The Dream-Driven Filmmaking of Werner Herzog: Watch the Video Essay, “The Inner Chronicle of What We Are: Understanding Werner Herzog”

An insane con­quis­ta­dor, a dwarf rebel­lion, cat­tle auc­tion­eers, ancient cave paint­ings, flam­ing oil rigs, tel­e­van­ge­lism, ski jump­ing, strong­men, Nico­las Cage: at first glance, the fil­mog­ra­phy of Wern­er Her­zog may seem will­ful­ly bizarre. A clos­er look, which reveals his films’ unusu­al mix­ture of fact and fic­tion deliv­ered through images that lodge per­ma­nent­ly in the sub­con­scious, may not dis­pel that impres­sion. But the pro­lif­ic Her­zog, who has steadi­ly worked in and ever more idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly defined his own realm of cin­e­ma since mak­ing his first short Her­ak­les 57 years ago, is engaged in a con­sis­tent ven­ture — or so argues Tom van der Lin­den in his video essay “The Inner Chron­i­cle of What We Are: Under­stand­ing Wern­er Her­zog.”

“I have always thought of my films as being one big work,” Van der Lin­den quotes Her­zog him­self as say­ing. “The char­ac­ters in this sto­ry are all des­per­ate and soli­tary rebels with no lan­guage with which to com­mu­ni­cate. Inevitably, they suf­fer because of this. They know their rebel­lion is doomed to fail­ure, but they con­tin­ue with­out respite, wound­ed, strug­gling on their own with­out assis­tance.” Van der Lin­den iden­ti­fies that strug­gle as much in Her­zog’s askew dra­ma­tized vision of Kas­par Hauser, the 19th-cen­tu­ry youth who claimed to have grown up in total iso­la­tion, as he does in Land of Silence and Dark­ness, Her­zog’s doc­u­men­tary about the blind-deaf Fini Straub­inger. In Her­zog’s film, such char­ac­ters are not out­siders but “saints, embod­i­ments of the human spir­it that exists with­in each and every one of us, long­ing to man­i­fest itself.”

But then, every Her­zog fan knows how lit­tle sense it makes to draw a line between the “fic­tion” and the “non­fic­tion” in his work. “As well known as Her­zog is for bring­ing real­i­ty into his fic­tion­al films, just as well known is he for bring­ing his fic­tion into his doc­u­men­taries,” says Van der Lin­den, an imper­a­tive that has entailed “unortho­dox direc­to­r­i­al deci­sions.” These include putting near­ly an entire cast of Heart of Glass under hyp­no­sis, releas­ing 11,000 rats into a city for his remake of Nos­fer­atu, and most famous­ly, for Fitz­car­ral­do, a film about a rub­ber baron who drags a steamship over a hill in Peru, drag­ging a real steamship over a real hill in Peru — a sin­gu­lar cin­e­mat­ic effort that inspired a doc­u­men­tary of its own, Les Blank’s Bur­den of Dreams.

“My belief is that all these dreams are yours as well,” Her­zog says to Blank, “and the only dis­tinc­tion between me and you is that I can artic­u­late them, and that is what poet­ry or paint­ing or lit­er­a­ture of film­mak­ing is all about.” On some lev­el, Her­zog’s inter­est in dreams still explains the nature of his film­mak­ing. This man­i­fests espe­cial­ly in his doc­u­men­taries, says van der Lin­den, where he “always seems to wan­der off the actu­al sub­ject by includ­ing a vari­ety of seem­ing­ly ran­dom sto­ries from the peo­ple he encoun­ters. He’s not inter­est­ed in their facts; he’s inter­est­ed in their dreams.” Like no oth­er film­mak­er work­ing today, Her­zog artic­u­lates the kind of truth we feel in our own dreams as well: the “poet­ic, ecsta­t­ic truth” he spoke of in his “Min­neso­ta Dec­la­ra­tion,” which “can be reached only through fab­ri­ca­tion and imag­i­na­tion and styl­iza­tion.” No won­der he’s ded­i­cat­ed him­self to cin­e­ma, still the most dream­like medi­um of them all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Wern­er Her­zog Cre­ates Required Read­ing & Movie View­ing Lists for Enrolling in His Film School

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

Wern­er Her­zog Offers 24 Pieces of Film­mak­ing and Life Advice

To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wern­er Her­zog

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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