From Stroszek (1977) to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), here are the finest Werner Herzog movies.
Our ambitions are the seeds of new possibilities and our dreams are the tools that keep us awake and going. Without these two indispensable elements, humanity would not have been able to surpass its limits. All curiosity would have been for naught and we’d still be living as cave dwellers alongside our quadruped ancestors. It is this capacity to imagine a goal and bring it to its fulfillment that allows us to flourish. And there is no one better than Werner Herzog to put this idea to film. His multi-faceted artwork is proof.
Dreaming the impossible has been a recurring theme in his movies. And he is able to attain artistic sublimity in this field by employing protagonists who would be thought of as outcasts. He uses them as a very effective device in order to cement the fact that even the most outrageous and unimaginable wishes can be achieved by the unlikeliest individuals battling not only against the normalized human society but against the nature of man himself. The nature-versus-nurture theme is also quite apparent in this context. But to truly understand the depth and dimension that Werner Herzog is able to provide to his characters and his script, let’s take a closer look at some of the masterpieces brought to life by the German auteur.
Here’s a look back at some of the most essential Werner Herzog movies:
1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The epic historical drama cemented the iconic collaboration between writer-director Werner Herzog and lead actor Klaus Kinski. The plot centers around a Spanish soldier who leads a group of conquistadors through the dense, unforgiving forests of Amazon in search for the mythical city of El Dorado, the city of gold. Hailed as a masterpiece by several critics, the film garnered much praise for its visual style and the innovative storytelling elements. Some of these elements actually influenced the film Apocalypse Now (1979).
But the theme of disillusionment and how far one can go in order to deny the seeping doubt that clouds one’s mind is one of the most hard-hitting elements. The film is a beautiful representation of an epic journey. It brings forth the psychology of humanity in a very uniquely frightening yet intriguing light. This results in the formation of a piece that many believed to be non-fiction until the director himself said otherwise. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the man who desires to conquer the world. He wants to take away the thrones of all the powerful regimes and create the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Alas, he is left all alone on the little raft, alive only because he still dreams to endure the storm and overthrow the world.
Martin Scorsese included it in his list of ‘39 Essential Foreign Films.’
2. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is an enigma in itself. It is based on a true story of a foundling, a person who has been abandoned by humanity and has spent a large portion of his life without coming in contact with it. Director Werner Herzog used the historically preserved letters of the man in question in order to replicate the psychological state of Kaspar Hauser, played by the unforgettable Bruno Schleinstein. The story revolves around this mysterious man who is suddenly found in the city of Nuremberg and instantly attracts the attention of people around. The groups of individuals interested in his case range from aristocrats to scholars.
The fact that such a simple man would be able to become the center of attention is evident in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a French philosopher who presented his views on the noble savage – a man bred in nature, free from all the vices that are indoctrinated by society. The director plays on this philosophy and showcases how such a man may be helped as well as be duped by different kinds of people. The ideas of this unadulterated mind towards religion, social hierarchies and other philosophical debates are a marvel to behold as they help provide unbiased criticism of human civilization. His particular interest in music is also a topic of interest. It’s a freeing, liberating experience to see how a completely innocent, uninfluenced mind would view human civilization as it is.
3. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Nosferatu the Vampyre is a German Gothic horror movie that was inspired by the 1922 original and released under the title of Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night, which, frankly, is much cooler than the popular alias it has. The movie was a terrific piece of work with Kinski playing the titular role. His acting and extremely odd demeanor help cement the fear of the vampire (that has been completely trivialized by Hollywood).
The atmosphere of the film is what truly drives the horror and gothic aspect. From the huge abandoned castle waiting to engulf you to the city drenched in darkness and disease, it all comes together to create terror and fright. Another thing that must be addressed is the twist at the end. Both movies before it didn’t have it. The fact that it was essentially a reimagined version of the original made for an impactful and fulfilling experience.
4. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Fitzcarraldo is an adventure drama film that depicts the journey of a rubber baron who attempts to transport a stream ship over a steep hill in search of rubber. It draws from Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald’s real-life story, who transported a disassembled steamship over a mountain.
The movie is a brilliant portrayal of the hardships of humanity. It clearly does not take sides. The battle between industrialization and nature preservation is a futile one. The film showcases that both forces often act against while also acting in conjunction with one another. This sentiment of futility coupled with some really amazing acting brings alive the indomitable will of the lead character who has a certain purpose and juxtaposes it with the undirected labor of the natives. This display of logic and reason versus working for the divine is an amazing, profound concept.
5. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
The German-British-French documentary retraces the life of Dieter Dengler, German-American Navy pilot who was shot down in Laos. His story is retold along with the footage derived from his travels with director Werner Herzog. Their travels together were part of a beautiful relationship forged between them which was formed with the aid of a shared childhood history of living through the rubbled post World War II city.
The movie walks one through the condition of the prisoners of war. The inhumane torture they suffered and endured. It tells the story of those who are often forced to go to war with an enemy they have no personal grudge against and on the order of people who do not value their lives. The film is a striking reality check on blind nationalism.
6. Grizzly Man (2005)
Grizzly Man is a marvelous documentary by Werner Herzog. It is a dramatic and realistic retelling of the tragic tale of grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The documentary pieces together some of Treadwell’s original footage during his time with the bears as well as countless interviews with people who knew the man. Some professionals who knew how to deal with wild bears were also interviewed to get a deeper understanding of the dense subject matter.
The documentary amalgamates Treadwell’s more than 100 hours of video recordings and other snippets of information, added by Herzog. Grizzly Man is a true recollection of the events that led to Treadwell and his girlfriend Huguenard’s tragic death. Herzog shows us both sides of the story. He is unafraid to reveal where Treadwell went wrong and doesn’t shy away from the controversial rumors that surrounded him. All in all, few directors have the audacity to present things matter-of-factly. They usually tend to sugarcoat. That’s not the case with Herzog. He gives the audience a fair warning of the power of nature while accepting the power and strife of man in the process of taming it.
7. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Herzog wrote and directed this classic comedy-drama. The movie mostly employs a very dark sense of slapstick humor to achieve its goal. All members of the cast are dwarves who are either patients or caretakers in a mental asylum. That’s the premise. The rest is complete and utter chaos. The movie was weirdly shocking but equally weirdly fun. It should not work but it does. There isn’t a single thing about the film I could carp about.
The ensuing mindless mayhem and the unavailability of a background story all add to the artistic weirdness of the plot. These holes in the narrative only give us more to dwell upon. The setting of the mental asylum is perhaps symbolic of human society where each individual is too small in the vast expanses of nature; yet he alone is enough to create chaos that can disrupt the natural system. It also suggests that chaos begets chaos, just like violence begets violence. The movie is a classic piece of expressionistic art that tries to crack false social structures and hierarchies.
8. Stroszek (1977)
Stroszek is a one-of-a-kind motion picture, structured as a tragicomedy. It depicts events so pathetic and tragic that the absurdity of it lends it a comic quality. This movie is an attack against the suspension of disbelief and urges audiences to question everything and laugh at impossible, improbable scenarios.
It tells the story of a dilapidated man who’s undergone immense suffering mainly due to his poor financial conditions. The movie traces the journey of the man from Germany to America, drawn by the false glamor of the American Dream. Obviously, things don’t go as planned. Life in the States proves much harsher and financially more demanding. The movie ends on a mysterious note hinting that the world is a playground and humans, playthings of the creator. Like puppets they keep playing along until the winding of their strings comes undone.
Werner Herzog is one of those filmmakers who beautifully brings to life the contrasting nature of human existence. He has the ability to showcase undying will and determination in the face of adversity, then subvert it so cruelly offering his viewers a catharsis. But, he does provide both us and his characters with some respite. He gives us hope of enduring and overcoming all hardships and moving forward. His characters are peculiar yet represent essential beings of humanity. They evoke unfaltering courage and the desire to move on, even if it means death, in order to take part in an unending struggle for survival.
There we are! What are your top 3 Werner Herzog movies? Let’s talk in the comments below.