Born in Munich in 1942, Werner Herzog emerged as one of the leading figures of New German Cinema (a movement spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s, it was influenced by the French New Wave and was characterised by low budget productions, the emergence of directors with distinctive voices and a strong art house following), alongside Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Shlondorff.
Herzog has at the time of writing directed eighteen feature films (most of which he also wrote), twenty nine documentaries and a long list of operas, he also has a film school called Rogue film school which its website states is 'For those with a fire burning within. For those with a dream.' This statement could easily be applied to Herzog's films which are challenging, haunting, tinged with madness and very definitely have a fire burning inside.
Herzog's films are more concerned with what goes on beneath the surface than the actual surface itself, and this at times includes narrative which can be fractured and slow moving. Nature plays a prominent part in Herzog's films, this nature is often the isolated locales, located at the literal edges of civilisation, and many of his films are shot on remote locations. Much like Herzog's favoured locations, his characters exist on the edges, of civilisation, sanity and normality. Often these characters are trapped between a harsh, unforgiving landscape and a callous fate.
Arguably, Herzog remains best known for the five films he made with the volatile actor Klaus Kinski – Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzek (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987). A collection of films that remains remarkable for their intensity and purity of vision.
Signs of Life (1968)
Herzog's debut is a study in madness and sets the scene for Herzog's future body of work. A wounded paratrooper recuperating on an idyllic Greek island gradually loses his mind in heat and sunlight. The pace is almost nonexistent, but the slow build of insanity is meticulously detailed.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Presents a dark allegory of human nature. The dwarf inhabitants of an institution on a remote island over-throw their keepers, but soon their joyous liberation turns vicious. By turns brooding and chaotically, darkly funny Herzog treads a fine line between exploitation and social commentary.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The film that bought Herzog international acclaim, and the first of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski. An increasingly demented Spanish soldier leads a group of conquistadores along the Amazon in search of El Dorado. A study in madness and human folly with minimal dialogue and narrative that contrasts the fading sanity of its central character with a lush but treacherous natural landscape.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Based on a strange true story about a young man who suddenly appeared in Nuremburg, unable to speak or read having spent his life chained in a basement. Herzog follows Hauser's reintegration into society with both detachment and compassion. The role of Hauser is played by street performer Bruno S. who brings a rough but vulnerable authenticity to the role. A genuinely disconcerting film whose central mystery is never actually solved.
Heart of Glass (1976)
Almost the entire cast performed under hypnosis giving a strange and unreal quality to this tale of an eighteenth century glassblowing village left reeling after the death of the master glassblower.
Also featuring Bruno S., Stroszek, is a freewheeling chaotic and largely spontaneous road movie. But for all its comic overtones this is at heart a work filled with melancholy.
Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979)
The most obvious genre film in Herzog's cannon, a melancholy highly stylised horror film that both acknowledges its source material (F. W. Murnau's 1922 film) and expands upon it.
Another Kinski collaboration, and another study in deteriorating sanity. Based on fragments of a play it follows a low ranking soldier abused by his superiors and his mistress who slowly and painfully goes mad.
Based on the true story of a rubber baron in Peru who transports a steam ship over a steep mountain in order to access rubber on the other side. Like his central character Herzog orchestrated the transportation of a steam ship over the mountain. Insanity, folly and an indifferent but deadly nature, this perhaps Herzog's ultimate realisation of his recurring themes.
Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)
Set in the Australian desert and loaded with ominous symbolism. The minimal plot follows a feud between a local Indigenous tribe and a mining corporation. So detached it is a very difficult film to get into and remains of most interest as one of the body of films that explore the Australian landscape from the perspective of an outside director.
Cobra Verde (1987)
The final collaboration between Herzog and Kinski. As with their previous films this is an intense and expansive work. A bandit turned slave trader loses his mind in Africa. Startling and striking both visually and thematically.
Scream of Stone (1991)
One of the few films Herzog didn't write himself, he all but disowned it. However the story of the rivalry between two climbers trying to scale the treacherous Cerro Torre bears many of Herzog's trademarks especially the conflict between man and nature. Unlike Herzog's best films it remains un-involving.
A Jewish strongman passes for Aryan in Nazi Germany but while his manager ingratiates himself with the Nazis, he dreams of rescuing his people. Part fable, part black comedy, part tragedy Herzog weaves a tale that is uncomfortable and disconcerting.
The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)
Pushes the boundary between fiction and documentary to its edge. An aging alien narrates the history of his species on earth, direct to camera. His narratives are accompanied by flickering montages of images from this past.
Rescue Dawn (2007)
Based on the true story Herzog explored in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about a German-American pilot shot down and captured by villagers during the Vietnam War. A gruelling tale of survival set in a hostile environment and in the face of extreme cruelty and torture.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
A corrupt drug addicted cop staggers through an investigation. A portrait of a man in complete moral and personal meltdown, loosely based on Abel Ferrara's 1992 film, this is a difficult film, but explores Herzog's preoccupation with the edges of sanity and social acceptability.
My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? (2009)
This feels more David Lynch (who produced) in both tone and subject, than Herzog. Loosely inspired by a true story of a murderer, it comes across like a horror movie minus the gore. A genuinely odd movie it is unsettling, and loaded with sinister intent and madness.
Herzog's next film to be released is Queen of the Desert (2015), the epic story of British explorer Gertrude Bell. As a director Herzog functions as a kind of chronicler of the margins, the extremes of both humans and nature, he has the detached eye of a documentarian, which brings a certain cold clarity to his vision, while his films continually challenge and unsettle.