Werner Herzog is the wild man of cinema. His movies are stark and elemental and ecstatic and are usually about a crazed dreamer who struggles to achieve an impossible task in the face of a chaotic, indifferent universe. Think Aguirre, Wrath of God, about a conquistador who goes crazy while adrift along an Amazonian river. Think Stroszek, about a German grifter who goes mental in the forbidding landscape of Wisconsin while struggling to find the American dream. That film famously, inexplicably, ends with shots of a dancing chicken.
The ecstatic truths seen in his movies are reflected in the man himself. At the age of 14, Herzog struck out from his native Germany for Albania and then Sudan. In 1972, he once walked from Munich to Paris to visit an ailing friend. In 1977, he shot footage at the lip of a volcano at the brink of eruption. He’s a filmmaker who seems to go out of his way to choose locations that are remote and difficult — Antarctica, the Sahara and the Amazonian rain forest — and his shoots always seem to be bedeviled by intrigue and catastrophe. His first feature was nearly derailed because of a coup d’état. While shooting Fata Morgana in Cameroon, he was mistaken for a wanted criminal and thrown in jail. Once during a TV interview in the hills of Los Angeles, he was shot by a random crazy person. Watch it here.
“A BBC television crew came to see me in Laurel Canyon,” as he recounted for The New Yorker. “They wanted to interview me for the British première of ‘Grizzly Man.’ I didn’t want them to film right outside my house, so we went up to Skyline Drive. In the middle of the interview, I was shot with a rifle by someone standing on his balcony. I seem to attract the clinically insane.”
Instead of stopping the interview, running for protection and perhaps going to the hospital, Herzog just continued with the interview saying simply, “It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid.”
Herzog’s improbable penchant for disaster, his collaboration with the brilliant, but batshit crazy, Klaus Kinski, and of course, his singular, uncompromising work have turned him into almost a mythic figure in some circles. But it’s these mad, macho declarations like those above that have really fed the cult of Herzog.
Recently, some unknown genius turned some of Herzog’s more extreme quotations into inspirational posters. Lines like “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness” are placed along side a shot of a glass of white wine and a sunset.
So gaze upon them. Absorb the pearls of wisdom. Find cold comfort in their bleak, nihilist pronouncements. They make fine additions to any cubicle.
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. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.