If there is one film-maker whose philosophy and insight fascinates me more than any other it would have to be Werner Herzog. Now, I must stress instantly that I am by no means familiar with Herzog’s whole filmography – in fact, I am only just starting to really discover his work. I am starting with his documentary work. Having recently watched Encounters at the End of the World and re-visited Grizzly Man for the third or fourth time I have begun to realise how this film-maker’s bravery and, arguably, his stupidity is the bedrock of his original documentary making.By tackling subjects of life, death and humanity’s constant search for an understanding, Herzog has created some of the most moving and ground breaking cinematic explorations of the last decade.
His documentaries are not always easy to watch but somehow, despite their often gruesome and haunting subject matters, they are filled with beauty and a sense of spiritual hope for humanity. The above trailer for Grizzly Man will demonstrate this to you. Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss, studies why humans kill. By studying a murder case that resulted in the main culprit being sentenced to death by the state, Herzog considers (in his usual subtle and unbiased way) why we punish murderers by murdering. Herzog’s work has a pure simplicity about it that makes his work seem less manipulating.
What I admire most about Werner Herzog as a film-maker is his respect for the stories, the people whose stories he is unravelling and the audience. He doesn’t feel the need to conclude his work perfectly like so many documentary makers do. His films are often left open ended in order to allow the audience to make up their own mind about the stories they have witnessed. Herzog always expresses his own opinion but not for the uses of persuasion; simply to present his view. Herzog’s ability to conclude a story, whilst still leaving questions unanswered and events unexplained, reflects his opinion that the world we live in continues to function due to the universe’s chaos and unpredictability.
His personal understanding of how the world works (and how, to an extend, you simply can not understand the universe) seems to have given him a sense of calm, in both his work and his personal outlook. On several occasions Herzog has announced in interviews that he is not afraid of anything or anyone. His fearless approach to life and his work reflects constantly, particularly in his work with documentary. I admire Herzog’s humour and care-free approach to life. In the photograph above he is eating his own shoe. After losing a bet that Errol Morris’ film Gates of Heaven would never be completed he kept his word and ate his entire shoe after boiling and seasoning it, for good measure. The event was documented in a half hour film by Les Blank.
Another example of his courage and casual outlook is seen here in an interview with film journalist Mark Kermode for The Culture Show in which Herzog was shot in his lower torso by an unknown person with an air rifle. He shrugged off the incident and refused to go to the hospital due to that fact that “it’s not a significant bullet”. Herzog continued with the interview, revealing the wound to the camera at the end of filming. Other courageous acts include rescuing Joaquin Phoenix from his car when the actor accidently overturned his vehicle. Think about it – no Werner Herzog could mean no Joaquin Phoenix; what a terrifying concept.
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