The second most-famous Herzog/Kinski collaboration, covering similar ground to "Aguirre" but with a lighter touch that almost borders on whimsy save for the ever-present sense of madness on display. Fitzcarraldo is a big-picture dreamer with a mad - and yet somehow childishly endearing - scheme to build a world-class opera house in the jungles of Peru. Part of his plan involves moving a massive steam ship from one river to another by dragging the boat over a mountain. And to achieve the scenes of this ridiculous endeavor, Herzog and company actually did it for real and put the process on film. It's amazing how funny such a deranged and dangerous plan eventually seems to be, and downright shocking just how much you might find yourself rooting for Fitzcarraldo to pull it off.


Technically, Herzog didn't direct this one, but he co-wrote it and stars in it - as himself. It's a spoof of Hollywood moviemaking and of Herzog's own reputation, and he's definitely in on the joke. Supposedly made up of Blair Witch-like "found footage," we watch Herzog get hired by producer Zak Penn (also as himself and the film's real director) to shoot a documentary about Loch Ness superstitions, only to find that it's not the project he signed up for: A swimsuit model is "playing" one of his experts, and he catches producer Penn trying to sneak a special-effect Nessie head into the shots. It's a film shoot from hell, and that's before the boat stalls and the filmmakers find themselves attacked by something, well, monstrous in the water. Uh-oh.


One of the best of Herzog's documentaries, a historical record/interview piece about Dieter Dengler - a German-born American fighter pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War, imprisoned and tortured by the Viet Cong, who then fought his way out of the camp, through the jungle and back to freedom. He's exactly the kind of odd, unassuming man that Herzog would make a non-documentary film about, and in fact, he did just that a decade later: The excellent, underrated "Rescue Dawn" with Christian Bale as Dengler. See them both, if you can.


Another documentary and another story of a driven man living and dying on his own very-likely-insane terms. Here, Herzog investigates the life of Timothy Treadwell, an amateur naturalist and animal activist who went to live among wild grizzly bears (and film himself doing so.) Treadwell was hoping to dispel the myths about bears as dangerous animals, but in a turn of truly pitch-dark irony, his mission ended when he and a companion were killed and devoured by the very bears he'd been studying. Think of it as the Bizzaro World version of "March of the Penguins." The film includes some of the truly incredible footage Treadwell shot (though not the actual recording of his death) and it's clear that Herzog - whose documentaries usually focus on the danger and darkness of the natural world - finds a kind of opposite number in Treadwell, who romanticized nature and animals to a point that they literally consumed him. It's unclear whether or not Herzog (or anyone) has really figured out Treadwell through this investigation, but it's fascinating to watch them try.

So there you go. Two all-time classic films, two documentaries and a self-parody. This list could be a lot longer, believe me: The other three collaborations with Kinski ("Woyzeck," "Cobra Verde" and a remake of "Nosferatu" with Kinski as freakin' Dracula) are all worth seeing as well, as is Herzog's own documentary about his late muse "My Best Fiend." He also made many great films with other actors, like "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" or "Invincible" with Tim Roth. And there are many, many more documentaries. But ones listed here are the ones you'll have the least trouble locating, and make a nice primer should you want to see more.

The best part is, there's never been a better time for you to discover him: Herzog is 67 years old, and right now his films are more widely-acclaimed (and available) and his name more well-known than they've ever been. Along with "Bad Lieutenant," he actually has another movie coming out this year: A collaboration with David Lynch called "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" based on the true case of a man who murdered his mother with an antique sword, possibly while acting out a Sophocles play he'd been acting in - yet another in the ever-growing line of real events so strange that one might be forgiven for wondering if, somehow, the universe had willed them into being solely that Werner Herzog might make a movie out of them.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

Comments on