Thursday, July 01, 2010

Modern Maestros: Werner Herzog

Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors. For the second time in a month, I'm thinking of a director whose career started back in the 70's (actually earlier, but it took off in the 70's).  As always, since our interest here is in the importance of these maestros to modern cinema, I'll try and keep the discussion to the past ten years (or so).

Maestro: Werner Herzog
Known For: Movies about madness, movies with Klaus Kinski, and his own bizarre behavior.
Influences: Murnau, obviously. Also Bunuel, Kurosawa, many of the great old ones.
Masterpieces: We'll go all the way back to the old days for these starting with Aguirre, The Wrath of God, including Stroszek and arriving at Grizzly Man.
Disasters: If only I'd seen enough of his movies to answer this accurately, but alas availability issues arise.  No big disasters by my watch.
Better than you remember: History seems to regard him accurately.
Box Office: Numbers are hard to find, but the winner seems to be Rescue Dawn with over $5 mil.
Favorite Actor: Klaus

It's difficult to discuss Werner Herzog's movies without the conversation eventually veering off onto the subject of the man himself.  "Did you hear about that time he pulled a gun on Kinski?" "How about when he ate his own shoe?" "Or when he saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck?"  "Did you know he was shot during an interview and kept going?" On and on go the stories of the man's legendary behavior, threatening to overshadow the great cinema he's made.  However, it may not be entirely unfair to suggest that the man and the movies are two separate topics.  After all, Herzog's worldview shapes both his behavior and his films.  That worldview is rooted in an endless fascination of mankind's inability to comprehend the chaos of the natural world, and how that incomprehension often leads us to madness.  For Herzog, it's a theme that appeared early in his work and reappeared often from Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Fitzcarraldo to subtler examples like Lessons of Darkness.  After his status faded abit in the 1980's and 1990's, Herzog returned, finding his themes mostly suited to documentaries.  In fact, starting with 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly, it seemed like everywhere he looked, the world was confirming Herzog's view of uncaring natural chaos, and begging him to point his camera.

It wasn't until Herzog found perhaps his greatest subject, Timothy Treadwell, that his cinematic comeback was complete. The resulting film Grizzly Man was an exquisitely crafted thesis on the erosion of the human soul.  It was perfect for Herzog who has utilized his reclaimed status to branch out into new areas while still staying true to his themes.  He took his camera out of the jungle and to the harsh environment of Antarctica where he found, predicatably enough, a strange collection of people no doubt molded by their unforgiving surroundings.  Narratively, Herzog has been slowly inching toward mainstream success, working with actors like Christian Bale and Nicolas Cage (who finally had a reason to let loose in a film where Herzog adds Hurricane Katrina to his running list of evidence that the natural world is an antagonizing force).

Bad Lieutenant

However it might not be fair to draw a line between Herzog's fiction and non-fiction films.  At the end of the last century, Herzog issued his Minnesota Declaration, where he railed against the concept of impartial documentary, suggesting that objective honesty in documentary film making is a fruitless task, and that the only way to achieve true honesty is through fabrication and stylization.  In fact, Herzog's documentaries often have a "rehearsed" style to them.  His subjects can seem coached and he ends his interviews by lingering his camera on them, waiting to see what they do once they assume their turn is over.  I mention this because the inherent falseness of traditional verite is an intriguing, unorthodox doctrine for documentary filmmaking, and Herzog is willing to be the only man to champion it.  In a cinematic landscape where conventional wisdom is often treated as indisputable fact, Herzog's daring is worth celebrating.  Speaking of unconventional, Herzog's next documentary will be about cave painting.  Expect it to be in 3D.


Rebecca said...

Nice write-up. I think Brad Dourif is probably his favorite living actor, with 3 credits. Dourif also gives my favorite non-Kinski performance in a Herzog movie, in 'Wild Blue Yonder'.

Gavin Lewis said...

I love Herzog films... In fact I introduced my 1 year old girl to him this morning by watching Heart Of Glass- the one where he hypnotised his cast. She loved it, especially the laughing old man whom she laughed along with. Never seen the whole thing - always fell asleep.. still haven't cause I turned it off near the end- baby needed a stroll.
Wrath of God was my first film I saw - actually an ice breaker with a girl at a party: "you saw that film too?!!" She later became my wife and baby's mother.
Thanks Herzog. Thanks Klaus!

Gavin Lewis said...
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Brian Z said...

Another solid write-up. Love me some Herzog.

Josh said...

Herzog is god.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that his initial meeting with Cage went like this: "Nee-colas, you und I will make beautiful muzik togezer." "Do I get to act crazy?" "No. You haff to be even crazier." "I'm in."

I hope he doesn't retire anytime soon. Or get himself killed first.