The Enigma of Werner Herzog

by Questing Beast

by Nick Milton

German cinema was dealt a vicious blow during WWII and the years following. Joseph Goebbels, after being promoted to the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, formed the Reich Chamber of Film, which unsurprisingly banned Jews and Foreigners from the now nationally controlled film industry. This resulted in numerous German directors, producers, and actors fleeing their homeland and finding employment in Hollywood. This list includes such notables as Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot), Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, and Fritz Lang. In fact, Fritz Lang left Germany because Goebbels himself, after watching Metropolis, had expressed his desire to make Lang head up his Propaganda Film Unit. Germany’s Murnaus and Dreyers were replaced by specially appointed directors whose sole purpose was to instill in the German people national pride.

While all the rest of the World’s film industries were booming on account of the war, both financially and artistically, Germany was left in a creative standstill, force feeding melodramatic propaganda to its public. Even after the war, Germany became so concerned with reinventing its poor image that it wasted years portraying “the common German soldier” as an honorable victim, caught in a mindless war controlled by a small group of Nazi extremists in Berlin. The hurting public flocked to the theater houses to escape the shame and horror of the last 6 years with Heimat (Homeland) films, which showcased the beauty of simple country folk living in pristine mountain villages.

Eventually German filmmakers of substance began appearing, ushering in the German New Wave and intent on restoring Germany’s previous reputation for excellence but intelligently responding to Germany’s post-war condition. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) demonstrated his hatred of the class system throughout his vast filmography and is known as one of cinema’s most accomplished and effective sociopolitical directors. No one captured the isolative and melancholic social state of post-war Germany better than Wim Wenders with such films as Wings of Desire, The American Friend, and my person favorite, Paris Texas. It should be noted that while many of these filmmakers’ pictures were not set in Germany, their themes are clearly reactionary in nature.


These projects have no intended audience, but are simply stories that interest him. This audacious method should have ruined him if what interests him was not so fascinating.


I enjoy learning about a country’s collective mental state via the art they produce. Art does, after all, imitate nature, and makes for a wonderful release from social anxieties. But this just makes Werner Herzog’s arrival into the film industry all the more confusing. Born in Munich, Herzog demonstrated from the tender age of 12 that he was a force to be reckoned with, which is my polite way of saying that he was crazy. When asked to sing in front of his class, he adamantly refused to do so and to demonstrate the strength of his refusal, he went on a music strike for six years, not playing, singing, or listening to a single song. After reading about filmmaking in an encyclopedia, he decided to go to film school in Munich and left after a week, stealing a 35 mm camera and justifying the act by insisting that it was a necessary evil since his purpose in life was to make movies. He also insists that he saw God when he was a child… or maybe it was some random worker standing in a doorway.

Between being shot by an air rifle during an interview, which did not stop the interview in the least, rescuing Joaquin Phoenix from a flaming car, and writing operas on the side, he has astounded audiences by his total disregard for the commercial nature of filmmaking, self-financing projects which are somehow far beyond his financial ability. These projects have no intended audience, but are simply stories that interest him. This audacious method should have ruined him if what interests him was not so fascinating. Herzog obsessively studies the fantastic in an attempt to unlock some hidden creative power in the mind of the viewer. For him, insanity is a virtue, a means of transcending one’s own limitations. His characters often destroy themselves attempting an impossible feat, such as pulling a steamboat over a hill or defying Nazi Germany singlehandedly. It is not necessary that the character learns anything at the end, since it is strictly his actions which immortalize him. In order convey this deep-seated desire in man, Herzog makes documentaries about men and women with fantastic stories and goals, such as a 16th century composer/murderer, a man who builds a specially designed airship to fly over jungles, and a Wodaabe tribe from the Sahara who stage their own beauty pageants.

He seems to believe that truth is whatever awakens our modern stunted, underdeveloped imagination, so he will occasionally insert fictitious elements into his documentaries and not tell anyone until it comes up naturally in an interview. For example, in his film Bells from the Deep, Herzog travels through Russia observing strange beliefs. He discovers a group of Rasputin-like monks who all claim to be Jesus. This particular part the film is completely fictitious, while the rest is factual.Some would call this lying, but Herzog would call it courageous. He is one of the few artists living today who can truly be described as living in their own reality, a reality where it is imagination, not reason, which separates man from the rest of nature.

Herzog is well known for placing great importance on the power of the image.

We comprehend… that nuclear power is a real danger for mankind, that over-crowding of the planet is the greatest danger of all. We have understood that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger. But I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude. It is as serious a defect as being without memory. What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.

In his film Heart of Glass, he used hypnotism on his actors to create unique performances. He has made 57 films, so obviously I have not seen them all, but of the ones I have seen, his characters have never been sane. In one film, Woyzeck, Klaus Kinski plays a German soldier in a village whose mental state is rapidly declining, to the amusement of the tows residents. When he stabs his wife to death in the end, Herzog ends the film not with a murder trial or Woyzeck becoming sane enough to feel remorse for his actions, but simply with a title sequence stating, “A good murder, a real murder, a beautiful murder; as beautiful as any man can hope to see. We haven’t had one like this in ages.” It is no coincidence that the mainstream actors he has worked with are famous for their manic personalities both on and off camera, namely Nicholas Cage and Christian Bale. Herzog made two films (Stroszek, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) with a man named Bruno S. who was mentally impaired. A great believer in the physicality of filmmaking, Herzog has harmed both himself and his crew trudging to the four corners of the earth. Locations are immensely important to him since they represent the mental state of his protagonists. Also in every film of his I’ve seen, he showcases a different animal, whether it is Kinski’s raft in Aguirre, Wrath of God being overrun with gibbons representing his desire for dominion, even if he’s only the king of the monkeys, or Jouko Ahola in Invincible dreaming of bright red crabs, perhaps indicating the future threat of communism. And then there is the famous ending of Stroszek, which I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen it.

For all the absurdness in his films, what actually surprised me the most was how surprisingly human his characters are. They are intensely self-motivated individuals who seem doomed from the beginning, but it is their inordinate desire for glory and greatness which humanizes them and separates from the stereotypical Hollywood protagonists, who always learn from their mistakes. That is why I believe that Herzog is at his core a mystic, someone who inexplicably self-distanced himself from Western values and found consolation in his ability to articulate his dreams. And after 50 years in the industry, he seems to have included himself amongst his larger than life characters, Don Quixotes whose glorious failures reinforce the notion that madness enables man to reach his final end, a state of material awe.