem impossible, and are often in any case impossible to truly understand. How can you, after all, authentically fathom a man embracing an imminent magma death, or the Amazon, or Antarctica, or a caged animal, or the schizophrenic, the megalomanic, the hypnotized? Isn’t building a life out of these kinds of mysteries what art is for?
Herzog grew up in Bavaria without running water (he once told an audience at Lincoln Center that he considers himself Bavarian, and doesn’t much like “Germans”), and ended up stealing a camera—the first of numerous thefts—from the Munich Film School. His first film, Signs of Life (1968), won a prize at Berlin, and firmly put him on the front guard of what became the New German Cinema, beside Fassbinder, Wenders, Schlöndorff, and Kluge. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) was a peculiar explosion for those who saw it, but Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), an Age of Discovery launch into the jungle that literally went where no filmmaker had before, was a worldwide hit. Right away a Herzog movie had its own brand identity—an indecorous launch into semi-surreal extremity, life and limb be damned.
“Some film artists may say nothing in their films is ‘real.’ Herzog would say everything is, including the lies.”
Other filmmakers, before but particularly after the lightning strike of Godard in the early ’60s, have made the facts and processes inherent in making their films a part of their films—self-reflexivity, ironically flavored or not, has always been the sauce base for postmodernist cinema. But Herzog long ago cornered the market on making the entropic chaos of life on earth shape, fuel, and even poison what his movies essentially are. What the world does to his films as they’re being made, that’s what the film should be. Unlike many directors, Herzog has never been interested in control—he is a discoverer instead of a manipulator, and a fervent devotee of cosmic gestures, allowing the lunatic lyricism of nature and freak occurrence to overwhelm planned storymaking.
He has often courted this abandonment to chance by contriving his own metarealities: stranding his cast and crew in the South American jungle more than once, hypnotizing the entire cast for every shot of 1976’s Heart of Glass (talk about altered states: it’s a film peopled by balletic submergents), casting lifelong mental patient Bruno S. as the lead in not one but two movies, pushing a steamship over a mountain, and so on. (The ship in question, in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, weighed thirty tons in the nineteenth-century true story, but Herzog’s ship is 300 tons; the real-world spectacle of performing the impossible in the wildest place on earth wasn’t merely a means to an end, it was the entire reason to make a film.) Herzog has always believed that the berserk reality of his films includes what isn’t necessarily on film—and doesn’t it? When he swore he’d eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever finished a film, he meant it, proceeding to eat his shoe publicly after Morris released Gates of Heaven in 1978. When he and Morris promised to go to Wisconsin to once and for all dig up Ed Gein’s mother and find out . . . what?, Herzog went (Morris didn’t), and ended up making Stroszek (1977), one of the great films ever made about America.
You never doubt watching a Herzog film that the locations, the risks, the discomfort, the sense of physical peril and lostness, the extraordinary feats of will, are all genuine. Cinema is not a dream factory, Herzog maintains, but a way toward a visionary genuineness. The act of watching something bizarre and unreasonable and poetic happen in real time was always his endgame, his prize ring. Every piece of his celluloid prioritizes the materialities Herzog has filmed and not the film project itself; the camera is merely part of and witness to the landscape, the landscape is not there for the camera. For everyone else, the behind-the-scenes debacles, circumstances, and miracles are simply audio-commentary fodder, but Herzog’s world continues in four dimensions whether a camera is rolling or not.
This is why the categories of fiction and nonfiction hold little interest for the man; his fiction films have been documentaries, and his nonfiction films have been elaborate contrivances. The rest of the world saw in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo a headlong attainment of on-location realism, but Herzog saw a reality he only helped to create (the narrative), plunging through a reality he could only hope to experience in awe (the jungle). While we categorize Lessons of Darkness (1992) and Grizzly Man (2005) as documentaries, Herzog devised them as mythic episodes in an epic tale of humankind’s deadly, often disastrous efforts at confronting the Earth’s most extreme kingdoms. The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) is both at once, a mock-doc science fiction elegy that repurposes previously unreleased footage of life aboard a NASA shuttle mission, and of life beneath the waters of the Antarctic. Some film artists—think Rivette—may say nothing in their films is “real.” Herzog would say everything is, including the lies.
No major cinematic voice is less concerned with, or less likely to be lauded for, his “style” or “effect.” Maybe that’s why his critical profile has always been a little muted. Even as he’s primed for a mandarin’s worldwide retrospectives, and the honorary Oscar he’ll probably get, Herzog still endures the old condescending labels: crazed nomad, life-risking psycho, the New German Cinema’s most market-uncooperative coyote, victim of Spielberg-era popularization, voodoo-or-die man of outrageous principle, and recalcitrant visionary forced to make documentaries because he couldn’t be trusted with fiction-feature budgets. All of this is somewhat true, but it fails to consider the heroic largeness of his procedural ambition, and the fact that his adventuring has made his budgetary travails look much worse than they ever were. (Even his most notorious folly, Fitzcarraldo, was in fact modestly budgeted and profitable.) There’s a touch of Cassandra here; in his peak years Herzog was never quite successful in convincing the world that his vast ideas of metaphor, his earthbound-yet-unearthly exploration of how landscape understands life and vice versa, is how we all should invest our post-tech lives with weight and meaning. Today, in his seventies, Herzog is an imported Hollywood icon of sorts, playing franchise villains and doing TV voice work, and using his cool-rogue profile to enlist movie stars (Nicolas Cage, Michael Shannon, Nicole Kidman), as well as bigger budgets, making what are in the end far less adventurous films. A sign of the times, perhaps; Herzog definitely seems an animal born for a less virtual era.
“His compact with cinema is pure voodoo—a state wherein acts or symbols or words are powerful enough to alter a river, disrupt history, or rescue a society gone awry.”
He was in fact fortunate to have emerged when he did, into the melee of New Wave unorthodoxy, explosive festival culture, and the awakened aesthetics of the long take. It was an era when filmgoers were hungry for new perspectives, and when a low-budget movie could still crease a viewer’s skull sheerly by force of its maker’s distinctive personality. Eschewing Art Film trendiness (there are no modern urban settings in his filmography), conquering nothing but always venturing forth, Herzog exemplified the moment’s beatification of cinema as a way of living—of movies and life being co-consciousnesses. For him, that meant bearing witness, sometimes imprecisely but always faithfully, to the life beyond moviemaking. Ironically, Herzog has always been easily characterized, even by himself, as prioritizing filmmaking over life, but he’s actually always insisted that film can only find its authenticity by submitting to the dangers and serendipities and wonders of the world outside the frame. His compact with cinema is pure voodoo—a state wherein acts or symbols or words are powerful enough to alter a river, disrupt history, or rescue a society gone awry.
“Our civilization doesn’t have adequate images,” he pronounced after eating that shoe in Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980). “Without adequate images, we will die out like dinosaurs.” This totemic perspective has even manifested in the obverse, with what Herzog has decided not to show—as when in When the Green Ants Dream (1984) the story introduces an Aboriginal totem that would end the world if seen by white men, and Herzog deliberately doesn’t film it, and when in The White Diamond (2004) a photographer rappels down and shoots the unknown cavern behind huge Guyanese falls—the “secret kingdom of the swifts”—and Herzog decides to obey the local Indians’ legends and not include the footage. (We’ll never know if it was worth seeing; instead of a potential disappointment, now we have a myth regained.) Similarly, in Grizzly Man, he obeys his own moral compass and, after listening grimly to the audio of bear-attack victim Timothy Treadwell’s last moments, decides to not share it in the film, immediately suggesting that it be destroyed. You don’t play around with this stuff—some things, once rendered onto film, can change the world.
Of course Herzog’s films aren’t just animist conjurings—he has his thematic obsessions, too, primarily the rather Emersonian sense of nature being under siege by the human throng. Nature often wins the combat, but the damage brought by people is everywhere, from the desert detritus in Fata Morgana (1971) to the pathetic, helplessly dancing chicken in Stroszek to the climactic image in Echoes from a Somber Empire (1990), of the elderly chimpanzee in African ex-despot Bokassa’s decaying private zoo intently smoking a cigarette. Still, Herzog is no go-green idealist, as anyone who’s seen him glower at the “indifferent” madness of the jungle in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) knows well. There is nothing great or dreadful Herzog believes man is incapable of doing, and at the same time all of our glory and folly are lost in the teeth of nature’s appetites. (There are no genuine triumphs in Herzog’s films, nor are there atrocities that decimate anyone as badly as those who perform them; note, too, the complete absence of artists and bourgeois.)
Mostly, though, it can seem as though Herzog has been searching for Herzog—versions of his own obsessive, disastrous, superstitious self—everywhere on earth, from Aguirre the megalomanic conquistador to the mad penguin marching into the Antarctic wastes alone in Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Go all psychoanalytic on him if you must, but I prefer to follow his gaze, outward. Once you’re jacked into Herzog’s mainframe, everything begins to seem Herzogian, and it doesn’t seem surprising that he’s considered cool now, by a generation who never knew life without computer screens. It could be that a new audience, acclimated to a sedentary normalcy of techno-consumerism, has begun to find in Herzog’s ambivalent extremities a forge of legitimate, concrete, exploratory experience, primed to ameliorate their tech-choked emptiness. Perhaps all along, Herzog’s films have been waiting for our neediness, for our starvation for “authentic images,” to reach its tipping point, and now they pose a thorny response, to a world where faith in authentic images feels like a pagan creed.
A series of Herzog’s films are available to stream on the Criterion Channel through January 31, 2020.