What makes Werner Herzog a great filmmaker

What makes Werner Herzog a great filmmaker

Werner Herzog is a legend for many reasons. There’s the films, of course – a varied and numerous collection – but there’s also the stories behind the films. Like how Herzog threatened to shoot Klaus Kinski if he dared walk off Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and how he promised to eat his shoe if his friend Errol Morris ever managed to get the film he was always talking about made. He did, which led to Les Blank’s curious short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).

Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog

Herzog had a somewhat stormy relationship with his favourite leading man Klaus Kinski, although he himself describes it thus:

“People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”.*

Despite the fireworks, and Kinski’s infamous on set tantrums, the work Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski produced together is some of the very best of their careers. They collaborated five times:

  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
  • Woyzeck (1979)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
  • Fitzcarraldo (1982)
  • Cobra Verde (1987)

Klaus Kinski was Herzog’s first choice to play the deranged conquistador Aguirre. He remembered him from years before, when the actor had spent a few months living in accommodation rented from his family. Herzog knew the actor’s volatile nature would be perfect for the part, and many subsequent roles too. In Woyzeck, an excellent but not quite so famous film of Herzog’s, Kinski plays a mentally unstable soldier. Nosferatu was a remake of F.W. Murnau’s classic horror film, and then came Fitzcarraldo – a film with enough background information to fill a book.

In fact, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo production diaries were published as a book, Conquest of the Useless. It’s a terrific account of the observations and difficulties encountered on a daily basis by the director. In Fitzcarraldo, Kinski plays a man who’s so obsessed with following his dream he endeavours to pull a steam boat over a mountain. Many have drawn comparisons between the mad plot of the film and the mad lengths its director went to make it. Cobra Verde was the final film Herzog and Kinski made together (Kinski died in 1989). It was an adaptation of Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah about a fictional slave trader.