It seems that now, finally, recognition has arrived at Werner Herzog's feet,
and for an inveterate, lifelong Herzogian (alright, since adolescence), his current presence in the cultural forebrain is something of a vindication. The crazed German, aging but tireless in his pursuit of earthly-cosmic poetic disjunctures, seems to be everywhere - 2006 sees two new films (Rescue Dawn
and The Wild Blue Yonder
), following last year's triumphant quasi-documentary hat trick (Grizzly Man
, Wheel of Time
and The White Diamond
). Two Herzog world-beaters have seen theatrical rerelease this year (Aguirre, the Wrath of God
and Kasper Hauser
), he's been the subject of several major retrospectives, and the totemic guru-artiste figure for several films by others, including Linas Phillips
's Walking to Werner
. He's even been profiled in both Harper's and
the New Yorker
in the last eight months.
He's also had more films made about
him than any other filmmaker, period. Once with Fassbinder
one of the triplet godheads of the German New Wave (or New German Cinema
), Herzog remains the world's most notorious filmmaking Odysseus/Faust, for whom no landscape has been too daunting and no price too formidable, an impulsive cultural outlaw besieged by wanderlust and symbolic extremism, a reckless, Romantic psycho making dangerous movies, in which he might happily fit as the hero, without regards for life, limb and profit. All told, his oeuvre constitutes a four-dimensional fresco of the planet, its most human-resistant landscapes and our dubious dramas in confronting the chaos. What's not to love?
New Waves have had a way of getting coopted and commercialized, but the GNW turned out a little differently: of Herzog's contemporaries, only Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff
have gone to Hollywood, with often woeful results. Fassbinder, of course, clogged his arteries on melodramatic pork, while Werner Schroeter
has become a festival laughingstock (see Deux
, Isabelle Huppert
's most ignominious moment). The most bizarre of them all, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
, has piddled away his gifts on German culture TV, and hasn't made a film in almost a decade.
Herzog alone, through sheer stubborn idiosyncrasy, still stands as a global figure, and its arguable that, with the lode of his filmography backed up behind him, he represents a more significant world-cinema force now than he did when his fiction features helped define German cinema during the "art film" era. His reputation has ebbed and flowed - mostly ebbed, in the post-Fitzcarraldo
years when Herzog was unjustly seen as a hazard, a budget-waster and a nut - but I've never been shaken in my belief that he is the most vital, mysterious and righteous moviemaking voice on the globe. Writing about him for Film Comment
years ago, I cried in the wilderness about how I saw Herzog as my filmic psychopomp, my spirit guide in a shrill and banal mediaverse, "Balzac, Hannibal and St. Patrick coiled into one completely original, soft-spoken figure... In obeying the orphic urge to gallivant into Hell not for Love but for Truth, for Mystery, for What Has No Name But Which Can Only Be Filmed, Herzog has exhibited a sense of moral courage that makes the culture's other art-makers seem like timid children."
Today, it seems, everyone's coming around. In the 80s and 90s, Herzog was the most Cassandran of auteurs, with gifts incorrectly judged as madness, and had never quite convinced the world that his totemic visions, his vast ideas of metaphoric image-making, his earthbound-yet-unearthly exploration of how landscape reflects life and vice versa, is how we all should invest our high-tech lives with weight and meaning. Today, Herzog is hesitantly being repositioned in the mainstream as a kind of post-cyber-prophet, answering the upper-middle-class need for secular spiritual guidance that arises every 15 years or so, when Christians get too crazy, global relations get too bloody, or the economy does well enough to compel us to question our materialism. Instead of Jesus-freak hippie-ism, California Zen, the Maharashi, Moonies, crystals, New Age animism, Deepak Chopra, The Da Vinci Code
and What the Bleep?
, the new millennium seems in its desperation to be turning to Herzog, and searching for soul-food in his splendidly cryptic pronouncements, in his voodoo-or-die lifestyle (being Herzog can be an extreme sport, and no filmmaker has accrued as many true-life tall tales), and in the ironic poetry of his films. Both the New Yorker
articles regard him as a renegade purist persisting in his crazy life project, but the latter piece, by Tom Bissell, practically prays at his feet, describing every coincidence and irony (of which there are always truckloads) as if it were evidence of Herzog's extra-human-ness, his special relationship with the cosmos.
That Grizzly Man
, easily Herzog's most pragmatic and logical film, has instigated this surge of attention is no small irony in itself. But whatever: if such a scenario bulldozed forward, Herzog - one of the very few public figures I know who cannot be compromised by money, power or fear (another is Noam Chomsky
) - would likely laugh and disappear into the jungle. The real Herzogians know that the man is inviolate, an anarchist saint. Any day in which I'm able to step into the gaze-path of this extreme, globetrotting seeker-of-otherworldliness - like a matinee-dreamer transfixed in a projector's beam - is a day well-lived.