In a cinema that is dominated by Hollywood blockbusters and clichés, Werner Herzog emerges as a truly inspired filmmaker who always has an original vision. Herzog has never depended on the studios for funding and has crafted films that he wants to make. Some of his best features are documentaries. To experience one of them is to be enriched with knowledge that causes one to look at life through a different lens.
Born in Munich, Germany on September 5, 1942, Werner Herzog grew up in a mountain village. In 1961, he made his first film at nineteen years old. Since then, he has had a prolific career producing, writing, and directing over sixty documentary and feature films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Lessons of Darkness (1992), and Rescue Dawn (2006). Herzog has written several books and directed various operas. He has three children and currently, lives in Munich and Los Angeles.
In 1998, Herzog released Little Dieter Needs to Fly about a German-born pilot named Dieter Dengler, who was the only American to free himself from a Viet Cong prison camp during the Vietnam War. Herzog allows Dengler to tell his own story. Dengler does this by revisiting his hometown and the site of his capture and escape in Laos. Dengler reenacts many events for the camera, including his escape and delirious trek through the jungle. Like Herzog, Dengler is a great storyteller, making it easy to imagine his experiences because he tells them with such vivid detail. Herzog uses many of his trademark long takes after Dengler retells some of his horrifying experiences, including when his friend and companion was decapitated in front of his eyes. These long takes give Dengler and the viewer time to feel the weight of his words. This approach lets the viewer become more intimate with the subject and allows for a more personalized experience.
In this film, Herzog blurs the line between reality and fiction and causes one to contemplate the definition of a documentary. Many scenes in the film were staged including the opening in which Dengler drives down a road to his home in San Francisco, where he repeatedly opens and closes the door to his house because he does not take his freedom for granted. Herzog even suggested Dengler’s image of death, that of the jellyfish. These creative choices create a more cinematic experience and do not deter from the power of human experience, or as Herzog describes it, “ecstatic truth.” Herzog defies the structure of traditional documentaries without using any talking heads, except for Dengler. One man’s personal story widens the lens of the viewer and opens one’s mind to the atrocities of war.
In 2005, Herzog released Grizzly Man, a heartrending account of Timothy Treadwell, the bear activist who lived thirteen summers with grizzlies in the Alaska wilderness. On October 6, 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard were killed by a one thousand pound grizzly. Herzog compiled one hundred hours of video footage that Treadwell filmed during his time with the grizzlies and his own personal footage that includes interviews with Treadwell’s family and friends, and other personalities.
In this cautionary tale, Herzog shows someone who wanted to live in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, there is a line that separates humans from bears and other wild animals. Treadwell seemed to have crossed that line and entered a world that at first seemed ideal. During his time with the grizzlies, nature’s beauty and wild animals constantly surrounded Treadwell. Herzog takes a different stance than Treadwell. Treadwell reminds one of Christopher McCandless, another idealist who died in the Alaska bush after living there for one hundred and thirteen days. These men accessed the primordial instincts within themselves and found truth and beauty in nature.
Like any great documentary filmmaker, Herzog uses emotional shock to enhance his audience’s viewing experience. When Treadwell and Huguenard were killed, the camera did not capture the incident on film but it did record the audio. Herzog chooses not to reveal this aural information to his audience and allows the viewer to fill in the details with their imagination. Herzog uses multiple perspectives of Treadwell from various people. It does not seem like Herzog is telling his audience to think or feel a certain way. He never imposes his views on anyone. Rather, he merely presents the information and lets the viewers decide for themselves. His subjects are powerful enough to stand on their own. This is unlike some documentary filmmakers who want to convince the viewer to think a certain way about a subject.
In 2007, Herzog became the only feature-film director to have made a film on every continent when he traveled to Antarctica to make Encounters at the End of the World. Accompanied only by his cameraman, Herzog depicts a hidden society that includes “linguists on a continent with no language” and “PhDs working as cooks.” This unusual group of one thousand men and women live on a research station in one of the harshest places on earth in search of frontier science. The title has two meanings. One cannot go further south than Antarctica. It is literally at the end of the world. Also, Antarctica shows signs that humans may have reached the beginning of the end of their existence on the earth. Herzog gives his audience a viewing experience that is haunting, surreal, and otherworldly.
In this film, Herzog once again explores the relationship between humans and nature. Humans have tried to conquer nature for thousands of years and as a result, they are destroying the planet and their chances of survival on it. As Herzog makes clear, human existence on earth is not infinite and the human race is a mere speck in time. One feels a certain sadness after watching the film. It is interesting that Herzog contrasts footage from his own journey to Antarctica with footage from the earliest explorers of the continent. In the old footage, one can imagine the adventure and excitement involved in discovering a vast, raw, untouched wilderness. The modern McMurdo research station, on the other hand, is ugly and dreadful. Human society, as a whole, needs to make a shift to become more sustainable and better protect the earth.
In many of his films, Herzog depicts the harsh realities of nature and people’s vulnerability in their natural environment. He does not seem to think that humans can live in harmony with nature: “Our presence on this planet does not seem to be sustainable. Our technical civilization makes us particularly vulnerable. Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be the next.” The film is somber and haunting with images that do not leave the viewer with much hope. These images include a frozen fish in an icy shrine and the melting ice cap. The film’s most haunting image, though, is that of a penguin walking inexplicably to its doom. In the beginning of the film, Herzog makes clear that he did not travel to Antarctica to film cute penguins. He reveals something much deeper and darker. Beneath the South Pole lies a hidden world in which sea animals are compared by one scientist to creatures from apocalyptic science fiction films from the 1950s. The underwater photography is astonishing and shows the viewer another world. It is like something out of a dream except it is not a dream. It is reality.
With a unique voice, approach, and vision, Herzog has captivated audiences worldwide for decades. His approach to documentary film is particularly effective. His curiosity has taken him to faraway and remote places, such as Laos, Alaska, and Antarctica. He returns with incredible stories that widen people’s lens of each other and the world that they live in. His longer takes allow the viewer to digest information. His subjects are extreme and occupy spaces that most people will never see or experience. His subjects must battle their primordial instincts from within. Dieter Dengler must survive in a prison camp and treacherous jungles. Timothy Treadwell takes his love for animals to the extreme by living in places where most people would not dare go. Antarctica, often referred to in the film as “living,” is the most extreme place on earth. Herzog seems to live for extremes. He often depicts obsessive characters in his films, which is a reflection of his own obsessive personality such as when he had people haul a real ocean liner to the jungles of South America for Fitzcarraldo.
Obviously, Herzog has always had an interest in nature. He once said, “I love nature but against my better judgment.” Perhaps, Herzog is commenting on the harsh realities of nature and humans’ vulnerability in it, which is a common theme in many of his films. Herzog raises social awareness in his films regarding the environment. In Grizzly Man, he warns against the consequences of romanticizing the natural world. In Encounters at the End of the World, he warns viewers of climate change and the limits to human existence. Herzog avoids biases by providing evidence, including the melting ice cap, and multiple perspectives.
Redemption is another prevalent theme in Herzog’s work. The final section of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is titled “redemption” and it suggests that Dengler finds redemption by continuing what he loves to do most: fly. Timothy Treadwell claimed that he led a life of drugs and alcohol before finding redemption in the wilds of Alaska with the grizzlies. As Encounters at the End of the World makes clear, human redemption depends on the human race’s willingness to become more sustainable and coexist with the natural world.
Solitude is another important theme and feeling that one gets during and after watching some of Herzog’s films. In Encounters at the End of the World, there is a dark loneliness in the limitless ice shelf that the divers go beneath. It is a world that we know so little about. In Grizzly Man, one can imagine the loneliness that Timothy Treadwell must have felt during his time in the Alaskan wilds despite his relationship with the wild animals that lived there. In one scene, after Treadwell is dropped off in the wilderness, he talks about the quiet and solitude of living there. It is unfortunate that Huguenard accompanied Treadwell in his final journey and perished with him.
With an instantly recognizable tone of voice, Herzog’s narration is a key component of his documentaries. His observations of his subjects are fascinating and cause the viewer to further contemplate a variety of questions that range from unusual to cosmological. When Herzog speaks, the viewer believes that they are hearing the thoughts of a curious man who has lived an extremely interesting life. Herzog seems to question human nature, one’s place in the universe, and the meaning of life and death. Without his narration, it would not be a true Herzog documentary. It would be something else entirely.
In his documentaries, Herzog reveals a bleak vision of the world. It is a world in which humans have overstepped their boundaries of nature and have left much death and destruction in their path. However, one cannot help but think that there is hope; that humans have more to show than a frozen fish at the South Pole. Dieter Dengler is a great symbol for hope. He was a man whose dreams came to fruition through his own doing. Dengler’s own passion for flying gave him the hope that he needed after the war.
In his films, Herzog uses music that is evocative of another world. The sounds are often foreign and poetic. Often, the music in Herzog’s films blends perfectly with his amazing onscreen imagery. Examples include a scene in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in which aerial shots reveal explosions in the jungle while the music sounds alien. A scene in Encounters at the End of the World reveals beautiful underwater photography while the music is operatic. The music in these scenes and many other scenes in Herzog’s films is the perfect mix of sight and sound.
Carefully constructed, Herzog’s documentaries have cinematic appeal. Herzog often uses long shots and extreme long shots to convey beautiful landscapes. In the extreme long aerial shots of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a war torn land is revealed. In Grizzly Man, extreme long shots depict a wilderness that shows the extent to which Timothy Treadwell is isolated and in Encounters at the End of the World, they reveal the limitless ice shelves of Antarctica.
During an interview in 2006, a sniper shot Herzog and he barely budged. With his usual calm demeanor, Herzog said, “It is not a significant bullet” and smiled. Herzog has known too much of the depths of life already to be perturbed by an insignificant bullet. People live. People die. People get shot. Life goes on and Herzog exemplifies this perspective. In order to avoid biases, Herzog uses multiple perspectives in his films. His films transcend time and space, fact and fiction, and opinions.
As a result of watching Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Grizzly Man, and Encounters at the End of the World, I have a greater respect for documentary film. I have always had a passion for films but I have never had much interest in documentaries until I discovered Werner Herzog. His films showed me the power that documentaries can have to change people’s thoughts and perspectives and to enrich them with knowledge. There is no implicit attempt in these films to change the audience’s perspective in a particular direction. Rather, these films allow viewers to make their own meaning about life and its mysteries. Little Dieter Needs to Fly gave me a more personal vision of the Vietnam War and its horrors and Encounters at the End of the World deepened my understanding for the limits to human existence.
Herzog’s fiction films also possess an authenticity that is rare in the cinema. One of his earliest fiction films and the first of his Amazonian works, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is a powerful adventure that depicts man’s obsessive and unrelenting quest for power in an unforgiving natural landscape. In Herzog’s quest for authenticity, he took his actors and crew to the Amazon rainforest, where they lived on rafts and nearly starved to death. In this film, an explorer named Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and other Spanish conquistadors search for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado.
It is interesting to think of this film as deeply musical, reflecting Herzog’s preoccupation with the musical theater. There are ‘musical stills’ throughout in which visually static scenes are accompanied by music (Rogers 77). The ‘musical stills’ include music from the avant-garde group, Popul Vuh, which lends itself naturally to the film’s eerie and mystical qualities.
The film stars Klaus Kinski, who also starred in Nosferatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo. Kinski steals the film with a remarkable performance that reflects his own eccentric personality. Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration is a fascinating story in of itself. In fact, their relationship was the subject of Les Blank’s 1992 documentary, Burden of Dreams. Herzog once claimed “every grey hair on my head I call Kinski” (Rogers 79).
After three and a half weeks of shooting, the film’s negatives disappeared, causing Kinski to threaten that he was going to quit. Rumors spread that Herzog pointed a gun at Kinski, warning that he would shoot the actor with eight bullets and use the ninth on himself if Kinski did not finish the film. One can never be positive of the truth in Herzog’s world. The filmmaker has acquired a mythical status, like the city of gold itself. In his autobiography, Kinski calls Herzog, among other things, ‘a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep’ (Rogers 80).
When discussing Aguirre, Herzog said, “I think its attraction-the advantage it has over Hollywood-is that it is real. The spectacle is real, the danger is real. It is the real life of the jungle, not the botanic gardens of the studio…It is easy enough to make a film in your own living room; but imagine trying to make one with 500 people in the Amazon tributaries. We had a budget of over $300,000; but to look at, Aguirre is a 3-million dollar film” (Young 410). I find it hard to disagree with Herzog.
Bachmann says, “The concentration on the theme of man alone, of the human being in the wilderness, cultural or topographic, of loneliness and singularity of purpose, of the inability to express and to communicate the things that join men, has led Herzog to what be considered one of his most important stylistic elements: silence” (8). Like other great filmmakers, Herzog realizes the importance of silence in the cinema. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, Aguirre tells a slave to play music in order to fill the silent void that drives the men further into madness. Rogers writes, “In exactly the same way as early cinema audiences were unnerved by images without accompanying sound, the conquistadors feel not only exposed and tense in the silence, but also disturbed by their enigmatic, two-dimensional surroundings. Aguirre’s response is to order one of the Indian slaves to play his panpipes, hoping the sounds will fill the terrifying void, and lessen the feeling of intrusion” (Rogers 83).
A monk narrates the film. His positive account of the explorers’ journey often contradicts the reality of the situation. This reflects Herzog’s own narration in his documentaries, in which he often blurs the line between reality and fiction.
Herzog has lived a fascinating life and his stories, both onscreen and off, are always enthralling. One of Herzog’s favorite stories is how he ended up in Guadeloupe after overhearing news of an anticipated volcano eruption and a native who lived on the mountain and refused to evacuate. Over 75,000 people were evacuated but the volcano did not erupt. Herzog said that he treated the volcano “with great disrespect. Jürg and I walked all the way to the center and pissed in it. The matter of fear doesn’t come up. Nobody else could have made the film, and somebody had to” (Bachmann 4).
In conclusion, Herzog is a man with a unique vision that will enrich the lives of any viewer who experiences his films. Herzog’s documentaries accompanied by his distinct narration put the viewer inside the head of the director. He once said, “I am my films.” By assessing the director’s vision, one finds a philosophical vision that will cause one to question his or her own thoughts, dreams, and perceptions.
Holly Rogers, Fitzcarraldo’s Search for Aguirre: Music and Text in the Amazonian Films of Werner Herzog, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 129, No. 1 (2004)), pp. 77-79.
Vernon Young, Much Madness: Werner Herzog and Contemporary German Cinema, The Hudson Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn 1977), pp. 409-414.
Gideon Bachman, The Man on the Volcano: A Portrait of Werner Herzog, Film Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 2-10.
Lutz P. Koepnick, Colonial Forestry: Sylvan politics in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, New German Critique, No. 60, Special Issue on German Film History (Autumn, 1993), pp. 133-159.
Drama, Shrill. “Werner Herzog – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001348/>.
Ebert, Roger. “A Letter to Werner Herzog from Roger Ebert.” Werner Herzog. Web. <http://www.wernerherzog.com/17.html?&tx_ttnews%5Bpointer%5D=3&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=16&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=43&cHash=83a83e2384>.
Ebert, Roger. “Encounters at the End of the World.” Rogerebert.com. Web. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080710/REVIEWS/807100305/1023>.
“Grizzly Man.” Rogerebert.com. Web. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050811/REVIEWS/50726001/1023>.
“Little Dieter Needs To Fly.” Rogerebert.com. Web. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981002/REVIEWS/810020304/1023>.
Rabiger, Michael. Directing the Documentary. Amsterdam: Focal/Elsevier, 2009. Print.
“Short Bio.” Werner Herzog. Web. <http://www.wernerherzog.com/100.html>.
Werner Herzog Gets Shot by LA Sniper during Interview. YouTube. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXqc8TQ15w>.