Iconic and iconoclastic, the famous German director is celebrated in a retrospective at the Austrian Film Archive
Vienna’s Filmarchiv Austria currently has the distinction of hosting the first truly comprehensive retrospective of the work of Werner Herzog, that steadfast “soldier of cinema,” as he himself so memorably put it.
Mostly renowned in the German-speaking world for his early films with the tempestuous actor Klaus Kinski, their collaboration resulted in mesmerizing gems like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the story of an ill-fated Spanish conquistador, and decades later, My Best Fiend, a hugely compelling documentary about their savage and tender working relationship.
In much of the rest of the world however, he is revered for the entirety of his prodigious, visionary output of more than 60 features and documentaries made over the course of a 55-year career.
Though his first films happened to coincide with the beginnings of New German Cinema, it soon became apparent that Herzog was sui generis, having carved a singular path through the world of filmmaking since his adolescence. While still in school in Bavaria, he famously worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory in order to finance production of his films.
Herzog has long been known for the formidable lengths he goes to in making his films: Throwing himself into a cactus patch to convince his actors to stay on set (Even Dwarves Started Small); hauling a steamship over a hill deep in the Amazon basin (Fitzcarraldo); traversing the burning oilfields of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War (Lessons of Darkness); living with scientists at a research station in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World); and filming inside active volcanoes (Into the Inferno) – to name only a few.
But to be dazzled by the spectacle of these is to miss the point: Herzog goes into (and at times even creates) these extreme situations to sate a ferocious curiosity about the worlds we live in and the people he finds there. And these worlds and peoples can be located most unassumingly in our very midst: in Land of Silence and Darkness, he accompanies and observes members of the deaf-blind community in southern Germany, resulting in a staggeringly moving meditation on what it means to be human in the face of limitations unimaginable to most.
Always on a quest for what he terms “ecstatic truth” and armed with a dogged persistence of vision, Herzog is a storyteller who sets sail to the edges of human experience, more often than not returning with profound and moving observations. As the critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “Even his failures are spectacular.” With its screenings at the METRO Kinokulturhaus through February, the Austrian Film Archive gives us an invaluable opportunity to (re)visit Herzog’s monumental body of work.
A condensed version of this article appears in our February 2017 print edition
Through Mar 1