Vienna’s Metro Kinokulturhaus currently has the distinction of hosting the first truly comprehensive retrospective of the work of Werner Herzog, that steadfast “soldier of cinema”, as he himself so memorably put it.
Mostly renowned in the German-speaking world for his early films with the tempestuous actor Klaus Kinski, their collaboration resulted in mesmerising gems like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the story of an ill-fated Spanish conquistador, and decades later, My Best Fiend, a hugely compelling documentary about their savage and tender working relationship.
In much of the rest of the world however, he is revered for the entirety of his prodigious, visionary output of more than 60 features and documentaries made over the course of a 55-year career.
Though his first films happened to coincide with the beginnings of New German Cinema, it soon became apparent that Herzog was sui generis, having carved a singular path through the world of filmmaking from adolescence onwards, where he famously spent his nights working as a welder in a steel factory while still at school in Bavaria in order to fund his films.
Herzog has long been known for the formidable lengths he goes to in the making of his films. Whether hurling himself into a cactus patch to convince his actors to stay on set (Even Dwarves Started Small), hauling a steamship over a hill deep in the Amazon (Fitzcarraldo), traversing the burning oilfields of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War (Lessons of Darkness), living with scientists at a research station in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), or filming inside active volcanoes (Into the Inferno): these are just a minuscule smattering of his storied filmmaking exploits. But to be dazzled by the spectacle of these efforts is to miss the point: Herzog ventures into (and at times even creates) these extreme situations to sate a ferocious curiosity about the worlds we live in and the people he finds there. And these worlds and peoples can be located most unassumingly in our very midst: in Land of Silence and Darkness, he accompanies and observes members of the deaf-blind community in southern Germany, resulting in a staggeringly affecting rumination on what it means to be human in the face of limitations unimaginable to most.
Always questing after what he terms “ecstatic truth” and armed with a supremely dogged persistence of vision, Herzog is a storyteller who voyages out to the edges of human experience, more often than not returning with profound and moving observations. As the critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “Even his failures are spectacular.” With screenings until the end of February, this is an invaluable opportunity to (re)visit Herzog's monumental body of work.
A version of this article was published in the February 2017 edition of METROPOLE