In celebration of the cinematic vanguard Werner Herzog, 16 of his acclaimed films and documentaries are now available to stream on Shout! Factory TV. Today, eight more films join the previously available Aguirre the Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Started Small, Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Heart of Glass, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Where the Green Ants Dream.
Herzog has taken his camera to parts of the world no other director would dare go, and told stories in ways previously unconsidered. These sixteen masterpieces, which blur the line between “fiction” and “documentary,” illustrate why Werner Herzog is the most intrepid, creative, and dangerous filmmaker of our lifetime. A visionary creator unlike any other, with a passion for unveiling truths about nature and existence by blurring the line between reality and fiction, Werner Herzog is undoubtedly one of cinema’s most controversial and enigmatic figures. Audiences the world over have marveled at his uniquely moving, often disturbing, but always awe-inspiring stories, and his ever-growing body of work has inspired an untold number of filmmakers. He is, and continues to be, the most daring filmmaker of our time.
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HERZOG FILMS AVAILABLE TODAY ON SHOUT! FACTORY TV
The film portrays the Herculean efforts of an Irish, would-be robber baron determined to reach a territory rich in rubber resources deep in the forests of Peru by transporting an entire steamship over a mountain. Herzog developed the script from the historic events of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, whose name was unpronounceable to the natives who instead called him, “Fitzcarraldo.” However, the real story of this endeavor is not the movie’s plot, but Herzog’s own Herculean effort to put the story to film.
While special effects would have been most directors’ choice to portray the struggle of hauling a 360-ton boat up a muddy 40-degree slope, Herzog wouldn’t have it. He was going to do it for real. The route over the mountain intended for the boat covered more than a mile, the gradient of the hill starting at 60% before leveling down to 40%. Despite warnings from engineers and native film technicians that it was just too dangerous, Herzog set out against all odds and managed to make the miracle happen, eventually leading him to dub himself, “Conquistador of the Useless.” The dangerous production became the subject of a documentary titled, Burden of Dreams, a fascinating look at Herzog’s process from the front lines.
Ultimately, Herzog’s struggles paid off. The film won the German Film Prize in Silver for Best Feature Film, and was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Film, the Palme d’Or award of the Cannes Film Festival, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Herzog himself won the award for Best Director at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. The film was even selected as the West German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards®, but was not accepted as a nominee.
Reuniting with his longtime leading man, Klaus Kinski, Herzog next turned his creative vision to a screen adaptation of Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah. Cobra Verde tells the story of a Brazilian rancher-turned-outlaw who roams the countryside, until a wealthy sugar baron hires him to supervise the plantation’s slaves, but when the baron’s three daughters all end up pregnant by Cobra, the baron sends him to Africa to negotiate the prohibited slave trade.
My Best Fiend
The above quote tells a great deal about the decades-long relationship between Herzog and his most recurring leading man, Klaus Kinksi. So does the fact that the duo collaborated on five films, while no other director ever worked with Kinski more than once. It’s been said of the pair that Kinski represented unrestrained passion, and Herzog the cool-headed logic that kept him on track. Their friendship was volatile, their fights legendary, and My Best Fiend is an engrossing look at one of cinema’s most intriguing partnerships.
As Herzog delves into his history with Kinski in colorful and wonderfully entertaining detail, from the flat Kinski once shared with Herzog’s family to their misadventures on the various productions through the years, what makes the story so compelling is discovering how these two powerhouse figures in cinematic history both thrived on one another and at the same time remained at each other’s throats throughout their professional alliance.
Screened out of competition at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, the documentary was an instant classic. Critics lauded the film, calling it “captivating” and “unforgettable.” Roger Ebert, perhaps, summed it best of all: “As a meditation by a director on an actor, it is unique; most show-biz docs involve the ritual exchange of compliments. My Best Fiend is about two men who both wanted to be dominant, who both had all the answers, who were inseparably bound together in love and hate, and who created extraordinary work – while all the time each resented the other’s contribution.”
Considered by many to be the quintessential masterpiece of Herzog’s early works, this film can best be described as an expressionist documentary. Consisting of three distinct parts, Fata Morgana — the apt title of which is the name of a type of mirage formed at the horizon — is an absorbing collection of images combined with poetic voiceover and music to create an ethereal viewing experience of an alien world that is actually our own. Non-narrative and compiled from footage shot over the span of two years, the film remains one of Herzog’s most identifiable works and an ingenious journey of discovery.
Amazingly, this haunting masterpiece wasn’t planned to be anything like the final film it became. According to Herzog, he first intended the film as a science-fiction piece, complete with a narrative story of a dying world called “Uxmal” and set against strange locations in the Sahara Desert, Kenya and the Canary Islands. When the storyline was later removed, only the vast landscapes and titular mirages were left, evoking a sense of strangeness. Herzog still describes Fata Morgana as a science-fiction film, however, with “windows into a different world…and all the buildings are taken away and only…the vision is left, and that’s what you see here: a mirage.”
Land of Silence and Darkness
The film follows Fini Straubinger, a woman who lost her hearing and sight as she travels to visit others without those two senses. Through her interactions and the incredible stories of the people she meets, Herzog provides the audience with a hypnotizing experience and a newfound appreciation of how communication touches our lives every day.
While many directors might have taken a scientific approach to the topic, Herzog instead focuses on the humanity of the film’s subjects and the emotion of their stories. He devised a specific set of guidelines for the production to follow which stripped away anything from the audio and visuals that would create a disconnect from their world. The camerawork was of critical importance in achieving this goal. Knowing a traditional tripod would create a look too static and removed, Herzog prohibited its use throughout filming, and also advised cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein not to use zooms, but instead, physically move through crowds using his whole body. Utilizing this natural movement of the camera, Herzog created a beautiful, sensory experience that had rarely been seen on the screen before.
The film was a moving tribute to Fini and the deaf-blind community, allowing the world to better grasp the immense isolation of these individuals and doing so in a way that fostered respect and admiration. Herzog himself has said this film is particularly close to his heart, even going so far as to say, “I think the work we did on that film is some of the best I have ever done,” and adds, “of all my films, this is the one I want to be available to audiences the most.”
Lessons of Darkness
As the effects of the Gulf War raged across Kuwait in the early 1990s, Herzog’s passion for taking audiences to alien landscapes and presenting them with bizarre spectacle drew his directorial eye toward the flames. Lessons Of Darkness is a non-narrative documentary highlighting the horrors brought upon the people and countryside in the wake of the war.
Using telephoto lenses, helicopter shots and truck-mounted cameras, Herzog manages to capture the emotion of the spectacle without ever giving his audience any establishing shots that clearly show where they are. As he says, “the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here.” With sparse, almost poetic commentary provided by Herzog himself which never seeks to explain the reasons for these images existing, but only observe what’s being seen in the moment, the film becomes an apocalyptic look into an otherworldly circumstance.
Critics and audiences were taken by the film’s ethereal tone and shocking imagery from the moment it was released. The film won the Grand Prix Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Herzog’s second and last collaboration with leading man Bruno S. took the pair from their homeland of Germany across the Atlantic to rural Wisconsin on a journey of self-discovery and new beginnings. Herzog wrote the screenplay for the film in just four days, and created the lead character specifically for Bruno S., whose own personal history helped inform a good deal of the character’s mental state and background.
Filmed mostly in Plainfield, Wisconsin (its name changed to the fictitious “Railroad Flats” in the film), the story follows the titular character, a prostitute named Eva and an elderly man named Scheitz as they flee Germany for what they believe will be the promised land. While the events of the film make it a road movie of sorts, it’s the relationship between these three characters as well as Stroszek’s unique perspective on the world around him that make the film classic Herzog.
Released in 1977, the film met with critical acclaim the world over.
Woyzeck tells the story of a real life 19th-century barber-turned-soldier named Johann Christian Woyzeck, who was executed after mysteriously killing the woman he loved. Based on an unfinished stage play by German playwright Georg Buchner in 1836, Herzog’s script follows the path of Woyzeck as he endures military experiments in a lab which ultimately turn him into a killing machine. The script deftly stitches together the plot from scenes Buchner crafted, although it’s impossible to know what order those scenes were originally meant to follow. However Buchner intended the story to go, in Herzog’s hands it became a masterpiece of human emotion and psychological struggle.
For the lead role of the film, Herzog initially intended to use Bruno S., but after completing the script, he realized there was only one man capable of portraying such hopeless madness—Klaus Kinski. Knowing full well that Kinski was exhausted after filming Nosferatu the Vampyre, which had only just finished shooting, Herzog thrust his leading man into the new role right away so the exhaustion would add extra layers to Kinski’s performance. Filming on Woyzeck began just five days after Nosferatu wrapped. Throughout the production, Herzog utilized a hands-off approach to directing, allowing his performers to take the reins on how their portrayals of these tragic characters would unfold. This decision gave his actors the freedom they needed to fully embrace the emotions of the story and led to some of the strongest performances in any of his films.
Upon its release in 1979, Woyzeck was met with critical acclaim for the incredible performances of the unleashed actors. Werner’s leading lady, Eva Mattes, won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and Kinski received many high marks for his inspired turn as the soldier-turned-killer. Werner was nominated for the Golden Palm, and two years later in 1981, the film would be awarded the Silver Guild Film Award from the Guild of German Art House Cinemas.