During his long career Werner Herzog has made around 60 films.
his long career Werner Herzog has made around 60 films. Included in this illustrious
collection are over 20 documentaries. Although
Herzog will perhaps best be remembered for his ambitious films with Klaus Kinki
(Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) it’s his documentaries which really
showcase his talents as a storyteller and filmmaker.
The films he made with Kinski had a running
theme of a character who, against spiralling odds, tried to realise incredible
and impossible dreams. What is interesting is that these themes, plus an
obsession with nature and death, are ever present in his documentary features.
These real life tales of unique personalities and seemingly miraculous natural
events have enraptured Herzog fans since the 1960’s.
Growing up in the Bavarian village of Sachrang,
Herzog felt the lure of the filmmakers’ camera from an early age. This
fascination eventually led to him stealing a camera from the Munich film
school; a theft he claims was ‘necessary’. During his teenage years he
travelled widely, long before it was fashionable, and this wanderlust spurred
on his love of documentary making. His early films, like Fata Morgana and The Flying
Doctors of East Africa, are set around the African continent and, although
intriguing, are slightly ambiguous in their message. This isn’t a criticism,
because it’s in these early films that you see a young man starting to learn
his craft and formulate his ideas.
He would eventually realise these ideas while
working with the erratic and psychotic Kinski: a man who pushed himself and
Herzog to the limits of sanity. While stuck on inconceivable sets, working
under extreme conditions, Herzog came to see nature as a miserable and
overwhelming force, which humanity should never try to understand or dominate.
A now infamous speech, taken from the Fitzcarraldo documentary Burden of Dreams, perfectly articulates
his distaste for the jungle’s chaos and lack of harmony, and has since become a
cult Youtube hit.
Herzog’s tribulations with Kinski came to end in
1987 with the completion of Cobra Verde. Since then, he has only made six
feature films, but has churned out an incredible 21 documentaries. Perhaps it
was the testing times he spent with Kinski in the Amazon Rainforest that
finally turned his attention from fictional to real life psychologies. However,
only someone who had gone to the
ends of the world with a man who was the best side of crazy could have made the
documentaries that Herzog went on to make.
This constant focus on bombastic individuals and
natural marvels are both strongly present in arguably Herzog’s most famous
film, Grizzly Man. Grizzly Man tells the tragic story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent his
summers in the Alaskan wilderness, watching and caring for grizzlies. While his
intentions were good, it quickly becomes obvious that Treadwell has delusions
of grandeur and is extremely disconnected from society. In fact, he ultimately
died at the hands of a bear that he had tried to befriend.
Herzog told this tragic tale using Treadwell’s
own footage, which he recorded during his summers with the bears. Herzog
narrates over the piece and shares his own views on nature and even argues with
Treadwell as their ideals clash. Whilst Grizzly Man was a unique and
potentially revolutionary film it wasn’t the first time Herzog had looked at
individuals at odds with nature.
Soufriere saw him visit a remote Caribbean island, on the
verge of extinction due to an erupting volcano. The island was deserted, as the
locals had fled in terror, but amongst the pandemonium, three men had decided
to stay and live out their last days in defiance of nature. Similarly, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, documented
the incredible story of ex-naval pilot Dieter
Dangler who was captured and escaped the clutches of Vietcong during the
Vietnam War. Against incredible odds, Dangler survived in the middle of a dense
and dangerous jungle and was eventually rescued. Herzog dramatically retold
Dangler’s story in Rescue Dawn where
Christian Bale played Dieter.
What’s most interesting about Herzog’s most
recent documentaries is that Herzog himself has almost become a character
within these films. A character that gets invited to the most unusual places,
like Antarctica (Encounters At the End
of the World) and the Chauvet Caves in France (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Rather than make a nuts and bolts
documentary based on these visits, he delves beyond the surface and studies
what is wild and grandiose about each of these spectacular places. In nearly
all of this recent batch of documentaries, strange and perverse people are
interviewed, who often have bizarre and contrasting views on particular
subjects. In any other circumstance, they may not seem that eccentric but
Herzog’s deep and probing questions have a way of exposing even the darkest of
souls. He just seems to know what questions to ask. A skill which is key to Into the Abyss, his latest film about inmates on America’s death row. The manner
in which he reduces reverends, guards and prisoners to tears with a few simple
questions is astonishing. And it goes without saying that he has one of the
most unique and lyrical voices in history. A voice which is almost a star in
its own right.
To try and highlight the incredible documentary
work that Herzog has produced would perhaps require a documentary in itself. He
is a man who chooses his subjects very carefully and makes films that will
appeal to audiences from all walks of life. Whether it is about the obscenity
of nature or the wonderment of life and death, these films can – and do –
appeal to any age, race or creed. Only a man who has lived the sort of life
that he has, could even attempt to make these films. The abyss has stared into Herzog and Herzog has stared straight back.
Quite simply, fearless.
The Abyss is available on DVD/Blu-ray from 16th April. Click Here to