One of the most fascinating and eccentric filmmakers ever, German auteur Werner Herzog has made movies since the late-1960s and has treated every subject, every genre, every style, both narrative and documentary, with the same level of import and with his own unique eye and temperament. Because he’s now regarded with a lot of humor, with his laconic southern-German accent and penchant for saying flowery sentences about how awful nature his, it’s easy to forget just what a powerful and important figure his is to world cinema. This is why the new release of a 16 film retrospective boxset comes as such a godsend for film fans who love the director’s work but haven’t had many of his most famous works available to them.
Herzog – The Collection spans nearly 30 years of the director’s storied career and includes his best-known works as well as some that have been out of the public eye for far too long. The set, which is in a classy book case, contains 45 full-color pages of history and information about Herzog and the making of these 16 films by writers Stephen J. Smith, Brad Prager, and Chris Wahl. This is like a Taschen book built into a Blu-ray box set and is full of wonderful and humorous information, quite befitting the subject himself.
The movies are a mix of both narrative and documentary and give a very good cross-section of Herzog’s work. While he’s made other great films, and several brilliant documentaries recently, this could very easily be considered the DEFINITIVE Herzog set. Now, I’ll give a brief overview of each of the movies and what extras you can expect.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
An actual living nightmare of a movie, Herzog’s second film (after his award-winning feature debut Signs of Life) is black-and-white and is about a group of insane asylum inmates who have broken out and essentially trapped the head doctor inside, who himself has trapped one of their lot in a chair in his office, and the inmates roam around the surrounding area causing havoc and mayhem, torturing various people and animals, and cackling like lunatics the whole time. What makes the movie stranger and more unsettling is that every actor in the film is a little person and the way they interact with the average-sized world around them isn’t part of the narrative but definitely part of the film. (The word “narrative” used very loosely.)
This features a commentary by Herzog with actor Crispin Glover and moderator Norman Hill.
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
A moving documentary about a blind and deaf woman who has spent her life helping other blind and deaf people in Germany. The film also talks about what the world must be like to people who can neither see nor hear it.
Fata Morgana (1971)
A strange kind of experimental filmic piece, this movie is a series of footage shot in and around the Sahara Desert (during the making of another of his films) with the only sounds being a spoken creation myth and the music of Leonard Cohen.
Commentary by Herzog, Glover, and Hill again, but only on Fata Morgana.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The first film in the storied partnership between Herzog and certifiably insane actor Klaus Kinski, here playing a Spanish conquistador whose trip down the Amazon river leads to ruin, insanity, and murder, all while on a wooden raft. Easily one of Herzog’s best, it’s also one of the bleakest endings in any movie of its kind.
This film has two commentaries; one in English with Herzog and Hill, and one in German with subtitles with Herzog and Laurens Straub.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
A period piece set in Germany in the early 1800’s this film looks at the strange and true case of Kaspar Hauser, a teenage boy who appeared in a village one day, barely knowing how to walk, not knowing how to speak more than a few words, and carrying a note asking to join the military like his father. After the townsfolk take him in and slowly begin teaching him, he tells of living his whole life as far as he can remember in a dungeon-like room tethered to the floor with only a wooden horse as a play thing. He never knew who was keeping him there, but there would always be food and water for him, and sometimes the water tasted funny and he’d fall asleep and wake up with new clothes, new straw bedding, and his hair washed and cut. The story is weirder, but I won’t spoil it for you. It stars Bruno S., a German busker who had a surprisingly similar life story.
Commentary by Herzog and Hill.
Heart of Glass (1976)
Another period film set in a town with the principle export of its famous Ruby Glass. Things go wrong when the foreman of the glassworks dies without telling anyone else the secret of the special, tourist-attracting glass. This film has a strange distinction: but for the glassblowers and the main character, every other actor in the film has been hypnotized by Herzog and perform all of their scenes under hypnosis.
Commentary by Herzog and Hill.
Funny and goofy and yet ultimately deeply depressing and dark, Herzog’s second film to star the strange Bruno S. features him as a street performer who gets out of prison and can’t make money for himself and so joins an elderly friend and a prostitute on their harebrained plan to leave Germany and live in, of all places, rural Wisconsin to make their fortunes. Things do not go quite as well as they might.
Commentary by Herzog and Hill.
An adaptation of the play by Georg Büchner, this film was actually filmed only five days after filming wrapped on Nosferatu – Phantom der nacht, and Herzog believed the lack of a rest would give star Klaus Kinski the proper frazzled, near-nervous breakdown performance about a Russian soldier who is being experimented on and also believes his wife is fooling around on him.
No commentary on this one, but a conversation between Herzog and Straub, in German with English subtitles.
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
This is actually the exact same disc as the single release in May. You can read my full review of that Blu-ray here.
Arguably Herzog’s very finest film, and his best collaboration with Kinski, this film follows an extremely determined rich man who dreams of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle. To do this, he has to send his giant riverboat up and over a mountain. In order to achieve this effect for the film, Herzog actually hoisted a real full-sized riverboat up and over a mountain. The making of this film is the subject of the brilliant documentary Burden of Dreams by Les Blank from which Herzog’s famous speech about nature being evil and the birds in the trees not singing as much as screaming in agony comes.
Commentaries by Herzog and Hill in English and Herzog and Straub in German with subtitles.
Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)
A documentary about a tribe of Miskito Indians in northern Nicaragua who use child soldiers in their battle against Sardinistas.
Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)
A film shot in the Australian outback about a geologist who is hired to map a section of desert set to be taken over by a mining company. The land is covered in massive mounds of green ant dwellings. The geologist is impeded in his work by a group of aborigines who claim that they are standing where the green ants dream and to disturb their dreaming would bring about the end of humanity.
Commentary by Herzog and Hill on Where the Green Ants Dream only.
Cobra Verde (1987)
Herzog’s final film with Kinski again puts the volatile actor playing a man with a crazed dream. This time, he’s a bandit who is hired by a plantation owner to oversee his slaves, but who gets a bit too fresh with the plantation owner’s daughter. Instead of killing Cobra Verde (or “Green Snake”), the vengeful plantation owner sends him to Africa where he is the only white man for miles and miles around and becomes the victim of humiliating acts and torture. Eventually, he helps galvanize an army to rebel against the slave trade. Based on a true story.
Commentary by Herzog and Hill. Another conversation between Herzog and Straub with subtitles.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
The documentary about Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s later narrative film Rescue Dawn, a man who was an American Navy pilot during the Vietnam War who was shot down and taken prisoner by the Vietcong. Dieter relives the events of his incarceration and visits, with Herzog, the sites of his imprisonment. Some of the events are reenacted for the camera as well.
My Best Fiend (1999)
The final, quite fitting film in the set is Herzog’s loving tribute to his late star Klaus Kinski, with whom he shared a very violent and volatile working relationship. The stories go that they threatened to, and sometimes even attempted to, murder each other on the sets of their movies. This is a fun and outrageous look at the actor’s life and his tendency to be out of his damn mind.
No features save a trailer.
Obviously, of course, this set is 100% worth the price and each movie in the set looks and sounds utterly gorgeous. If you’re interested in filmmakers who are truly one of a kind, do not let this set pass you by.