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Ranked: Werner Herzog's Documentaries from Worst to Best
As the man behind Grizzly Man returns with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we assess his complete non-fiction filmography.
By Jay Cheel
The new film by legendary director Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, comes out this Friday. In tribute, we asked Jay Cheel, the Herzog-obsessed founder of The Documentary Blog, to rank Herzog's twelve feature documentaries. Be sure to also check out Jay's own new film, Beauty Day, a fascinating documentary look at a very Herzogian subject. Here are his picks for Herzog's documentaries, from worst to best:
12. Wheel of Time (2003)
Wheel of Time, about Tibetan Buddhism, contains some great moments; Herzog interviewing the Dalai Lama stands out as one of them. The dedicated lifestyle of the Tibetan monks is definitely in line with some of Herzog's archetypical characterizations and their pilgrimage is an impressive feat of endurance. The film lands lowest on this list simply because Herzog approaches the subject matter with such a sense of respect that it almost seems to hamstring his usual incisiveness.
11. Echoes From a Somber Empire (1990)
Like his later Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog's 1990 film, Echoes From a Somber Empire focuses on a man who was captured and tortured, revisiting the locations of his ordeal in front of the cameras. In this case, it's French journalist Michael Goldsmith, who found himself mistaken for a South African spy by Central African Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Goldsmith's is an interesting tale, but unfortunately, Herzog was unable to interview Bokassa for the film, so Bokassa's represented by stock footage alone. The film is quite dense, made up mostly of Michael Goldsmith walking around Central Africa talking to Bokassa's many children, wives, and lawyers. That said, it does feature some unique Herzogian visuals, including the migration of thousands of red crabs and a cigarette-smoking chimpanzee.
10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Many were taken by surprise by Werner Herzog's decision to film his newest documentary in 3D, since the technique's typically reserved for animated kids' films or big-budget superhero pictures. Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes viewers inside the Chauvet Cave in France, a perfectly preserved cavern that features what archaeologists believe to be some of the world's oldest cave paintings. Herzog and his crew loaded up their gear and scanned the walls with their high-tech cameras for a full three-dimensional experience. While some of the images recreate an impressively deep 3D effect, the hand-held imagery is a bit unstable. Still, it's an experience that should definitely be sought out in theatres.
9. My Best Fiend (1999)
While Herzog has always seemed aware of — and interested in perpetuating — his own self-mythology, My Best Fiend was his first project in which he embraced it full force. The film chronicles his rocky relationship with German actor Klaus Kinski, who appeared in five of Herzog's features. The film was shot after Kinski's death and finds Herzog reminiscing about their unusual relationship, recalling the many times they clashed on set. (One occasion found Herzog conspiring with Peruvian natives to have Kinski killed; on another, he held Kinski at gunpoint to keep him from leaving a production.) It's an entertaining and insightful look at the actor/director relationship, but Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, a documentary on the making of the Herzog/Kinski film Fitzcarraldo — is a superior look at their working relationship, rendering My Best Fiend less essential.
8. The White Diamond (2004)
In The White Diamond, it feels as though Herzog isn't simply documenting his subject but living vicariously through him. Aeronautical engineer Graham Dorrington designs a small teardrop-shaped airship which he intends to use as a tool to research the forest canopies of Guyana. The machine had crashed once previously, killing cinematographer Dieter Plage. In the film, Herzog insists on riding in the ship alongside its inventor, saying, "I cannot ask a cinematographer to man this airship together with you unless I've been on it myself." It's a characteristic moment, evoking both the making of Fitzcarraldo and the adventurous spirit of its main character.
7. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Encounters at the End of the World finds Herzog in Antarctica without much of an agenda beyond seeing what the place is like. It's probably the closest he's come to a flat-out nature film, yet he still manages to subvert the sub-genre and turn what could've been an otherwise standard Discovery Channel program into an unusual and powerful cinematic experience. The film features some truly stunning imagery and some sincerely hilarious moments. One highlight sees Herzog talking with a scientist about gay penguins — something you can't see in March of the Penguins.