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Werner Herzog names his five favourite documentaries of all time

German auteur Werner Herzog is one of the most important figures in the evolution of filmmaking during the 20th century. Known for his invaluable contributions to New German Cinema, Herzog’s masterpieces like Stroszek and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, continue to inspire and move future generations of filmmakers as well as audiences.

In an interview, Herzog denounced the documentary format by saying that documentaries “have not divorced [the medium] from journalism. They are very often ‘issue films’ about a social problem, and there has to be redemption and hope at the end. I don’t like this kind of cinema.” Herzog also criticised the illusory realism of cinéma vérité, insisting that such documentaries “cannot really claim vérité [truth] – that’s silly and I don’t believe in it.”

Herzog picked Jean Rouch’s 1955 masterpiece The Mad Masters as his top pick: “It’s arguably the best documentary ever made. It’s about workers in Ghana: on weekends, they’d go out into the mountains and they drugged themselves by chewing some sort of lianas and do very, very strange rituals about the arrival of the Queen’s high commissioner. It was shot with a camera that you have to crank, so the maximum length of each shot is 24 seconds.”

The German filmmaker also included his own 2005 documentary called Grizzly Man: “We have reached a target of four already. But if we have to fill the list, let’s add in Grizzly Man. Because we haven’t seen anything like this, before or after. It has an intensity, and the character [of its main subject, bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell] is very, very fascinating. So we cheat the list of five by squeezing one of mine in – they’re all good, let’s face it.”

Check out the complete list of Werner Herzog’s favourite documentaries of all time below.

Werner Herzog names his five favourite documentaries of all time:

  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer – 2012)
  • The Mad Masters (Jean Rouch – 1955)
  • The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls – 1969)
  • Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris – 1981)
  • Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog – 2005)

While discussing The Act of Killing, Herzog said: “I was in London, and somebody said: ‘There’s a young man, Joshua Oppenheimer, who desperately wants to meet you.’ So he opened his laptop and showed me nine minutes of footage. I knew I had never seen anything like it. It was unbelievable. So I was an adviser in shaping the film, but it was all shot already, so it was more in shaping the narrative. The end of the film was cut down completely in his version.”

Adding, “I said: ‘Is there more footage?’ and he sent me the entire raw footage as it had come out of the camera, something like four minutes, uncut. And I said to him: ‘Leave it uncut and put it in there as it is. Nobody will ever see anything like this again.’ And, of course, quite a few people had objections and were a little bit timid. And I said to him: ‘Joshua, if you don’t put this footage into the end of the film as it is, you have lived in vain.’ And he put it in there.”

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