Watch Werner Herzog’s Very First Film, Herakles, Made When He Was Only 19-Years-Old (1962)

Rebel­lious dwarfs, crazed con­quis­ta­dors, delu­sion­al tycoons, wood-carv­ing ski jumpers: Wern­er Her­zog schol­ars who attempt to find a pat­tern in the film­mak­er’s choic­es of sub­ject mat­ter are vir­tu­al­ly guar­an­teed an inter­est­ing search, if an ulti­mate­ly futile one. But they must all start in the same place: Her­zog’s very first film Her­ak­les, which mash­es up the spec­ta­cles of body build­ing, auto rac­ing, and destruc­tion. It does all that in nine min­utes to a sound­track of sax­o­phone jazz, and with fre­quent ref­er­ences to the tit­u­lar hero of myth, whom you may know bet­ter by his Roman name of Her­cules.

“Would he clean the Augean sta­bles?” ask Her­ak­les’ sub­ti­tles over footage of one young Ger­man man show­ing off his well-shaped tor­so. “Would he dis­pose of the Ler­naean Hydra?” they ask of anoth­er as he strikes a pose.

Between clips of these body­builders per­form­ing their labors and ques­tions about whether they could per­form those of Her­cules, we see mil­i­taris­tic march­es, falling bombs, heaps of rub­ble, and a 1955 race­car crash at Le Mans that killed 83 peo­ple. All this jux­ta­po­si­tion tempts us to ask what mes­sage the nine­teen-year-old Her­zog want­ed to deliv­er, but, as in all his sub­se­quent work, he sure­ly want­ed less to make an artic­u­la­ble point than to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of cin­e­ma itself.

More recent­ly, in Paul Cron­in’s inter­view book Her­zog on Her­zog, the film­mak­er looks back on “my first blun­der, Her­ak­les” and finds it “rather stu­pid and point­less, though at the time it was an impor­tant test for me. It taught me about edit­ing togeth­er very diverse mate­r­i­al that would not nor­mal­ly sit com­fort­ably as a whole,” and in a sense pre­pared him for an entire cin­e­mat­ic career of very diverse mate­r­i­al that would not nor­mal­ly sit com­fort­ably as a whole. “For me it was fas­ci­nat­ing to edit mate­r­i­al togeth­er that had such sep­a­rate and indi­vid­ual lives. The film was some kind of an appren­tice­ship for me. I just felt it would be bet­ter to make a film than go to film school” — of the non-rogue vari­ety, any­way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wern­er Her­zog Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Wern­er Herzog’s Rogue Film School: Apply & Learn the Art of Gueril­la Film­mak­ing & Lock-Pick­ing

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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