Mystical oracle and half-joking peddler, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog has spent his six-decade career filming on seven different continents, chronicling humanity’s fraught relationship with a cruel and indifferent universe through 34 documentaries and 20 dramatic feature films, as well as dozens of short films, operas and television shows. The prolific director turned 81 last month and will stop by here WBUR’s urban space on Thursday, October 12 to chat with Here & Now co-host Robin Young about his long-awaited memoir: “Each for himself and God against all.” (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it was the original U.S. release title of Herzog’s 1974 film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”) While it’s impossible to do justice to such an extensive body of work with just one handful of suggestions, Here are five titles worth watching ahead of what is sure to be an unforgettable evening.
Herzog’s film par excellence, and perhaps his best. In 16th century Peru, after the conquest of the Incas, a battalion of Spanish soldiers under the command of Pizarro traveled through the Amazon in search of El Dorado. They should have stayed home. Klaus Kinski plays the title character, a cunning and deranged despot obsessed with his teenage daughter and obsessed with finding the mythical city of gold. The expedition’s cumbersome equipment and ornate trappings are no match for the mountains of Machu Picchu, and we watch mesmerized as the conquistadors succumb to the treacherous terrain, the arrows of unseen natives, and, ultimately, the madness of their leader. Filmed in the Andes with a camera that Herzog stole from the Munich Film School, it is a film of hypnotic, hallucinatory images and ethereal unease. “Aguirre” was the filmmaker’s first of five collaborations with Kinski, a genuinely disturbed individual with one of the most frighteningly magnetic screen presences in cinema history. Welcome to the Jungle. (Available to rent or buy in most Video on demand outlets.)
Legend has it that Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and beloved Cantabrian Errol Morris was encouraged to start filming his first film, “Gates of Heaven,” after his friend Werner promised that if Errol ever finished it, he would eat his shoe. (Morris, rather amusingly, claims not to remember the bet.) On the day of the film’s premiere in Berkeley, Herzog and chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse spent five hours braising their boots in a pot of melted duck fat with thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves. While having a beer before the screening, Herzog managed to ingest a sizable portion of his shoe in front of an astonished audience, a feat captured for posterity by filmmaker Les Blank. This pleasantly silly short showcases not only Herzog’s eccentric humor (with that carefully enunciated Bavarian monotone that all your unfunny movie friends try to imitate), but also the carnival barker’s skill in using his reckless personality to gain publicity. for non-commercial projects. It became a meme before the Internet even existed. (Transmitting in the Criterion channel and canopy. Available to rent or buy in Amazon Prime.)
This curious odyssey delves into a land much more strange and exotic than any of Herzog’s jungle epics: Mesoamerica. The film was written for self-taught busker Bruno Schleinstein, usually credited as Bruno S., a non-professional actor the director discovered while casting “Kaspar Hauser.” Having spent most of his life in mental institutions, Schleinstein reacts to the world as if he were tuned to frequencies the rest of us don’t hear. This makes him a perfect sucker for Herzog’s story about an ex-convict who falls in love with a prostitute (the filmmaker’s then-girlfriend, Eva Mattes) and the two decide they’ve had enough of Germany and move to Wisconsin in search of of the American. dream. Herzog regards the vulgar consumer culture of the Midwest with the same anthropological, awed fascination with which he has photographed glaciers and rainforests, making the film often inexplicably funny and strangely sad. The final image of a chicken dancing on a penny arcade attraction sums up his absurd vision of people trapped spinning on metaphorical hamster wheels they can’t understand. (Transmitting on canopy. Available to rent or buy in most Video on demand outlets.)
Timothy Treadwell is such an ideal Herzog protagonist that, if he hadn’t existed, the director probably would have invented him. The failed television actor spent 13 summers living in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, cavorting recklessly with enormous grizzly bears and, according to all available evidence, annoying the hell out of them. Selected from 100 hours of extraordinary videos that Treadwell recorded before he and his girlfriend were eaten alive, the documentary establishes a dialectic between Treadwell’s joyful and psychotically anthropomorphic attachment to animals: he gives them nicknames like “Mr. . Chocolate” – and the filmmaker’s funny, somber assessments of life in the wild, where he finds “no kinship, no understanding, no mercy.” I only see the overwhelming indifference of nature.” What makes the film so unexpectedly moving is that it is about the human need to believe that there is a special place we belong in all of this, versus Herzog’s claim that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and hostility.” murder.” (Transmitting on canopy and Amazon Prime. Available to rent or buy in most Video on demand outlets.)
With a title inexplicably taken from Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece — Herzog still says he’s never seen it: a low-rent, direct-to-video movie is hilariously hijacked by the director’s anarchic collaboration with a never-more-wild Nicolas Cage, playing a cop so corrupt he can’t even stand upright. . The procedural elements are played as a farce, with Cage channeling Kinski, Ed Sullivan and assorted silent film legends in one of the most thrilling rococo performances of his career. (You know a movie is crazy when Val Kilmer is the straight man.) Herzog seems more enthralled by the post-Katrina environment; These recently submerged ruined streets are overrun by alligators and iguanas. He reprises the dancing chicken theme song from “Stroszek” for the final shootout, but not before offering Cage’s ID monster a stab at redemption. For all the humorous depravity on display, it is a touchingly sincere film. The main character’s slow awareness of the wider world around him is expressed in the classic Herzogian question: “Do fish have dreams?” (Transmitting on canopy, Hulu and Peacock. Available to rent or buy in most Video on demand outlets.)
Werner Herzog will be in WBUR’s urban space on Thursday, October 12 at 6:30 pm While in-person tickets are sold out, virtual tickets are still available.