Birth Date: September 5th, 1942 - Munich, Germany
One of the most influential filmmakers in New German Cinema and one of the most extreme personalities in film per se, larger-than-life Werner Herzog quickly gained recognition not only for creating some of the most fantastic narratives in the history of the medium, but for pushing himself and his crew to absurd and unprecedented lengths, again and again, in order to achieve the effects he demanded.
Born Werner Stipetic in Munich on September 5, 1942, Herzog came of age in Sachrang, Bavaria, amid extreme poverty and destitution, because his father (with whom he nonetheless had a superb relationship) could never hold down a job for any decent length of time. When their parents divorced, eleven-year-old Werner and his two brothers moved with their Yugoslavian mother to Munich. Though something of an underachiever in elementary and middle school, Herzog nevertheless demonstrated frightening intelligence from an early age, and recognized his future vocation in his early teens, when he began ferociously authoring one script after another and submitting the scenarios to German film producers. He also cultivated a strong affinity for (and aptitude with) poetry, gleaning a number of literary awards as a young man.
After Herzog turned seventeen, a German film producer optioned one of his screenplays, then promptly destroyed the contract when he discovered the author's age. The young maverick concluded from this experience that it would become necessary, in the future, to produce his own work, so he accepted a position as an assembly line welder in the Munich area to raise funding, laboring all night from 8pm to 6am and dozing off during the school day. Circa 1962, 20-year-old Herzog enrolled in the University of Munich as a history and literature student, and produced his first motion picture, the twelve minute Herakles, his second, the 1964 short Spiel im Sand (Game in the Sand), and his third, the 1966 pacifist tract Die Beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreutz (The Unprecedented Defense of Fortress Deutschkreuz. Throughout this period and thereafter, he scoffed at the idea of attending a film school, convinced that one cannot learn filmmaking in a classroom, but only via hands-on experience. In 1963, he established his own production banner, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, designed to give him complete autonomy over all of his projects.
Meanwhile, Herzog acquired an insatiable degree of wanderlust that never left him. He won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh in 1965 or '66, and immigrated to the States, where he held down a job at a television station, purportedly shot films for NASA, and sustained himself for a time by smuggling television sets over the Mexican border. He returned to Deutschland in 1967, where he won the top prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival for his short Letzte Worte (Last Words), then migrated to the Greek islands to shoot his premier feature, Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life, 1968), a story about a stricken German infantryman (Peter Brogle) who lapses into unbridled insanity. Herzog began production only a couple of weeks after the infamous Greek military junta of '67, and thus battled untold numbers of on-set obstacles and extermal interferences. The film nevertheless drew well-rounded critical praise, won the German National Film award for a debut feature (with its stipend of 350,000 Deutsch Marks) and ran at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Never one to slow down, the director followed Lebenszeichen with two shorts in 1969, Massnahmen gegen Fanatiker (Precautions Against Fanatics) and Die Fliegenden Arzte von Ostafrika (The Flying Doctors of East Africa), and a 1970 documentary about the disabled, Behinderte Zukunft (Handicapped Future). His second feature film, the 1970 Even Dwarfs Started Small, depicts the daily activities of a bunch of dwarfs and midgets in a German penal community, who descend into an anarchic state. Horrified, the German authorities banned it, but critics everywhere raved over its disturbing allegorical portrait of life, particularly Richard Roud.
Herzog issued his third feature, the critical darling and arthouse mainstay Fata Morgana, in 1971; it juxtaposes, in non-narrative form, a series of fantastic and mesmeric images of footage that Herzog edits into an a rhythmic structure. After completing the documentary Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit (Land of Silence and Darkness) that same year, Herzog embarked on the first of a series of fruitful collaborations with the maniacally intense German actor Klaus Kinski, Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972). This story of insane Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre, (Kinski) and his ill-fated quest to locate El Dorado, the Incan city of gold, forced Herzog, Kinski and the crew to venture deep into the heart of the Peruvian jungles, where they battled now-legendary conditions to obtain the images. Critics and the public instantly heralded the film as a masterwork.
Herzog temporarily withdrew from filmmaking for a period of time, then emerged with The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1975) - the Wild Child-like true story of a strange, sixteen-year-old boy who turns up in Bavaria circa 1828, sans the ability to read, write, talk or walk -- and the uber-cerebral drama Heart of Glass, about the death of a manufacturer in a nineteenth century German town dominated almost exclusively by a glass factory, and that event's horrid repercussions on the surrounding community. Though Heart's beautiful, haunting images stunned everyone, it became more notorious for Herzog's on-set antics: he mass-hypnotized his entire crew on a daily basis to drive them into a state of hysteria as the cameras rolled. Critics disagreed on the meaning of this enigmatic film; some read it as an allegorical parable about the inevitable collapse of contemporary society, others read it literally, about the death of a community. All marveled at the almost otherworldly craftsmanship of Herzog and his cinematographer, Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein.
After a 1975 documentary, the 47-minute Die grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner), Herzog produced his 1977 Stroszek, a tale of three German social outcasts who immigrate to Wisconsin, plunging themselves into the "American Dream," only to encounter misery, destitution, and death. In the late seventies, Herzog masterfully re-filmed F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu (1978) with Klaus Kinski as his vampiric lead; he followed it up with yet another Kinski collaboration, a big screen adaptation of Georg Buchner's stage work Woyzeck. This tale - about a soldier exploited by a local doctor and driven to madness by his wife's infidelity - returned Herzog to familiar thematic territory and drew additional critical praise. He followed it up with another small work -- God's Angry Man (1980), a scathing 44-minute examination of money-hungry American televangelist Dr. Gene Scott, produced for German television.
Between 1980 and 1982 (coincidentally, just after Francis Coppola wrapped Apocalypse Now (1979)), Herzog managed to top the insanity of that film shoot with the most difficult production in movie history. With Fitzcarraldo, he sought to tell the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a nineteenth century eccentric and opera lover, determined to bring the music of Enrico Caruso to the Peruvian indians by actually pulling a steamship over the top of a mountain that divides two rivers Only one catch: the real Fitzgerald never completed his task, whereas Herzog insisted on devising a system to follow through with it. During the production, a plane crashed and killed several locals, lead Jason Robards acquired amoebic dysentery and had to be replaced with Kinski, second-billed Mick Jagger abandoned the shoot to tour with the Rolling Stones (forcing Herzog to re-write the script) the central steamers became mired in the mud and could not be moved until rainy season, a tribal war nearly erupted, and the steamer that the film crew attempted to drag over the top of the mountain became stuck midway. Famed documentarists Maureen Gosling and Les Blank foresaw the calamities prior to the shoot, and filmed the ordeal in their haunting documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), a work that was itself lauded as a masterpiece. The picture apparently ends with Herzog - who had started to crack by the end of the production - revealing his own insanity by damning all of mankind and referring himself to a mental institution.
In 1984, Herzog filmed two acclaimed shorts: The Green Glow of the Mountains - a document of a mountain climbing exhibition in Pakhistan -- and The Ballad of the Little Soldier, a film of a journey to the land of the Miskito Indians during a Sandinistan war. Herzog shot his feature Where the Green Ants Dream (1985) in Australia; it concerns a mining corporation's ill-advised attempts to extract much-needed materials from sacred Aboriginal ground, and earned mediocre reactions from critics.
After another lapse of several years from filmmaking, Herzog embarked on his final collaboration with Kinski, the adventure drama Cobra Verde. It stars Kinski as a Brazilian plantation owner who voyages to West Africa to recruit slaves, but instead participates in overthrowing the local monarch, and sets himself up as emperor.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Herzog largely drifted away from feature filmmaking and into hardcore documentary work, with an endless series of small, acclaimed nonfiction films. In fact, he leaned so heavily on documenting actual events that Herzog features became an increasingly rare occurrence, and a noteworthy, even seminal event. His documentaries from this period include: Lessons of Darkness (1992), Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993), The Transformation of the World into Music (1994), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Wings of Hope (2000), Wheel of Time (2003) and Incident at Loch Ness (2004). The White Diamond (2004) - an account of Dr. Graham Dorrington's unique, man-powered airship, designed to explore the jungles of Guyana - and Grizzly Man (2005) - comprised of footage shot by ill-fated "Grizzly Bear expert" Timothy Treadwell just before his death in a bear attack - elicited particularly strong acclaim.
Herzog's abandonment of features came to a temporary end twice during the early 2000s. 2001's Invincible dramatizes the story of a Jewish man who rose to power with the Nazis, only to renounce his party affiliations and swear allegiance to his people as Hitler crested the height of fame and authority. The director's 2006 Rescue Dawn culled inspiration from his 1997 Dieter Needs to Fly, with a fictional recreation of the true events captured in that documentary. Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, a U.S. fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam, and held in a Vietnamese prison camp, who leads a successful escape with his inmates.
In addition to his directing and screenwriting work, Herzog has acted in a number of films, perhaps most memorably in Les Blank's 1980 documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The film was the result of a bet Herzog once had with an American film student: Herzog told the student -- who was always talking about making a film but never actually doing it -- that if he actually completed the film, Herzog would eat his own shoe. The student was Errol Morris, who later became known for his documentaries Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and he did indeed make his film. Having lost the bet, Herzog made good on his promise, and the result was one of the stranger moments in documentary history. In Paul Cox's 1983 picture Man of Flowers, Herzog plays the central character's stern, disciplinarian father during a wordless flashback. ~ Nathan Southern