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Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer

The six-decade career of the daredevil German director becomes the topic of this comprehensive however conventional documentary, a film far less radical and controversial than the subject portrayed - in cinemas on Friday, January 19th; on VoD on Monday, February 19th

Werner Herzog justifies his artistic restlessness: “films are like dreams, and you must articulate them”. His impetus to create remains enviable and inspiring. The octogenarian helmer boasts directing three films in just one calendar year, and not allowing the pandemic to stop him. Perhaps he wants to defy Peter Greenaway’s controversial claim that no filmmaker has ever made anything relevant past the age of 80. Fellow German documentarian Thomas von Steinaecker sets out to celebrate a director with a career spanning more than a half a century, thereby revealing the milestones, the hearts won on both sides of the Atlantic, and also a couple of dirty secrets.

Narrated more or less chronologically, Radical Dreamer starts in the Bavarian mountain town of Sachring, where Herzog grew up with his family after moving away from a war-torn Munich, where he was born. He has no recollections of his father, which he perceives as an asset (perhaps he enjoyed performing the role of the alpha male from a very young age?). He has very fond memories of his mother, who wished she could feed her children her own flesh. It was a time of duress: no food, no water and no sanitation. Present-day Herzog casually visits the house where he grew up without displaying any strong reaction and sentiment. He is a pragmatic, dispassionate and yet strangely captivating man. Captivating, hypnotic and terrifying are also fitting attributes. He confesses that many people who meet him just don’t know how to react to the mythical and often contradictory qualities that have been bestowed upon him.

He also visits the location of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) for the first time since he finished the film. He recognises the walls and the sound of the rustling leaves. The visit is blended with clips from the actual film. We also see extracts from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987) – some of his most famous collaborations with Klaus Kinski. The director and the actor had a very tumultuous relationship, with Kinski often resorting to physical violence and creating a toxic work atmosphere. The blame lies entirely with the late actor, with Herzog’s behaviour being spared. There is a strong focus on Fitzcarraldo, perhaps Herzog’s most famous film. American actor Carl Weathers celebrates that Herzog succeeded to move a literal ship up a literal mountain. Other talking heads interviewees corroborate the view that Herzog’s madness is a feat. The film does not acknowledge that countless indigenous people (some speculate as many as 30) died in the making of Fitzcarraldo, partly thanks for Herzog’s recklessness.

One of the movie’s highlights are images of Mick Jagger in Fitzcarraldo, before he jumped off the ship (probably upon realising the risks associated with the role). Herzog explains that the famous singer has a magnetic personality and latent dramatic talent that was never fully explored. Another significant revelation made in this documentary is the support that Herzog receive from French-German film critic Lotte Eisner, who thought that Herzog was the rightful heir to the expressionists like Murnau and Lang (pretty much all German films made in the decades in between were painfully boring). Strangely, the film fails to note that Nosferatu (1979) was the remake of a Murnau movie by the same name. There is a short clip of the vampire movie, but no contextualisation. On the other hand, Radical Dreamer offers a some insight into the New German Cinema, with clips from a couple of films from Alexander Kluge. Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff provide testimonials.

The final third of the movie takes place mostly in the United States, where Herzog found a loyal following in the past two decades, particularly as he became increasingly recognised as a documentarist. The tragic Grizzly Man (2005) gets dissected, and Herzog’s obsession with death becomes a common recurrence in his work. There is almost glee in his voice as he describes how a penguin is walking to his death in Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Americans found a certain gentleness in the grotesquerie, ultimately exoticising the deep-voiced German filmmaker. Perhaps Herzog offered Americans some sort of conciliation with a country they learned to abhor.

Radical Dreamer had remarkable access into the life of Herzog. Not only is the director interviewed, but also virtually every member of his direct family (brother, two wives, etc), and a long string of filmmakers, actors and singers from both sides of the Atlantic: Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale, Chloe Zhao, Joshua Oppenheimer and Patti Smith (in addition to the people in the paragraphs above). They have nothing but unequivocal praise about the director. This is a deeply romanticised and formulaic documentary about a fascinating and inspirational filmmaker. It is neither balanced nor radical. It does not leave any room for debate and reflection about the ethics behind Herzog’s filmmaking techniques. In other words, an enjoyable watch however barely audacious. How not very Herzogian!!!

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is in cinemas on Friday, January 19th. On BFI Player and Blu-ray on February 19th.

By Victor Fraga - 17-01-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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