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Herzog turns 70

Jochen Kürten / kjbSeptember 5, 2012

German filmmaker Werner Herzog doesn't fit into any boxes. He rejects the constraints of the studio and films on location instead, making humans and nature equal players. Nevertheless, he shot to fame in Hollywood.

German Film Director Werner Herzog
Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Having grown up in the Bavarian countryside, Werner Herzog seemed like an unlikely candidate to make a name for himself in bustling and glamorous Hollywood. Next to Roland Emmerich, who is seen as more commercially oriented, Herzog has become the most successful German filmmaker in the US in recent years.

Today, Herzog works together with top stars like Eva Mendes and Nicholas Cage, Willem Defoe and Christian Bale. That he manages multi-million-dollar projects with Hollywood superstars without bowing to the rigid studio system of the American film industry remains one of the biggest mysteries in international cinema.

All the world's a stage

Yet Herzog's career has been paved with surprises, and his astonishing success is just another of them. Along with Wim Wenders, he is the best known exponent of the so-called New German Cinema, which began to redefine the crusty, traditional German film scene in the 1960s.

Even at that time, Herzog was an individualist who didn't quite fit into any group. He says that childhood experiences had a greater effect on him than cinema as an art form. He often tells the story of how, as a small child during World War II, he watched his hometown in Bavaria burn after it was hit by Allied bombs.

It wasn't until later as an adolescent that he found out that movie theaters existed.

Herzog was an autodidact who started with short films and then made his first full-length feature film at an early age. His early work "Signs of Life" (1968), which tells the story of three Wehrmacht solders on a Greek island, foreshadows themes that would appear in his later films: people in extreme situations on the verge of insanity and the influence of nature on his characters. The latter was central to "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" from 1974.

A scene from Herzog's "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser"
A scene from Herzog's "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser"Image: picture-alliance / KPA Honorar & Belege

Love-hate relationship

Through his collaboration with the eccentric actor Klaus Kinski, Herzog's reputation grew among a larger audience. The two made five films together, including "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) and the screen version of Georg Büchner's play "Woyzeck" (1979), as well as well as a documentary about their own complicated working relationship, "My Best Fiend" (1999).

Herzog traveled with Kinski to South America for "Aguirre, Wrath of God" (1972) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). Those films told stories of conquerors, soldiers, and colonialists on the verge of madness.

Herzog's filming process became something of a legend and was talked about in Germany as well. Not only his disagreements with Klaus Kinski, but also accidents on the set and million-dollar delays created a chaotic but also romantic image in the minds of critics and fans at home.

Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu in the film by Werner Herzog
Klaus Kinski as a spooky NosferatuImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Out on location

For "Fitzcarraldo," Herzog commissioned a model of a historical ship and had it dragged by hand across a hilltop. That's a prime example of his directing style - he avoided the film studio, preferring instead to get his hands dirty on location.

After Kinski died in 1991, Herzog was less present in the public eye. In Germany, people lost interest in his work. For a number of years, he took a break from feature films and dedicated himself to opera productions. Nevertheless, he continued to make films - mainly documentaries about landscapes and obscure people. He always had a way of looking at the margins of society with a unique perspective.

During this period, Herzog's films were anything but classical, realistic documentaries. Even the titles - "Bells from the Deep" (1993) or "Lessons of Darkness" (1992) - say much about his intentions. Herzog traveled all over the world with his cameras to film under the earth, in caves, under icebergs, in burning oil fields, in the desert and on top of the highest mountains. These projects brought him into contact with fully new locations and people.

Eva Mendes und Nicholas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant" by Werner Herzog
Hollywood stars Eva Mendes und Nicholas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"Image: AP

Unusual combination

Herzog's involvement in Hollywood was just as surprising as his shifts between documentaries and feature films, opera productions and acting gigs. Known for being a cranky individualist who only dealt with the topics that interested him personally, commercially oriented Hollywood didn't seem like an apt workplace. His productions were made outside the big studios, but with multi-million-dollar budgets and the biggest Hollywood names.

But even in Hollywood, Herzog managed to adapt and succeed. He produced classic genre films with an individual touch, such as"The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" (2009), as well as shocking documentaries on heavy topics, as in "On Death Row" (2012).

Looking back at his tireless productivity, Herzog's 70th birthday is likely just a way-station on the path to further cinematic surprises.