10 Movies That Prove Werner Herzog’s Crazy Genius

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Madman, maverick, adventurer, auteur: There’s no one in cinema quite like Werner Herzog. While Grizzly Man finds the German filmmaker doing what he does best—shining a light on the extremes of human obsessio—that’s just one of Herzog’s many explorations into the darker side of human nature. In fact, here are 10 movies that illustrate why Herzog is a moviemaking genius.

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
The first of Herzog’s five collaborations with Klaus Kinski is the perfect vehicle for the eccentric, brutish actor. Here, Kinski plays a Spanish conquistador who leads a group deep into the South American jungle in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. Opening with a stunning shot filmed in Peru’s legendary Machu Pichu, Aguirre is an exquisite study in madness. It also highlights Herzog’s passion for filming in some of the world’s most extreme locations.

2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
There’s mad, and then there’s crazy, and then there’s Herzog’s loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 thriller, which moves the action from New York to the deep South. Nicolas Cage is brilliantly demented as a drug-addled cop, although the movie is almost stolen from him by couple of iguanas and alligators. Note: You don’t need to take drugs to watch the film, but it might help.

3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
For this documentary, Herzog was given unprecedented access to the Chauvet Cave in the south of France, where primitive paintings that date back more than 30,000 years were recently discovered. The movie is shot in 3-D, allowing viewers to experience the paintings just as the director sees them. But it’s an aberration—an albino alligator, which highlights the chaos and random cruelty of nature—that fascinates Herzog most.

4. Encounters at the End of the World
In one of Herzog’s most beautiful documentaries, he travels to Antarctica to witness the work of scientists who carry out their studies both on and beneath the frozen plate. Yet again, Herzog is drawn to an unlikely character, this time in the form of a suicidal penguin that refuses to follow its pack, instead heading inland where it will surely die.

5. Even Dwarfs Started Small
Herzog’s dramedy tells the story of a rebellion led by a group of dwarfs who are confined to an institution on a remote island. The community soon descends into utter chaos, with food fights, cockfights and, most bizarre of all, the crucifixion of a monkey. It suggests that civilization is a veneer, masking the fact that we permanently live on the cusp of barbarism.

6. Fitzcarraldo
Herzog’s epic Peruvian adventure is about a mad rubber baron (Klaus Kinski) transporting a steamship over a mountain. But it’s the behind-the-scenes stories from this movie that have become the stuff of legend. A local tribe was so disturbed by Kinski’s egotistical behavior that they actually approached Herzog with an offer to kill his leading man. Meanwhile, a crew member was bitten by a deadly snake and hacked his own foot off—infuriating Kinski because he was no longer center of attention.

7. Grizzly Man
Herzog’s documentary is the perfect combination of filmmaker and subject. Environmentalist Timothy Treadwell saw grizzly bears as an example of nature’s beauty and wonder; his optimism serves as a stark contrast to Herzog’s own view of the natural world as harsh and cold. In the end, Herzog shows he’s clearly fascinated by a man who sacrificed his—and his partner’s—life because he believed in his spiritual connection with these huge, wild creatures.

8. La Soufrière
A volcano is about to explode on the island of Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe. All inhabitants are evacuated—save for a few, including a man who awaits death on the side of the simmering mountain. Herzog’s adventurous spirit compels him to travel to the island with a small crew, facing imminent death in order to interview the imperiled man. In the end, the volcano didn’t explode, and Herzog produced a strange, compelling and otherworldly documentary.

9. Lessons of Darkness
In one of his most sobering and moving documentaries, Herzog takes his camera to Kuwait shortly after Iraqi forces retreated during the Gulf War in 1991, recording the devastation unleashed on a people and their land. The aerial shots of hundreds of oil wells on fire in the desert look like images from another planet.

10. Rescue Dawn
A fictional remake of his own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn tells the story of a German pilot (Christian Bale) who joins the United States Air Force in order to fly planes in the Vietnam conflict. After being shot down, imprisoned and tortured, he escapes and travels hundreds of miles to reach freedom. Bale, as he’s been known to do, lost weight to play the pilot; his dedication to a role makes him the most perfect of Herzogian actors.