Herzog’s films portray humans as frail creatures caught in the gap between an indifferent nature and a punishing God. Ahead of the UK release of As Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which Herzog executive produced, Michael Newton celebrates a unique world view.
For a man whose “social network” is his kitchen table, Werner Herzog's image is very present on the internet. You can see him (deceptively edited) discoursing in doom-laden tones concerning the “enormity of the stupidity” of hipsters or Republicans. (Originally he was discussing chickens.) He's there (or rather someone impersonating him is) intoning about the dark intensities of “Where's Waldo”. (The clip has had more than a million hits on YouTube.) And, most notably, he can be seen in Les Blank's short film (this time for real) eating his shoe to celebrate the successful completion of Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven (1978). While the shoe boils, Herzog remarks that the movie industry makes clowns of its artists, as happened to Orson Welles, and even, he claims, François Truffaut. And it can seem that the media has indeed turned Herzog into a clown an archetypal Deadly Serious German, a mockable, foolish “Ahrtist”.
It’s as though the apparent gloom of his world view prompts us to giggle at him. Herzog can be found online being shot by a sniper with an air-rifle during an interview with Mark Kermode. Somehow it is hard to imagine such a thing happening to any other famous director, and even harder to imagine that they would respond with the unconcerned, pessimistic sang-froid of Herzog. (He remarks: “It doesn’t surprise me to be shot at.”) Just before that air-rifle sniper shoots him, Herzog remarks: “InGermany … Nobody cares about my films.” Elsewhere they certainly do, though not perhaps as much as they ought; for the clown of those YouTube clips is also the maker of some of the most inspiring and disturbing movies of the last 50 years.
In Grizzly Man (2005), partly as a counterpoint to the saccharine, Disneyesque view of nature held by that movie’s bear-loving hero, Herzog glumly declares: “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” It’s no surprise that one of the last things Ian Curtis of Joy Division did before hanging himself was to watch Herzog’s Stroszeck (1977). Given the opportunity to shoot in the Antarctic, another director might have succumbed to the temptation to reproduce the anthropomorphic cuteness of Oscar-winning March of the Penguins. Encounters at the End of the World (2007) steers clear of the cuddly for as long as possible, and when it finally succumbs to the bird’s allure, Herzog focuses on “penguin prostitution” and the suicidal impulses of penguins, who for no discernible reason suddenly depart the colony, and head inland, waddling forlornly across the ice towards the distant south pole and inevitable death.
In overview, his movies can look like a series of Graham Greene novels rewritten by DH Lawrence. Just as Greene had Greeneland, Herzog has Herzogland, and the two realms, at the very least, share a border. Like Greene, Herzog would presumably assert that the place of his films is no invented country, but simply the world as in fact it is. The variety of locales and milieux in his films is astonishing: from the Peruvian jungle in the stunning Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) to the Biedermeier Germany of Nosferatu and Woyzeck (both from 1979); from the dusty pre-tourist Lanzarote of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1969) to the science-fiction landscapes of the Kuwaiti oil fires after the first Iraq war in Lessons of Darkness (1992). The richness of his interests is amazing: ecstatically devout pilgrims; prehistoric cave paintings; fast-talking American auctioneers; ski‑jumpers; TV evangelists; Siberian trappers; the blind, deaf and dumb. He has made more than 60 films, both fiction and documentaries, and, in total, they look like the life’s work of several directors, yet all maintain the spirit of one man’s view of this disparate planet. With their eye for the strangeness in the world, the unaccountable in human beings, these films can haunt you.
[…] There are few film-makers less interested in the everyday world of supermarkets, mortgage payments and Sky Sports. Herzog does not despise the “ordinary person”, for it is hard to picture him believing in such a rare creature and to imagine him despising anyone. Yet in the background of his films lingers a sorrowing contempt for the blithe, banal member of “the public” – that hypothetical person who accepts society as it is, who believes bread will always come ready-packaged, and who is too busy updating their Facebook page to notice how at any moment nature might sweep us all off the Earth. Thankfully, this putative character rarely appears in person in his films.
For all Herzog’s people – as much in the documentaries as in the feature films – are instead shown in relation to a moral or existential abyss. Hence his recent interest in the murderers on death row. In the most disturbing Herzog films, human life is a beleaguered property, a flicker of consciousness sustained within an equally flimsy civilisation. The experience of being a child of the ruins in Germany after the second world war perhaps injected him with this sense, living as he did in the moral and physical collapse of a culture.
His God is nature – but not a gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild tree-hugger’s nature, but a terrifying, unappeasable Old Testament Jehovah. Perhaps with Terrence Malick, he is one of the last film-makers to have a feeling for the sublime. His moral landscape emerges from this space – frail, plucky humanity holding the gap between an indifferent nature and a punishing God. There his people endeavour to make meaning in their lives. In the process he presents unimaginable people – as in Fata Morgana’s (1970) desert characters: the piano-playing madam and drum-playing begoggled pimp playing cabaret music in the Lanzarote brothel; the shellshocked Foreign Legion deserter clinging to a ragged letter from his mother; the lizard-loving German. One actor in particular will be associated with Herzog for ever – Klaus Kinski, who appeared in five Herzog films. To channel Kinksi’s rage and arrogance productively on to the screen was a huge achievement. However, a far greater one was to elicit Kinski’s tenderness, his joy, and even his reserve.
Herzog’s love is kept for whatever it is in human beings that strives for connection, for meaning – even when the form those strivings take seem weird, misplaced and mad. It’s there in Dieter Dengler’s passion for flying, an obsession for safety and freedom in the skies that began when, as a small boy, he gazed on as an American plane strafed his Bavarian village.