In February 2006, actor Joaquin Phoenix may have come close to death.
He had been in a car crash on a mostly-desolate L.A. road late at night. The car was totaled and flipped on its back, its driver (Phoenix) had been stunned into a daze and awoke mostly enveloped in the deployed airbag, and gasoline was leaking.
Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, a man appeared on the scene - inspecting the wreck, and urging Phoenix to "calm down" as he helped him from the car and made sure he was ok. By the time the official police and emergency personnel had arrived, the Good Samaritan had literally vanished into the night.
More incredible than the story was Phoenix's subsequent revelation of just who his savior had been: Real-life superhero? Wandering do-gooder? Saintly homeless man? No. It was a film director: German moviemaker Werner Herzog.
More incredible than that? It's not even the most interesting story about Herzog out there. Once, during an interview, he and members of the press were fired at by a sniper with an air-rifle. As the interviewer took cover, Herzog is said to have glibly noted "someone is shooting at us," taken a hit from one of the pellets, then continued with the interview indoors. ("It was not a significant bullet," he later elaborated.) Most famously of all, he's reputed to have forced actor (and certifiable lunatic) Klaus Kinski to continue with a scene (Kinski was becoming impatient and violent with the other actors) by threatening to shoot him dead. They were in the middle of the jungle. Both men had guns. Neither was kidding. To date, Herzog is the only director of feature films to have made a movie on every continent on the planet Earth. (Anybody else craving a Dos Equis right about now?)
This can't be a real guy, right? And if he is real, his movies can't be that good (though admit it, after hearing all that you know you wanna see at least one of `em). Men who lead lives this interesting are too busy doing things you make great movies about to make great movies themselves.
No. Not only does Werner Herzog make good films, he's made more than a few great films - one-of-a-kind films that blur the line between the sweeping epic and the subtle arthouse. When he makes documentaries, he's said to openly stage moments and give "real" people "better" dialogue; and when he makes fiction he infuses it with the realism of a documentary - when filming the story of a man who pulled a steam ship over a mountain, he actually did just that.
Herzog is, of course, the director of this week's Escape to the Movies subject, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" (which gives me opportunity to tell you all that stuff and, more substantively, to recommend some of his movies to you. As before, this isn't a "best" list or an academic summation (so movie people please don't write to scold me for "forgetting" something) so much as it's a rundown of the man's work that A) you can actually find for the most part and B) will give you a good idea what to expect if you were to seek out the rest of it. So, then, let's start with:
AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
Almost every discussion of Herzog begins with this film, the first and greatest of his collaborations with his lifelong "best fiend" (read it again) Klaus Kinski (this was the film during which they threatened to kill each another). Herzog's favorite subject is that of the madman-as-hero, and Kinski was modern moviemaking's greatest madman; an actor so volatile and prone to violent outburst few would ever work with him for long. They made five films together, comprising some of the best work of either man's career. Kinski is Aguirre, the egomaniacal leader of a group of Spanish Conquistadors trekking through South America. He's already a dangerous psychotic, and the deeper they go into the jungle the deeper he does into madness, finally taking everyone else with him. It's like watching "Apocalypse Now" from Colonel Kurtz's perspective, except Kurtz was never as far gone as Aguirre is. Elevating everything is Herzog's spectacular eye for realism. There are almost no special effects - real actors crossing real mountains, fording a real river in a real jungle with real natives and live wild animals... and, of course, a mad character played by an actor who really does seem to be losing his mind right there on camera. If you see only one movie on this list, make it this one.