Werner Herzog is arguably the world’s greatest living director. Here is a man who has consistently delivered unique, subversive, challenging and thrilling cinema across his forty-plus year career. From early essayistic documentaries to starring opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, Herzog seems to deliberately make himself hard to pin down, acquiring himself a legendary, almost mythological status in the process. These stories do nothing to dispel such myths.
A cast of zombies
Heart Of Glass is Herzog’s masterpiece, a beautiful, dark, almost fairytale like story of one town’s descent into madness. What really sets this film apart however is the fact that the entire cast act under hypnosis...for the whole film, aside from a few scenes shot inside a glass blowing...factory, I guess, in which hypnotising the cast members was probably considered a teency weency bit dangerous, even for Werner. The result of the hypnosis takes a little getting used to. Characters interact, as you’d expect, in a very strange, mannered, almost robotic way. Dialogue is delivered with little to no inflection, allowing you to concentration on the beauty and poetry of the language. There’s a fantastic scene in a beer cellar where two characters dance to wailing hurdy gurdys and raucous Germanic laughter, it all calls to mind a kind of twisted carnival with Herzog as the maniacal ringmaster. Genius. If you speak German, the entire thing is on Youtube.
Herzog’s Best Friend
Much of Herzog’s stories derive from the films he made with Klaus Kinski – it’s worth taking a moment to examine just how brilliant that partnership was. Five films: Aguirre, Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, all in the space of 15 years. Whilst Fitzcarraldo is arguably the pick of those 5, each one is essential viewing. However, despite a brilliant creative relationship, documented later in Herzog’s tribute “My Best Fiend,” their personal relationship on set was...well...fractious, shall we say.
Fractious in that Kinski on more than one occasion would rage at Herzog and threaten to walk off set, though Herzog once claimed that he knew Kinski never would, because if he did, Herzog would shoot him. Yup. This brilliant video includes a recording of one of Kinski’s famous rages, whilst also revealing Herzog’s genius as a director, able as he was to transform these rages into weighty, powerful performances:
Death defying acts
Whether it’s fighting off rebellious Amazonian tribesmen (Fitzcarraldo) or dodging bullets being interviewed by Mark Kermode, trouble seems to follow Herzog around. Then again, there’s the occasional time when Herzog will seek it out, such is the case with the tale of La Soufriere, one of Herzog’s most beguiling documentaries. Picture the scene: the island of Guadaloupe has been evacuated in the wake of an oncoming volcanic eruption, one that would put Pompeii to shame. What did Herzog do? Went to the island to film, obviously. Never mind the fact that he was almost certainly going to die. Never mind the fact that, in the event of his death, any footage, no matter how brilliant, would be incinerated! No! He wanted to make that movie, so he made it (there’s a lesson there...somewhere). The resulting documentary is fascinating. Feral dogs stalk the streets, peasants camp out on the volcano waiting to meet their maker, and Herzog just observes it all very unobtrusively.
Oh, and needless to say the volcano didn’t erupt in the end, though I don’t think that’s Herzog’s fault.
On the surface Herzog’s role in Jack Reacher seems like an odd one, but if you dig a little deeper it actually isn’t surprising in the slightest. Herzog has never shied away from the mainstream, in fact, he has always professed his films to be mainstream films. Indeed, Cruise isn’t the only Hollywood A-lister Herzog has been cosying up to. In the run up to last year’s Oscars Herzog professed his admiration for Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, saying “that kind of performance only happens once a decade,” a comment which apparently nearly made Firth drop his Oscar when he was eventually told. Keanu Reeves is another big fan of Herzog’s, and apparently wants him to direct the new Bill & Ted movie. Herzog stopped short of confirming as such, but has claimed in interviews that he likes Keanu a lot and does want to work with him in future. God only knows what kind of film that would be.
The Enigma of Bruno S.
The story of Bruno S. sums up everything you need to know about Herzog the director. Bruno was a German street musician, a man who’d been in and out of prison and various ale-houses, who made a living driving forklift trucks and who was abused as a child and who refused to be credited with his full name in case his true identity became public and he was put into serious danger. It was his raw, infantile nature that made him the perfect choice for Herzog’s adaptation of the legendary German folk tale of Kaspar Hauser, a foundling who appeared in a German town centre one day, with no memory of how he wound up there and just a piece of paper in his hand. Bruno’s performance is incredible, and he was all ready to continue his work with Herzog in his next project Woyzeck, however at the last minute Herzog cast Klaus Kinski instead, which apparently caused Bruno no small amount of heartache.
To make it up to Bruno, Herzog promised to write him a film, and true to his word he did, in a week coming up with the script for Stroszek, a story about a homeless German musician who travels to America to seek work and fortune with his grandfather and prostitute girlfriend – it’s one of Herzog’s best, an hilarious and moving story with his most iconic and peculiar ending. Imagine that though? Being able to write a film of such beauty, power and poignancy in a week, all because you feel sorry for having a creative change of heart. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of a true genius.