One of the most prolific filmmakers currently working, German director Werner Herzog is known for his iconoclastic characters, his hands-on approach, and for his volatile relationship with his four-time leading actor Klaus Kinski. Born in Munich in 1942, Herzog has directed 20 feature films and 28 documentaries and has been praised by French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut and especially by the late film critic Roger Ebert.
He and his work have also become infamous, both for the lengths Herzog has gone to in order to achieve success. So let us celebrate—or at least an appreciate—of Herzog’s dedication to his craft, not to mention all he’s put up with in the process.
5. Aguirre, The Wrath of God Comes Close to Killing Herzog
Supposedly based off the account of 16th-century monk—it isn’t, though the titular character did actually exist—Herzog’s debut film Aguirre, the Wrath of God depicts an ambitious and mentally unhinged Spanish soldier’s attempt to find El Dorado in South America. In his memoirs, Herzog admitted that rather than rent the necessary equipment for the production, he stole the 35mm camera used to film Aguirre from the Munich Film School, arguing, “I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right.”
Even excluding Herzog’s conflict with lead actor Klaus Kinski—which will be detailed at great length shortly—the production was a treacherous one for the first-time director. In the movie’s commentary, he says that money was so tight that he had to trade his watch and boots for food. He also claims that the monkeys that appear near the end of the movie bit him roughly 50 times, and that he was only able to acquire them by pretending to be a veterinarian. As if that wasn’t enough, the director was bitten over 150 times by fire ants after lopping off part of a tree with his machete, contracting a fever as a result. Thankfully for Herzog, the movie was critically acclaimed, with Roger Ebert even naming it one of his all-time favourite films.
4. Incident at Loch Ness and The Wild Blue Yonder – Herzog Blurs Fact And Fiction
Herzog has never been averse to letting aspects of real life bleed into his films. According to the IMDb trivia page for Aguirre, the Wrath of God, at one point in the film Herzog’s hand can be seen shooting into frame in order to steady a carriage about to topple over. Even more interesting are his films that have deliberately skirted the line between fiction and reality. His 2005 science fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder, starring Herzog regular Brad Dourif as a humanoid alien, bucked studio-made special effects shots of spaceships in flight in favour of actual footage from a NASA space shuttle mission.
Even more curious is the 2004 mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness, directed by future Avengers co-writer Zak Penn and co-written by Penn and Herzog. Herzog and Penn play themselves in this staged documentary, which in the fiction of the movie aims to determine the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. Other real life figures such as Herzog’s wife Lena and actor Jeff Goldblum make appearances as themselves as well. As the mockumentary progresses, it becomes ambiguous as to whether or not Nessie exists, and tensions between the filmmakers climax in a pseudo-recreation of Herzog’s infamous confrontation with Kinski during the filming of Aguirre (as seen above). Herzog and Penn promoted the film as though it was a factual account, and even played the fictionalized versions of themselves on the DVD commentary, bickering with one another until Herzog leaves.
3. Grizzly Man – Herzog Listens To A Man Die
Environmentalist and amateur naturalist Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers living among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness, trekking out to his so-called “Grizzly Sanctuary” at the beginning of each season with just the bare—sorry—necessities and getting dangerously close to the animals and their young. In the summer of 2003, he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were tragically attacked and eaten alive by one of the bears.
Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man is largely assembled from the over 100 hours of video footage Treadwell took during his last few outings among the grizzlies—including the summer that ended with his death—and filled out by interviews with Treadwell’s friends, family and colleagues. At one point in production, Herzog was given access to the naturalist’s final tape, which was recorded as he and Huguenard were killed—Treadwell was a compulsive filmmaker, so one can speculate that he reflexively hit the “record” button at the last second. Thankfully the lens cap was on, but Herzog was nevertheless committed to listening to the audio that survived, leaving him both emotionally and physically shaken afterward. This moment can be seen in the final cut of the documentary, though Herzog does not subject the audience to the same horrors he heard.
2. Herzog And Klaus Kinski Enjoy Productive, Murderous Professional Relationship
Fellow German Klaus Kinski was Herzog’s lead actor for five of the director’s films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde (the picture above is taken from the production of the last). A former soldier, prisoner of war and, according to medical reports cited in German newspaper Bild, a possible schizophrenic, Kinski was a turbulent and even violent presence on set. According to the audio commentary of Aguirre, Kinski got his hands on a live firearm while aggravated and fired, accidentally blowing off an extra’s fingertip. As well, the film’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database says that the actor smacked a crewmember across the head with a prop sword, which would have killed the man were it not for his helmet. Things came to a head when Kinski attempted to walk off the production in a rage, Herzog threatened to kill the actor, then himself.
While none of Herzog and Kinski’s following collaborations resulted in further physical harm, things certainly came close: the Peruvian native extras on Fitzcarraldo so hated Kinski that one of the chiefs offered to kill the actor for Herzog. The director turned him down, if only so he would be able to complete the film. And during production of Cobra Verde, the first director of photography could not put up with the actor’s verbal abuse, resulting in him quitting the film and forcing Herzog and his producer to find a replacement. Though these incidences seem too extreme to be real, many of them were confirmed in My Best Fiend, Herzog’s humorously titled 1999 documentary about his relationship with Kinski.
1. Fitzcarraldo – Herzog Has Natives Drag A Boat Up A Damn Mountain
It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Werner Herzog’s cinematic exploits without at least mentioning this.
Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s fourth collaboration with Klaus Kinski, is the story of Irish rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (inspired by Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald). In his journey through Peru, Fitzgerald has local natives effectively pull his steamship, the Molly Aida, up a hillside from one river to another—something the real Fitzcarrald reportedly did. To achieve this effect, Herzog used a series of minatures… well, no, that would be too easy for Werner Herzog. Instead, he simply had his Peruvian native extras pull the life-size steamship up a hillside from one river to another, just like the historical account said. That the director and his crew were able to pull this off is no doubt a testament to how far they were willing to go.
But, as revealed in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, the real steamship was much lighter, and had in fact been disassembled before the portage rather than carried wholesale. So in a way, Herzog’s feat was more real than real life, a physical manifestation of a myth. For this, he calls himself “the Conquistador of the Useless,” elaborating that the feat had never been attempted before and likely would never be tried again.
But if nothing else, it made for great cinema.