9 Recurring Themes in The Cinema of Werner Herzog – Taste of Cinema – Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

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Jul 12, 2021 10:43 AM
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With some 60+ feature films, shorts, documentaries and various other directed works under his belt, the cinema of Werner Herzog covers a vast landscape of worlds and peoples. He is one of the few directors whose name has given birth to its own adjective – one might describe a film as Herzogian just as one might describe a film as Hitchcockian, Bergmanesque, or Felliniesque – and it is this individuality that allows his work to retain a singular freshness many decades on.

As with many of his peers of the New German Cinema that exploded in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he grew up in a ruined and divided Germany, still rebuilding from the Second World War. Those of his generation, when they came of age in the ’60s, led a wave of student protests and revolts which came to a head in 1968, as it did across much of Europe, most famously in Paris.

Often referred to as the ’68ers this generation was frustrated at a West Germany which had struggled to come to terms with its past, where many civil service posts were filled in by former Nazi party members and conversations about the crimes committed in the name of Germany during the war kept to a minimum.

Overwhelmingly left-wing but also wary of the more autocratic, authoritarian nature of communism on the other side of the Berlin Wall, these protesters were influenced by more fluid and modernist theories of Marxism such as those propounded by the famous ‘Frankfurt School’. Indeed, many of the Frankfurt School’s most famous names, such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, played a significant part in inspiring their students to protest, although many of them would find themselves frustrated at the increasingly violent nature of the protests.

The protests gradually subsided but the political turbulence did not, and it was within this that West Germany’s new generation of filmmakers found their breakthrough. Directors as varied as Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder all made deeply personal, complex films that were nevertheless uniquely German. Their films criticised, discussed, and analysed many of the issues that faced contemporary Germany.

Herzog’s cinema at once both stands alongside his contemporaries and apart. Though he too criticised and discussed some of the issues of German society at the time, his films are of a somewhat different nature. They feel less rooted in the ‘reality’ of life, and are keen to engage with more ambitious, grander ideas. Humankind, its history, its very nature are not subjects that Herzog feels shy about tackling for want of knowledge.

From his first short film, Herakles (1962), filmed with a camera stolen (or, as he says himself “appropriated”) from the Munich Film School, to his most recent releases, many of which attract notable stars – his latest, Queen of the Desert, will go on general release this year and stars Nicole Kidman, James Franco, and Robert Pattinson – all have a unifying style and feel that denotes them as ‘Herzogian’.

Themes occur and reoccur throughout most of Herzog’s work, shifting ever so slightly from film to film, symbols of the auteur’s interests and obsessions. In particular, the decade-long hot streak from Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) to Fitzcarraldo (1982) was where Herzog really solidified the themes that would so concern him for so many decades. What are some of these themes?

1. Man vs. nature

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By far the most palpable recurring theme in Werner Herzog’s work is a sense of man, or at least ‘civilised’ man being at odds with nature. Incapable of understanding its forces, strengths, and never-ending power, the protagonists of Herzog’s films stand aghast at nature, one small speck against its overwhelming wrath. The titular characters in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (played by Klaus Kinski on both occasions) struggle to contend with the stress of being in the jungle in ways that sends both of them insane.

In Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams (1982), Herzog said “I would see [in the jungle] fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”

Such an attitude seems typical of Herzog, a man who always seems to cheerfully see the worst in things, but this attitude also plays through his films. Aguirre seems to be driven mad by the unknowable murder going on inside the Amazon, the fearful growths existing just beyond the banks of the river whilst his men fearfully stay on their slowly-disintegrating raft. The entirety of the film is one long journey into one individual’s increasing insanity, and the environment only drives that insanity further.

One of Herzog’s other collaborations with cinema’s nastiest psychopath Klaus Kinski (and for all his awful faults as a human being, one of its most incredible actors), Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979) also plays on this theme. In the remake of F.W Murnau’s totemic 1922 film, Count Dracula (Kinski) is seen as some sort of semi-natural ancient force, rooted in the craggy Carpathian mountains and wild woods of Romania; his arrival in the supposedly more modern and civilised world of 19th century Germany is trumpeted by thousands of rats following in his wake, plague and havoc being wreaked on the sleepy town.

However, it is in his documentaries that Herzog has gone most deeply into this theme. Grizzly Man (2005) is about Timothy Treadwell, an American environmentalist who went on yearly trips to Alaska in the summer to live amongst grizzly bears.

He filmed many of his trips, getting mere metres away from some of nature’s most deadly predators and seemed to believe he was a friend to the bears. His demise was sadly most unsurprising in its grim nature, but here too we see Herzog attracted to a man seemingly unable to comprehend nature. Treadwell genuinely believed he was able to communicate with animals. Instead he found only hunger and death: “a half-bored interest in food” Herzog says of one of the bears Treadwell filmed.

Yet his view of such a world is not purely negative. Again in Burden of Dreams, he states that “he loves the jungle, against my better judgement”. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), his first and to date only 3D films, he goes deep into the Chauvet caves in Southern France to investigate the cave paintings found therein.

Staring in silent beauty at these ancient works of art, the oldest and best-preserved cave paintings on earth, he muses about the nature of humanity; the complex way in which we perceived the world even back then, and the way in which ancient peoples too had their struggles with nature. They survived, sometimes against all the odds, and without them we wouldn’t be alive today. Man is nature, even if he doesn’t always realise it.

2. The divide between facts and the truth

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Facts are irrelevant. The truth is what matters. This is Herzog’s decree, and it runs through almost every single of his films.

In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), we meet Dieter Dengler, a former US air force pilot who was shot down during Vietnam and held in a Viet Cong prisoner of war camp, from which he later escaped and marched through the jungle to survival. Herzog films Dengler in his comfortable home, constantly opening and checking doors and windows to make sure they are unlocked, out of fear of being caged once again.

Except the real Dengler didn’t do that. This was a detail which Herzog invented, in collaboration with his subject, as a way of reflecting the experience that Dengler went through. The claustrophobia, the fear of being trapped and the struggle to free oneself from that trap were what drove Dengler onwards. To portray that fear effectively onscreen, Herzog took to fiction. That it is factually inaccurate doesn’t matter. It is the understanding we receive that is valuable. Throughout the film, Dengler’s narration is poetic and fluid. Some of the images he uses were in fact real experiences; others extrapolations by Herzog.

Ironically, it is Rescue Dawn (2006), a fictionalised film about the same story starring Christian Bale that arguably reproduces more of the ‘facts’. The fictional film becomes more ‘real’ than the documentary, the documentary less factual than the film. Both in Herzog’s view are incomplete forms, incapable of capturing all of reality as it is.

Instead, they are only capable of capturing segments of it that we then contextualise into our own experiences. These experiences form what Herzog often calls the ‘ecstatic truth’. Verité documentary, the fly-on-the-wall style intended as a way of capturing reality simply by way of pointing a camera at something hoping the truth falls out, is for Herzog, “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”.

In Fitzcarraldo Herzog drew on the life of Carlos Fitzcarrald, a Peruvian rubber baron who figured out a way of extracting rubber from a notoriously unnavigable part of the Amazon, which required the transportation of a large boat into the central Amazon. Notoriously, Herzog insisted on pulling a huge 320-ton steamship over a mountain onto the river on the other side. The real Fitzcarrald had a mere 30-ton boat disassembled and then re-assembled on the other side of the river.

Leaving aside the sheer insanity and pointlessness of the task, Herzog’s insistence on such a method is his own way of proving to himself and the audience that reality is only what we are allowed to see. Because he insisted such an event be done this way, so the truth (in this case, the sheer pointlessness and eventual worthlessness of ruthlessly exploiting the jungle for capitalist and colonialist gains), becomes apparent.

3. Obsessive, Nietzschean protagonists

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That his protagonists are frequently obsessive and insane people is perhaps just a reflection of their creator’s own psyche. Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Timothy Treadwell, as well as Terence McDonough (Nicolas Cage) in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), to name just a few in his filmography, are all men who seem to believe that they are not bound by traditional morals, that they supersede and transcend such morals.

Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo both embark on colonialist escapades in search for greatness and glory, both turn out to be failed übermensch. They attempt to create something they see as beyond themselves, but secretly they only believe in personal glory, hence they fail.

The same is true of Nicolas Cage in Herzog’s remake of Bad Lieutenant (originally a 1992 film directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel). Here is another obsessive, masochistic figure, who seems to freely disregard traditional notions and what is good and evil and freely goes about murdering, using narcotics, and abusing others around him. Revelling in his lack of morals, Cage’s unhinged cop somehow manages to earn himself a promotion and a commendation from his superiors, reflecting Herzog’s cynical beliefs in the nature of man.

These men break under the weight of their own rage and fury. Their reaching for some supposed transcendental values that will replace the old Judeo-Christian ones simply appear to turn them into evil men.

4. Tactile, mobile cinematography

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Herzog’s desire for experience and truth also leads into his cinematography. Working frequently with very accomplished and versatile cinematographers such as Thomas Mauch and Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, his films have often displayed a visual tactility and mobility that both befits their often low-budget, improvised nature, and their central thematic functions.

The look of Herzog’s films is part and parcel of the core of his films, not simply an addendum to them. Arguably one of the most underrated aspects of his work, few other directors seem to have an ability to capture astounding and breathtaking images as quickly and as efficiently as Herzog does, something which is all the more incredible considering that Herzog proudly states he has never storyboarded his films, often improvising on set and working from there.

Contrast that with the style of Alfred Hitchcock, who storyboarded his films so thoroughly that he didn’t even need to look through the camera once shooting began, and the guerrilla style that Herzog employs is even more impressive.

Early works such as Fata Morgana (1971) would not be as ethereally hypnotic without a camera that was happy to roll its eyes over the strange and obscure sites that its operators came across in the Saharan desert. Later, the ever-present sense of the camera being very much part of the proceedings being filmed lends an even more tense sense of authenticity to Fitzcarraldo, as if it needed some more.

Herzog’s cinema repeatedly draws inspiration from things he finds on location. As great as Stroszek (1977) is, it is made all the more great for its inspired final shot, a hypnotised dancing chicken. Some directors dare not include a shot that wasn’t planned. Herzog is quite happy to point his camera at whatever image he feels is fit for purpose. This mobility and connotative ability lends his cinema a poetic quality that few auteurs can match.

5. Wanderlust

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Herzog has often spoken of his own wanderlust. He is probably the only director to have made a film on all seven continents. He views the exchange and understanding of views when in a foreign land as crucial to experiencing life fully. Ironically, to be stuck inside a cinema appears to be anathema for a man like him. On contemplating his own film school, he said “if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev.”

The people in his films too appear to be afflicted with an inability to stay in one place. To stay still is to invite death, or at the very least a deterioration of the mind, as it does so for the titular character in Woyzeck (1979), again played by Klaus Kinski, a soldier broken down by a manipulative doctor, an authoritarian military commander, and an unfaithful wife until he is driven insane.

The protagonist in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek, both played by Bruno Schleinstein, is in both cases a man who is unbound by the traditional constraints of society, a man who simply has to speak what he feels to speak the truth. He is an innocent, more positive version of the failed Nietzschean obsessive discussed earlier, but he too is afflicted by wanderlust.

Kasper Hauser in the former film was a real-life figure who appeared one day in Nuremburg in the 19th century, unable to speak and holding only a letter in his hand which explained that he had spent his entire life in a prison cell. In Herzog’s again rather fictionalised recreation, Kasper Hauser becomes a man who increasingly feels restrained by the surrounding rules of the petty bourgeois society that takes him in, and desires more and more to transcend and leave that land.

In Stroszek, Schleinstein plays a very similar character – he was in real life, a mentally troubled man who had been in and out of mental institutions and prisons for much of his life, with no previous acting experience – and again, due to being unable to ‘fit in’ in his native Germany, this Bruno emigrates to the US, only to find more dilapidation and just as many constraints.

Herzog’s characters desire freedom, and go to the ends of the earth to find it, yet they seem unable to track it down. It is always just out of reach, just beyond the horizon, an endlessly setting sun that refuses to slip away, yet always drawing people towards its light.

6. Failure of rationalism

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Leading on from this wanderlust, there is in Herzog’s work a frequent recurrence of a failure of rationalism. The sense that one of the central concepts of the European Enlightenment, that with argument, persuasion, logic, and rational thinking, humanity is able to overcome its issues, is rarely successful in Herzog’s films.

Bruno Schleinstein’s characters attempt to rationalise the confusion and constraints that occur all around them. In both films his rationalisation leads to tragedy, for his rational thinking is not always the rational thinking of those around him. He is incapable of aligning his thinking with those around him, leading only to sadness and frustration.

In Heart of Glass (1976), one of Herzog’s strangest films wherein most of the cast were hypnotised during filming, a town becomes increasingly fearful for its existence after a famed glass-maker dies, taking the secrets of his method with him and in turn the town’s financial security. They grow gradually insane and violent in frustration, rational thinking again giving way to fear and shock.

Mystical forces overwhelm European civilisation in Nosferatu, just as nature did so in Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man. Herzog states this most pointedly in one of his earliest feature films, the wonderful and underrated Even Dwarfs Started Small (1971). A group of dwarves in some kind of facility overthrow the ruling sections, who are also dwarves, and proceed to wreak havoc for an hour and a half, going as far as crucifying a monkey and parading the poor thing.

In that film’s hellish vision of humanity, all logic and sense goes out of the window, as people abandon their senses in favour of complete and utter freedom. However, the freedom which they desire is only temporary and nonsensical. Pain is inflicted on innocent creatures, both human and animal, and all concepts of rational thinking cease to exist. Why? There is no why. There just is. Complete freedom to human beings results only in madness, as rationalism takes leave of us. Herzog’s Nietzschean protagonists take leave of their own rationalism in their journeys, and so lose their grounding as sane men.

Looping back to man’s inability to comprehend nature, this inability by humanity to take control of reason is one of Herzog’s most cynical, nihilistic and also deeply refreshing aspects.

What comes through ultimately is a freedom that comes from within itself, a realisation that despite all the horrors on this earth, men and women are still capable of producing the serenity we see in those long-forgotten caves we are shown in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, when they affirm their ability to reason and think creatively without being in hock to ideological functions. In the hands of a lesser director, this failure of rationalism would be a cause for despair. In Herzog’s, it is a liberation in and of itself.

7. A critique (or perhaps an affirmation?) of neo-colonialism

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Now we come to arguably the most controversial aspect of Werner Herzog’s cinema. Having filmed in the Amazon on numerous occasions, using scores of local indigenous peoples as extras, and doing similar acts in Africa, he has at times come under criticism for alleged exploitation of the local people. Needless to say, particularly on Fitzcarraldo, conditions for many of the crew were quite bad.

His films too, sometimes seem to teeter between criticising and affirming the crimes of colonialism. Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo both depict failed journeys undertaken by men who ventured into the jungles in an attempt to claim something. In the case of the former, it is a man attempting to claim land and glory for the Spanish empire. In the latter, it is a man looking for riches for himself, so he can bring opera (a very Western form of music) to the midst of the jungle. In the latter, the protagonist succeeds at least partially, giving some voice to his madness and affirming his acts, albeit in a subversive way.

Cobra Verde (1987) is the story of a bandit (Klaus Kinski again, in his final role for Herzog) who is sent to Africa as a punishment for his crimes in Brazil. Finding himself in a Portuguese colonialist outpost and tasked with procuring slaves, the titular character kills the mad native king with the help of a warring tribe and takes charge himself. All three films are stories of colonialist excursions that could quite easily tip over into glorification and affirmation of these crimes.

What matters however, is the respect Herzog affords the indigenous people, at least onscreen. Their beliefs are taken not as a sign that they are ‘lesser’ people, as many European colonialists did, but as a symbol of the fact that they perceive the world differently. Their knowledge, language, and context is different, and Herzog grasps this.

Thus, through his many more anthropological documentaries, from Where the Green Ants Dream (1984, and again a documentary with possibly more fiction than fact), to The Wheel of Time (2003), about Australian Aboriginal and Buddhist practices respectively, there is a respect and curiosity about other cultures that shines through, a curiosity in the way different human beings behave and react to each other.

That this respect onscreen does not always appear to be translated to behind the camera only adds to the contradictions. Whether it was through lack of money (always a constant problem Herzog has battled), or through carelessness, or that very Western trope of not actually caring about the area one is meant to be co-operating with, Herzog has found himself frequently in trouble for the conditions that his crew and extras found themselves in.

During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, a certain section of boat-dragging was apparently given a 30% of succeeding by on-set engineers, with failure endangering the lives of many of the men, many of them indigenous, working on the film. Werner Herzog went ahead anyway, valuing his film over that of the men around him.

Perhaps he is just genuinely insane…

8. Rootless, fatherless characters

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When remaking Nosferatu, Werner Herzog was asked by The LA Times why he chose to remake, almost shot-by-shot, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 gothic horror classic. For him it was about “connecting with the generation of the grandfathers, in this case with F.W. Murnau. So for me it was like bridging a void, a big gap in reconnecting to the great cinema of the 1920s.”

Born in wartime, he, like many others of his generation, felt or in many cases actually were fatherless: “since we were the first postwar generation and we had no fathers, we had no mentors, we had no teachers, we had no masters, we were a generation of orphans,” said Herzog in the same interview.

Germany in the 1920s was a tough place. It was still rebuilding after World War I whilst suffering rampant inflation and chronic political instability. Yet it was also one of the most exciting filmmaking countries of the early cinema. German Expressionism was arguably cinema’s first full-blown movement, beginning with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and following on through F.W. Murnau’s classics and reaching its pinnacle in 1931 with Fritz Lang’s M.

However, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels set about bringing the film industry under their complete control. Many filmmakers fled – indeed, many of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were of German or Jewish origin; Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, and countless others – and the German film industry became exclusively the domain of propaganda or soulless light entertainment.

For Herzog’s generation therefore, there was no immediate national cinema to draw on. His characters, alongside their wanderlust, seem to have no roots, no core, no fathers. There are very few families in Herzog films, and those that do appear often seem to be unhappy or struggling. Invincible (2002) is one of the few portrayals of a content, healthy family in Herzog’s cinema, and that film follows a Jewish family in 1930s Germany, and you don’t need me to tell you how that works out.

Woyzeck, Stroszek, and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser all centre on characters coming from unhappy or completely broken families. The protagonists in Aguirre and The Bad Lieutenant barely come from any normal familial relationships, so utterly without root are their lives.

This idea of a fatherless world would be oft-repeated amongst Herzog’s contemporaries in the New German Cinema. Many of Wim Wenders’ films, from Alice in the Cities (1974), and The American Friend (1977), to Paris, Texas (1984) feature fathers or father figures who are incomplete, lost, or at odds with themselves.

In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), we see an older generation that still seems incapable of comprehending what happened during the ’30s and ’40s in Germany. Of all the recurring themes in Herzog’s work, this one is perhaps his closest connection to the world in which his contemporaries lived.

9. An absurdist and morbidly dark sense of humour

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For all his thematic heft and weight, Herzog has also always been one of cinema’s most underrated and humorous comedians. In his documentaries, from My Best Fiend (1999) to Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death (2011), via Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, his narration is an ever-present source of philosophical musings on the imagery before us, poetic connotations, and a dark, bone-dry sense of humour, all enacted in that pleasing, soft Bavarian tone.

The aforementioned documentaries cover topics as dark as the death penalty and as scary as Klaus Kinski, yet always Herzog presents us with a few moments of humour, no matter how utterly morbid, helping to bring levity and lightness to otherwise deeply depressing and dark topics.

In his features too, absurdism abounds of a style that would make the Monty Python crew proud, although it too is nearly always tempered with morbidity. Even Dwarfs Started Small might just be the German master’s most funny film, yet that films angles its laughter back at the audience, reminding us that sometimes we ought to think twice about what we laugh at.

The Bad Lieutenant also brings plenty of absurd moments of dark humour to proceedings, resulting in one of Herzog’s most entertaining films: watching Nic Cage assault old infirm ladies and shout “his soul is still dancing” at a dead man is a madly captivating experience.

This bizarreness results in Herzog’s work always bringing itself back from the brink, ensuring that the near-overwhelming darkness and nihilism of many of his films is brought back to something that the audience can breathe out towards. It’s the secret to all good art – balance, light and shade, moments of madness followed by moments of levity. Such is Werner Herzog’s cinema, and long may it live in the memory of cinephiles everywhere.