Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

German filmmaker Werner Herzog examined the extremes of human behavior and belief in such acclaimed documentaries and feature films as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), "Grizzly Man" (2005) and "Into the Abyss" (2011). Born Werner Herzog Stipetic in Munich, Germany, his family relocated to the remote Bavarian village of Sachrang after the family home was destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II. Herzog was raised without household plumbing or a telephone, and did not see a film until a traveling projectionist visited his schoolhouse. At the age of 12, Herzog and his mother returned to Munich; there, he developed his interest in filmmaking, and after learning what he believed to be the fundamentals of the process from an encyclopedia - and stealing a camera from the Munich Film School - Herzog made his first efforts as a director. He logged brief periods of study with Duquense University in Pennsylvania and Munich University, but devoted more time to making featurettes and traveling the world, including the south of Sudan, Mexico and the United Kingdom, where he learned English. In 1968, he directed his first feature, "Leibensziechen" ("Signs of Life"), a drama about a trio of German soldiers who descend into obsession and madness while recuperating from injuries in Greece. The film would, in part, set the template for his subsequent film efforts, which explored the axis between mysticism and mental or physical extremes: in "Even Dwarves Started Small" (1970), a group of little people consigned to an asylum break free of their captors - also dwarves - and run amok in quasi-pagan rituals, while the documentaries "Handicapped Future" (1971) and "Land of Silence and Darkness" (1971) explored life without the use of sight, hearing or physical ability. The lengths to which Herzog would test himself and his crew also became a crucial part of his persona: for "Fata Morgana" (1971), a form-free documentary-cum-science-fiction film set in the Saharan Desert, Herzog was imprisoned, beaten and forced to abandon his film equipment, while for "Aguirre the Wrath of God" (1972), he trekked through near-impassable sections of the Amazon to tell the story of a doomed expedition by 16th century conquistadors. The latter film marked the first of seven collaborations between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, a German actor known for intense, seemingly possessed performances. Herzog and Kinski waged epic battles of ego and will behind the scenes, but their work together produced some of the most remarkable films of the 1970s and 1980s, including a remake of F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), a story of a music obsessive's dream of bringing opera to the Amazon which featured an actual riverboat dragged over the Andes. Herzog would team with other extreme performers and subjects, including the mentally unbalanced street performer Bruno S. in "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" (1974) and the American televangelist Dr. Gene Scott in the documentary "God's Angry Man" (1981), but his work with Kinski provided him with international acclaim and audiences until the actor's death in 1991. Herzog worked almost exclusively in documentaries for the better part of the next decade, exploring such subjects as the impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait in "Lessons of Darkness" (1992), the German pilot and Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler in "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" (1997) and the melancholic "My Best Fiend" (1999), which recounted his relationship with Kinski. In 2001, he returned to feature dramas with "Invincible" (2001), a fictionalized take on the life of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart, which launched one of the most prolific and successful periods in Herzog's career. He won critical praise and several awards for a string of documentaries, including the harrowing "Grizzly Man" (2005), about the life and death of nature advocate Timothy Treadwell, "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007), which concerned life in Antarctica, as well as the capital punishment documentary "Into the Abyss" (2011) and "Into the Inferno" (2016), about volcanoes. In many of these projects, Herzog himself appeared on-camera, and his impassive Teutonic voice and cerebral monologues were the subject of numerous parodies and tributes, many of which, like Zak Penn's mockumentary "Incident at Loch Ness" (2004), Herzog was a willing and bemused participant; he also gave surprisingly intense acting turns in Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey-Boy" (1999) and the Tom Cruise vehicle "Jack Reacher" (2012). Though fewer in number, his dramatic features also drew critical praise, most notably the crime thrillers "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," with Nicolas Cage, and the David Lynch-produced "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" (both 2009), both of which were nominated for the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice Film Festival. 2018 found Herzog in typical form, overseeing or promoting a slew of new projects, including the documentaries "Meeting Gorbachev" and "Fireball," about the cultural significance of meteorites, for his own production shingle, Wefjarner Herzog Filmproduktion.