Monday, January 11, 2010

Werner Herzog

During my down time over the Christmas break I managed to catch up on a few of the movies over the last couple years that have eluded me for one reason or another. One such film was Zak Penn's slightly amusing Christopher Guest-like mockumentary The Grand about a Las Vegas poker tournament and all the colourful characters who participate in it. What inspired me though is that one of the film's stars was German madman director Werner Herzog, who steals the show and also starred in Penn's slightly amusing debut mockumentary The Incident at Loch Ness.

What strikes me about Herzog, whose work I admire very much, is how, despite his reputation and his self-parodying appearances in films like The Grand, these things never undermine his reputation as a unique and original voice in filmmaking. It is testament to the true talent of his craft that, despite his personal exploits, which would overshadow the whole of a lesser talent's entire career, his own films always manage to be grander and more extravagant experiences in and of themselves tham his headlines manage to be.

This is, after all, a man whose actions have, by now, became the stuff of myth and legend: stories that, if they didn't involve Herzog, you probably wouldn't believe them. True or not (and in most cases I believe they probably are), here are some of the best:
  • Herzog threatens to murder actor Klaus Kinski if he walked off the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972. This would be the first of many such incidents. For a nice look deeper into the Herzog/Kinski relationship, his 1999 tribute documentary My Best Fiend is worth a look.
  • Herzog promises that he will eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever completes work of his debut documentary Gates of Heaven. The event was captured in Les Blank's short documentary, aptly titled Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe. The short can be found as an extra on the Criterion DVD version of Blank's insightful documentary on Herzog and the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams. You can also see it free here.
  • Herzog is shot in the stomach by a sniper while conducting an interview outside in L.A. See the video here.
  • Herzog contracts malaria after being put in an African jail for being mistaken as a German mercenary.
  • In order to reward his dwarf cast for completing Even Dwarfs Started Small in 1970, Herzog jumps into a cactus patch.
  • Hearing that his film historian friend Lotte Eisner was ill and probably going to die, Herzog, deciding that she was far too influential to German cinema to die, set out on foot from Munich to Paris, believing that completing the walk would save her life. His journals during the adventure were published under the title Of Walking In Ice and also inspired a fan to do something similar in the 2006 documentary Walking to Werner.
  • After Joaquin Phoenix is in a car accident in Beverly Hills, Herzog mysteriously appears, saves Phoenix and disappears.
And yet, in spite of all this fodder (certainly more interesting than what passes for celebrity gossip these days) Werner Herzog's films and documentaries stand as bold, original works by an artist who dances only to his own beat. If you haven't seen a single work by Herzog now is the time to start.

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