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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Director Spotlight: Werner Herzog

Since the beginning of this year I have been on a quest to watch the complete filmography of Werner H. Stipetic better known as Werner Herzog.  When I started this adventure I had already seen a few of his films...a decent amount actually (or so I thought), but it turned out he had FAR more I had never seen, mainly his short films and documentaries (of which I had only seen a couple).  I decided to look him up on Wikipedia to see if I could get an actual count of how many films I would be watching (I like to print out a director's filmography and check them off as I go), to my surprise the number of films he has directed comes to 57....57 films!  It has been a long and tiresome process trying to get a hold of his older works and some of his short films, nearly impossible it seems, actually impossible in some cases.  His second short film Game in the Sand was never actually released.  The Transformation of the World into Music exists but has apparently been made unavailable to me, the same can be said of Christ and Demons in New Spain.  Scream of Stone, which Herzog has disowned because of his lack of creative control is seemingly only available on a Region 2 PAL DVD format, which conveniently doesn't play on our NTSC DVD players and TVs (I may have to purchase a region-less DVD player so I can view this film, for completion purposes).  Despite all these setbacks and difficulties, I feel I've done quite well, rounding out at about 40 something films I've seen, so, here's hoping the future brings release of these impossible-to-find DVDs so they can be enjoyed by the world (but mostly me).  I am nearing the end of this quest and I felt I should reflect on what I have experienced so far.  I feel a connection to this 69 year old German man known as Herzog.  His films are strange to most people, I can recognize this, but instead of being repelled as most people are (when it comes to the bizarre), I am attracted.  I don't just see the inane dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek, I see the lunacy, the stupidity, the folly of the American Dream as it is presented in this film.  I don't mean to imply that only I can understand his films, I'm saying I immediately look past the weird to what the director is trying to say, if he's saying anything at all, rather than condemn him for not making sense.  I have watched several interviews about Herzog on top of just watching his films and I feel the same at the core of my being as he describes the way he feels about things:  His absolute loathing for commercials, talk shows, shows that pander to the stupidity of the masses.  The importance of dreams, without which there would be no point in living.  He says he doesn't like the idea of watching his own films, he says it's bad enough other people are allowed to see his films, which is akin to, according to him, "catching him with his pants down".  I was at first startled by this because he is so obvious (at least to me) with what he is trying to convey, so open about the way he feels on certain subjects and themes, yet so hesitant to share.  I respect him for this, and relate on a smaller scale.  It is this idea of putting your very self on film, or video or digital image, bearing your beliefs and thoughts to the public that is a scary thing, welcoming judgment from detractors and fans alike, it can wear on your nerves.  I have felt that his films have always been great, not all of them (even he has his bad days) but most of them have impressed me or even overwhelmed me with how grand and wonderful they are.  I'm thinking particularly of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which is spectacular, and funny, and heartbreaking and genuine.  The actor portraying Hauser, a man named Bruno S., was a victim of child abuse and Nazi experimentation in real life and was partially deaf from being beat so much by his mother.  In the film he plays a man who has been locked in a prison his entire life, for no reason, by a madman, only eating bread and drinking water, never learning to speak or even walk, one day the man takes him and leaves him on the outskirts of a town in Germany where he is found and eventually taught the things he never experienced.  Even with the absence of formal acting lessons he is a marvel to watch.  Another film that has so moved me was his newest film Into the Abyss which is about the death penalty.  I wrote about this on Facebook after I had watched it and so I'm going to retype those words here because they reflect my feelings immediately upon completion of the viewing.  "Into the Abyss, here is a sad, moving unbiased look at the death penalty; those involved in the crimes, the families of the victims, the guards, the chaplains, and the perpetrators themselves.  Though opposed to the death penalty, Herzog has no agenda, he simply lets them tell their stories, lets us reflect on the events that have transpired, and on their lives, and lets us have a glimpse into it all.  The "abyss" seems to refer less to capital punishment and more to the depths of pain and suffering human beings not only deal to one another but also endure."  It is interesting to watch Herzog interview these very manly, blue collar men in Texas, people very different than an artistic German film director.  Herzog is such a presence you can hear it in the way they answer him always saying "sir" and being very respectful to a man they have no real reason to respect (also a testament to their general kindness).  His previous film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about a cave in France that was discovered and contained some of the oldest cave drawings of which we are aware.  Herzog was given exclusive rights to come in and film the cave to share with the world.  Not only do I admire Herzog's films and ideas but also his tenacity for film-making.  He allows nothing to stop him from achieving his dreams.  Pull a riverboat over a mountain?  DONE.  Film a town on the base of a then-active volcano, basically condemning yourself and crew to certain death if the volcano were to erupt? DONE. Fly with a man in a prototype airship risking death?  DONE.  Nothing stops him.  He made his own production company in 1963 and has worked that way since!  He stole a camera so he could make his films, until he could afford one of his own.  He called Errol Morris a coward who would never finish a film and said he would eat his shoe if the film became a reality.  Morris made the film, Herzog ate his shoe.  He's a man of his word who isn't afraid of anything, just watching him is an inspiration and has encouraged me to get back on track and make a film of my own.  I have always been interested in Herzog, but now, as I feel I have almost become acquainted with him, I place him in my very top list of favorite directors, you owe it to yourself to watch his films.
Suggested films for the casual viewer:


  1. Loved Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Seemed like you were there with ancient men.

  2. Yeah, absolutely. It was such a wonderful experience.