Werner Herzog

Aguirre, the Wrath of God  (1972)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

  • Born: 1943
  • Rank: 97
  • Score: 480.90
  • Feature Films: 13 (not including documentaries)
  • Best Film: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
  • Worst Film: Even Dwarfs Started Small

Top 5 Films:

  1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God – 1972
  2. The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser – 1975
  3. Fitzcarraldo – 1982
  4. Nosferatu – 1979
  5. Woyzeck – 1979

Top 10 Best Director finishes (my list):

  • 1975 – 8th – The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
  • 1977 – 2nd – Aguirre, the Wrath of God
  • 1979 – 7th – Nosferatu
  • 1982 – 5th – Fitzcarraldo

The lack of awards and nominations listed for Herzog are not representative of his ability, as his films have often been nominated for Foreign Film or Documentary, just not Best Director (although amazingly enough he has never been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars – twice having a film rejected). There is no one else on the list who has been such a masterful and consistent director of documentaries. I still haven’t seen many of them, but those I have seen are on a level with his feature films.

Herzog already appeared on a previous list of the best director / actor combos. It is not a coincidence that 4 of the top 5 films he made starred Klaus Kinski (their other collaboration I rank 6th). Herzog even made a fantastic documentary about their working relationship (My Best Fiend), the cover of the DVD displaying a picture of Kinski trying to choke Herzog. (note:  a special thank you to Andrew Collins who first loaned me the Herzog / Kinski box set and got me started on Herzog)

It was Hitchcock who said that actors should be treated like cattle, but it’s Herzog who continually finds new ways to torture all of those around him. There is no director in film whom I think might be closer to madness at times, something in evidence in his films, in his documentaries, and in Burden of Dreams, the brilliant documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo.

It’s a shame that Kinski is dead. The two of them were an unstoppable force on film, each pushing the other far beyond any point of reasonable behavior. Perhaps that’s why Herzog has focused more on documentaries, only having made two features films since Kinski died, one of which was a remake of one of his docs.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God – #4 film of 1977

Aguirre was originally released in West Germany in late 1972, but was not put forth for their submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. It got its U.S. release in April of 1977, making it eligible for the other Oscar categories, but didn’t receive any nominations.

Aguirre is a film unlike any other. In some ways the closest film is The African Queen, another film made on location, with tension between the director and stars, which became as famous for what happened during the making of the film. But the problem there was that for John Huston making the film was secondary to his other reasons for being in Africa, whereas for Herzog, he was willing to shoot his star if he walked away from the film. Because both Herzog and Kinski at various points claimed to actually have the gun in this situation, it’s unclear exactly what happened, but Herzog, as mad as he is, is definitely the more reliable source. Klaus Kinski made close to 200 films but never worked with a director more than once except for Herzog.

This was the first of their films together and clearly the best, for a variety of reasons. The first is that it Herzog’s most clearly realized vision, both what he hoped to accomplish within the film, and how well he did accomplish it. The second is Kinski’s performance, most assuredly the best thing he ever put on film, a character of pure evil insanity, yet fully contained within the performance and without any of the hamming it up that defined Kinski when he attempted to work with other directors.

Film history is wrought with classic images, ones that stay in the brain long after the film has concluded, but aside from the shot of Rosebud going up in flames, is there any more sad final shot as the mad Aguirre, his daughter dead, floating downstream on the raft with the monkeys, lost in his madness?