While Werner Herzog movies are often captivating portraits of individuals struggling against nature or their own mad ambitions, the director himself is also equally fascinating. A commonly-told story had him threatening to first shoot actor Klaus Kinski and then himself if the volatile performer attempted to leave the production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. He also ate his own shoe after losing a bet, and dismissed being shot by an air rifle while being interviewed by the BBC (“It is not a significant bullet.”). In other words, he often seems to fit the stereotype of the crazy German all too well, but there’s boatloads of genius to go along with the low-key madness. Give a few of these films a try, and you’ll soon find yourself becoming a Werner Herzog fan.
For a site dedicated to the offbeat and unusual of the cinematic world, watching Werner Herzog movies are like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. Here are a few examples of the good German movies helmed by the director:
- The Grand (2008) – Before we dive into the Werner Herzog movies actually directed by the German genius, let’s look at one that features him as an actor. This largely improvised comedy revolves around a poker tournament in Las Vegas and the colorful assortment of gamblers who show up to participate. Entrants include Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Dennis Farina, and Richard Kind. But Herzog trumps them all as The German, a leather-clad cheater who’s notorious for sacrificing animals before tournaments for good luck. He’s not in the film for long, but fans of the director should still get a kick out of it. The rest of the movie isn’t bad either, especially Ray Romano’s obsession with getting Peyton Manning onto his fantasy football team.
- Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – Meant as a remake of the 1922 German vampire movie from F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu the Vampyre stars Klaus Kinski as the title character, a hideous undead noble whose hunger for love is matched only for his thirst for blood. Also starring Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz.
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) – A group of Spanish conquistadors head down the Amazon River in search of the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Besides dealing with hostile locals and the unforgiving heat of the jungle, the group must also contend with the mad ambitions of Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a delusional soldier who fancies himself the next ruler of the world. A brilliant look at the dangers of greed and ambition, the film scales back the dialogue and allows the scenery and Kinski’s crazed eyes to tell the story. The first of five collaborations between the director and actor, it’s the finest of all Werner Herzog movies in my opinion.
- Fitzcarraldo (1982) – Based on a true story, this collaboration between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog tells the tale of Brian “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald, an Irishman who dreams of getting into the Peruvian rubber trade and then building an opera house in city of Iquitos. But in order to do so, he’ll have to have his three-story steamer physically pulled across a muddy hillside from one river to another. Another manic performance from Kinski, and the lovely Claudia Cardinale co-stars as his brothel-owning lover. There was the usual tension on the set that one would expect from a film starring Kinski, and Herzog later revealed that a local tribal chief offered to murder the actor for him. Herzog declined, stating that he needed Kinski to complete the film.
- Grizzly Man (2005) – For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell traveled to Alaska to interact with the bear population of Katmai National Park and Preserve. But in 2003, he and his girlfriend were attacked and eaten by one of the creatures that he so fiercely loved. Herzog tells his story in this documentary about one man’s dangerous passion.
- Cobra Verde (1987) – The final collaboration between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, the latter stars as a rancher who becomes a famed bandit and then sets out on a suicide mission to reestablish the slave trade between Brazil and Africa. Kinski is both mesmerizing and manic (nothing new there), and the film is a triumphant adaptation of the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin.
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) – Nicolas Cage gets to act batshit crazy as Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop with chronic back pain, gambling and drug addictions, and a high-class prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes). Herzog’s direction is equally offbeat, with portions of the film shot from the perspective of iguanas and alligators. A number of critics placed it on their lists for the best films of 2009, including Herzog devotee Roger Ebert.
- Encounters at the End of the World (2007) – Most people think that nobody lives in Antarctica, but they’re wrong. The vast landscape is actually dotted with interesting characters, and Werner Herzog wastes no time in capturing their life stories in this compelling documentary. The land itself is also a star, and you’ll get more out of this than any boring mainstream film about penguins.
- Stroszek (1977) -With most of the roles played by non-actors, Stroszek paints a bizarre portrait of a Berlin street singer who moves to Wisconsin with his prostitute girlfriend after being released from prison. Roger Ebert has called it “one of the oddest films ever made,” and that’s really saying something. Also starring Eva Mattes, who would also marry and have a child by the director.
- Invincible (2001) – Loosely based around the real-life events in the life of Zishe Breitbart (Jouko Ahola), a Jewish strongman working in Berlin. But the timeline is shifted, and the freakishly strong Breitbart finds himself in 1932, on the eve of the Nazi party’s ascension to power. Hanussen (Tim Roth) is his employer, a seedy mystic who tries to gain the favor of men such as Heinrich Himmler. An interesting perspective on the rise of evil through one man’s eyes.
- My Best Fiend (1999) – A fascinating documentary by Herzog about his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, tempestuous actor Klaus Kinski. The relationship was frequently stormy, and Herzog pulls no punches in both praising and damning his subject. Plenty of behind-the-scenes footage is shown, and Kinski co-stars such as Claudia Cardinale share their recollections of the unpredictable performer. If you’re a fan of any of the five films Herzog and Kinski did together, be sure to add this one to your Netflix queue.
- Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) – In an attempt to inspire fellow filmmaker Errol Morris, Werner Herzog stated he would eat his shoe if Morris ever completed his project, Gates of Heaven. He did, and Herzog honored his word. This 20-minute documentary captures the director preparing the shoe with the help of a chef and then chowing down at the premiere of the movie. Are all Germans this wacky?
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