FILM SOCIETY DIRECTING AWARD: WERNER HERZOG

This award is given each year to one of the masters of world cinema. Graham Leggat talks about Werner Herzog. LISTEN

The Ecstasy of Truth: Werner Herzog Seeks New Ways of Making Movies
By David Sterritt

Werner Herzog has been a major figure in world cinema for nearly four decades, ever since the heady days of then-West Germany's revolutionary Neue Kino movement in the late 1960s. Known best for an early filmography that contains such ambitious epoch-making movies as Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), this ever-curious director has in the second half of his unconventional career emerged as a wizard of documentary and hybrid fiction/nonfiction forms. Last year alone, in fact, Herzog outdid himself by finishing four stunning nonfiction films that confirmed his genius and brought him the attention of a wide and appreciative audience.

The four new films are The White Diamond (SFIFF 2005), about a British scientist testing a flying machine he has invented to explore the canopy of a Guyana rainforest; Wheel of Time, about a half million pilgrims attending a Buddhist ceremony in India's northern countryside; Grizzly Man, a portrait of an eccentric bear enthusiast killed by one of the creatures he loved; and The Wild Blue Yonder, an almost unclassifiable sci-fi fantasia that will receive its West Coast premiere at this year's Festival.

The range of subjects in these four films, not to mention in Herzog's career as a whole, gives a sense of the extraordinary appetite this restless and prolific director has for the world around him and the strange and beautiful creatures (i.e., human beings) who inhabit it. Compassionate and inquisitive, Herzog is forever seeking out new sources of fascination and bringing them to light.

Herzog was born Werner Stipetic in 1942 in Munich, Germany and lived in a mountain town near the Austrian border as a child. There, the rock-solid facts about Herzog's early life come to an abrupt halt, crashing into the mountain of fabrications and tall tales that have circulated, and been encouraged by him, throughout his career. Editor and moviemaker Paul Cronin sums this up neatly in Herzog on Herzog, his 2002 interview book: "Most of what you're heard about Werner Herzog is untrue."

This said, it appears fairly certain that Herzog did a lot of foot traveling as an adolescent and did poorly in school, working as a welder to finance his first short, Herakles, in 1961. He started to gain international attention with his first feature, Signs of Life, in 1968, helping to put the whole Neue Kino crew-including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, among others-on the global moviemaking map.

He earned an early cult following with such films as the bizarre 1970 melodrama Even Dwarfs Started Small, the harrowing 1971 documentary Land of Silence and Darkness and the mirage-filled 1971 fever dream Fata Morgana. The movie that made him an art-theater luminary, though, was Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his 1972 classic about a demented 16th-century Spanish explorer losing what little sanity he had while leading an expedition down the Amazon River. The title character is played by Klaus Kinski, a hugely gifted and famously difficult actor who also stars in such later Herzog productions as Fitzcarraldo, about a man building an opera house on a jungle-bound mountaintop, and Nosferatu the Vampyre, a 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece; and who is the subject of Herzog's unorthodox filmed memoir, My Best Fiend (1999).

Other important Herzog films include Heart of Glass, a hallucinatory 1976 drama for which he hypnotized the cast before each day's shooting, and La Soufrière, a 1977 short about his effort to climb a Guadaloupe volcano expected to erupt at any second. He has also starred in movies by other directors, such as Harmony Korine's admirable Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Zak Penn's Incident at Loch Ness (2004), which he also cowrote and produced. However, his most memorable role is, perhaps not surprisingly, that of himself in Les Blank's classic documentary Burden of Dreams (SFIFF 1983), which chronicles the near-chaos of shooting Fitzcarraldo on location in Peru, where everything from weather to war seemed bent on annihilating the production.

By conventional labels, three of Herzog's 2005 releases (The White Diamond, Wheel of Time, Grizzly Man) are documentaries, depicting real-life people and events, while the fourth (The Wild Blue Yonder) is fiction (Brad Dourif plays an alien from outer space). Not many Herzog films fit neatly into these pigeonholes, however, since blurring the boundaries between real and unreal, external and internal, physical and metaphysical has been central to his agenda from the start.

The documentary-making Herzog has no problem with narration, happily stages "nonfiction" scenes and says cinema vérité is "devoid of vérité," reaching "a merely superficial truth-the truth of accountants." Told that his refusal to draw sharp borders between fiction and nonfiction reminded one critic of Jean-Luc Godard's assertion that these categories form a sort of Möbius strip, since starting down one road inevitably leads to traveling the other as well, Herzog responded, "Godard said that? It's well put."

Then he paused and added, "But I don't trust Godard."

David Sterritt is the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and writes for the Christian Science Monitor. He also teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Long Island University.

This article appeared in a different form in the Summer 2005 issue of MovieMaker magazine.


Werner Herzog
Selected Filmography

Rescue Dawn 2006
Grizzly Man 2005
The Wild Blue Yonder 2005
The White Diamond 2004
Wheel of Time 2003
Invincible 2001
My Best Fiend 1999
Little Dieter Needs to Fly 1997
Lessons of Darkness 1992
Scream of Stone 1991
Herdsmen of the Sun 1989
Cobra Verde 1987
Where the Green Ants Dream 1984
Fitzcarraldo 1982
Nosferatu the Vampyre 1979
Woyzeck 1978
Stroszek 1977
Heart of Glass 1976
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser 1974
Aguirre, The Wrath of God 1972
Fata Morgana 1971
Land of Silence and Darkness 1971
Even Dwarfs Started Small 1970

Previous Recipients

Taylor Hackford 2005
Milos Forman 2004
Robert Altman 2003

Previously Known As Akira Kurosawa Award

Warren Beatty 2002
Clint Eastwood 2001
Abbas Kiarostami 2000
Arturo Ripstein 1999
Im Kwon-Taek 1998
Francesco Rosi 1997
Arthur Penn 1996
Stanley Donen 1995
Manoel de Oliveira 1994
Ousmane Sembène 1993
Satayajit Ray 1992
Marcel Carné 1991
Jirí Menzel 1990
Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1989
Robert Bresson 1988
Michael Powell 1987
Akira Kurosawa 1986

Festival Screening: The Wild Blue Yonder



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