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.”
“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.”
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