5 Essential Werner Herzog Movies You Should Watch Today
Whether your knowledge of Werner Herzog is limited to his guest star roles on Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons or you catch every Herzog revival screening at your local arthouse, we want to encourage you to dive into the films from the Herzog catalog available starting this month on Shout! Factory TV (and the ones available on our Herzog: The Collection Blu-ray set)! The five films highlighted below represent our favorite jumping off points for learning more about the work of this delightfully enigmatic director.
For The Neophyte
Nosferatu The Vampyre
Since its release in 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre has not only become one of the director’s most acclaimed films, but one of the most compelling and visually-striking interpretations of the Dracula story ever committed to film. Herzog’s haunting interpretation of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic eschews the popular conception of the vampire as confident and alluring, and instead focuses on the tragedy of the creature: doomed to immortality, weary, and disgusted at his own existence. Nosferatu the Vampyre features frequent Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula, as well as Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel, Possession) and Bruno Ganz (The Boys from Brazil, Wings of Desire). Nosferatu The Vampyre isn’t the standard telling of the Dracula story, where explicit gore is frequently used to shock the viewer into being scared; instead a lingering sense of impending doom builds to almost unsettling levels, leaving the viewer with a feeling of disquiet that lasts well after the film ends. Nosferatu the Vampire is a great introduction to some of the themes and visual elements frequently found in Herzog’s work.
Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve likely seen a reference to Fitzcarraldo’s famous scene of a massive river boat being dragged by teams of workers over a mountain deep in the Amazonian jungle. Loosely based on the true story of an eccentric opera lover who wants to build an opera house deep in the jungles of Peru, Fitzcarraldo is a lush, stunning piece about obsession and the drive to pursue one’s dreams. Starring Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale, Fitzcarraldo is almost as well known for its behind the scenes complications as it is for its merits as a film. In addition to the monumentous task of filming the boat scene (done completely practically, with no special effects) the crew also battled weather, dysentery, tensions with the local population and the virulent behavior of Kinski, making Fitzcarraldo one of the most tumultuous productions in film history. The epic story of the production of Fitzcarraldo is chronicled in Herzog’s book “Conquistador of the Useless," as well as the excellent documentary, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, both of which make excellent companion pieces to this film.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God
Also based on a true story and set in the Amazonian jungle, Aguirre: The Wrath of God follows the doomed expedition of a group of conquistadors searching for the fabled El Dorado. One of Herzog’s most critically acclaimed films, Aguirre: The Wrath of God is lauded not only for its breathtaking cinematography, imbued with rich jungle hues to mask the haunting realities of the world, but also for ominous explorations of obsession (sensing a theme between these films?) and the consequences of greed, personified by Klaus Kinski’s terrifying performance as the oppressive leader of a mutiny who is driven to madness deep in the jungle. Aguirre: The Wrath of God is also notable for the fact it marks Herzog’s first collaboration with Kinski. Despite their legendarily tempestuous relationship, Herzog and Kinski would go on to make four more movies together before Kinski’s death in 1991, an especially notable feat considering no other director ever worked with Kinski more than once. Their tumultuous history is chronicled in Herzog’s captivating documentary My Best Fiend, which is also available on Shout! Factory TV.
Deep Cuts For Cinephiles
Where the Green Ants Dream
One of Herzog’s more obscure films, Where the Green Ants Dream is a melding of fact and fiction, a narrative adaptation of a true story with many roles played by non-actors. Striking images of the Australian outback compose this mystical meditation about faith and tradition, the struggle between ancient and modern and the meaning of life itself when faced with the end of civilization.
The ethereal landscapes of North African deserts create the eerie, otherworldly experience that is Fata Morgana. A cinematic experience like few others, this narrative-less film is a hallucinatory series of short scenes, accompanied by an almost liturgical score by avant-garde band Popol Vuh. It’s hard to describe a film whose interpretation will vary depending on the viewer, but Fata Morgana can best be summarized as Herzog’s most abstract work, a hauntingly surreal, fevered celluloid dream that is delightfully pure cinema; a true treat for fans of Herzog and cinephiles alike.