If one can characterize Stanley Kubrick by his complete control over the medium and his dogged insistence on staying within 30 miles of his house when shooting a movie, even if it means dressing up a London factory to look like Hue, Vietnam as he did for Full Metal Jacket, then Werner Herzog can be characterized as his opposite.
Herzog’s movies are strange, messy and ecstatic, a far cry from the chilly aloofness of Kubrick. In both his feature films and his documentaries, Herzog uses his camera to uncover new layers of nature, experience and the human psyche. And there have been few filmmakers more willing to shoot films in rugged, exotic places as Herzog – from Antarctica to the Amazonian rainforest. In fact, a number of his most notorious shoots seem more designed to test the endurance of the cast and crew than to produce a movie.
His film Fitzcarraldo, for example, is about a guy who has the visionary idea to haul a riverboat over a mountain in the Amazon rainforest. Herzog decided, for the purposes of realism, that he would actually drag a riverboat over a mountain. The production, which is in the running for the most miserable film shoot ever, is the subject of the absolutely riveting documentary The Burden of Dreams. At point one in the doc, Herzog quips, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum.” And by the end of the movie, you think that he’s probably right.
Of course, that crazed bravura has always been at the center of Herzog’s mystique. After all, this is the guy who actually ate a shoe after losing a bet with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (find 30 of his films online).
In 2009, when Herzog released Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he was asked by the folks over at Rotten Tomatoes to list his top 5 movies. This is a director who once said, “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” So it’s a pretty safe bet that The Lion King didn’t make the cut.
The list starts with Freaks (up top), Tod Browning’s 1932 cult masterpiece that featured actual circus performers and dwarves. No doubt the movie was an influence on Herzog’s 1970 film Even Dwarves Started Out Small. “It’s just formidable, it’s phenomenal,” says Herzog. “You’ve gotta see it. It would take me an hour to explain.” You can find Freaks (and the next two films mentioned below) in our collection of 675 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
D.W. Griffith’s epic was his response to the public outcry following his epically racist Birth of a Nation. The movie also happened to revolutionize filmmaking.
Everything that [D.W.] Griffith made: Broken Blossoms, Intolerance, Birth of a Nation, you just name it. Everything. He’s the Shakespeare of cinema. Period. Watch his films and you’ll know instantly.
Herzog liked this movie so much that he shot his own version in 1979.
In my opinion, the greatest of great films is Nosferatu by [F.W.] Murnau, which I should include in the greatest five films of all time.
The last two films on Herzog’s list? Where Is The Friend’s Home? (1987), Abbas Kiarostami’s quiet tale of a kid who is just looking to return a notebook to his friend. And Rashomon (1950), Akira Kurosawa’s first true masterpiece, the film that introduced Japanese film to the western world after it won a Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. The movie also clearly impressed Herzog:
It is probably the only film that I’ve ever seen which has something like a perfect balance, which does not occur in filmmaking very often. You sense it sometimes in great music, but I haven’t experienced it in cinema, and it’s mind boggling. I don’t know how [Akira] Kurosawa did it. It’s still a mystery to me. That’s greatness.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.