“Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree because cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs”. Werner Herzog
What sets this filmmaker aside from the rest is his drive and determination to get his vision created. Herzog has overcome a vast amount in his career from the turbulent relationship with Klaus Kinski, struggles with on location shooting and even being shot during an interview with Mark Kermode. There isn’t much that can stop this filmmaker from creating what he wants – he would even ‘travel down to Hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary’.
Having moved away from his birthplace in Munich to a small Bavarian village, nestled in the beauty of the mountainous landscapes of the Austro-German border, Werner Herzog was completely removed from technology. Without film, television or even a telephone it is unlikely that young Werner would grow up to become what Francois Truffaut would recognise as the most important filmmaker alive.
After moving back to Munich and discovering his love for cinema from a fifteen page encyclopaedia entry on filmmaking Herzog began his film career. To create his first seven films he stole a 35mm camera from Munich Film School. Among these was his debut film, a short entitled Herakles, a reimagining of the twelve labours Heracles from Greek mythology. Later Herzog created his first feature film, a Second World War drama Signs Of Life, which brought major commercial and critical success. However, the most notable film of his early work was Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Not only did the film present the incredible use of deeply emotional and psychological imagery we now expect from a Herzog film, but also saw the genesis of his famous partnership with actor Klaus Kinski.
These two colourful and highly opinionated characters shared a precarious working alliance and as neither feared expressing themselves they often clashed. Rumours erupted when the two worked on Aguirre that Herzog had threatened to shoot Kinski, whose frequent outbursts over trivial things tended to delay production. In an interview, Herzog remembers Kinski’s ‘ideas about nature were rather insipid. Mosquitoes were not allowed in his jungle, nor was rain’. When questioned on their partnership Herzog stated ‘people think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had a mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder’. Eight years after Kinski’s death Herzog created a documentary, My Best Fiend, which presented the conflicting opinions and personalities that would often flare on set. However, as soon as the camera started rolling they set their differences aside and showed professionalism and quality that produced results comparable to the famous Scorsese/ De Niro and Leone/ Eastwood partnerships. The two worked together on five films, among them Herzog’s greatest Fitzcarraldo, for which he deservedly won best director at Cannes.
The majority of Herzog’s early films gained acclaim primarily from the art-house circuit, but in terms of his contemporary work he is best known for documentary. While Grizzly Man presents a throwback to his early work with a deeply emotional response to the death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, Encounters At The End Of The World captures the beauty and sheer vastness of Antarctica. In his attempt to ‘direct landscapes just as [he] directs actors’ Herzog shoots at problematic locations. The hard to reach locations in Encounters meant that Herzog could only use a two man crew, himself and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger.
Herzog’s ongoing quest for unique documentaries led him to the Chauvet caves of Southern France that house the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind. For his soon to be released documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D, he faced a lot of problems with on location shooting. Access to the cave was limited so after Herzog met with the French Minister of Culture, who was luckily a huge fan of Herzog and his films, and volunteering to be an employee of the Ministry he was granted permission to film inside. This was only the beginning of problems Herzog would have to overcome. The 3D camera chosen to shoot the film would not fit inside the cave so the small crew of four had to reconstruct the camera once inside the cave. In addition to this there were many problems shooting in such low light and low oxygen conditions because this meant that the crew were limited to half hour slots.
Herzog continues to back up his claim that he will go to any lengths filming the seemingly unfilmable and providing the audience with ‘planets that don’t exist and landscapes that have only been dreamed”.