Werner Herzog Critical Essays

Introduction

Werner Herzog 1942–

German director and screenwriter.

Herzog is one of the leading figures to emerge from a creative revival in German cinema during the past decade. His films express his fascination with the uncommon and the freakish, seeking to make central in art what is usually eccentric in life and society, claiming artistic rights to a marginal territory. An insane soldier in South America, rioting dwarfs in the Canary Islands, and a man brought up in the confinement of a cellar in Germany are some of the characters and locales defining Herzog's dark cinematic world. "I make films to rid myself of them, like ridding myself of a nightmare," states Herzog.

Herzog's use of far-flung locations in his films, including Crete, the Sahara Desert, and Guadalupe, is patterned very much after his own life. At fourteen he left home and set out for Albania, reaching Greece and later visiting the Sudan. Herzog also traveled to the United States, where he worked in a steel factory, rode in a rodeo, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. At this time he made his first film shorts, one of which features a rooster as the central character. His first full-length film, Signs of Life, introduces situations of madness and isolation which would come to be enduring thematic concerns. This film and the later Woyzeck are based upon works by nineteenth-century German authors, and Herzog himself has been described by critics as a nineteenth-century romantic for the turbulence of his cinematic subjects. A further connection to the past is evident in Herzog's best-known work, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, which derives from a true historical incident in the early nineteenth century. Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes place in the historical context of a still earlier era but nonetheless shares in the mood of desperation and turmoil common to Herzog's films.

Herzog turned to the history of cinema for the subject of one of his most recent efforts, Nosferatu, the Vampyre. The film is a tribute to F. W. Murnau's expressionist masterpiece of the same title, and this supernatural story of a deathless evil harmonizes particularly well with Herzog's work thus far. From hypnotizing his actors for Heart of Glass to featuring a deaf and blind woman in Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog consistently pursues new ways of probing the extremes of human experience. Though Herzog's films are occasionally censured for depicting abnormal subjects considered irrelevant to the mainstream of life, more often the German filmmaker is commended for presenting the unfamiliar and the bizarre with compelling relevancy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92)