Weekly Top Five: The ecstatic truth of Werner Herzog



Little Dieter Needs to fly
  • Little Dieter Needs to fly
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has attained a level of ubiquity few directors have ever reached, mostly thanks to the quality and distinction of his work but undoubtedly aided by his newfound popularity as a YouTube sensation. The idea that Herzog, who gained prominence alongside Alexander Kluge and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a stalwart of New German Cinema, has become some sort of pop culture icon seems an unlikely career trajectory. Still, he's a perennial eccentric, dating back to the days when he stole production equipment from the Munich Film School to make his first few movies. He's a capricious, fiendishly brilliant madman who once ate his own shoe—he's tailor made for viral video.

However, at the end of the day, it's the films that matter most, and Herzog's got a new one in town this week, so I figured I'd take the opportunity to list my five favorite. Check them out after the jump.

5. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser [aka Every Man For Himself and God Against All] (1974, West Germany) The surprise success of this early feature is likely due to its uncharacteristic accessibility. It tells the true story, dating back to 1882, of the titular Kaspar. After spending the first 17 years of his life chained in a dank cellar, he enters society unable to read, write, or even speak properly. He soon earns the grotesque fascination of a small town, whose members either view him as a freak or attempt to educate and study him. It's sympathetic portrait of a humane soul unwittingly corrupted by a bourgeois society.

4. Cobra Verde (1987, West Germany) One of the more underrated Klaus Kinski/Hezrzog collaborations, in which Kinski plays a Brazilian outlaw who's tasked by a wealthy sugar baron with reopening the slave trade in western Africa. The film touches on colonialism and manifest destiny, but Herzog has insisted that it's more about the "great fantasies and follies of the human spirit." The final third of the film features some of the most haunting and poetic images Herzog ever captured.

3. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997, France/UK/Germany) Herzog has a knack for recognizing the cinematic in real life, as evidenced in this documentary about the plight of Dieter Dengler, a German-American Navy pilot who crash-landed in Laos during the Vietnam war and subsequently became a prisoner of war, subjected to all manner of torture and degradation before heroically escaping. With Dengler's blessing and cooperation, Herzog reenacts several scenarios of Dengler's imprisonment. As Roger Ebert notes in his review, "Herzog sees his mission as a filmmaker not to turn himself into a recording machine, but to be a collaborator. He does not simply stand and watch, but arranges and adjusts and subtly enhances, so that the film takes the materials of Dengler's adventure and fashions it into a new thing." Herzog further dramatized Dieter's story in his 2007 film Rescue Dawn.

2. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, West Germany) The consummate work of his early period, this epic drama is worth seeing for the sheer scope of its ambition. On location deep within the Peruvian rain forest, Herzog and his cast and crew shot for five weeks, trudging through the thick jungle and floating aimlessly down the Amazon River. The production was notoriously turbulent, no doubt contributing to the delirious, Conradian nature of the story. The film's final image, of Kinski stranded on a ramshackle raft overrun by monkeys, is Herzog defined.

1. Grizzly Man (2005, US) This documentary will likely go down as one of the director's most enduring works, thanks in large part to its place in the Herzog myth. The film is an inquisitive examination of ambition, creativity, activism, egotism, humanism, and morality, a self-referential piece of observational cinema that embraces the nature documentary format while simultaneously critiquing it. A deeply layered, endlessly watchable masterwork.

Honorable mentions: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is great, and I'm also a strong admirer of Woyzeck (1979), even if it's perceived as a lesser effort by others. Land of Silence and Darkness is his first great documentary (1971), and I have a soft spot for his Bad Lieutenant (2009) remake.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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