Top Ten Werner Herzog Films

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on the set of Cobra Verde
Top Ten Werner Herzog Films

The films of Werner Herzog haunt that hazy corridor between dream and reality, where madness and the true nature of the universe lurk. They’re surreal, but not by any of the boiler-plate attributes we associate with head-trip cinema. They’re horrific, but never by cheap shocks. They’re beautiful, but not in a painterly sense. Each one is a tone poem searching for both new images and what Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth,” a blending of fact and fiction for a higher cause. There’s a uniqueness to his films that’s unforgettable.

I not only admire Herzog’s films, I admire the man behind them. Herzog’s fearlessness is fascinating. He’s an artist who risks it all to get “the shot.” Studio backlot shooting is not an option. His obsessive, nearly self-destructive need to film in the hottest of jungles or the coldest spots of Antarctica reaps both great footage and legendary behind-the-scenes stories. Herzog is a man of many tales, a true badass (see video to the right) that makes Dos Equis’s “Most Interesting Man in the World” look like an office accountant.

Over the last few months, I screened every (Netflix available) Herzog film I hadn’t seen, including his shorts. Now, in honor of the DVD release of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and the Toronto Film Festival premiere of Caves of Forgotten Dreams I have the formidable task of ranking Herzog’s films. Something he would maybe view as an obscenity or a futile act of reigning in the abstract. Or maybe not. Often Herzog takes a left when you expect a right. Regardless, I only dislike one film on his lengthy resume: The Wild Blue Yonder.

So picking only ten was a tough task. To make it easier, I stuck with his feature-length films. Yet, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner and La Soufriere are brilliant shorts. Also, I must give recognition to two films Herzog didn’t write or direct but every fan should watch. Les Blanks’ Burden of Dreams chronicles the nightmarish filming of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, which involved everything from actors quitting to planes crashing and land wars between Peru and Ecuador. The film rivals — and some would argue bests — Hearts of Darkness as the greatest “making of” documentary ever filmed. Also give Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness a viewing. It’s a mockumentary starring Herzog, who plays himself on an expedition to film the Loch Ness monster. Penn’s film captures the essence of who Herzog is and what he does better than any “real” documentary every could.

With the introduction out of the way let’s dive in and see what we find.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1985)
I won’t deny there are several Herzog films left off this list I enjoy more than Even Dwarfs Started Small. Yet, this plotless, allegorical tale of dwarfs taking over an asylum housing them and the ensuing chaos and social breakdown (think “Lord of the Flies” minus the jungle) is unforgettable for its bizarre, disturbing tone that does for dwarfs what It did for clowns (or maybe that should be vice-versa since Dwarfs precedes It ). I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the film, but the insanity of the movie is memorizing, and the creepiness of the constant dwarf giggling lingers with you for days afterward.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Herzog takes on the 19th-century true story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who spent his entire childhood and teens held captive in a cellar. Eventually, his captor dropped him off in a town square with just a Bible, an anonymous note, and the clothes on his back. It sounds like a mystery movie, but it’s not. Herzog delves into the origins of human expression and social interaction as the town adopts Hauser and molds him from the unresponsive human clay abandoned to them. As Hauser, Bruno S. (who had spent the majority of his early life in mental institutions) pulls the film together. Each expression and line of dialogue Bruno S. delivers has a feral, child-like authenticity to it, feeling as if it’s springing from the primordial well of human consciousness.

Grizzly Man (2005)
Perhaps a tad low on the list for some people. Fair enough. I dig the film, but just not as much as some others. Nonetheless, Grizzly Man is one of Herzog’s finest documentaries as it tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a bear activist who lived his summers amongst grizzly bears at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. And then a bear ate him and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Herzog found a kindred spirit in Treadwell, as both men had (at times) recklessly defied the neutral, yet unforgiving power of mother nature. The odds eventually kicked in and Treadwell took his natural place in the food chain. Personally, I found the man buffoonish and a bear killing him was inevitable. The true tragedy of the story lies in the death of Huguenard, who paid the price for Treadwell’s arrogance. Yet, with that said, Herzog composed much of his film with footage shot by Treadwell and without a doubt the man witnessed some spectacular images of nature.

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