Happy 69th Birthday, Werner Herzog! What's His Finest Screen Accomplishment?

Herzog300.jpgLabor Day isn't the only reason to roll out the grill and invite your friends over: The one and only Werner Herzog was born on this day in 1942. The intervening decades would establish him as a leader of the New German Cinema, a dramatic visionary, a relentlessly curious documentarian, the paragon of ecstatic truth, and one of modern movies' most enduringly intriguing filmmakers. Let's wish Herzog a happy 69th birthday with a run through some of his greatest achievements.

While I love Herzog's nonfiction, his narrative films of the '70s and '80s tend to stick with me longer after viewing. The turbulent Klaus Kinksi collaborations -- most notably Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo -- are watchable and rewatchable almost without exception, yielding new perspectives and revelations with each viewing. He made equally strong work with the tragic, troubled Bruno S., resulting in the tandem of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and their wild American sojourn Stroszek (1977).

But pound for pound, nothing beats Heart of Glass (1976), a sublime bit of insanity about a Bavarian village thrown into uncertainty after the local glassworks proprietor dies, taking the secret of his lucrative "Ruby Glass" with him to the grave. Interesting enough, but then Herzog went and hypnotized the entire cast. A sort of psychic languor ensues, beautifully reflecting the trancelike effects of crisis on individuals and community. It's not without its dark humor, either -- hypnosis does funny things to people -- but Herzog's narrative anchors the experiment against shipwrecking in the shallow waters of exploitation.

Nevetheless, the best thing in Heart of Glass is the one scene Herzog acknowledged was too dangerous for hypnosis: The glassblowing montage. Here the filmmaker's documentary gifts harmonize with his dramatic instincts in a way his work has emulated in the decades since with varying degrees of success. Mind-blowing commences right around the 2:00 mark.

Weigh in with your own suggestions below... and happiest of birthdays to Herzog.


  • orlando says:

    My favorite has to be that moment when Fitzcarraldo starts playing the gramophone in his ship, contemplating the Amazon river, it lasts a couple of minutes but has such an indelible effect, it's a perfect moment.

  • Mike the Movie Tyke says:

    Herzog has many great screen accomplishments, but for me Fitzcarraldo is his Citizen Kane. Simply amazing.

  • SD says:

    With Herzog the story behind the camera is often as, if not more, exciting as what is in front.
    Fitzcarraldo is definitely high on the crazy and his interview with Mark Kermode when he got shot is also fantastic.

  • AS says:

    The Wrath of God

  • J K says:

    The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is my favorite.
    Each of us is a confused radiant dying splinter of the world. And we are being followed.
    Or something like that.
    And it contains the only deployment of Canon in D this side of Ordinary People that realizes the true defeated splendor of the piece.
    Everything Werner does irritates me when done by other filmmakers.
    It's as if the strength of his will alone transmutes pretension and vainglory into gold.
    There is only one of each of us. And we can barely bare that. And Werner, too.
    or, if you'd rather:
    He's no Brett Ratner.