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Werner Herzog – Radical Dreamer

Director: Thomas von Steinäcker (Germany, UK). Year of Release: 2022

A car is travelling through downtown Los Angeles. We hear a familiar voice saying that he never dreams – well very rarely. But if he’s been driving for 20 hours at a time, sometimes his head fills up with insects and butterflies. Werner Herzog, who is sitting at the wheel, turns to the camera and gives a huge grin.

After the Second World War, Herzog and his family were moved out of a bombed out Munich into a ski resort which was being used to put up refugees. Dad “left early”, leaving Werner and his siblings to be brought up by their mother, who, because of her doctorate, was seen as the village intellectual. But they were still poor – a loaf of bread had to last them a week. The lack of a father figure didn’t bother Herzog: “It was pure anarchy, in the best sense of the word” he reminisces.

Returning to the resort, Herzog philosophizes on the thoughts of a ski jumper. “When all your instincts are telling you that you need to pull back, you must stretch your body into the abyss”. He says that it is a scandal that he never became a professional athlete and that human beings never developed wings. The idea of Herzog speeding alone down a ski jump or flying through the crowd fits his image as being the permanent outsider, staring into that abyss.

A range of talking heads pop up, particularly at the start of the film. These are mainly successful actors and directors, wanting to tell us how great Herzog is. These scenes – which also took up most of the trailer – don’t tell us much, and only serve to slow the film down. Much of Herzog’s greatness has come from him being able to defy popular trends while carrying on making his own films. We don’t need Robert Pattinson or Nicole Kidman to tell us that.

Some of the German contributors are more informative (for some reason, while Herzog’s family and directors like Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff, all address the camera in German, Herzog speaks throughout in English). Herzog’s two brothers tell us more about their childhood, and his cameramen give us some on-set anecdotes. But the film really lights up when we’re in the presence of the genial Herzog.

In the 1960s, Herzog found himself labelled part of the New German Cinema: “we had different styles but all lived in Munich”. Promoted by the film historian Lotte Eisner, they were seen as the first post-Nazi serious film makers, and thus the inheritors of Expressionist German cinema of the 1930s. Through Eisner, Herzog developed an enthusiasm for these films, particularly those by FW Murnau, whose Nosferatu he remade in 1979 with Klaus Kinski as the eponymous vampire.

We see extracts from some of Herzog’s early films, including his first feature “Signs of Life” (1968), and the superbly named “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970). Both films show a surrealistic disregard for showing boring normal life – the latter film, for example, shows a driverless car being chased by dwarves over a cliff. Notwithstanding their strangeness, they are both beautifully filmed, and show that something interesting was happening in Herzog’s brain.

It has traditionally (and imho, correctly) been said that Herzog’s purple patch came in his collaborations with Kinski, the volatile actor, about whom he later made the documentary “My Best Fiend” (the pun works better in German). 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God has Kinski – not conventionally good looking but nonetheless compelling – playing an adventurist colonialist, whose unhinged outbursts were reflected in Kinski’s on-set fights with Herzog.

Other films followed, including Fitzcarallado (1982), which was supposed to star Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. But Robards got ill, and Jagger hat to go on tour with his musical side project. Once more, Kinski was brought in for a crazed performance, perfectly suited to the plot of dragging a 200 ton wooden ship over the mountains from one river to another. Filming became difficult after war broke out near the Peruvian border where they were filming.

Post-Kinski, Herzog won a new audience after he got fed up with German bureaucracy and moved to the USA in the 1990s.His breakthrough came with the great documentary “Grizzly Man” (2005) about a pair of bear activists who ended up being mauled to death by grizzlies. He went on to make more mainstream films like the remake of Bad Lieutenant (main take-home point: Nicolas Cage is no Klaus Kinski). He also gained acting roles playing apocalyptic doomsayers.

Old anecdotes are few on the ground – though we do see the film of Herzog being interviewed outside by a very young Mark Kermode. Suddenly a shot rings out, and Herzog starts bleeding. He insists on continuing the interview as it’s only a bullet wound. There is also the story of him walking from Munich to Paris, where his old mentor Lotte Eisner was seriously ill. He said that the act of him making this trek would keep her alive. Eisner survived.

We experience three Werner Herzogs in this documentary. There is the young intense director of the 1970s, continually having slanging matches with his Kinski. There’s the much-parodied brooding fatalist, who we see in editions of the Simpsons and Rick and Morty playing a version of himself. But, for most of the time, there’s the affable old man who takes us to important places from his past, like an old waterfall, and chats away with intelligence and wit.

Over the years, Herzog seems to have mellowed, but he hasn’t got any less interesting. I’d have preferred much fewer celebrities and much more of Herzog’s films, much more of him. But, until that film is made, this is more than enough to be going on with.

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