At once a mystic oracle and half-kidding huckster, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog has spent his six-decade career shooting on seven different continents, chronicling humankind’s fraught relationship with a cruel and indifferent universe through 34 documentaries and 20 dramatic features, as well as dozens of shorts, operas and television programs.
The prolific director turned 81 last month, and will be stopping by WBUR’s CitySpace on Thursday, Oct. 12, to chat with Here & Now co-host Robin Young about his long-awaited memoir, “Every Man for Himself and God Against All.” (If the name rings a bell, that’s because it was the original U.S. release title of Herzog’s 1974 film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”) You can watch the interview here:
While it’s impossible to do justice to such an expansive body of work with just a handful of suggestions, here are five titles worth streaming before what’s sure to be an unforgettable evening.
'Aguirre, the Wrath of God' (1972)
The quintessential Herzog film, and maybe his best. In 16th-century Peru, after the conquest of the Incas, a battalion of Spanish soldiers under Pizarro’s command journeyed down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. They should have stayed home. Klaus Kinski stars as the title character, a cunning, deranged despot fixated on his teenage daughter and obsessed with finding the mythical city of gold. The expedition’s cumbersome equipment and ornate accouterments are no match for the mountains of Machu Picchu, and we watch mesmerized as the conquistadors succumb to the treacherous terrain, the arrows of unseen natives and ultimately, the madness of their leader. Shot on location in the Andes with a camera Herzog stole from the Munich Film School, it’s a film of hypnotic, gobsmacking images and ethereal unease. “Aguirre'' was the filmmaker’s first of five collaborations with Kinski, a genuinely disturbed individual with one of the most frighteningly magnetic screen presences in the history of cinema. Welcome to the jungle. (Available to rent or purchase on most VOD outlets.)
'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe' (1980)
The legend goes that Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and beloved Cantabrigian Errol Morris was incentivized to start shooting his first movie, “Gates of Heaven,'' after his pal Werner promised that if Errol ever finished it, he would eat his shoe. (Morris, rather amusingly, claims not to recall the wager.) The day of the film’s Berkeley premiere, Herzog and Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters spent five hours braising his boots in a pot of rendered duck fat with thyme, rosemary and bay leaves. While swigging a beer before the screening, Herzog managed to ingest a considerable portion of his footwear in front of an awestruck audience, the feat captured for posterity by filmmaker Les Blank. This agreeably silly short shows off not just Herzog’s eccentric humor — with that painstakingly enunciated Bavarian monotone all your unfunny film friends try to mimic — but also the carny barker savvy with which he’s used his daredevil persona to drum up publicity for uncommercial projects. He made himself into a meme before the internet even existed. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy. Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.)
This curious odyssey ventures to a land far stranger and more exotic than any of Herzog’s jungle epics: Middle America. The film was written for self-taught street musician Bruno Schleinstein — usually credited as Bruno S. — a non-professional actor the director discovered while casting “Kaspar Hauser.” Having spent most of his life in mental institutions, Schleinstein reacts to the world as if tuned to frequencies the rest of us don’t hear. This makes him a perfect holy fool for Herzog’s tale of an ex-con who takes up with a strumpet (the filmmaker’s then-girlfriend Eva Mattes) and the two decide they’ve had enough of Germany, moving to Wisconsin in search of the American dream. Herzog regards tacky, midwestern consumer culture with the same awed, anthropological fascination with which he’s photographed glaciers and rainforests, making the film often inexplicably funny and strangely sad. The closing image of a dancing chicken in a penny arcade attraction sums up his absurdist vision of people stuck spinning on metaphorical hamster wheels they cannot comprehend. (Streaming on Kanopy. Available to rent or purchase on most VOD outlets.)
'Grizzly Man' (2005)
Timothy Treadwell is such an ideal Herzog protagonist, if he hadn’t existed the director probably would have invented him. The failed television actor spent 13 summers living in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, recklessly frolicking with massive grizzly bears and by all available evidence, annoying the crap out of them. Culled from 100 hours of remarkable video footage Treadwell shot before he and his girlfriend were eaten alive, the documentary sets up a dialectic between Treadwell’s sunny, psychotically anthropomorphic attachment to the animals — he gives them nicknames like “Mr. Chocolate” — and the filmmaker’s amusingly grim assessments of life in the wilderness, finding “no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” What makes the film so unexpectedly moving is that it becomes about the human need to believe that there’s a special place where we belong in all of this, versus Herzog’s assertion that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” (Streaming on Kanopy and Amazon Prime. Available to rent or purchase on most VOD outlets.)
With a title inexplicably borrowed from Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece — Herzog still says he’s never seen it — a low-rent, straight-to-video potboiler gets hilariously hijacked by the director’s anarchic collaboration with a never-wilder Nicolas Cage, starring as a cop so crooked he can’t even stand up straight. The procedural elements are played for farce, with Cage channeling Kinski, Ed Sullivan and assorted silent film legends in one of the most thrillingly rococo performances of his career. (You know a movie’s nuts when Val Kilmer is the straight man.) Herzog seems most captivated by the post-Katrina setting; these recently submerged, ruined streets overrun with alligators and iguanas. He reprises the dancing chicken theme song from “Stroszek” for the final shootout, but not before offering Cage’s rampaging id monster a stab at redemption. For all the jokey depravity on display, it’s a touchingly sincere film. The title character’s slow-dawning awareness of a larger world around him is expressed in the classically Herzog-ian query, “Do fish have dreams?” (Streaming on Kanopy, Hulu and Peacock. Available to rent or purchase on most VOD outlets.)
Werner Herzog will be at WBUR’s CitySpace on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 6:30 p.m. While in-person tickets are sold out, virtual tickets are still available.