In Five Films

In Five Films: Werner Herzog

With the arrival of Family Romance, LLC, a Japan-set curio, we try to sum up the Bavarian legend's career in just five films

For close to six decades, Bavarian writer-director Werner Herzog has carved out a filmic canon that defies easy description, consisting of close to 80 narrative features, documentaries, and shorts. In recent years, he's established himself as an unlikely actor, too, thanks to villainous appearances in Jack Reacher and The Mandalorian. And don't even get us started on the endless array of personal stories that basically paint him as the world's most interesting man.

Themes of obsession, existentialism, and man's turbulent relationship with nature dominate Herzog's works, not to mention their tendency to blur the lines between what's real and what's imagined. And always at the centre, the filmmaker's uncanny ability for staring into the abyss, unafraid to get as close as possible in the hope of discovering what might be staring back.

His latest film, the Japan-set docudrama Family Romance, LLC, makes for yet another curious addition to a canon that grows more eclectic and strange as time goes on. But how do you capture a filmography as vast and unruly as this in just five films? The answer is: you don't. Yet within this experimental oeuvre there are some defining works, each one offering a different side to director who has made career out of tempting fate and stepping into the unknown…

 

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Much of Herzog's career is defined by his collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski, a complex friendship hinged on mutual feelings of respect and disdain. This film, one of their best, follows a 16th-century Spanish conquistador on an ill-fated quest to find the lost city of El Dorado, rumoured to be hidden deep in the sweltering, unforgiving jungles of South America. The battle between man and the natural world lies at the heart of so many Herzog pictures, none more so than here: madness, mayhem, and monkeys fill every frame of this dizzying fever dream, filmed on location and infamously nightmarish to shoot, and whose behind-the-scenes antics (Kinski threatened to walk from the production; Herzog pulled a gun and threatened to shoot him) are now as legendary as the final product. No wonder Francis Ford Coppola used it as inspiration for Apocalypse Now.

 

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Only Herzog would insist that a film about a man trying to drag a 320-ton steamboat over a mountain should require such a feat to be pulled off in real life. And so Fitzcarraldo, which stars Klaus Kinski as a rubber baron who dreams of building an opera house in the jungles of Peru, comes to feel like a natural extension of themes first explored in Aguirre – the sense of Herzog trying to push himself further, purely for the sake of doing so. Fitzcarraldo's obsession is the realisation of Herzog's own obsession, the movie acting as a bold, uncompromising take on the intersection of life and cinema, while Les Blank's documentary on its making, Burden of Dreams, serves an an essential companion piece. Maybe this, above all else, best sums up that elusive thing we call “Herzogian.”

 

Grizzly Man (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This intimate, harrowing, and slyly funny study of delusion is perhaps Herzog's finest documentary to date. A testament to what the director has referred to as “the overwhelming indifference of nature,” the life and death of grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell is considered here through archive footage and interviews with those who knew him. Herzog's singular narration offers a strange and contemplative commentary on a most untimely end; though he never knew Treadwell, his calm, existential approach quickly forges a connection beyond the grave. The climax of the film, a sound recording of Treadwell and his girlfriend's demise at the hands of a bear, is left to Herzog's ears only. Yet the director's tortured expression tells us everything we need to know about his feelings towards an equally mad and unlikely kindred spirit.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Generally speaking, Herzog has resisted the allure of Hollywood, though he's occasionally stepped inside the machine when it's appeared beneficial to the picture. Rescue Dawn is one such movie, perhaps the most “mainstream” film in the director's canon – yet this is still a Herzogian effort at heart, packed with his trademark sensibilities, interesting when viewed as an middle ground between his usual style and more standardised war movie fare. Christian Bale is excellent as downed pilot Dieter Dengler, a POW in Vietnam whose incredible true story was covered in Herzog's own 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Exploring themes of man's capacity to survive in the most strenuous conditions, this is gruelling in places, yet in its depiction of the camaraderie between Dengler and his fellow captives, it's also unexpectedly funny.

 

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Sharing a namesake but having absolutely nothing to do with Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, this might be Herzog's most plainly crazy movie – a film that can't even seem to get its title straight, with Nicolas Cage at the height of whatever it is Nicolas Cage has been doing for the past twenty years. A police procedural, but not really, it has Cage's drug-taking, morally bankrupt detective on the streets of the eponymous city, indulging in acts of vice and generally causing chaos. Fisheye lenses, iguanas, impromptu dance sequences, and – for some reason – Val Kilmer, it's the sort of film you sit and gawp at, wondering how it came together, or why. As an exercise in pure Herzogian strangeness, it taunts you with its seemingly mainstream appeal and instead delivers the most baffling oddity you can imagine. But there is something thrilling in its complete breakdown of convention, in Cage's unhinged scenery-chewing, and in Herzog's frenzied take on… well, your guess is as good as any.

Family Romance, LLC is now available to stream on various streaming services.

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