Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Werner Herzog’s forgotten dreams

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But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

—David Mamet, On Directing Film

It’s amazing how an artist’s reputation can evolve over two decades. When Mamet published the comment above, it was 1991, and Werner Herzog was best known as the director of several strange, brilliant, often impenetrable films staring the German actor Klaus Kinski. And as much as I love Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Nosferatu, I can see Mamet’s point: moving beyond the core works of Herzog’s filmography can be pretty taxing. (I tried watching Woyzeck on video a few years back, and fell asleep within twenty minutes.) So it was hard to imagine, twenty years ago, that Herzog would ever become anything resembling a beloved cultural figure.

But incredibly enough, that’s what happened. Part of it might be due to the mainstream breakthrough of Grizzly Man, and Herzog’s unforgettable narration. (“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”) Part of it might be the landmark New Yorker profile of Herzog on the set of Rescue Dawn, which gave us my favorite Christian Bale quote of all time: “I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!” Part of it might even be Herzog’s recent weird proposal for a rogue film school. But whatever the reason, Herzog, while not quite our greatest living filmmaker or documentarian, has become something more: our greatest living exemplar of the artist’s life.

At first glance, it might seem that his example is a hard one to follow: Herzog has simply seen more, risked more, and imagined more than most ordinary mortals, which is reflected in his extraordinary face. (Age alone has turned him into the sort of sage that he always showed promise of becoming.) But in a way, this misses the point. Herzog’s vision of art isn’t meant to be inaccessible to the rest of us: it’s about stealing a camera, going on foot instead of driving, doing whatever it takes to bring great images to a starving world. In Herzog’s case, this restless intensity, and willingness to keep his own promises, has taken him from the Amazon to Antarctica, from the abyss of Klaus Kinski to that of Nicolas Cage, but his fearlessness should be an example to all of us. He’s the sanest man in the world, which in many cases is indistinguishable from insanity.

His latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, might be his most significant adventure to date: a 3D exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains the earliest known cave paintings in the world. It’s a work of undeniable cultural interest, the kind destined to be shown in high school history classes, but it’s also, wonderfully, a Herzog film. Some have called the movie too slow, or overlong at ninety minutes, but as with much of Herzog’s work, the deliberate pace is intentional, and ultimately hypnotic. It’s full of surprising beauty and odd, beguiling moments, like its climatic encounter with an albino alligator—the natural successor to the chicken of Kaspar Hauser and the iguana of Bad Lieutenant. And it’s such a singular work of art that I can’t help believing that these paintings survived 32,000 years mostly just so that Herzog could film them, one artist reaching out to another across the expanse of time.

3 Responses

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  1. these paintings survived 32,000 years mostly just so that Herzog could film them, one artist reaching out to another across the expanse of time…”

    They waited to find someone worthy of them.

    Nicely put.


    May 6, 2011 at 10:28 pm


    This is why I appreciate some actors. They work far away from home, away from comforts and pull out something beautiful.

    It’s interesting that Herzog chose Bale for “Rescue Dawn”. And his themes “seem” to be about war and chaos and the brutality of nature including human.


    May 7, 2011 at 9:39 am

  3. You should be glad you didn’t make it to the end of Woyzeck. It’s one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen.


    March 11, 2019 at 10:48 am

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