Werner Herzog Retrospective: Fascination for Charismatic Eccentrics – The Indefatigable, Idealistic and Visionary German

in 51st IndieLisboa - International Independent Film Festival

by Demetrios Matheou

For a film festival such as IndieLisboa, devoted to the work of new directors, many of whom accompany their films to the city, there could be no better subject for a retrospective than Werner Herzog. The indefatigable, idealistic and visionary German has always been an inspiring figure. At a time when global economic crisis adds further pressure to the already challenging business of making movies, his example is invaluable.

As Les Blank’s documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) marvellously demonstrated, Herzog’s way of encouraging young filmmakers can be unconventional: having made a bet with Errol Morris that he would eat his shoe if Morris completed his first documentary, Heaven’s Gate, Herzog subsequently kept his word — boiling a desert boot and consuming it before an appreciative Californian audience, while moving all in the room with his reflections on cinema and life.

But Herzog’s inspirational quality is rooted, more seriously, in his independent spirit. Herzog is one of the most distinctive auteurs in cinema history, making only the films he wants to make, in the way he wants to make them (few others would choose to transport a riverboat over a mountain, for real, as he did for Fitzcarraldo), usually distributing them himself; while never bowing to genre, faddishness, box office or — the common trait of many filmmakers — the desire to be loved. Moreover, those films share an unrivalled consistency of ambition, rooted in an interest in different cultures and different ways of perceiving the world, and fuelled by what his brother and long-time producer Lucki Stipetic calls “searching for the truth, behind the truth”.

Stipetic, who runs Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, represented his brother in Lisbon, while Herzog was shooting his latest film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? “There is a clear line in Werner’s work from 1965 to now, from the first film to the last,” he reflected. “When he started, aged 19, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. And he has stuck to it, for 40 years. That is what’s fascinating to us today. And I think it’s a great achievement.”

The IndieLisboa retrospective was put together with the collaboration of Italy’s Museo Nazionale del Cinema, in Turin, which has recently restored a number of the director’s films. The 26-film programme, which was accompanied by an exhibition of photographs, a book and a panel discussion, comes at a time when Herzog’s topsy-turvy career is back in the ascendancy. The recent successes of Grizzly Man and his Oscar-nominated Encounters at the End of the World have reminded the film establishment of his prowess, ­while introducing him to a new audience worldwide. It was this reawakened interest that prompted the IndieLisboa directors. As one of them, Nuno Sena, said: “We realised that for some time Werner Herzog’s films had not been visible in Portugal. A whole generation had missed the chance to see his work on the big screen. The time was ripe for this sort of programme.”

The selection included both the signature fiction films (Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu), comparatively conventional documentaries such as The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and Ballad of the Little Soldier, and those many films that defy categorisation as either fiction or documentary, such as Fata Morgana.

Indeed, the panel guests at IndieLisboa were in agreement that Herzog’s work abandoned such distinctions long ago. As Grazia Paganelli from the Museo Nazionale, who both authored the book and curated the photo-exhibition, shrewdly observed: “A Werner Herzog documentary stops being a documentary once you hear his voice. Then, it immediately becomes a Werner Herzog film: fiction and documentary combined.”

A concentrated view of his work in Lisbon highlighted a number of themes: the ethnological concerns that run throughout all the films; the rich collaboration with Klaus Kinski, his mad, bad, genius star, with whom the director embarked on his most physically and psychologically arduous adventures; the battle between man and nature, which man never wins; the fascination for charismatic eccentrics, who are often sidelined by society as “mad”.

Interestingly, the exhibition did not consist of images from the films, but of stills of Herzog on set. They show a man immersed in diverse cultures and terrains, always in friendly camaraderie with the ordinary people he is so keen to bring to the screen. There is also the sense that he is on some sort of extended assault course. “I am not a metaphysical man,” he says in one of the captions, “I am a physical being, an athlete. And my films, more than anything else, are an athlete’s work.”

Paganelli, who engaged in extended conversation with the filmmaker before writing her book, has another insightful description of her subject. “Werner Herzog is not a storyteller, but a ‘hunter of stories’. He finds stories in every corner and every landscape. And he is able to see our reality in a very different way.” IndieLisboa calls its retrospectives Herói Independente, Independent Heroes. Considering the passion, pain and enduring curiosity with which Herzog has made his films over four decades, the description could not be more apt.