I’ve written about Werner Herzog several times in this space, but always in relation to a new film, meaning I’ve mentioned his earlier ones only in passing. When I was seriously getting into film in the early 80’s, he was a unique, vital figure, generating endless stories of bizarre personal conduct and foolhardiness, yet working too efficiently and sensitively merely to be categorized as a flake. Writing in 1980, David Thomson called him “exceptional” and “epically adventurous,” and I don’t think many would have disputed the assessment. Prophetically though, Thomson noted this: “as attention has fallen on Herzog, so his pursuit of extremism has become a little more studied; it does now seem more zealous than natural.” Soon after that, Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, a chronicle of a visionary who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle; it’s most famous for the scene of a steamer being tugged over a mountain, which the director insisted on carrying out for real. The film received attention galore, but Herzog seemed to leave something in the jungle. He kept making pictures all over the world – mainly documentaries, as the funding for other projects dried up - but increasingly, no one cared.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
At some point though, Herzog acquired a new kind of stature, partly no doubt through longevity (he’ll be seventy-one this year), relentlessness and uncategorizable charisma (even playing supporting parts in mainstream films like Jack Reacher). A few of his films – Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams – achieved as much general recognition as documentaries ever do, and he even directed Nicolas Cage in the recent reimagining of Bad Lieutenant. Writing a few years ago in The Grid, Jason Anderson noted he’s become more famous than his films and warned that “trafficking in Herzog anecdotes or perfecting your impression of his accent is no substitute for making time to engage with the works themselves.” Whether or not that, uh, trap is one that many of us need to worry about falling into, his recent body of work is large and rich enough that even serious cinema aficionados might pronounce themselves major Herzog followers based solely on awareness of what came with his second wind.
But, to borrow a turn of phrase, this is no substitute for making time to engage with the films from Herzog’s first glorious fifteen years or so. I recently went back and watched four of them again (at least at the time of writing, they’re all available on YouTube), and it was like taking off the seat belt and letting myself be happily throw around by an artistic rollercoaster. The best known of the four is probably his 1979 version of Nosferatu the Vampyre, which sticks pretty close to the classic structure of Bram Stoker’s story; for a while as I watched it, I thought Herzog might (unusually for him) have been overly restricted by the demands of the narrative.
Even Dwarfs Started Small
But it gathers strength once the vampire leaves Transylvania and travels to (in this version) a small German town; his arrival unleashes a plague, and the film becomes a chilly vision of societal breakdown, the streets overrun by rats, and the eventual killing of the vampire overshadowed by squabbling about how to proceed in the absence of governing institutions (in this version, Van Helsing is for most of the way a failed skeptic rather than an all-knowing savior). Klaus Kinski – the star of many of Herzog’s films of this period – emphasizes the vampire’s anguish, an endless painful isolation without any of the sexually-tinged relish of many other interpretations, and in the end it makes complete sense as (in Thomson’s term) a pursuit of extremity, a tale both of supernatural transcendence and of extreme weakness and pitifulness.
Even Dwarfs Started Small, from 1970, was one of Herzog’s first narrative films, depicting an institution overrun by its inhabitants; every actor in the film is a dwarf, including those playing an instructor that gets taken hostage while his colleagues are away, and a passing motorist who stops to ask directions. Judging from the dimensions of the furniture and suchlike, it seems to be set in our world rather than a parallel one of smaller dimensions; there’s an air of science fiction to it though, and an increasingly apocalyptic undertone. The movie specifically evokes the Berlin Wall and the injustices of an oppressive existence; however, the freedom it celebrates is messy and unsustainable, encompassing bizarre parodies of normal interactions, anarchic excess, and hopeless destruction. It’s an engrossing viewing experience, although it’s not hard to see how some might view it mainly as a stunt (regardless that Herzog obviously invites the ambiguity).
Similarly, his 1976 film Heart of Glass is best known now for how Herzog apparently hypnotized many of the actors, to intensify the film’s strangeness. To the extent it has a story, it concerns an 18th century town, built around a glass-blowing factory, that falls into total disarray and madness after losing the secret of its perhaps mystically endowed primary product. For me at least it’s too strange to fully engage with, but it certainly illustrates the director’s relentless energy and fearlessness during the period, his ability to create unprecedented cinematic environments and effects.
Herzog’s lived comfortably in California for years now, but in the 70’s, he treated America very much as an outsider, certainly aware of its promise, but just as fascinated by its lies and fractures. In the 1977 film Stroszek, an oddball trio leaves Germany – essentially presented, for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, as an unlivable hellhole – to settle in Wyoming. Through family connections and easy finance, they initially make progress toward a better life, confirming the mythic promise of those vast spaces, but then it turns, swamping them with an impersonal cruelty that almost makes the specific victimization of their homeland seem comforting by comparison. Herzog ends the picture with some memorable images of grotesquerie, seemingly evidencing a deranged nation; at the same time though, it shows his tendency to grab at images rather than to construct an analysis. But then, in his famous phrase, this is a virtue constituting going for the “ecstatic truth” rather than the mundane “accountants’ truth”.
Those aren’t necessarily his four best films of the period (on this occasion I didn’t watch Aguirre Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), but they certainly showcase Herzog as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker; plainly more canny and rational than the extremes of the legend might suggest, but a kindred spirit to the little group who at the end of Heart of Glass, believing the world to be flat, can’t help but launch a boat to explore the edge of the abyss.