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.
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 Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.