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Werner Herzog

Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, screenwriter, producer

Birth Name: Werner Stipetic

Born: September 5, 1942, Sachrang, Germany

Education: Munich University; University of Pittsburgh, PA

    One of the most eccentric figures in the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog has been characterized as the "romantic visionary" of the movement as well as its most notorious self-promoter who possesses an almost legendary need to confront danger in making his films.
    His well-documented production difficulties - dragging a ship over a mountain, attempting to film the eruption of a volcano, hypnotizing an entire cast - may well be extra-filmic means of establishing the authenticity of his films, but in Herzog's case they threaten to become the real event of which the actual film is merely a record.
    "Film," Herzog insists, "is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates," and it is not surprising that his work has aroused contradictory responses. Those who are fascinated by his awe-inspiring landscapes and enigmatic heroes see him as a poet whose work is haunting, sublime and mysterious; others see him as a mystic-or worse, as a mystifier - whose films are regressive, self-indulgent and naïvely romantic.
    Like many of his documentaries, Herzog's biography appears to be a mixture of fact and fantasy. His legal name is Stipetic and he grew up in a remote Bavarian village. At 15, he wrote his first script, and at 17 tried to make his first film. His association with cantankerous star Klaus Kinski started when Herzog's family moved to Munich and shared a house with the actor. To earn money for filmmaking, Herzog worked in factories, as a parking lot attendant and-so he claims-as a rodeo rider. Supposedly while on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, he studied film and TV for a brief period. For a time he allegedly made his living smuggling TV sets across the Mexican border.
    In 1964 he won the Carl Mayer Prize for the screenplay that was to become his first feature film, Signs of Life (1968). Among Herzog's most popular films, though not an immediate success, is Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Shot in the jungles of Peru against formidable difficulties, Aguirre tells the story of a maniacal conquistador played by Klaus Kinski, who, through intimidation and murder, gains control of his expedition party, declares himself the "wrath of God" and sets off to find El Dorado. Floating downstream on a raft, the crew is attacked by Indians and battered by rapids as disease and starvation gradually take their toll. At the end, a crazed Aguirre remains alone on the raft overrun by monkeys. Visually, Aguirre is one of Herzog's most beautiful and haunting films. The opening sequence is breathtaking, as we see in an extreme long-shot the heavily burdened expedition carefully making its way down the side of a mountain. (The film was shot with a cast and crew of 500.) The closing shot is equally impressive as the camera circles around the raft, reinforcing a sense of entrapment and doom. Although the film can be read as an allegory of the fascist personality, the stunning images leave us with a sense of awe and wonder, even admiration, for the heroic madman.
    As this brief summary indicates, sublime landscapes, astounding images, and haunting music are the hallmark of Herzog's films. This is certainly true of other features like Every Man for Himself and God Against All (1975), based on the true story of a strange man found wandering the streets of Nuremberg in 1820 and regarded by many as his best film; Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), an homage to Murnau's classic version of the Dracula legend; and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which Herzog completed against seemingly insurmountable odds, as documented in Les Blank's documentary, Burden of Dreams (1982).
    Given Herzog's obsession with quasi-mystical images and landscapes, it is not surprising that many consider his "documentaries" to be his best work. As is the case with a number of other directors of the New German Cinema, the reception of Herzog's films has been more favorable in France, England and the United States than in his own country.

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