Monday, February 5, 2024

film review: Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer

Directed and written by Thomas von Steinaecker

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

With Werner Herzog, warns German filmmaker Wim Wenders, "you can't be sure of anything. It's all unpredictable. You only know something will happen."

That something could be a dwarf rebellion, a doomed conquistador, Herzog eating his shoe onstage, or doing a guest spot in Star Wars. Great or disappointing, Werner Herzog's films are always interesting and unique. He follows neither formula nor agenda. This documentary makes that clear as it explores his life and career. It is worth watching.

Herzog guides us through his life, appearing on camera in L.A, his current home, and in Sachrang. His mother fled wartime bombing in Munich and sheltered Herzog and his brother in this remote Bavarian village. He grew up starving in the dying days of World War Two. Herzog points to a waterfall and declares that is him, his soul and identity. Seeing his old home makes him (and the viewer) emotional. He visits a ski jump and says he always wanted to fly. His brother recalls him breaking a few bones doing so.

Never mind. Herzog always shrugs off pain. He nearly died making two films in the jungle--Aguirre: Wrath of God (one of the greatest movies ever made) and Fitzcarraldo. The subject matter of his work spans an ocean, but a common thread is the obsession of a single character pursuing a dream at any cost. For instance, Fitzcarraldo is a rubber baron who drags a massive steamship uphill and across land so he can access rubber of the Amazon forest. This is a perfect metaphor about Herzog making this difficult film that he recast and postponed several times.

Of course, no discussion of Herzog is complete without Klaus Kinski. Intense, psychotic (and now discredited for abusing his daughters), Kinski was Herzog's leading madman, starring in Herzog's greatest fiction films, including the two made in the jungle. A lot has been said about their violent collaboration (watch Herzog's own doc, My Best Fiend), though Radical Dreamer does a good job of summarizing it.

Friends and collaborators lend additional voices to this documentary, including Volker Schlondorff (part of the 1960s German New Wave with Herzog), wives Lena Herzog (below) and Martje Grohmann, filmmakers Chloe Zhao and Joshua Oppenheimer, stars Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale and Carl Weathers (RIP), and fangirl and poet Patti Smith.

There's generous footage of Herzog on camera, accompanied by clips from his films, plus gorgeous establishing shots of Bavaria. The film is generally told chronologically, but footage of him in Los Angeles is awkwardly placed at the beginning and end of the film. Herzog workshopping a class of young directors is interesting, but disrupts the doc's momentum early on.

Another problem lies beyond the director's reach: there's so much to cover in Herzog 81 years and 60+ movies. For instance, nothing is said about Nosferatu or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. To get a fuller picture, read his recent memoirs, Every Man For Himself and God Against All, and the Les Blank docs Burden of Dreams and Klaus Kinski Eats His Shoe

And watch Herzog films.

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is released on VOD February 6.

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