Werner Herzog

Active - 1962 - 2020  |   Born - Sep 5, 1942 in Munich, Germany  |   Genres - Drama, Culture & Society, History, Avant-garde / Experimental, Film, TV & Radio

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Biography by Nathan Southern

One of the most influential filmmakers in New German Cinema and one of the most extreme personalities in film per se, larger-than-life Werner Herzog quickly gained recognition not only for creating some of the most fantastic narratives in film, but for pushing himself and his crew to unprecedented lengths, again and again, in order to achieve the effects he demanded. Born Werner Stipetic in Munich on September 5, 1942, Herzog tremendous intelligence from an early age, and recognized his future vocation in his early teens, when he began submitting scripts to German film producers.

Herzog began producing short films in college, and shot his premier feature, Lebenszeichen in 1968. The director followed it with a 1970 documentary about the disabled, Behinderte Zukunft (Handicapped Future). His second feature film, the 1970 Even Dwarfs Started Small, depicts the daily activities of a bunch of dwarfs and midgets in a German penal community, who descend into an anarchic state. He continued to shoot arthouse features throughout the '70s in his native Germany like Fata Morgana, Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit, Aguirre the Wrath of God, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser , Heart of Glass, Die grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner, Stroszek, Nosferatu ,Woyzeck, andGod's Angry Man.

Between 1980 and 1982, Herzog managed to top the insanity of that film shoot with Fitzcarraldo, the story of a nineteenth century opera lover, determined to bring the music of Enrico Caruso to the Peruvian Indians. The production proved to be difficult. During shooting, a plane crashed and killed several locals, lead Jason Robards acquired amoebic dysentery and had to be replaced with Kinski, second-billed Mick Jagger abandoned the production, steamer ships used for the set became mired in the mud and could not be moved until rainy season, and tribal war nearly erupted nearby.

Herzog soon found himself more interested in hardcore documentary work, and began focusing on non-fiction, with Lessons of Darkness (1992), Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993), The Transformation of the World into Music (1994), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Wings of Hope (2000), Wheel of Time (2003) and Incident at Loch Ness (2004). Grizzly Man (2004) - comprised of footage shot by ill-fated "Grizzly Bear expert" Timothy Treadwell just before his death in a bear attack - elicited particularly strong acclaim, while 2010's Cave of Forgotten Dreams captured the 30,000 year old cave art in the Chauvet Cave using 3D cameras.

Herzog's focus on documentaries didn't keep him from working on narrative films as a whole. 2001's Invincible dramatized the story of a Jewish man who rose to power with the Nazis, only to renounce his party affiliations and swear allegiance to his people, and the director's 2006 Rescue Dawn starred Christian Bale as real life pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Vietnam, and held in a Vietnamese prison camp, only to lead a successful escape with his inmates. Changing gears dramatically, 2010's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans starred Nicholas Cage as an insane cop.

In addition to his directing and screenwriting work, Herzog has acted in a number of films, perhaps most memorably in Les Blank's 1980 documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The film was the result of a bet Herzog once had with an American film student: Herzog told the student -- who was always talking about making a film but never actually doing it -- that if he actually completed the film, Herzog would eat his own shoe. The student was Errol Morris, who later became known for his documentaries Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and he did indeed make his film. Having lost the bet, Herzog made good on his promise, and the result was one of the stranger moments in documentary history. In Paul Cox's 1983 picture Man of Flowers, Herzog plays the central character's stern, disciplinarian father during a wordless flashback.

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  • Worked nights as a welder in a steel factory in order to finance his first film, 1962 short Herakles.
  • Traveled from Germany to attend Pittsburgh's Duquesne University but quit after just three days; Herzog subsequently lost the Fullbright scholarship on which he was attending, as well as his visa.
  • Along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff, was one of the leading figures in the German cinema's New Wave of the late 1960s and 1970s.
  • Breakthrough film was 1972 historical drama Aguirre, the Wrath of God, notable for its exotic locations and stunning landscapes captured under arduous circumstances, both Herzog trademarks.
  • Had a love/hate relationship with Polish actor Klaus Kinski, whom he directed in five films and made a documentary about titled My Best Fiend (1999).
  • Appeared in Les Blank's documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), in which he did as the title describes in order to settle a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris.
  • Was wounded during a 2006 interview with the BBC when he was shot with an air rifle; he called the shot an "insignificant bullet."
  • Has staged several operas around the world and written many books.