Werner Herzog and the look into the abyss: his best films, from Aguirre to Nosferatu

Civilization is like a thin sheet of ice above a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.

A portrait of Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss, the title of one of his most popular documentaries, is also an expression that effectively summarizes the core of the cinema of Werner Herzog: the exploration of darkness, of the abyss, of the mysterious territory that is sidereal distances from the surface. And whether it is the wildest nature or the hidden ravines of the human soul, the German director has led us over and over again on these extreme and dangerous journeys: in some cases by appealing to fiction, in others by using the tools of the documentary. and often mixing the two languages, in a constant game of reverberations between invention and reality. What better way, after all, to represent the chaos that seems to dominate the entire universe? Especially where the universe itself, in Herzog’s vision, becomes the reflection of the human condition and our inner conflicts.

Herzog Kinski

Aguirre, fury of God: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on the set

Born on 5 September 1942 in Munich, but raised in the small village of Sachrang, in the Bavarian Alps, Werner Herzog spent his childhood and youth in direct contact with the local nature. The poverty of the social context and the absence of services such as running water or telephone lines make him experience a reality far from that of the economic boom, and closer if anything to the rural lifestyle of the previous century: an imprinting that , in some way, it will affect his future career as a director, which he began in the 1960s. His first feature film, Signs of Life, participates in the 1968 Berlin Film Festival (where he receives a special prize) and already highlights one of the key themes of Herzog’s filmography: the explosion of a madness that gives shape to the most violent impulses of the human being.

Nosferatu Herzog

Nosferatu, prince of the night: Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski

Extraordinarily prolific author, in over half a century Werner Herzog has signed about twenty works of fiction for cinema and more than thirty documentaries for the big and small screen, in addition to numerous short films and theatrical direction and even several appearances as actor (the most recent in the sci-fi series The Mandalorian). An activity with an indefatigable pace that first of all testifies to his bulimic curiosity towards the world, nature, human beings and, obviously, cinema itself. Difficult to select only a few titles within one corpus so wide and varied, but to pay homage to Werner Herzog’s eighty years we have decided to report, in chronological order, those that are considered the best movies of his multifaceted artistic career.

1. Aguirre, fury of God


Aguirre, fury of God: an image by Klaus Kinski

Considered by critics to be Herzog’s masterpiece, as well as his most representative film, Aguirre, fury of God, from 1972, is presented as a distressing fresco of man’s arrogance towards nature and his obsession with domination, destined to inexorably lead to illusion and madness. To embody this fatal sense of hybris is the title character, the conquistador Lope de Aguirre, who in the mid-sixteenth century, together with about forty men, sets out on a dangerous expedition along the Amazon River, with the aim of locating the legendary city of El Dorado . In front of Herzog’s camera, the advance in the Amazon jungle turns into a devastating odyssey that will see the ferocity of Aguirre and his blind determination emerge more and more; and to play the Spanish commander is a memorable Klaus Kinski, who from then on will be the director’s fetish actor.

2. Kaspar Hauser’s enigma


Kaspar Hauser’s enigma: an image by Bruno S.

Another film inspired by a true story, Kaspar Hauser’s enigma he arrived in German cinemas in 1974 and the following year he won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, consecrating Werner Herzog among the great talents of the New German Cinema. The eponymous character, who lived in Bavaria in the first half of the nineteenth century, is a boy who suddenly appears in the square of Nuremberg, knows how to pronounce a single sentence and has absolutely no experience of civilization, but on the other hand is able to write his name: Kaspar Hauser. Impersonated by Bruno S., a street musician who had never acted before, Kaspar is portrayed by Herzog as an individual ‘alien’ to the human community and forced for the first time, in adulthood, to confront various fields education and with the rules of a community unable to fully understand and accept it.

3. Nosferatu, prince of the night


Nosferatu, prince of the night: an image by Klaus Kinski

Presented at the Berlin Film Festival 1979 and proved to be his greatest success with the public, Nosferatu, prince of the night constitutes Werner Herzog’s personal homage to the legendary Nosferatu the vampire directed in 1922 by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, based in turn on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is Klaus Kinski who gives body, look and, in this case, also voice to Count Dracula, the undead who arrives in northern Germany from the Carpathians after having imprisoned the real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) and who will target the his young wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). If the vampire of Kinski and Herzog, devoid of any trace of maudit charm, appears to us as a monstrous zombie creature, the story of Nosferatu, prince of the night is proposed as an allegorical tale of a collapsing society, about to be consumed by death drives – the rampant plague in the coastal city of Wismar – which will prevail over rationality and law.

Nosferatu the Vampire: a century-long symphony of horror

4. Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo Film

Fitzcarraldo: an image by Klaus Kinski

Another, close tug of war between man and nature, marked by an authentic delirium of omnipotence: it is the feat accomplished by the Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who at the dawn of the twentieth century decided to bend the Amazon jungle to the needs of his own concept of civilization, but in parallel it is also the enterprise of Werner Herzog himself, who to fulfill the dream of his Fitzcarraldo embarks on a troubled and exhausting process, marked by serious accidents on the set, by the illness of Jason Robards Jr, chosen as the protagonist but forced to abandon filming, and by the growing tensions between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, hired during the work for replace Robards. Finally completed in 1982 and rewarded with the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival, Fitzcarraldo remains probably Herzog’s most ambitious film, as well as the most emblematic in expressing the titanism that unites the German director with his most famous characters.

5. Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man: A picture from the movie

From fictional cinema we then move on to that of the real, which has dozens and dozens of titles dedicated to the most disparate topics: from the first ‘diaries’ on Africa to the civil war in Nicaragua (The ballad of the little soldier), from the Gulf War ( Apocalypse in the Desert) to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), from cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to the death penalty in the United States (Into the Abyss). But it is in 2005, with Grizzly Man, that Werner Herzog directs one of his most acclaimed documentaries: a live chronicle of the story of Timothy Treadwell, an explorer who spent the last years of his life in Katmai National Park, Alaska, in the territory inhabited by grizzly bears. Reworked through Herzog’s eyes, Treadwell’s story thus takes on the contours of a new parable about man’s inexhaustible desire: that of total interpenetration with a ‘stepmother’ nature, and therefore impossible to control and subdue.

The 12 best films on the man-nature challenge

Werner Herzog and the look into the abyss: his best films, from Aguirre to Nosferatu