Happy 70th, Werner Herzog. Let’s begin our modest celebration with what’s probably his most famous monologue, delivered in Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams (both from 1982):
It’s all here. The voice, of course, the over-articulation that somehow comes off as both sinister and endearing, but also the brutal honesty, the insistence on finding, facing, and then staring down what, on another occasion, he called “a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.” There’s a certain anti-romantic Romanticism in the worldview espoused in that clip, a grandiosity in it that allows for furious forces to forge on in a post-existential universe. The South American jungle is a “land that God, if he exists, has created in anger.”
So which is it? Herzog has always known that there’s a lot mileage to be had in having it both ways. That heroic self-effacement, for example. You hear it in the telling of the tales of saving Joaquin Phoenix from blowing himself to smithereens or of declaring, having been shot during an interview with the BBC, “It is not a significant bullet.” In his 1989 history of New German Cinema, Thomas Elsaesser all but marveled at the ingenuity of one of Herzog’s early moves:
When in 1974 Werner Herzog had completed Kaspar Hauser, he put the cans of film into a rucksack and set off from Munich by foot in the direction of Paris where, three weeks later, he presented himself and his film at the sickbed of Lotte Eisner. For a director vaunting his spontaneity and unselfconsciousness this was a brilliantly calculated inspiration. In a minor key, it was as redolent of cultural and historic resonances as Willy Brandt’s spontaneous genuflection at a memorial to the Warsaw ghetto in 1971 had been an act of political atonement and a gesture of redress for Auschwitz and what it stood for. That the historian of Expressionist cinema, émigré Jew and woman, friend of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, personal assistant to Henri Langlois (founding father of the Cinémathèque and patron saint of the French nouvelle vague), should—on what might easily have been her deathbed—give a young German filmmaker her blessing, by assuring him that his work was once more ‘legitimate German culture,’ could itself be read as a founding myth of origins and identity.
Roger Ebert, one of 18 critics to list Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) in his top ten for Sight & Sound‘s poll this year (ten directors named it as well), wrote in 2006: “Herzog by his example gave me a model for the film artist: fearless, driven by his subjects, indifferent to commercial considerations, trusting his audience to follow him anywhere. In the 38 years since I saw my first Herzog film, after an outpouring of some 50 features and documentaries, he has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”
Another of Herzog’s most vigorous champions has been Michael Atkinson, a self-proclaimed “inveterate, lifelong Herzogian (alright, since adolescence),” who wrote for GreenCine in 2003 that “I’ve never been shaken in my belief that he is the most vital, mysterious and righteous moviemaking voice on the globe. Writing about him for Film Comment years ago, I cried in the wilderness about how I saw Herzog as my filmic psychopomp, my spirit guide in a shrill and banal mediaverse, ‘Balzac, Hannibal and St. Patrick coiled into one completely original, soft-spoken figure… In obeying the orphic urge to gallivant into Hell not for Love but for Truth, for Mystery, for What Has No Name But Which Can Only Be Filmed, Herzog has exhibited a sense of moral courage that makes the culture’s other art-makers seem like timid children.'”
In 2008, Atkinson observed in Moving Image Source that “Herzog still endures the old condescending labels: crazed nomad, life-risking psycho, the New German Cinema’s most market-uncooperative coyote, victim of Spielberg-era popularization, voodoo-or-die man of outrageous principle, and recalcitrant visionary forced to make documentaries because he couldn’t be trusted with fiction-feature budgets. Herzog’s achievement remains misunderstood, especially insofar as it’s seen as divided between two opposing camps: scripted movies and ‘found’ non-fiction films. Herzog makes one kind of film; everything he does is Herzogian. In the cinematic circus of the illusory, where other filmmakers are lauded for their ‘style’ and ‘effect,’ Herzog is the Ludditic deliverer, insisting on the vitality of the actual.”
More reading referred to in just the past few days: Paul Cullum for the Los Angeles Review of Books on Alan Greenberg’s Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass and Hari Kunzru for Hazlitt: “Werner Herzog: The Director is Present.”
Tributes and assessments in today’s German-language papers: Fritz Göttler (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Andreas Kilb (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Daniel Kothenschulte (Berliner Zeitung), Christiane Peitz (Tagesspiegel), and Michael Wenk (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). And online: Christoph Hochhäusler (Revolver).
And of course, Werner Herzog carries on working, hard and uncompromising as ever. He’s got two documentary series coming up, Hate in America and On Death Row; and he’ll be directing a live webcast of a concert by The Killers on September 18. His next feature will be Queen of the Desert, featuring Naomi Watts as Gertrude Bell and Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence. And for those who can’t get enough of seeing—and of course, hearing—Herzog on screen, Jack Reacher, in which Tom Cruise comes up against Herzog’s Russian gang leader, will be out at the end of the year.