Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog remains arguably the most important director to emerge from the New German Cinema movement.   The New German Cinema began in the 1960’s, and the directors that came from that movement are considered legendary.   Rainer Werner Fassbinder revolutionized cinematic drama, Wim Wenders made a impact in his legendary films, but it was Werner Herzog that managed to blur the line between fact and fiction with his documentary style of filmmaking.  Herzog received no formal training and the lack of training does not translate into a lack of intelligence as a film director.  Herzog continues to craft films that are uniquely different from anything that has come before or after he made his make on the industry.  Whether it was all midget casting, the hypnotizing of an entire cast, or the dragging of a ship over a mountain, Herzog’s intelligence and passion carried him to a level few others in any field have managed to reach.

Werner Herzog began his film career by creating films based on nightmares (Herzog, Even Dwarfs AC).  In “Fata Mangana”, Herzog attempted to film mirages in the Sahara desert. The film itself created an atmospheric vacuum for the viewer to exist in for a time.  While the film was described as a nightmarish vision by the director (Commentary Even Dwarfs), the documentary style gave the film a gritty realistic feel.

Herzog followed “Fata Morgana” with a second film created on location titled “Even Dwarfs Started Small.”  In this film, the director succeeded in creating a film that does manage to terrify the viewer.  This film consisted of a cast of dwarfs and midgets.  The goal of the director was to create a world where being a dwarf and midget is the norm and the environment around them appeared disturbing in comparison.  The plot for this film concerns a group of inmates who are trying to take over their institution.  Throughout the film, the inmates create a greater atmosphere of turmoil which grows until the films conclusion.  This film introduces some elements of filmmaking that would become characteristics of every Werner Herzog film to follow.  The director casted the midgets based on their appearance and their personality.  Few of the actors in the movie had no acting experience before starring in Herzog’s film.   Werner Herzog also used the plot to give the viewer images they would likely never see anywhere else.  In one scene, a dwarf woman shows some of her friends a collection of insects who are dressed in miniature clothes.   In another scene, a ceremonial procession was held and the leader carried a crucified monkey at the head of the parade. The director also introduced his chicken motif in this film.  Early in the film, there was a scene showing a chicken cannibalizing another chicken.

Throughout his career, Werner Herzog explored unusual stories to go along with his unique filmmaking style.  A 1974 example of this was “Heart of Glass” which told the story of a town whose only claim to fame came from a man who created stained glass. When the glass maker died, the town began to crumble because they felt they were doomed without the stained glass. In order to create an atmosphere within the film Werner Herzog had his cast hypnotized.   The hypnosis seemed to have a major role on the lead character Hias (played by Josef Bierbichler). Hias had the ability to foresee the future and he saw the downfall of the town.  Herzog successfully created the right atmosphere in this film which further cemented his reputation.

In “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,” the director attempted to film an ancient German folk story. The story involves a man who turns up in the center of a small town at the age of 18 years old. It is revealed that the young man had spent his entire life in solitude and without any human contact.  The young man never learned to speak any language, never learned to walk and he never learned to eat and take care of himself. An unknown man visited him during his youth and feed him and cleaned him.  Kaspar Hauser began to learn in the town and because he was never exposed to society, he learned elements of the world around him that no one else could see or understand.  Shortly before Hauser dies from a knife wound caused by an unknown assailant, Hauser tells that he sees a world that he never lived in.  Herzog once again had cast a major role to someone with no acting experience. The title role went to a man who wanted to be known only as Bruno S. Bruno had only appeared briefly in a single documentary prior to Kaspar Hauser. Werner Herzog decided to cast the lead for his film based on the man’s life experiences and not on his acting experience.  Bruno had spent the majority of his life in institutions and much like the role he played, his ability to function in society was clearly affected by his experiences.  A few years after Kaspar Hauser was released Bruno appeared again in a Herzog film that was written specifically for Bruno.  The title of this film was “Stroszek”.

Bruno S. had expected to be in a different Herzog film titled Woyzeck; the director decided to cast Klaus Kinski in the role.  Herzog decided to create a film specifically for Bruno S. to star in. After a week a week of writing, Herzog wrote “Stroszek.” (HerzogAC Stroszek).  Much like Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek was a film made for Bruno S. and his life experiences.  The story opened with Bruno S. saying goodbye to his fellow inmates in prison.  After his release, Stroszek encountered a hooker (played by Eva Mattes) and his old landlord.  The three struggled to survive in Germany and they decided to leave the country and move to America.  Stroszek, Eva and the landlord settled in Wisconsin and they try to adapt in their new country. Stroszek is perhaps the director’s most compelling film because of all it was able to accomplish with so little.  Eva Mattes was the only actor with any serious training. Every other person in the film either never received any formal training or they were actual people living in Wisconsin.  By mistake, the films action takes place in Plainfield, Wisconsin. The director was working on a project with the famed documentarian Errol Morris. Morris was planning on filming a documentary in Plainfield because the town is famous for the amount of serial killers it had produced. After the project collaboration fell through, Herzog decided to film a large section of his film in this town.  (Herzog AC Stroszek). The film’s ending remains striking for its obscurity. Stroszek, distraught over all of the events that had occurred, decided to drive as far as his truck would take him. Armed with a shotgun and frozen turkey, he entered a desereted amusement park and started the carnival machines filled with animals. After he started these machines, Stroszek boarded a ski lift and a solitary shotgun shot implied what he did on the lift. The film ends with a dancing chicken that continues to dance up until the closing credits.

Werner Herzog claims that he does not purse to make political messages in his films but many of his films approach political issues without stating an opinion.  In “Stroszek” the financial troubles the German immigrants run into is represented with scenes involving a sleazy banker threatening to take their mobile home away.  The director may or may not have been making a statement on capitalism in America.

In a more recent documentary titled “Lessons of Darkness”, Herzog filmed the burning oil fields of Kuwait which were ignited by Saddam Hussein’s army at the conclusion of the Gulf War.  The last scene showed two western oil workers ignite a uncapped well and this scene closed with a close up of the two oil workers smiling and smoking cigarettes. The political messages could have been obvious but Herzog worked to downplay what the viewer sees. Throughout the film, the workers are presented as being good.  The final scene is contrary to what we were shown in the film.

Another documentary entitled, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” followed the story of a Vietnam veteran who despite his having no legs, wanted to be able to fly an airplane again. The film could have made several political statements but instead the film follows Dieter’s desires to make peace with what had happened in the war and his desire to fly an airplane.

While working with major actors was something Werner Herzog seemed to avoid in his early films, Klaus Kinski was an exceptioN. Herzog believed that people who fit the character’s personality closely could play the role with little or no experience required. Klaus Kinski possessed a fiery personality which attracted the director’s attention so much so that Kinski would be cast in five of Herzog’s films.  The first collaboration between the actor and director occurred in the film titled “Aguirre”.

The film “Aguirre” followed a plotline similar to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.  The story was based on a Monk’s journal and his written account formed the basis of the narrative.  The exhibition consisted of a group of Spanish soldiers and their search for El Dorado.  After some mishaps with flooding and altercations with Indians, Aguirre attempted a coup against the leader of the exhibition and he promoted a false king to rule the group.  The crew began to dwindle down to a few due to sickness and starvation. The film concluded with the megalomaniacal Aguirre commanding a group of monkeys which had overrun the raft.  The final shot showed Aguirre standing alone on the raft in a Richard III type pose. Even though Aguirre showed no sign of life, his pose suggested he was alive and lost in his dreams.  The character Aguirre fitted the character of Klaus Kinski.  Kinski, as described by the director was a man with two sides.  At one time Kinski could be gentile and quiet; at another time, Kinski could be on the brink of psychotic madness.  Once again we can see Herzog casting a character based on the actor’s personality and not necessarily on the actor‘s abilities.  (Herzog,My Best Fiend)

Werner Herzog went on to cast Klaus Kinski in two more films which were shot back to back.  Both films give the actor the ability to play a pure evil and complete madness.  In the first film, Werner Herzog ventures to remake F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.”  The story opens with Harker (played by Bruno Ganz) going to see Count Orlock (portrayed by Klaus Kinski). The film follows much of the same formula as the original with Lucy Harker (played by Isabelle Adjani) defeating Orlock by keeping him at her bedside until dawn. While the Murnau story ends at this point, Herzog takes the story to a disturbing conclusion. The director created a pale atmosphere within the town which was being decimated by the plague. As he always had done Herzog uses his documentary type style to create a sense of realism within the town.  In one scene a family is sitting in the courtyard and they are going through a daily routine with poignant accuracy. The family is being turned away from their homes because of their being infected by the plague. This scene gives the viewer a profound sense of pain for the characters who are all doomed to die.  In “Nosferatu” the director for the first time, employed major actors for all of his lead roles.  By the late 1970’s Herzog’s reputation began to make it difficult for the director to keep talented and established performers from wanting to be in his films.

The film Herzog and Kinski did after consecutive to “Nosferatu” was a cinematic adaptation of “Woyzeck.”  In this film Klaus Kinski plays the title character who suspects that his wife Maria (played by Eva Mattes) is having an affair.  Woyzeck is the subject of strange experiments throughout the film and his psychosis is being studied by the local physicians.  After Woyzeck discovers his wife is having an affair, the character concludes his downward spiral into madness and violence. Much like “Nosferatu”, Herzog had Kinski channel his violent aggressions specifically toward the character’s emotion, as a result, Kinski was convincing and powerful in both roles.

By the early 1980’s Werner Herzog had become a prominent filmmaker. His next major project was going to take place in Peru and the film would be called “Fitzcarraldo”. The original stars for this film were going to be Jason Robards as the title character, Mick Jagger as a mentally slow English assistant and Claudia Cardinale as Fitzcarraldo’s wife Molly. This film would prove to be the most trying ordeal the director has ever undertook.  After spending a year and half building two ships for the film, Jason Robards fell ill and had to leave the film. Shortly after Robards left, Jagger was also forced to quit because of his obligations to The Rolling Stones.  Werner Herzog was prepared to start production but he had no actors and his financiers were leaving him.  After failing to find a suitable leading man, Herzog decided to cast Kinski as the lead.  Fitzcarraldo is someone who is dreamer and an adventurer.  The elements in the character’s personality were not apparent in Kinski and this partially explains why Herzog was reluctant to hire him. The other reason Herzog was not enthused with the casting of Kinski was because of Kinski’s temperament and having to deal with his emotions in an uncomfortable foreign setting.  The story focuses on Fitzcarraldo’s goal to bring an opera house into areas of the world where that music is not known.    Herzog reworked his script and he took his cast to Peru for the filming.  Much like “Aguirre”, “Fitzcarralo’s” main action occurred on a boat traveling along a mysterious river.  Werner Herzog managed to accomplish several amazing feats.  During the story, the large steamboat Fitzcarraldo runs aground and his solution is to have the steamboat dragged over a mountain to the other side.  Herzog literally had the steamboat dragged over the mountain.  The massive undertaking resulted in accidents, one in which resulted in a worker being paralyzed.   Although he had to deal with the border war between Ecuador and Peru, the financing problems, cast changes, and Klaus Kinski, Herzog managed to create his crowning achievement in “Fitzcarraldo.”


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