One of Werner Herzog's earliest childhood memories is of Rosenheim burning. The Upper Bavarian town in southern Germany was bombed to flames by Allied forces towards the end of the World War II. Herzog vividly describes how the entire night sky was ablaze with hues of orange and yellow in his recently published memoirs (the English version of the autobiography, "Every Man for Himself and God Against All," will come out in 2023).
"I knew from that moment on, that outside, outside our world, outside our narrow valley, there was another world that was dangerous, that was haunting," writes Herzog, who turns 80 on September 5.
He concludes the tale of his childhood realization by adding: "Not that I feared this world, it made me curious." That curiosity about chaos, nature, and danger has accompanied Werner Herzog throughout his life.
A director of superlatives
French director François Truffaut once praised his colleague as the "greatest living filmmaker." Superlatives are often used to describe Herzog: No wonder, he has made over 70 films, received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and some of the most important film awards worldwide. Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.
In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Herzog has written books and literary translations, has directed operas, works as a dubbing artist, actor, producer and has been running his own, unconventional kind of film school with the "Rogue Film School" since 2009.
He established his worldwide fame with feature films like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "Woyzeck," (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), as well as the documentary film "My Best Fiend" (1999), about his collaboration with German actor Klaus Kinski, who died in 1991. Other documentaries such as "Grizzly Man" (2005) or "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007) also caused a sensation, especially in the US.
From the mountains to Hollywood
Over the past 20 years, Herzog has influenced countless filmmakers and has become a pop culture icon in his adopted country, the US.
He has been on every major talk show, from David Letterman to Conan O'Brien to Stephen Colbert. He has been quoted over and over again and even become an internet meme — he seems downright timelessly hip.
Nevertheless, the director does not want US citizenship, despite all the adoration he receives. He could not become a citizen of a country in which the death penalty exists, he said in a podcast with talk show host Sandra Maischberger.
While Werner Herzog's enormous influence on the film world has been described and discussed in numerous publications, he has never read any of them, and works about him have never interested him, he says in the interview volume "A Guide For The Perplexed" by E. F. Schumacher. For him, it's always about his next film.
It is all the more interesting to finally read in Herzog's own words how, as a young boy, he arrived hungry and poor at a remote mountain farm in Bavaria as a war refugee with his single mother and older brother. This is where he grew up. In his autobiography, Herzog tells the captivating story of how this young boy eventually became such a colorful character.
Portraying the fullness of life
His prose is infused with poetry and full of lyrical passages, just as his documentaries contain an enormous amount of fictional, staged material, and his feature films in turn have much in common with documentaries.
Herzog often referred to one of his greatest global successes, the feature film "Fitzcarraldo," as "my best documentary film" in interviews.
The filmmaker's images are clear and direct and radiate a simplicity, but behind them there is always meticulous preparation, a world of knowledge and detail.
Werner Herzog goes all out when it comes to his choice of cinematic weapons. He doesn't make German films either, but Bavarian ones: "more full of life than what is made in other parts of Germany," Herzog said in an interview. Herzog can draw almost endlessly from the fullness of life.
In his own life, he has worked night shifts as a welder in a metal factory, worked as a fisherman in Greece, and ridden bulls as a rodeo clown in Mexico. He has smuggled and forged documents for his films, picked locks, and repeatedly broken into homes and trespassed.
A soldier of cinema
"Where did fate take you, me? How has it always given life new twists and turns?" asks Herzog in his memoirs. "Much, I see, is constant, though — a vision that never left me, and like a good soldier, a sense of duty, loyalty and courage. I always wanted to hold outposts that everyone else had abandoned with haste." He is drawn to the edges of the world and society. Where others no longer dare to go, Werner Herzog's path begins.
Throughout his life, Herzog has seen himself as a "soldier of cinema" who goes into battle with everything he has. He says of himself that for a film he would even descend into the depths of hell to wrest it from the devil. And you believe him, because Werner Herzog is fearless. Sniveling and whining are deeply abhorrent to him. Courage, on the other hand, attracts him, as does the beauty of the senseless.
The steamer that Fitzcarraldo pulls over the mountain in the jungle in the film of the same name is an important metaphor — he just doesn't know what for, Herzog once said.
"You don't move mountains with money, but with faith," Herzog said. For him, film was also always a redefinition of truth.
In the 1960s, it was the "cinéma vérité" style of documentary filmmaking that attempted to depict truth with the greatest possible authenticity. According to Herzog, however, facts in a film never create knowledge, only norms. For Herzog, cinéma vérité was always the "truth of accountants." His answer to this was "ecstatic truth," which he measured with staging and documentary methods. Genre restrictions did not interest him.
In his biography, Werner Herzog describes another, almost magical moment that he experienced as a young man in a fishing boat off the Greek coast: "Above me was the dome of the universe, stars as if within reach, everything rocking me gently in a cradle of infinity. And below me, brightly illuminated by the carbide lamp, was the depth of the ocean, as if the dome of the firmament sat down with it to form a sphere. Instead of stars, there were flashing silver little fishes everywhere. Embedded in a universe without equal, above, below, everywhere, in which it took the breath away from all sounds, I found myself suddenly in an incomprehensible wonder. I was sure that I knew everything here and now. My destiny was evident to me."
It is his deep admiration of nature and love of man, his unconditional humanism, that gives Werner Herzog's work its radiance and makes his films popular worldwide. He still considers picking locks and forging filming permits to be the most important things that aspiring directors should learn. The rest of the tools needed for filmmaking can be learned in two weeks, he says.
The memoirs are available in German, under the title "Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle: Erinnerungen," Hanser Verlag.
The Deutsche Kinemathek is also paying tribute to Werner Herzog in a special exhibition that runs until March 27, 2023.
This article was originally written in German.