Germany has produced many things, some good and some not so good, but its greatest export is that of director Werner Herzog. He has a gift for storytelling unlike anyone in modern cinema and his movies have an aesthetic that is truly their own.
As a young filmmaker, he stole his first camera from film school because he felt it was “a necessity” and “a natural right” in order to make movies – that rogue mentality is seen throughout his body of work. He’s a real deal Hollywood outsider and even runs his own guerilla filmmaking school. The man was even shot in an interview and kept on going with it. He’s a complete, 100%, badass.
This list is an attempt at the impossible, well not impossible, but very hard. This is a breakdown of all his feature films from good to amazing because, like Roger Ebert said, “even his failures are spectacular”.
This list DOES NOT include his documentaries, which is a whole other beast within itself.
What’s It About?: A Jewish strongman fools Berlin into thinking he’s an Aryan hero during WWII.
Arguably Werner’s worst film, which isn’t saying much considering how great it is overall. Honestly, it has been a long time since I’ve even seen it, so the chances of it improving on a rewatch are ripe. But I remember thinking the performances, aside from Tim Roth, were a little shaky at times.
WHERE THE GREEN ANTS DREAM (1984)
What’s It About?: Head down under for this drama about a group of Aborigines that refuse to leave the sacred ground that has been targeted by miners.
This movie employs the use of actual Aborigines and their acting isn’t that stellar… But it’s still very unique to watch. It’s just as weird as any other Herzog film, but still manages to walk a straight line in terms of plot. The landscape and setting of the film is a character in itself and Herzog captures it all in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been there and speak with authority about it.
THE WILD BLUE YONDER (2005)
What’s It About?: Ummm… Where to start? Okay… An Alien travels to Earth to escape his dying planet, meanwhile, we are trying to leave Earth in search of the Alien’s planet. I guess that’ll work.
This is the most pretentious film Herzog has done. It’s very conceptual with a pretty loose narrative and almost has the feel of a documentary getting mashed up with a feature film. There are lots of stock footage and Brad Dourif, can’t forget about him. As much of an oddity as this film is, it’s still intriguing in a somewhat heavy handed and philosophical way.
SCREAM OF STONE (1991)
I really enjoy Scream of Stone, but I’d say it’s probably one of the most non-Herzog-esque movies he has made. This film would be like the gateway drug into Herzog’s filmography, too bad it’s next to impossible to find – I had to download a VHS rip!
SIGNS OF LIFE (1969)
What’s It About?: A group of German soldiers fall into boredom as their post at a munitions depot on the island of Crete starts to get tiresome.
This is Werner’s first full length feature film and it gets points for that alone. It’s an interesting take on a subject Herzog tends to dwell on and that’s man’s descent into madness. All the actors do a fine job and the use of locals in the film (which is another Herzog trademark) makes for a realistic feel. The sound design in this film is awesome and the Greek music used is hypnotic at times. For me the greatest thing about this is seeing the groundwork and style that becomes universal in a lot of Werner’s other films. It’s like going back and watching a home video of Kurt Cobain performing in his high school talent show…. Or something like that.
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2010)
What’s It About?: After returning from a trip to South America, Brad (Michael Shannon) loses his shit and ends up committing murder and then engaging in a standoff with the police.
Werner Herzog teams up with David Lynch… Yes, please! Worth watching just for the scene with Michael Shannon, Brad Dourif and a dwarf. The film has a cheapness to it and out of all Herzog’s movies it may be the ugliest title. I’m not sure if its ruggedness is an intentional choice, but it reminds me a lot of Inland Empire visually, so maybe Lynch had something to do with it.
EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1971)
What’s It About?: A group of prisoners lash out at their captors in a remote countryside.
This film is a true oddity. Of any Herzog film ever made, it’s probably the one I’d least recommend, but I still really like it. It’s an interesting allegory of man’s propensity to strive toward freedom and how that power can be both uplifting and destructive.
RESCUE DAWN (2006)
What’s It About?: An airman crashes behind enemy lines and must survive imprisonment while planning his escape.
This is one of Herzog’s more accessible and most popular films. Christian Bale delivers a stellar performance and the escape sequence is absolutely crazy. It’s based on a true story, which Herzog also made a documentary about called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which you should watch after.
THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)
What’s It About?: Kaspar Hauser has been held captive and chained in a cellar all his life. One day his captor releases him into the wild, AKA the real world. Upon his release he’s left to try and adapt to this new found reality.
This film stars Bruno S, an actor with one hell of a crazy bio, (especially his upbringing) so he’s perfect for this film. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is very tame and straightforward compared to other Herzog films, allowing the focus to be on Bruno and his character.
What’s It About?: Woyzeck is a low man on the totem pole in the German army who slowly starts to lose his mind.
This is the first film on this list that stars Klaus Kinski, an actor whose tremulous relationship with Herzog has been well documented over the course of collaborating on 5 films together. Herzog is able to rein in Kinski slightly during Woyzeck, but like all of their movies, this one is very intense and with roughly an hour runtime, it will seem like it flies by.
HEART OF GLASS (1976)
What’s It About?: Honestly, there’s no real plot. I guess if I were to try and give one I would use this: A glass blower dies and leaves a void in the hearts of the locals in his town…. I guess?
Remember when I said The Wild Blue Yonder was the most pretentious film Werner had made? I lied. Heart of Glass is breathtaking and a lot of frames could be painted on canvas, then sold as fine art. The plot is more of a device to explore poetry if anything, it’s pretty nonsensical but still very beautiful. I read that Herzog had everyone on set put under hypnosis before they filmed their scenes and you can tell. The performances are odd and seem a little off, which makes things a bit eerie, but in a good way.
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)
What’s It About?: A corrupt officer who’s into hookers and drugs, investigates the murders of 5 immigrants.
When I first heard Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog were teaming up, I was beyond excited to see the results and they didn’t disappoint. Cage is on his A game in this film, not the National Treasure Cage, but the Wild at Heart Cage that we all love. It’s got all the token trademarks that make a Herzog film a joy to watch plus Nicolas Cage smoking crack, bonus!
NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)
What’s It About?: The story of Dracula as told by Werner Herzog.
Klaus Kinski’s Dracula is so unlike any other performance I’ve seen of the character. He’s riddled and tortured, being a vampire feels like a curse, like a cross to bear and he exemplifies that. Herzog also makes the story much more poetic than other installments, which is a welcomed change of pace when compared to other films within the vampire genre.
COBRA VERDE (1987)
What’s It About?: A twisted journey into the world of slavery and like so many of Herzog’s films, a man’s slow descent into madness.
This marks the final collaboration between Kinski and Herzog, which seems fitting because of Kinski’s almost lack of any filter on his performance. He’s like a house cat that’s found its freedom and you’re not sure if he’s lost all willingness to follow Herzog’s orders, or if he’s trying to mesmerize the director with one final awe inspiring performance. Cobra Verde is visually one of Herzog’s most stunning films and the final scene on the beach will be etched into the canvas of your memories for the rest of your life.
What’s It About?: An ex-con and his prostitute girlfriend abandon Germany in search of the American dream, but find acclimating to life in Wisconsin a lot harder than what they left behind.
I find Stroszek the most entertaining of all the Herzog films and the one that has the most rewatchability. Bruno S. returns for his best performance, which is so believable you almost feel like Herzog wrote the film just to have him play it. It’s darkly tragic and disturbing, yet humorous at the same time, and that juxtaposition is navigated with such grace by Herzog. Like most of Herzog’s catalogue, the ending of Stroszek is unlike anything you’ll ever see again, but this time it involves a dancing chicken!
What’s It About?: A robber baron in South America plans to create the world’s greatest opera house in the middle of the jungle.
Klaus Kinski is at his best in Fitzcarraldo, and his manic delivery insinuates itself into the film like no other actor could ever achieve. If you want proof, just watch the footage of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger trying to pull off the dialogue before Herzog pulled Kinski into the project. It’s laughable. Fitzcarraldo is a mammoth epic that defies filmmaking and has an IMDB trivia page that reads like a work of fiction. Keep in mind when you watch the scenes of them pulling a 340-ton steamship over a mountain that it really happened during production, nothing about it is fake.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
What’s It About?: Spanish conquistadors head down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, the lost city of gold.
A masterpiece unlike any movie of its time and a prime example of the rogue filmmaking that Herzog was known for. There’s something very primal about the way everything unfolds in front of you, the shakiness of the camera (before the shaky cam was a thing), the non-actors clearly intermingling with the cast, the vast, unforgiving jungle that Herzog seems so in tune with (even though his affinity for it is questionable). You’ll immediately be transfixed on Aguirre from the opening shot of clouds hugging against a mountainside set to Popol Vuh’s dreamlike score and what seems like ants making their way down the cliffside, only to find out it’s the crew as the camera slowly pans down to the front of the expedition. This is also Kinski and Herzog’s first film together and the working chemistry between the two is clearly evident.