The past decade has seen filmmaker Werner Herzog rise up on a new, seemingly sudden burst of international fame. Cinephiles have paid great respect to his work, or at least felt great admiration toward his work’s audacity, since the seventies. But Herzog himself has been at his craft since the sixties, and you can see photographic evidence of it in the autobiographical documentary above, Portrait Werner Herzog (part one, part two, part three). In it, he reveals that he turned to filmmaking after a friend’s serious injury convinced him to abandon his previous dream of becoming a champion ski jumper. But Herzog’s fans know he didn’t stop feeling the visceral impact of the sport, since he went on to make 1974’s The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, perhaps the definitive visual study of that particular thrill. We hear him say this over clips from that film, as we hear him recount other formative moments over images from other Herzog favorites, including Fata Morgana, Heart of Glass, and Fitzcarraldo.
A 1986 German production directed by Herzog himself, Portrait Werner Herzog shows him at a time and from a cultural angle that countless more recent interviews and profiles don’t. We see his footage of Munich’s elaborately boisterous Oktoberfest; we see him in the green Bavarian valley of his youth. “I’m the kind of person who travels on foot,” he explains, “even for long distances.” This leads to the story of his walk from Munich to Paris to visit the ailing film critic Lotte Eisner (whom Herzog calls “the consciousness of the new German cinema”), which became his book Of Walking In Ice. He speaks of hypnotizing an entire cast for Heart of Glass, of fighting the aggressively filmmaking-unfriendly Peruvian jungle to shoot Fitzcarraldo, and of planning a never-realized Himalayan film starring frequent (and frequently volatile) collaborator Klaus Kinski. “Here we can truly see how hard it is to make a film,” so Herzog sums up his struggle, “but this is my life, and I don’t want to live it in any other way.” In that respect, nothing has changed in 25 years.
Portrait Werner Herzog will be added to our list of 500 Free Movies.