Werner Herzog

By Stuart Kemp

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When Werner Herzog was shot during a BBC interview on camera in 2006 he declared in his familiar-to-millions German accented English that “it was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid,” despite bleeding from the wound.

Herzog’s reaction to being fired upon encapsulates his phlegmatic, adventurous and drole approach to life, attributes that permeate his stellar filmmaking career.

Born Werner H. Stipetic in 1942 in Germany, Herzog quite literally left his upbringing behind him, walking out of the remote mountain village in Bavaria where he had spent his childhood, in search of adventure, art and cinema. His early wanderlust and lifelong curiosity plays more than a walk on part in Herzog’s screen work, which is celebrated by the European Film Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award this year.

A scholar of history, literature and music, Herzog turned away from academia to travel extensively across Mexico, the UK, Greece, and Sudan. He shot his first short film in 1961 at the age of 19 and in 1967 Herzog’s feature debut SIGNS OF LIFE hit cinemas.

He began building his reputation as a writer-producer-director who worked with small budgeted projects set against distinct and unfamiliar landscapes, all laced with a dose of mysticism.

He has produced, written and directed more than sixty feature and documentary films including EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1970), AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972) and NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, an homage to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same name (1978).

Herzog’s love-hate relationship with the brilliant but emotionally unstable actor Klaus Kinski (“Every grey hair on my head I call Kinski,” Herzog once said) resulted in some of the best from both, including AGUIRRE, NOSFERATU, WOYZECK (1979) and FITZCARRALDO (1982).

Herzog celebrated their partnership with the well-received documentary MY BEST FIEND in 1999.
Acclaimed documentaries include ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007), CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010), INTO THE ABYSS (2011), and GRIZZLY MAN (2006).
Herzog’s other narrative features included BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009), and the biopic QUEEN OF THE DESERT (2015), starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell.
Aside from filmmaking, Herzog occasionally takes acting jobs: He played a stern father in JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999), a criminal mastermind in JACK REACHER (2012) and has even voiced a documentary filmmaker in PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (2014).

And he has published more than a dozen books of prose and has directed as many operas. He divides his time between Munich and Los Angeles.

Still working, Herzog will doubtless be philosophical about receiving a lifetime achievement honour.