Werner Herzog Picks His 5 Top Films

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 Nos­fer­atu from 1922 (up top). 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.

Intol­er­ance (1916)

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.


Next is Freaks, 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.”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Por­trait Wern­er Her­zog: The Director’s Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Short Film from 1986

Errol Mor­ris and Wern­er Her­zog in Con­ver­sa­tion

Wern­er Her­zog Has a Beef With Chick­ens

Wern­er Herzog’s Eye-Open­ing New Film Reveals the Dan­gers of Tex­ting While Dri­ving

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.

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Comments (11)
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  • Markus says:

    Yeah, but be fair — he boiled it first. That was one tough shoe.

  • Don Frazier says:

    Check out these Her­zog films:

    Heart of Glass
    Even Dwarves Start­ed Small
    Heart of Glass
    Kas­par Hauser (I for­get Eng­lish name)

    and of course:

    Aguirre, the Wrath of God

  • Bryan says:

    Freaks was also a favorite of Frank Zap­pa and was a major inspi­ra­tion for his phi­los­o­phy.

  • Paul says:

    Her­zog’s ‘Lit­tle Dieter Needs to Fly’ is the best!

  • Ramona says:

    Griz­zly Man and Into the Abyss.

  • Robin says:

    Thank you for shar­ing Wern­er’s favorite five.

    I just want­ed to sig­nal that the link to “Where Is The Friend’s Home” leads to a pri­vate video
    and that the link to Rashomon links to a page where the only option to see the movie freely is restrict­ed to US view­ers.

  • borislaw says:

    cobra verde — haunt­ing when he uncov­ers a hole in the ground and peers down inside to see if filled with women. Lat­er in the film the song and dance of three young girls has a pro­found­ly stir­ring affect; at that moment my heart was so full.

    hap­py peo­ple — the scene when theyre in the canoe mov­ing over the rough waters, the riv­er with its tremen­dous cur­rent car­ries them for­ward. Also some­thing that stuck with me, his rela­tion­ship with his dogs; in par­tic­u­lar when he makes the long snow­mo­bile trip back home, hun­dreds of miles, the dog some­how fol­lows him all the way, remark­able. remark­able.

    on net­flix, Into the Infer­no is a love song of sorts, a poet­ic ode to vol­ca­noes. The scenes from north korea are remark­able, fas­ci­nat­ing, pow­er­ful images unlike any­thing ive seen and far from what I could have imag­ined. Lat­er I jumped out of my seat, laugh­ing like a mad­man shout­ing “Yes! HaHa Yes!” applaud­ing when out of the blue he starts recit­ing verse from the Poet­ic Edda.I mean that’s just awe­some.

    so yeah movies for this her­zog are not just enter­tain­ment, theyre actu­al­ly poet­ry, mytho­log­i­cal peoms, epic poems, spir­i­tu­al religous poet­ry real­ly opper­at­ing on a dif­fer­ent lev­el. aigh im out

  • eric says:

    cobra verde remake

  • yvonne w matthews says:

    I caught Cobra Verde,Aguirre and Even Dwarfs Start­ed Small on Plu­to TV 0nline[it is free] in the last month.Love Aguirre,first saw it years ago and became obsessed with look­ing for it on reg.tv,i final­ly went on E bay about ten years ago and found it.

  • Carol Jenkins O’Neill says:

    Every Man for Him­self and God Against All

  • Ron Sullivan says:

    Alice Waters boiled it, for um five? sev­en? hours, with lots of gar­lic. It was a Clark’s desert boot, or a close imi­ta­tion. He at it using a pair of poul­try shears and a fork, with lots of steak sauce. Washed it down with Heineken beer.

    He did­n’t eat the sole, which had become very strange: all swollen and bul­gy. “Even at Colonel Sanders, I don’t eat the bones.”

    And that was­n’t the damnedest thing I saw that night. Errol Mor­ris’ first movie “Gates of Heav­en” was.

    Her­zog ate that shoe because he’d lost a bet that the movie would­n’t get made.

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