Werner Herzog has always been something of an enigma. The radical director and documentarian was most recently seen as the nefarious “Client” on The Mandalorian. Before that, you might have seen him as the villain in Jack Reacher. But if you just know Herzog from roles like these, it’s time to explore his expansive filmmaking catalog, which spans decades and over 60 movies. Now we’ve all got time on our hands, I’ve curated this list of Herzog flicks that work as a perfect intro to the director.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)
Though this short wasn’t actually directed by Herzog, rather by his friend Les Blank, it’s a perfect introduction to the director’s dedication to strangeness and sweetness. The short film showcases the results of a bet that Herzog lost to his friend Errol Morris; the bet was that if Errol Morris ever directed a movie, Herzog would eat his own shoe. This little film shows Herzog doing exactly that, with the help of a chef, after Morris released Gate of Heaven in 1979.
Though it sounds silly and slightly mean-spirited, it was actually Herzog’s means of encouraging his friend to follow through on making the movie. As he prepares, cooks, and eats the shoe, he encourages other aspiring young filmmakers to bring their visions to life. The film includes some now classic Herzog-isms, like this take on TV: “If we speak of television it’s just… ridiculous and destructive. It kills us. And talk shows will kill us.”
Grizzly Man (2005)
Lions Gate Films
If you were one of the many people who were sucked into the dark tale of Tiger King, you should probably check out Grizzly Man. The stunning documentary uses footage filmed by grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell cut together with interviews from his family, friends, and wildlife experts. If you don’t know the story of Treadwell then all we’ll say is that he spent many, many summers in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, where he began to believe that he was making a connection with the bears who lived there. This doc gives unparalleled access to Treadwell’s life by way of Herzog’s unique directorial eye. This one isn’t for the faint-hearted but is a must see for fans of documentary filmmaking.
Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)
Filmverlag der Autoren
To know and love Werner Herzog means getting to know Klaus Kinski, his collaborator, close friend, and at times mortal enemy. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God centers on Kinski’s terrifying performance as Don Lope de Aguirre, the brutal Spanish conquistador on the hunt for El Dorado. Aguirre crafted a legend out of Herzog and Kinski’s relationship, as the pair came to physical blows during the rigorous Peru shoot.
My Best Fiend (1999)
Made eight years after the death of Kinski, this devastating documentary follows the decades-long journey of the friendship between the actor and director. Charming, silly, and at times shockingly raw, this sits somewhere between a personal fable and a documentary about the pursuit of creating something incredible with someone that you both love and hate. Easily the most accessible of Kinski and Herzog’s collaborations, My Best Fiend serves as a great introduction to the pair’s work, relationship, and immense legacy.
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
20th Century Studios, Disney
Though Herzog might be best known for his documentaries and more experimental films, this take on the classic vampire movie is nothing short of magic. Kinski stars as the titular bloodsucker and does a sterling job of imbuing the immortal with a romantic sadness that had rarely been explored in vampire movies up until this point. Bruno Ganz is perfect as Jonathan Harker, and the brilliant Isabelle Adjani stars alongside him as a version of Lucy Harker that could unquestionably enchant a man throughout the centuries. One of this writer’s favorite adaptations of vampire lore, it’s a joy for anyone who loves horror or love stories.
Fitzcarraldo / Burden of Dreams
Filmverlag der Autoren
This final pick is a little bit as a cheat as it’s two suggestions in one. Fitzcarraldo is the strange tale of a European man, Brian Fitzgerald (Kinski), who wants to build an opera house in the Peruvian city he calls home. It may sound strange, but not as strange as Fitzgerald deciding he needs to drag a boat over a mountain.
Not one to do things by halves, Herzog actually performed that feat. This is where our final pick comes in: Burden of Dreams is another Les Blank-directed documentary, this time focusing on the making of Fitzcarraldo and the feats that it took to create it. It doesn’t really matter which order you watch them in, just make sure to watch both!
Featured Image: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion