The documentaries of Werner Herzog ranked
March 26, 2020 7:24 AM   Subscribe

 
1. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
This may be the first time I've read one of these kinds of lists and mostly agreed with it, especially toward the end. I'm tempted to argue the reason it's worth putting up with Herzog is so that this film can exist. It's fantastic.

I'm less sold on Encounters at the End of the World, but I have a personal history with the subject matter that probably spoils it. Documentaries about things you know a fair bit about very rarely wind up looking good.

There are several here I've never heard of. I'm looking forward to them.
posted by eotvos at 7:35 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I absolutely loathe film rankings. I see no value in attempts to compare these works, as they are ultimately meaningless, insignificant, and
self- important expressions. These films are all equal in the end, as they will all be destroyed by fire if they are lucky enough to survive that long.
posted by dsword at 7:50 AM on March 26 [28 favorites]


I absolutely loathe film rankings. I see no value in attempts to compare these works, as they are ultimately meaningless, insignificant, and self- important expressions. These films are all equal in the end, as they will all be destroyed by fire if they are lucky enough to survive that long.

A+ Herzog.

posted by curious nu at 7:59 AM on March 26 [28 favorites]


When he remade Bad Lieutenant, I thought it would be splendid if he just kept going with that concept and made more new versions of films. Werner Herzog's The Godfather. Werner Herzog's The Towering Inferno. Werner Herzog's On Golden Pond. They could all star Nicholas Cage, too, why not?
posted by thelonius at 8:22 AM on March 26 [19 favorites]


A wild number 1 pic. I generally agree with the audience of the Berlin Film Festival that "reacted furiously to the film, rising to castigate Herzog, with accusations that he had aestheticised the horror of the war " according to wikipedia. Then again, I think about that doc more than any of his others, so there's that . . .
posted by Think_Long at 8:51 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I'm less sold on Encounters at the End of the World, but I have a personal history with the subject matter that probably spoils it

Uhhhhh . . . . you can't just like drop this bit of info and not provide details . . .
posted by soundguy99 at 9:08 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


The power of art is that it can sometimes put your mind into two distinct and contradictory states at the same time. Lessons of Darkness does that. I remember sitting in a theater struck by the horror of that war and seeing one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. As I left the theater I was really angry at Herzog for doing that to me. And as I asked him for an autograph ( he was there) I told him how I felt but I thanked him for it. He smiled. I have the film on DVD but I’ve never watched it since that first and only time back in the 90’s. The experience still haunts me and in a way I want to keep that feeling. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Herzog but he made one film that got into my head and twisted it up giving me another way of seeing the world.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:12 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


Okay, I have been bench-pressing in preparation of this argument for YEARS. Normally I hate lists and arguing on the internet about ranking things that are taste-based (I always run the other way whenever someone posts a "_____________, ranked" or "Best __________ of 20__, ranked" FPP, but I cannot help myself when it comes to Werner. Seen all the movies, bought all the books, even bought the coffee mug. He's my ride or die so I'll admit my next comments are not unbiased.

First off? "La Soufriere" is not his weakest documentary. How dare they. Herzog himself calls it his "greatest failure" because, obviously, the volcano (thankfully) never erupts, but whether or not the volcano erupts is not the point. The film is a mood piece, maybe not unlike "Fata Morgana." It's seeing an island completely evacuated. Devoid of people. Television sets still blaring inside of abandoned homes while donkeys rule the streets. And the handful of people who made a conscious choice to stay behind and accept the fate of a volcano expected to erupt, either because of poverty or existential acceptance or both. It is a brilliant film and Herzog knows that the footage was worthy of showing which is why he still released it. It has always been among my favorite Herzog films and I often show it to folks first when I want to introduce them to Herzog. Is it a bite size insight into Herzog's entire psyche and modus operandi.

That being said, I'm fine with "Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World" being ranked so low. I gleefully took in uber-sad, pensive-faced Elon Musk staring into the distance, but the fact it's what I most remember about the film tells you something. Because Elon Musk should never be the takeaway when it comes to anything.

"The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner" should also be ranked higher, but I think that's just me having fallen in love with the Florian Fricke score over repeated images of ski-flying. I'm really confused why "From One Second To The Next" is ranked ahead of "The Great Ecstasy..."/"La Soufriere" but apparently the author of this list thinks that's OK because it's evokes "mental images of Herzog and some AT&T marketing executives workshopping ideas together." lol

I do think it's fun that "Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices" is ranked #17. I always love when classical music fans who know the composer, but don't know Herzog, see it and lose their minds. Gesualdo really is Herzog at peak 'ecstatic truth'-telling. You have to suspend your disbelief and buy into Herzog's world in order for it to work. But it works very well.

Agree with others questioning the placement of "Encounters at the End of the World" at #3. I would not put it in my top 10.

"Land of Silence and Darkness" is his most moving documentary. I would rank it #1. The end.

Don't @ me
posted by nightrecordings at 9:27 AM on March 26 [9 favorites]


I love Herzog. These lists are really just clickbait gimmicks to get people talking about the films, which I guess is OK in the bigger scene of things. And yeah, "Encounters" was not one of his best, but was still worthwhile. A couple times I've listened to the Cave of Forgotten Dreams soundtrack on headphones while observing people on the subway. It's like a DIY Herzog doc on the go.
posted by SoberHighland at 9:38 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Uhhhhh . . . . you can't just like drop this bit of info and not provide details . . .
I'm not sure it's actually all that interesting. I spent a year and a few summers at the south pole, a cumulative week or two at McMurdo, and am friends with quite a few McMurdo folks including distant friendships with a couple people in the film. Nothing in the film was untrue, as far as I could tell. But, it definitely went out of its way to make the people seem wacky in a way that made me a little uncomfortable. People on the continent are really weird and do things in public that only otherwise happen in hipster theaters in San Francisco and Brooklyn, but they're also self-aware in a way that didn't seem to come through in the film. It's the difference between, "look at these weirdos," and "look at us weirdos." I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given the director, but it definitely felt like a film made by someone who'd never hung out at the bar with actual residents. But, like I said, I'm a poor judge. My friends all love it. The penguin thing was cute.

(If you're looking for more such stuff, I recommend trying to find copies of previous annual antarctic international film festival material. Most of the films are bad. But, the bad ones are often fun. And a few of them are great.)
posted by eotvos at 9:39 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Madness reigns! ... recently but not previously.

I've always been a big fan of My Best Fiend... such a strange (and unapologetically one-sided) portrait of true love between two insane people.

I hated the one about the cave, what's it called... but that's just because I've been trained to expect a point, or a happy ending, or a satisfying resolution... And like the volcano one, it was just the equivalent of a scientist publishing a negative result. Which should after all be encouraged.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 9:41 AM on March 26


Happy People is one of my favorite films ever, surprised that it's only #19 on this list. Maybe it's not Herzogy enough.
posted by k8bot at 9:50 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I hated the one about the cave, what's it called... but that's just because I've been trained to expect a point, or a happy ending, or a satisfying resolution...

One thing I often wish for is a 3D re-release of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

I saw it during its original 3D theatrical release and had the best cinematic experience of my life. When we first got to the theatre my friend and I sat in the very back row behind an elderly couple. As soon as the film began, the elderly gentleman seated in front of us began speaking at a pretty loud volume about the movie: "OH. ISN'T IT BEAUTIFULLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL." I'm glad he was enjoying it but figured with the theatre being as an empty as it was (a damn shame), maybe we should give him space to talk and we could move to different seats.

So we moved to the very front row. Sitting in the front row of a movie theatre is typically a no-no unless you're looking to sprain your neck. But when you're watching a 3D movie about caves and cave paintings? It was a gift. Sitting so close to the screen, wearing our 3D glasses, made it feel like we were inside of those caves. One of my fondest memories. It almost feels like a crime that there isn't a way to see that movie in 3D more easily.

If you saw the 3D version of the movie in theatres, and still didn't enjoy it, I totally understand. If not, I do think it's worth reconsidering the film if you ever get the chance to see it in 3D on a big screen.
posted by nightrecordings at 11:08 AM on March 26 [8 favorites]


When he remade Bad Lieutenant, I thought it would be splendid if he just kept going with that concept and made more new versions of films.

From a 2009 article in The Georgia Straight:
Werner Herzog wants to make something clear, and if you don’t pay attention, the German director is going to get cranky. Despite the title, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage, is not a remake of, sequel to, or second cousin twice removed of Abel Ferrara’s movie Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel.

“It has nothing to do with his film,” Herzog growled to a small table of reporters in a hotel lounge just before his movie’s North American premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (It opens Friday [November 20] in Vancouver.) “Put this to rest! You are the media. I can talk to the waves of the ocean for the next five decades and nobody will listen. You are the ones who have to set it right. I’ve never seen the [Ferrara] film. You know now the films have nothing to do with each other.“
posted by nightrecordings at 11:19 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


there is a current NYT interview with him that is just. so much.

Herzog: In a way, “The Simpsons” is a bold intellectual design.

Interviewer: In what way?

Herzog: Let’s not analyze it.

posted by poffin boffin at 12:50 PM on March 26 [11 favorites]


Happy People is one of my favorite films ever, surprised that it's only #19 on this list. Maybe it's not Herzogy enough.

After seeing the original uncut films I found the Herzog treatment to be unsatisfactory mostly in the form of various elisions in detail to the story being told. I think however the contrast might be useful if you are interested in seeing a very pure application of Herzog's editorial eye. There's some of that in Grizzly Man but in the case of Happy People, Herzog added no original film to the story.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 12:51 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Almost all of these are streamable for free on YouTube, a few for free with ads on Tubi, a few streamable on Hulu/Netflix/AmazonPrime, a few not streamable for free.
(Some in YouTube you may have to turn on the CC to get subtitles, and some subtitles you have have use the settings to get them translated into English)

La Soufrière https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVVAGmlgDxI

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World https://www.hulu.com/movie/lo-and-behold-reveries-of-the-connected-world-162bc918-4704-464a-9dc8-aed07eaba216?entity_id=162bc918-4704-464a-9dc8-aed07eaba216

Handicapped Future https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_qQM_gl-7Q (turn on CC and use settings to translate to English)

The Flying Doctors of East Africa

Christ and Demons in New Spain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK0UU2lBc34

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkcsz9QujmU

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_SxmZWuwdk

Ode to the Dawn of Man https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjeI32TOSvA

Huie’s Sermon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDoTEKKHgHE

Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HedfBEukl4c

God’s Angry Man https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mquN3ejAp1A

Wheel of Time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJZAb830qEc

Pilgrimage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QOuhNBawdk

From One Second to the Next https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fev32zxoh00

The Dark Glow of the Mountains https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujh7BcgjmNg

The White Diamond https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz9jsk-wAD8

Ten Thousand Years Older https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PqFuFDXdTs

Jag Mandir https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNm0svFM_U4

La Bohème https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ziyfz-IYew

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga https://tubitv.com/movies/410752/taiga?utm_source=google-feed&tracking=google-feed

The Transformation of the World into Music

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z4j1xzYTFU

Wings of Hope https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlJVIcCPIl8

Portrait: Werner Herzog https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSbwAug4TwM

Meeting Gorbachev https://www.hulu.com/watch/d0224007-f613-443e-8c92-9d0b16f76240

Ballad of the Little Soldier https://tubitv.com/movies/269873

Echoes from a Sombre Empire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcAR0O_08rI&list=PLq5pen2qY4iURDu_UNhVqk-XreAgGsyD5 (broken into multiple short videos - low quality)

Into the Abyss https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCmlE17iUT0

Into the Inferno https://www.netflix.com/title/80066073

Herdsmen of the Sun https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnO1QDqpaQ

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

My Best Fiend https://tubitv.com/movies/268902

Grizzly Man https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07ZT3KL5S?camp=1789&creativeASIN=B07ZT3KL5S&ie=UTF8&linkCode=xm2&tag=justwatch09-20

Fata Morgana https://tubitv.com/movies/268893/fata_morgana?utm_source=google-feed&tracking=google-feed

Land of Silence and Darkness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U68tMGEqL5o

Encounters at the End of the World

Lessons of Darkness
posted by ShooBoo at 1:54 PM on March 26 [23 favorites]


Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a tough one because it really does require the 3D big screen experience. But under that certain circumstance it was indeed among the most transcendent film experiences I've had. If you could on-demand watch it as it was intended to be seen, in 3D glasses on the big screen, I think it could easily be ranked #1 on this list. I will take my memories of watching it to my grave. But I couldn't really recommend anyone watch it at home on their TV, as I don't think it would translate.
posted by potrzebie at 3:35 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


Cave of Forgotten Dreams has moments of side-splitting deadpan comedy. The scene where the anthropologist demonstrates a spear-thrower had me in stitches. If you think Herzog could resist the temptation to thrust a 3D spear into your face, you'd be very very wrong.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:40 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I saw Herzog at the SF Film Festival many years ago where he premiered The White Diamond and Wild Blue Yonder. Perhaps I am misremembering but I seem to recall him saying that he felt the line between documentary and fiction was arbitrary/elastic or words to that effect. Anyone recall such a declaration from him on this subject?

[I also came away with the distinct impression that everything had been more or less a performance and that it would be a mistake to assume there was any specific in-real-life relationship between constructed "Werner Herzog" (to whom I had bought tickets to see) and Werner Herzog (the fellow up on stage giving the performance).]
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 6:15 PM on March 26


But where would you rank the documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:47 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Werner Herzog is the one person I most want to see interviewed on Hot Ones.
posted by jklaiho at 12:08 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


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