Those who experienced the unusual and captivating performance of Werner Herzog for the first time in The Mandalorian may have been left wanting more. He brings an overwhelming presence to the screen and commands every scene. It might be surprising that Herzog is actually known principally as a director, not an actor. His films are often bizarre but also straightforwardly entertaining. They are matched by some incredible stories behind the productions that highlight the director’s unique personality. It can be difficult to know where to start with his work. These are the films that I think give the best introduction to his work. The five listed here will give you a good order in which to begin watching his 50 plus movies.
1. In at The Deep End of the Amazon: Aguirre: The Wrath of God
For my money, this is the real masterpiece or the best of the masterpieces. It is also perhaps the best Herzog movie to start with. The camera follows the descent into the Amazonian jungle of a Spanish company of explorers seeking El Dorado. Along the way, tensions rise, betrayals and murder are common and reality itself becomes twisted. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which preceded it, may have been an inspiration. Apocalypse Now, which borrowed heavily from both Aguirre and Conrad, is probably the closest cinematic comparison.
I am going to avoid spoilers to any of these movies as I set them up for you. However, for Aguirre, this almost doesn’t seem necessary. For the viewer, as soon as the movie begins, it seems entirely clear how it will end. The audience is simply trapped amongst the characters as the inevitable approaches. The single-camera, which Herzog stole, sits on the real raft as it really heads downstream. The complete reliance on practical effects, which is here just a fancy way of saying they are just actually doing what the characters are and filming that makes it all the more real. It is often commented on that Werner has a talent for making his feature films feel like documentaries and his documentaries feel like features. This is perhaps most clear here and in the next entry.
As a side note, watch it in English if that is your first language; it is overdubbed whatever language you pick so you aren’t missing anything.
2. Off the Beaten Track: Grizzly Man
You can’t really get the most out of Herzog’s work without dipping your toes into his documentaries. They are certainly unusual, and in hindsight, Grizzly Man seems even more unusual and proudly so. Werner received over 100 hours of footage captured by Timothy Treadwell, a man who decided to live amongst grizzly bears in the wild every summer for 13 years. In 2003 one of the bears Timothy had pledged to protect killed him and his girlfriend in a tragic attack. Herzog reworks the footage, alongside interviews with people that knew Timothy and his own commentary, into the movie.
The film is not only about Timothy, however. It is also about humanity, filmmaking and nature. We see clear comments on all these aspects, but one of the most interesting is its commentary on documentaries themselves. Without subtlety, the commentary tells you what he sees as the lines that people should not cross. One such line is the use of filmmaking in a way that is exciting but exploitive or harmful to those filmed. Werner hears the audio recording of Timothy’s dying screams but instantly decides not only does he not want to hear it, but he thinks no one ever should. I don’t see the current trend of Netflix-style hyped-up documentaries making the same choice if they had access to this footage. This is one of the best Herzog movies to watch right away as it gives you a real insight into his personality and outlook.
3. Herzog’s Best Movie About Escaping Lockdown: The Enigma of Kasper Hauser
The Enigma of Kasper Hauser is a deeply unusual film, even by the standards set so far. The film follows the titular character’s experiences after being let out of a small room in which he had lived his whole life until the age of 18. The film is slow and confusing, never quite answering the questions it poses. Whether you start with Grizzly Man, Aguirre, or Fitzcarraldo is not too important, but I wouldn’t recommend diving in with this film. It is nevertheless engaging and thought-provoking. Its original German title, which translates to “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” provides some insight into its philosophical tendencies.
My thoughts immediately after finishing Kasper Hauser were mostly on how wild and creative it had been. Later I was completely shocked reading up on the film and discovering it is a largely faithful adaption of a true story. The completely fantastical events were apparently all true. The real Kasper Hauser may have been everything from a prince to a fraud. Yet as far as people know, the events go almost exactly as in the movie. Weirder, a 41-year-old street musician with no acting training, plays the main character. Nevertheless, he delivered an incredible performance throughout. An unusual time, but I think it is certainly worth a watch.
4. Return to the Amazon: Fitzcarraldo
Klaus Kinski, a real-life madman and the star of five different Herzog movies, including Aguirre, returns as the charming dreamer Fitzcarraldo. The relationship between Klaus and Werner was often rocky, to say the least. There were multiple incidents of each man threatening to kill the other. But they did produce some fantastic stories. You might also want a behind-the-scenes look. Later the director revisited this relationship in another movie, My Best Fiend. You can also watch Kinski’ best tirades and Werner’s miserable monologues in the movie-about-the-movie Burden of Dreams.
With so much made of the movie’s production, how could the end result possibly live up to expectation? Well, it chronicles Fitzcrraldo’s attempt to haul a steamboat over a mountain using very little technology. What makes it so fantastic is that this is all really happening. Herzog really did haul the ship in many of the same conditions as his protagonist. Everything adds up to an incredible feeling of realism. Far from his performance in Aguirre, or his real-life actions on set, which led an extra to offer to kill him, Kinski is immensely likeable and charming in the role. The performance leads the audience to empathise completely with his mad struggle.
The director himself seems to be a real-life Fitzcarraldo. He is, after all, doing about the same thing as his protagonist. Werner has since commented he only refused the offer to have Kinski killed because he needed him to finish the film. His complete understanding of his character and use of many of the same techniques as in Aguirre makes this perhaps the most real of his movies. It’s also one of the most divisive. The risks that were taken during filming might cause you to reevaluate your image of the man.
5. The Man, The Movie, The Meme: Best of Werner Herzog
There are many different directions to go from here. Having everything listed so far, you will be in a great position to decide where to go for yourself. Nosferatu the Vampyre or Even Dwarfs Started Small are both solid options. But for a bit of a laugh and an insight into the personality of the director, have a watch of this video. There are plenty more hilarious and characterful moments from Herzog, “happy new year you losers!” comes to mind. However, this video captures some of the greats for your viewing pleasure, alongside some really genuine speeches on human nature.
Perhaps the greatest joy of Werner Herzog is doing stupid impressions, and this video is the perfect material for those. Overall, just have fun with his work; for an art film director, he loves to have a bit of fun with it and not take himself too seriously, so go into his movies expecting a good time.
Best of Werner Herzog is published by Brass Tacks