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Exploring the existential: Werner Herzog's 10 greatest films

The dulcet tones of Werner Herzog remains a vocal quality documentarians around the world could only dream of, as his surreal existential musings take audiences on a psychoactive trip of some of life’s most fascinating topics. Spanning both fictional and documentary cinema, Herzog is a purveyor of quality cinema, working closely with the late actor Klaus Kinski to bring his wild visions to life. 

Herzog, who made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19, has since enjoyed well over 50 prolific years in the filmmaking industry, which has resulted in numerous critically acclaimed releases. Recognised as a widely respected filmmaker, the iconic French filmmaker François Truffaut once called Herzog “the most important film director alive,” and for a good reason, too, often addressing life’s most difficult questions with philosophical resolve.

Conceptually, Herzog’s films often feature ambitious protagonists with impossible or unreachable dreams, people with unique talents in the leftfield or individuals who are in conflict with nature. Evident in both his documentary and feature film work, Werner Herzog is simply a director who keeps on giving, with the audience getting out as much as they choose to put in. Let’s take a look back at his ten best films…

Werner Herzog’s 10 greatest films:

10. Encounters At The End Of The World (Werner Herzog, 2007)

It’s hard to imagine that the images of Antarctica that Werner Herzog captures are even part of the same world we live in. Captured in such awe-inspiring vision, Herzog’s documentary about life in one of the world’s harshest climates is truly fascinating. 

Travelling to a remote part of Antarctica, Herzog and his documentary team meet up with the people who brave the continent’s brutal weather conditions, as well as the landscape and wildlife, which is slowly changing with the changing climate. Exploring above and below the thick ice sheets that make up the area, Herzog is able to document a land previously unseen and inexperienced. 

It makes up one of many of his impressive nature documentaries. 

9. Little Dieter Needs To Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)

The lesser-known Vietnam war documentary from the filmmaker Werner Herzog, Little Dieter Needs to Fly follows the German-American Dieter Dengler discussing his time as a naval pilot in the Vietnam war. Revisiting the sites of his capture and eventual escape, the documentary is a surreal and captivating piece of filmmaking. 

The extraordinary tale details the pilot’s brutal torture over the period of six months until he miraculously escaped and was rescued by an American Air Force pilot after spending almost a month lost in the jungle. Harrowing, yet poetic, with thanks to Herzog’s flourishing touch, Little Dieter Needs to Fly features many of the hallmarks of the director’s style, often interrupting the story with a dreamlike observation. Later remade by the director in Rescue Dawn, the original documentary is far superior. 

8. Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog, 1976)

A bizarre and staggering piece of filmmaking, Werner Herzog’s fifth fictional feature film follows the foreman of a small village who dies without revealing the secret to the mysterious ‘Ruby Glass’. 

A captivating piece of ethereal filmmaking, Herzog created Heart of Glass under truly extraordinary circumstances as, during shooting, almost every single actor performed their part under hypnosis. With the exception of the lead character, Hias, and the professional glassblower who appears in the film, every other actor gave strange performances due to their hypnotised state. This was carried out so that every actor in the film felt as if they were in a strange fantastical trance, adding to the story’s eerie, otherworldly feel. 

7. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Remaining Werner Herzog’s most famous documentary feature film alongside Encounters At The End Of The World and the fantastic Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man is an incredible cinematic experience speaking to the innocent joys of human living. 

Exploring the life of Timothy Treadwell, an amateur bear expert who lived among sleuths of the animal every summer, Herzog picks apart the psychology of such an individual, attempting to access the truth of his obsession. A compassionate and eccentric individual, Treadwell is a compelling lead character for the documentary and Herzog leaves the individual breath in his own space, analysing his being with respect and extraordinary insight. 

6. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)

Werner Herzog’s 1977 tragicomedy tells the story of a Berlin street musician who leaves Germany after getting out of prison. In the elusive search for a better life, he finds himself in Wisconsin as the ideal of the American Dream quickly transforms into something else altogether.

A captivating and drily hilarious adventure, Stroszek sees Herzog outside his comfort zone, embracing the thrills of comedy, as well as the stark differences between European and North American ambition. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Herzog revealed about the film’s ending: “With both the crabs and the dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek, the crew couldn’t take it, they hated it, they were a loyal group and in the case of Stroszek they hated it so badly that I had to operate the camera myself”.

5. Land Of Silence And Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1971)

One of Herzog’s most quiet and deeply personal stories, Land Of Silence And Darkness follows the life of an elderly woman who has lived nearly her whole life both deaf and blind, whilst striving to help others in her own situation. 

Whilst Herzog often finds the smallest human story in a wider web of exploration, here, he drills down into an incredibly human tale, eliciting a compelling and inspiring examination of an individual isolated from the world. Despite this elderly woman’s solitary existence, however, her efforts to help those around her create a truly emotional journey that Herzog sensitively captures. 

4. The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974)

Included on the list of Martin Scorsese’s very favourite Werner Herzog films, the fourth feature film from the director details the remarkable true story of the titular Kaspar Hauser, a young man found in Nuremberg unable to speak or walk.

Adapted from Herzog’s own book based on the subject, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser features the remarkable performance of Bruno Schleinstein in the lead role, a non-actor who had a history of mental illness. The ingenious of Herzog here is in the adaptation of the well-known tale into a compelling narrative that examines life’s small pleasures whilst preaching never to take your privilege for granted. 

3. Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

Experiencing one of the most tumultuous filming experiences in film history, Herzog hauled a boat up a mud mountain in the Amazon jungle for the making of Fitzcarraldo, a cinematic epic about a maniacal eccentric. 

As Herzog once said himself, “I would travel down to hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary,” which is a mantra that he would have to live by. Fortunately for those involved, the outcome is as good as they could have possibly hoped for. Starring Klaus Kinski in perhaps his most outrageous film role, Fitzcarraldo is a surreal, astounding feat of cinema about a man obsessed with opera who tries to architect an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. 

What’s not to love? 

2. Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog, 1971)

A pioneer of non-narrative documentary filmmaking, Fata Morgana is a stunning observational journey that would be the predecessor to such films as Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and Ron Fricke’s Samsara

With a screenplay written by Werner Herzog, Fata Morgana features raw footage in and around the Sahara Desert, capturing the plains in all their ethereal glory, all whilst the spoken word of Lotte Eisner flows over the sand. A key film in Herzog’s filmography, Fata Morgana would help craft the director’s subsequent interest in finding human meaning in nature’s most interesting environments. It’s a captivating ride that Herzog himself described as a “hallucination”. 

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Shot in the jungles of Amazon on a very low budget, Werner Herzog’s epic historical drama is one of the defining works of New German Cinema. Building on the myth of El Dorado, Herzog launches a powerful investigation of greed and desire. 

Klaus Kinski puts up the performance of his lifetime as Aguirre, the Faustian conquistador who is rendered insane by the scorching heat of ambition. The film’s legacy is such that it always shows up on lists that feature eminent works of cinema, stripping away the complexities of power relations whilst leaving only the unsettling anxieties of what it means to be human. It is the most complete feature of all of Herzog’s filmography, utilising his fascination with nature, desire and human nature to the very best of his ability.