Werner Herzog was born on September 5th 1942 in Munich, Germany. He was the second son of Elisabeth and Dietrich Herzog. His mother fled Munich with her only few weeks old child from allied bombings. They settled in a remote town in Bavaria close to the Austrian border, where he grew up under difficult circumstances in post war Germany. His father didn’t come back from the war until 1947 and his parents separated soon afterwards. He went to the local school, which had only two different classes for all the children despite their age gaps. He later described his childhood as very humble with no running water in their home, but with a great deal of freedom to roam the hills and catch trout. Herzog saw his first film at the age of eleven, when a travelling projectionist came into the village. The family moved back to Munich when he was twelve. There he went to a humanistic high school and learned Greek and Latin. He developed his dream to become a film director in his early teens and worked at a steel factory to save money for the productions of films. While still at school, Herzog began hitchhiking through Europe. At the age of 18, he had a brief job at the docks in Manchester. After finishing school, Herzog went on extensive traveling through Greek and northern Africa, where he almost died from bilharziosis.
Back in Germany he shot his first short film ‚Herakles‘, which was released in 1962, and began to study history and literature in Munich, without graduating . A scholarship enabled him to study at the University Pittsburgh for a short while. His first short was followed by two additional ones, while Herzog worked various jobs financing them. For his script ‚Feuerzeichen‘, which would later became his first feature ‚Lebenszeichen‘ (1967; Signs of Life), he won the prestigious Carl-Meyer-Price in 1963. This helped him financing the said feature, which was shot in summer 1967 on the isle of Kos in Greece. The film is about a young German officer, who is forced to rest from a war injury and who becomes slowly stir crazy, trying to set the sun on fire. It was screened in competition at the 18th Berlin International Film Festival and won a Silver Bear Special Jury Prize for Best First Feature Film in 1968. The same year, the film also won the German Film Award (‚Filmband in Silber‘). With the price money and early prestige, Herzog was able to secure financing for his next projects. ‚Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen‘ (1970; Even Dwarfs Started Small) shows the microcosm of a barren island inhabited by dwarfs and which provoked controversial debates, and ‚Fata Morgana‘(1970), a documentary on the Sahara, where the desert acquires an eerie life of its own. In 1972 he shot ‚Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes‘ (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), which gained international attention. The film follows of group of Spanish explorers in the search of the legendary El Dorado, recording their gradual mental and physical self-destruction. The film marked his first of five collaboration with the band Popol Vuh and actor Klaus Kinski. The film got mixed reviews in Germany but run for one consecutive year at a cinema in Paris.
His first son, Rudolph Amos Achmed, was born in 1973.
In the following years, Herzog became one of the internationally most renowned filmmakers of the emerging New German Cinema-movement along with fellow directors Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Edgar Reitz, Werner Schroeter and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, Herzog never fully emerged in this group and had always had his reservations about it. His film ‚Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle‘ (1974; The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) was screened in competition at the 28th Cannes Film Festival in 1975, where he won the Grand Prix. In November 1974, he walked from Munich to Paris in order to save her life by pure will, when he heard that the German-born film historian and strong supporter of the New German Film-movement, Lotte Eisner, suffered a stroke. He later published diary entries of this event in ‚Vom Gehen im Eis‘ (1974; Of Walking in Ice). In 1977, he travelled to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to find a man who refused to be evacuated from the island, when a volcano was about to erupt. The events were portrayed in ‚La Soufrière – Warten auf eine ausausweichliche Katastrophe‘ (La Soufrière). Herzog was again invited to Cannes with ‚Woyzeck‘ in 1979, where actress Eva Mattes won the price for Best Supporting Actress.
After a successful decade, in which Herzog shot seven feature films, two shorts and five documentaries, he went on with ‚Fitzcarraldo‘, his most ambition project yet. The film is about a fanatic opera lover, who tries to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. The production was enormous, epic in every proportion, stricken by catastrophes and took nearly four years to complete. The original leads Jason Robards and Mick Jagger dropped out in the midst of the production, being eventually replaced by Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale. The film won the award for Best Director at the 35th Cannes Film Festival in 1982. Herzog published the diary he wrote of the production under the title ‚Die Eroberung des Nutzlosen‘ (The Conquest of the Useless) in 2004.
In the 1980s, Herzog shot two additional feature films. ‚Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen‘ (1984; Where the Green Ants Dream) was shot in Australia and tells the resistance by a tribe of Aborigines against a mining company digging their way through the sacred lands, where the green ants are feared to be awaken. In 1987, Herzog shot ‚Cobra Verde‘, an adaption of Bruce Chatwins novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, who also co-wrote the film’s script. This film marked the last collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, who died in 1991. Herzog started to direct operas in 1986 and staged 27 operas all around the globe.
Later in his career Herzog focused primarily on documentaries and he moved to Los Angeles. His “Lektionen in Finsternis” (1992; “Lessons of Darkness‘), which illustrated the burning oil fields of Kuwait from an alien point of view, caused some controversies due to allegations of aestheticizing the horrors of war. It was followed by three more personal documentary films: ‚Little Dieter Needs to Fly‘ (1997) about the German-born Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down, became a prisoner of war by the Viet Cong and freed himself in the middle of the jungle; ‚Julianes Sturz in den Jungle‘ (1998; Wings of Hope) about Juliane Koepcke, who was 14 at the time, the only survivor of the crash of LANSA flight 508. She lost her mother in the crash and had to find her way, seriously wounded, in the middle of the jungle to her rescue; and ‚Mein liebster Feind‘ (1999; My Best Fiend) about the ambivalent relationship between Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski.
Herzog made his comeback to feature filmmaking in 2000 with the international co-production ‚Invincible‘, starring Tim Roth as cabaret owner and varieté star Hanussen, who, as a jew, is threatened and eventually killed by the Nazi regime. The film features scores by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt. Since then, Herzog directed a wide range of different films: He made a series of English-speaking documentaries with international co-producers and television stations, including ‚Wheel of Time‘ (2003), ‚The White Diamond‘ (2004), the box-office hit ‚Grizzly Man‘ (2005) and the Oscar-nominated ‚Encounters at the End of the World‘ (2009), as well as the low-budget sci-fi ‚The Wild Blue Yonder‘ (2005), the war-epic biopic about Dieter Dengler ‚Rescue Dawn‘ (2006), starring Christian Bale, the cop-thriller ‚Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans‘ (2009), starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes and the crime drama ‚My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done‘ (2009) with Michael Shannon and Willem Dafoe in the leads. Both screened in competition at the 66th Venice Film Festival. The same year, Herzog was listed by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world.
In recent years, Herzog has been active both in front and behind the camera. He directed three feature films: the historical-drama about Gertrude Bell ‚Queen of the Desert‘ (2015) starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Robert Pattinson; the thriller ‚Salt and Fire‘ starring Veronika Ferres and Michael Shannon again, set in a Bolivian salt lake, and the guerrilla filmmaking-style made ‚Family Romance LLC‘ (2019). Herzog was the first filmmaker to enter the Chauvet Cave in southern France, shooting his 3D documentary ‚Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ (2010). He also made a film portrait about inmates on death row (Into the Abyss, 2011), which was followed by a series of eight parts (On Death Row, 2012-2013). In 2016, Herzog had another encounter with a volcano, when he teamed up with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer for ‚Into the Inferno‘. With Oppenheimer as co-director, he made ‚Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds‘ in 2020, a documentary about meteorites. His latest work includes a film in brain research (2022; ” Theatre of Thought”) and a memoir of the volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft (2022; ”The Fire Within”).
Herzog acting carrier includes the antagonist against Tom Cruise in ‚Jack Reacher‘ (2012), he did voice-acting in Ramin Bahrani’s short ‚Plasic Bag‘ (2009) and single episodes of ‚Rick and Morty‘ and ‚The Simpsons‘, among others. He also had a role in three episodes of ‚The Mandalorian‘ as The Client. In 2021, Herzog published his first novel ‚Das Dämmern der Welt‘ (The Twilight World). His memoires will be released in August 2022.
Herzog’s films are characterized by a surreal and subtly exotic quality, and he is hailed as one of the most innovative contemporary directors. His characters are dreamers, conquerors, often facing loneliness and deep longings. He has his very own approach to cinematic truth, often calling his documentaries fiction as a kind of Ecstatic Truth. Throughout his career, Herzog has mostly been working with a recurring crew. Most of films were produced by his own production company with his Brother Lucki Stipetić serving as producer. His earlier films were shot either by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein or Thomas Mauch behind the camera, for the last 25 years Peter Zeitlinger was his cinematographer.