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.

Commentarium (13 Comments)

Apr 27 11 - 2:27am

Actually, this list leaves out one of Herzog's best documentaries -- an older film called "The Great Passion of the Woodcarver Steiner" (there are variations on the title). It's definitely better than "Little Dieter" and equal to Fata Morgana, IMO. In the 70's it was as well known as some of the other Herzog films; more recently it's been overlooked.

Apr 27 11 - 2:36am
Jay Cheel

@nurtzkid: Yes, that's definitely a great film. The request was that this list stick to Herzog's feature length docs (even still, he has a number of 60 minute films that aren't included) and fans of his work will be aware that there are way more than 12 documentaries in his filmography. A few of my favourite short docs of his: La Soufrier, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, God's Angry Man, Wings of Hope.

Apr 27 11 - 2:57am

I've only seen Grizzly Man of his films, and I didn't like it very much. That's probably because I found Treadwell's voice really annoying. Some of these sound like really cool ideas. I'll have to check them out.

Apr 27 11 - 4:21pm

Same here. Thanks for the post, Nerve - just watched Encounters at the End of the World, and it was so good I'm planning on buying it.

Apr 27 11 - 3:53pm

Is Wild Blue Yonder short enough to not qualify as a feature? Certainly that is low down the list, but it's interesting to watch Herzog play with the form again, repurposing old NASA footage with a wacky Brad Dourif monologing for the camera.

Apr 27 11 - 4:05pm

We classified that one as fiction, not documentary, although obviously Herzog's filmography makes those distinctions very blurry. Had to draw the line somewhere!

Apr 27 11 - 4:36pm

Grizzly Man gets a lot of attention (not just here), but I feel that Encounters is superior strictly because of its underwater sequence. It's essential.

Apr 27 11 - 5:07pm

I think Little Dieter is the clear winner. By far my favorite.

Apr 27 11 - 6:44pm

this is great. another wonderful Herzog film is Death for Five Voices...it's really amazing.

Apr 28 11 - 3:44pm

Encounters bored me to tears. Call me uncultured and unsophisticated, but I won't pretend to love Encounters like 90% of the folks who profess to love it.

Apr 28 11 - 3:58pm
Jonathan Lyons

What? No mention of "Incident at Loch Ness"?! Surely that mockumentary lands among the worst.

Apr 30 11 - 6:24pm

This has to be the worst of them all http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzD56Xm2Qc8

Mar 21 12 - 5:28pm

The Grizzly Bear sucks