“Why go to Antarctica? Why do a film like Grizzly Man? It’s the sheer joy of storytelling – it’s the urge.” — Werner Herzog
We’re celebrate the birthday of the legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who turns 80 on September 5, 2022, and who, by the way, is showing no signs of stopping! Let’s take a look back at the filmmaking master that is Herzog.
Over the course of his career directing films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Grizzly Man (2009), Herzog has explored the lives and motivations of those on the fringes of society. The first films I saw of his—Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo—both featured the unforgettable Klaus Kinski. I’d later see Kinski again in my favorite Dracula film to date: Nosferatu the Vampyre. The main characters were dark, moody, and driven by a desire to (sometimes literally) climb mountains.
Werner Herzog had several fascinating moments in his life. In 1971, while Herzog was location scouting for Aguirre, the Wrath of God in Peru, he narrowly avoided taking LANSA Flight 508. Herzog’s reservation was cancelled due to a last-minute change in his itinerary. The plane was later struck by lightning and disintegrated, and one survivor, Juliane Koepcke, lived after a free fall. Long haunted by the event, 30 years later, he made a documentary film, Wings of Hope, which explored the story of the sole survivor.
Another incident showed how supportive he was to fellow artists. Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris completed the film project on pet cemeteries that he had been working on in order to challenge and motivate Morris, whom the filmmaker perceived as incapable of following up on his projects. In 1978, when the film, Gates of Heaven, finally premiered, Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated into a short documentary by Les Blank called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. At the event, Herzog said he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition.
As a passionate viewer of documentaries, I believe that that this is where Herzog really shines. He is not a director who is known for witty dialog and clever storylines. Herzog is forever looking at the wide-seeking wonder that exists in the world in a way that only film can deliver. Some of his documentaries can be sweet and intimate, like The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, about a ski flier who nearly flies off the end of the course. Others are open with the raw wonder of human tradition like Wheel of Time or the quiet joy that is Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Humanity is capable of great gentleness and wonder, and no one captures it better than Herzog.
Even at 80, he shows no sign of slowing down, appearing in Disney+ Star Wars TV series, The Mandelorian. He also debuted a new documentary at the Telluride International Film Festival called Theatre of Thought. Here’s to hoping for many, many more films to come!