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Ranked: Werner Herzog’s Documentaries from Worst to Best

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The new film by legendary director Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, comes out this Friday. In tribute, we asked Jay Cheel, the Herzog-obsessed founder of The Documentary Blog, to rank Herzog’s twelve feature documentaries. Be sure to also check out Jay’s own new film, Beauty Day, a fascinating documentary look at a very Herzogian subject. Here are his picks for Herzog’s documentaries, from worst to best:


12. Wheel of Time (2003)

Wheel of Time, about Tibetan Buddhism, contains some great moments; Herzog interviewing the Dalai Lama stands out as one of them. The dedicated lifestyle of the Tibetan monks is definitely in line with some of Herzog’s archetypical characterizations and their pilgrimage is an impressive feat of endurance. The film lands lowest on this list simply because Herzog approaches the subject matter with such a sense of respect that it almost seems to hamstring his usual incisiveness.


11. Echoes From a Somber Empire (1990)

Like his later Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog’s 1990 film, Echoes From a Somber Empire focuses on a man who was captured and tortured, revisiting the locations of his ordeal in front of the cameras. In this case, it’s French journalist Michael Goldsmith, who found himself mistaken for a South African spy by Central African Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Goldsmith’s is an interesting tale, but unfortunately, Herzog was unable to interview Bokassa for the film, so Bokassa’s represented by stock footage alone. The film is quite dense, made up mostly of Michael Goldsmith walking around Central Africa talking to Bokassa’s many children, wives, and lawyers. That said, it does feature some unique Herzogian visuals, including the migration of thousands of red crabs and a cigarette-smoking chimpanzee.


10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Many were taken by surprise by Werner Herzog’s decision to film his newest documentary in 3D, since the technique’s typically reserved for animated kids’ films or big-budget superhero pictures. Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes viewers inside the Chauvet Cave in France, a perfectly preserved cavern that features what archaeologists believe to be some of the world’s oldest cave paintings. Herzog and his crew loaded up their gear and scanned the walls with their high-tech cameras for a full three-dimensional experience. While some of the images recreate an impressively deep 3D effect, the hand-held imagery is a bit unstable. Still, it’s an experience that should definitely be sought out in theatres.


9. My Best Fiend (1999)

While Herzog has always seemed aware of — and interested in perpetuating — his own self-mythology, My Best Fiend was his first project in which he embraced it full force. The film chronicles his rocky relationship with German actor Klaus Kinski, who appeared in five of Herzog’s features. The film was shot after Kinski’s death and finds Herzog reminiscing about their unusual relationship, recalling the many times they clashed on set. (One occasion found Herzog conspiring with Peruvian natives to have Kinski killed; on another, he held Kinski at gunpoint to keep him from leaving a production.) It’s an entertaining and insightful look at the actor/director relationship, but Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a documentary on the making of the Herzog/Kinski film Fitzcarraldo — is a superior look at their working relationship, rendering My Best Fiend less essential.


8. The White Diamond (2004)

In The White Diamond, it feels as though Herzog isn’t simply documenting his subject but living vicariously through him. Aeronautical engineer Graham Dorrington designs a small teardrop-shaped airship which he intends to use as a tool to research the forest canopies of Guyana. The machine had crashed once previously, killing cinematographer Dieter Plage. In the film, Herzog insists on riding in the ship alongside its inventor, saying, “I cannot ask a cinematographer to man this airship together with you unless I’ve been on it myself.” It’s a characteristic moment, evoking both the making of Fitzcarraldo and the adventurous spirit of its main character.


7. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Encounters at the End of the World finds Herzog in Antarctica without much of an agenda beyond seeing what the place is like. It’s probably the closest he’s come to a flat-out nature film, yet he still manages to subvert the sub-genre and turn what could’ve been an otherwise standard Discovery Channel program into an unusual and powerful cinematic experience. The film features some truly stunning imagery and some sincerely hilarious moments. One highlight sees Herzog talking with a scientist about gay penguins — something you can’t see in March of the Penguins.

6. Bells from the Deep (1993)

In Bells from the Deep, Herzog examines Russian mysticism, mainly focusing on the myth of the lost city of Kitezh and a man who claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus. For the former, Herzog fully admits to staging a scene in which two villagers are crawling around on the ice, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sunken city, which is believed to exist at the bottom of Lake Svetloyar. (He claims to have paid two drunken men to fulfill the task, one of whom apparently passed out during shooting.) In another scene, a man exorcises demons on stage from the bodies of writhing, screaming women in front of an audience of onlookers. The film’s focus on myth and mythmakers finds an interesting parallel in Herzog’s own unusual storytelling techniques.


5. Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Lessons of Darkness could easily be mistaken for some sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. In reality, it’s an operatic, visually stunning look at the capping of burning oil wells in post-Gulf War Kuwait. The soundtrack is grandiose and melancholy, setting a foreboding tone that’s heightened by Herzog’s opening quote: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur — like creation — in grandiose splendor.” His re-contextualizing of this real-life environmental disaster as an alien wasteland would be repeated years later in his truly unusual sci-fi docudrama, The Wild Blue Yonder, which uses underwater footage from Encounters at the End of the World to represent a strange planet.


4. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

In Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog follows Fini Straubinger, a deaf, blind, and mute woman who attempts to help ease the isolation felt by others dealing with similar disabilities. Straubinger’s use of tactile sign language was what initially piqued Herzog’s interest; he watches as Straubinger communicates with people who rely solely on taste, smell, and touch to interact with their world. Herzog captures some beautiful moments, including Straubinger engaging with zoo animals and taking a flight on a plane with other deaf-blind passengers. In one of the more unsettling sequences, a deaf-blind child sits in a corner, banging his head against a radiator and slapping himself in the face, searching for any way to stimulate his senses. In another scene, the simple act of showering is revealed to be alien to a child who has no frame of reference for what water is. It’s a mindbending film.


3. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

This is the film that inspired Herzog’s narrative drama Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. While that adaptation drew some criticism for the liberties Herzog took with the original story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly is known to contain just as many falsities. In one scene, subject Dieter Dengler talks of his time spent as a prisoner of war in Laos. Herzog shows him getting out of his car and shutting the door multiple times. He then opens and closes the front door of his house over and over, explaining that this obsessive behavior is a lingering result of having spent so much time under lock and key. In truth, Herzog orchestrated this scene to elevate this theme through the use of visuals. It’s this experimentation with fact and fiction (“ecstatic truth,” as Herzog calls it) that makes him one of the more daring filmmakers in the documentary world, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly as exciting and engaging as its big-budget Hollywood counterpart.


2. Fata Morgana (1971)

A truly unique piece of non-fiction filmmaking that could come only from the mind of Werner Herzog, this film combines narration reciting the Mayan creation myth with beautiful and sometimes bizarre images of the Sahara Desert. The title refers to a specific type of mirage which Herzog claims to have captured with his cameras. In one scene, a blurry vision of a busload of tourists shimmers in the distance, while Herzog states through narration that the image is actually a mirage. (You decide!) The film was originally intended to have a science-fiction sub-plot, but still retains some striking dystopian imagery that’s even stranger when set against the late sixties pop-folk songs of Leonard Cohen. Fata Morgana is a brilliant film.


1. Grizzly Man (2005)

Some might frown on Grizzly Man as too obvious a choice for the number-one spot on this list, but it captures all of the elements I love about Herzog’s films. Its star, late environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, is a captivating character, and both Herzog’s ruminations on nature, and his respect for Treadwell as a fellow “soldier of cinema,” are fascinating and at times hilarious. It’s also remarkable to see Treadwell’s earnest American sentimentality clash with Herzog’s Teutonic sensibilities. Grizzly Man is likely Herzog’s most accessible film to date, but it’s also a masterpiece.

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