"Herzog stinks of shit, of diarrhea. You can smell it on his fucking clothes. Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Leprosy! It's no use. The more I wish him gruesome deaths the more he haunts me."
-Klaus Kinski after completing Fitzcarraldo in 1981
Writer, director, producer, actor Werner Herzog is one of the darlings of German New Wave Cinema. He was born Werner Stipetic on September 5, 1942 in Sachrang, Germany. Or maybe it was Munich. Whatever – any biography of mister Herzog has to be taken with a grain of salt. He is a storyteller first and foremost and the details of his life shift at his whim. Check it out - these are from various biographies:
He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child.
Moved to Munich with his mother and brother when a bomb dropped on his house when he was 13. They moved into a boarding house with Klaus Kinski.
He started traveling on foot from the age of 14, became a rodeo rider at 16, made his first phone call at 17.
During high school he worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films and made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19.
In 1963 he accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh but dropped out after three days.
Worked for NASA. (he did actually apply to NASA to make training films, but a security check found his visa was expired)
Fled to Mexico and became a gun runner (or maybe it was smuggling TV sets) to pay the bills.
All possible, but each item is stretched to truth's breaking point. Then again, this is part of the Herzog mystique - wouldn’t you rather hear his tall tales than the real thing?
“He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive! An anaconda should throttle him slowly! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyze him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes! Panthers shouldn't slit his throat open with their claws, that would be too good for him!”
Fans and critics alike are passionate about Herzog's work. Detractors charge him with self indulgence and exploitation (see Even Dwarves Started Small). Admirers call him a genius. What makes Herzog interesting as a filmmaker is that he goes to every extreme to make his films, and somehow captures all that blood and effort in the final product. You can find a complete filmography at IMDB, but here are what I consider the essential films and why they stand out:
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1971) - The entire cast is made up of little people. The plot revolves around a strange asylum for dwarfs run by a dwarf. It was banned in Germany and boo'd at the New York Film Festival (audiences saw it as a satirization of the 1968 student uprisings).When filming of this picture completed, Herzog fulfilled a promise to the cast to jump into a cactus field.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1973) - Don Lope de Aguirre takes his conquistador men out in the jungles of 1500's South America to find El Dorado. They run out of food, the natives kill them, monkeys overrun their rafts – and all while Aguirre slowly goes insane.
Heart of Glass (1974) – The old man who owns the glass factory died and forgot to tell anyone the secret formula for the town's famous ruby colored glass. Herzog hypnotized the cast before each scene and much of the film is improvised in this strange dream state.
Nosferatu – The Vampyre (1979) – A remake of F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic. Its a vampire movie with Klaus Kinski – if you need more reason to see a film then perhaps Ill mention the 11,000 rats...
God's Angry Man (1980) – Herzog is brilliant at documentary. This one is about Dr. Eugene Scott, a television evangelist in Los Angeles. A weird angry maniac television evangelist.
Fitzcarraldo (1982) – In my opinion, this is Herzog's masterpiece. Makes an excellent double feature with Burden of Dreams, the documentary of the making of Fitzcarraldo.
Lessons in Darkness (1992) - Documents the aftermath of the Gulf War on Kuwait. Haunting pictures of the burning oil fields and the people who's homeland has changed forever.
My Best Fiend (1999) – The truth is somewhere in this documentary about the tumultuous relationship between Kinski and Herzog.
How to Properly Enjoy a Herzog Film
Drive to the swap meet. Look in the southwest corner over by the guy selling old Moogs and Theremins and across from the used shoe lady. Check out the flesh-colored van with the makeshift awning – yeah there, with the tarp spread out on the ground covered with VHS and DVDs. Don't talk to the little Mexican guy – he likes to pretend he can't speak English ha ha. Its the other guy you want, the guy with one leg and the Vietnam era combat fatigues.
The Herzogs are on the middle tarp between the WWII Concentration Camp Clean Up Extravaganza!!! and the Schulmaedchen verbloedet. Though the covers are photocopied, these are actually pretty clean dubs (except for God's Angry Man, where they guy keeps wiggling the camera so you can tell he's sitting in a theater screening). Buy one, but when One Leg says “Ah so you are a fan of the German New Wave Cinema eh?” say no, pay him and get outta there. Trust me, you don't want to see the stuff in the van – the stuff he can't put out on the tarp. It'll keep you awake for days...
At home, cook a pleasant meal for friends with pie or cheesecake for desert, relax using any relaxation method you prefer and pop in the movie. Enjoy!