Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer. A Review (Review #1770)



Werner Herzog is a curious cinematic figure. Beloved as a daring auteur, he is also seen as almost cuddly in his persona as someone who delves into existentialist despair which he details in a soft, Teutonic accent. Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer serves as a good introduction to this most fascinating of filmmakers.

Mixing interviews from Herzog himself, his collaborators, wives current and former along with footage from his films, Radical Dreamer gives us Herzog's insights and body of work. Like dwarves, Herzog started small, a child in the tail end of World War II whose father abandoned him and his brother early on. Moving to Munich, Herzog began making his own films independent of any formal school. Soon, he finds himself part of what is dubbed "New German Cinema", with German film critic and historian Lotte Eisner serving as his champion and mentor after her enthusiastic praise for an early Herzog film, Signs of Life.

He continues to expand his cinematic output, which eventually puts him in collaboration with eccentric actor Klaus Kinski in Herzog's breakout film of Aguirre, The Wrath of God. He continues to go from success to success, though at a cost. The troubled production of Fitzcarraldo where original star Jason Robards having to leave for health reasons was the least of the problems. Even moving a steamship over a mountain had nothing compared to Kinski's volcanic rages. 

Eventually, Herzog shifted more and more towards documentaries, though he never fully abandoned fictional filmmaking, seeing little difference between them. Even in documentaries as varied as Bells from the Deep (where he had ice skaters mixing with monks who prayed as they crawled across ice) to Grizzly Man (where in a famous moment he listened in to the death recording of the film's subject, Timothy Treadwell), he continues to explore the uniqueness of the world. 

Herzog also finds time to do some acting in films like Jack Reacher and television series such as The Mandalorian. He can even squeeze in time to do voiceover work, spoofing his persona on The Simpsons and Penguins of Madagascar, as well as serve as mentor to new generations of aspiring filmmakers. 

Radical Dreamer makes the case that Herzog is an exceptional filmmaker while showing the man himself as not deeply interested in his myth of a cinematic giant. Instead, Radical Dreamer gives Herzog pause to reflect on his life and work. Writer/director Thomas von Steinaecker chose an interesting title given that Radical Dreamer opens with Herzog telling us that he does not dream. Instead, he describes himself as "a good soldier of cinema". 

The film reveals a surprisingly quiet man, driven to make films of all kinds, and one who appears content. Contrary to the perception of Herzog as a man who goes on about the existentialist despair of life, Herzog often smiles and laughs. He seems the most joyful when doing workshops where he oversees young directors making their own film. Herzog may not remember exactly what the various films his mentees are making are, but he knows the importance of having others help the next generation.

It is a reflection of how Eisner helped him. We learn that when Eisner was ill in Paris, he undertook a journey from Munich to Paris on foot, convinced that this act of devotion would somehow alter the universe to help her rally. In reality, Eisner did recover. Perhaps that is not surprising from Herzog. Only he could make getting shot at while being interviewed for another documentary and tell his wife, "It wasn't that serious of a gunshot wound". 

People who have either worked with him or are admirers also discuss their thoughts on Herzog. Longtime cinematographer Thomas Mauch reflects that it was only later that he realized when making Aguirre, the Wrath of God that they were all insane to work the way they did. Conversely, Robert Pattinson expressed almost slight disappointment that the production of Queen of the Desert had no chaos. Herzog's Mandalorian costar Carl Weathers describes him as a form of Darth Vader, pointing out that he does not have to scream or raise his voice to communicate power.

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is a good primer into this filmmaker's extraordinarily life and career. He is not sentimental, saying at one point when revisiting his Even Dwarves Started Small location that it brings neither good nor bad memories. It is just life, he says. Werner Herzog sees no difference between documentaries and feature films, and no borderline between reality and fiction. Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is an excellent film about an extraordinary filmmaker. 


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