Werner Herzog is a name well known in the cinema-sphere. From Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Nosferatu the Vampyre, his fictional films are critically acclaimed and original in nearly every aspect. But his documentary oeuvre is where Herzog truly earns most of his acclaim. As an artist, he is a man of many talents, but his tenacity for capturing the human experience at the farthest reaches of the known world is second to none.
Herzog is a filmmaker obsessed with experience — if he films in the jungle, then he truly films in the jungle. Brilliance or hubris, it is hard to decide, but his filmmaking struggles are the stuff of legend. Just read his journal Conquest of the Useless or watch Les Blank‘s brilliant Burden of Dreams, in which we see Herzog at his most broken on the notoriously grueling location shoot for Fitzcarraldo. Experience and tangibility are everything to Herzog, he is as much obsessed with the image as he is with the intangible essence of the image.
From loneliness in the Arctic to finding kinship among grizzly bears, here are all of Werner Herzog’s documentaries ranked:
38. La Soufrière (1977)
In the short documentary La Soufrière, Herzog visits the island of Guadeloupe, which has just been evacuated due to an imminent volcano eruption. He finds three men remaining on the island, and it is in his interactions with them that the sublime quality that Herzog always seeks to conjure up comes into uncomfortable life. The three men are content with death by immolation from the volcano, and Herzog seeks to understand their perspective. Their stories along with the looming disaster grounds the film in a steep melancholy, and Herzog’s imagery highlights the sheer force of nature and just how unimportant humankind is at the whims of higher powers.
37. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016)
Ah yes, the documentary in which Herzog meets the internet — let the memes begin. Levity aside, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is a somber and introspective look at the interconnective nature of the global digital sprawl. Herzog narrates the film with his usual melancholic eloquence, and learning about the history of the internet is pretty compelling. The interviews with modern tech giants and other creators are less interesting. Of course, Herzog finds his way to artificial intelligence and eventually asks, “Can the internet dream of itself?”
36. Handicapped Future (1971)
This documentary sees Herzog turning his existential gaze on physically disabled children in Munich, Germany. The film was made in order to raise awareness throughout the country at the behest of one of Herzog’s disabled friends. For a Werner Herzog documentary, Handicapped Future is shockingly conventional and handles the subject with genuine sensitivity. It never feels exploitative, just shows life for what it is: sometimes unfair, sometimes joyous. And it highlights the fact that empathy is necessary in order to fulfill every condition of the human experience.
35. The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969)
The Flying Doctors of East Africa is also quite conventional in both structure and execution. It is wholly un-stylistic, and this works well for the type of film that Herzog has made. It is a dense and informative documentary that recounts, through interviews, the stories of many in the “flying doctor” arm of the African Medical and Research Foundation. Herzog has even gone on record saying that it is more of a report than it is a film, and that rings fairly true. The stories themselves, ranging from locations in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tanzania, are told with little flare — these stories do not require it. They are grueling at times and hopeful on occasion.
34. Christ and Demons in New Spain (1999)
Sparse is a term I often use when describing this short documentary to friends. Visually, it is far from desolate. Every frame is packed to the brim with subtext, but as an entire work, it is thin. Christ and Demons in New Spain is the most televisual of all of Herzog’s documentaries, as it was co-opted into the German TV series 2000 Years of Christianity. Thus, it is quite jarring. Herzog’s visuals tell the story of Christian expansion and conversion, colonialism, post-colonial structures, and the ethics of the church. But the narration is done by a third-party in order to tie the piece into the other program. So, as Herzog’s imagery tells its own tale, his meaning becomes obfuscated by drab and tedious voiceover that feels akin to a third-rate History Channel special.
33. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976)
Here we have Herzog once again traversing into the realm of the abstract. This film sees him defining the career of auctioneering as the creation of a new language. He sees the work akin to a form of poetry. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck is a delightfully odd little film, but it asks some truly captivating questions. From the day-to-day life of auctioneering to the life of the Pennsylvania Amish, the doc wrestles with some interesting themes. But unlike some of Herzog’s later works, this one only feels skin-deep.
32. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is a fascinating entry in the nonfiction filmography of Werner Herzog. It is both wholly Herzogian but also quite commercial— made-for-television, even. The film is focused on Walter Steiner, who is a trophy-winning ski-jumper who just so happens to do carpentry as his full-time job. The footage of the German towns that serve as a backdrop for Steiner and his life is quite picturesque. He is an interesting character, and Herzog studies the man with a sense of revery. Like Steiner, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner exists in a state of flux — the push and pull between normalcy and ecstasy.
31. Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011)
Ode to the Dawn of Man serves as a bite-sized companion-piece to one of Herzog’s best documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This short film focuses on the making of the soundtrack for that feature and how music can give texture and language to a time long past. Personal interviews with the composer Ernst Reijseger and pianist Harmen Fraanje help to highlight the creative process that comes with working with Herzog and such an odd concept. It is nothing short of pure magic.
30. Huie’s Sermon (1981)
It is hard to classify this film as a documentary because, through its structure, it seems that Herzog set his camera up in a church and just started filming. For a Herzog documentary, it is disorientingly objective. Huie’s Sermon consists of an uncut sermon given by Reverend Huie L. Rogers in a Brooklyn church. Herzog never gives the film a purpose or reason to exist beyond the sermon itself. If anything, it is a genuinely fascinating look at religious fervor and the uncomfortable power of inflection.
29. Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993)
Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia is where Herzog and the practice of mysticism collide. Comprised mainly of interviews and scenes from religious services, the documentary oscillates between being utterly confounding and bizarre. The first half or so focuses mainly on a man who sees himself as the reincarnation of God. His self-appointed name is Vissarion, and he teaches his ways to a devout, near cult-like group of followers. Later we are introduced to the story of the lost city of Kitzeh. It is a myth about a city that God, in order to ensure the town’s safety from Mongol marauders, placed at the bottom of a lake. The hearsay is that one can still hear the city’s church bells, as they ring ominously from the depths. Local pilgrims and priests recount this story with an air of ominous fervor. Devotion has many faces, and in Bells from the Deep, devotion wears the face of a mythmaker.
28. God’s Angry Man (1981)
Gene Scott, a televisual pastor, serves as the subject in Herzog’s often uncomfortable look at the intersection between religion and capitalism. God’s Angry Man consists mainly of Herzog’s interviews with Scott and his family. These are fascinating and often-infuriating conversations that make obvious the many problems of the “salvation-for-profit” business. But most interestingly, God’s Angry Man also spends a lot of time with Scott and his associates on the set of his television show, Festival of Faith. We see Scott, akin to a snake oil salesman, urge viewers to donate money to his holy cause, and at the film’s peak, we see Scott unleash a tirade of a rant against the F.C.C. The parallels between Scott and the television pastors of today are all too obvious and alarming.
27. Wheel of Time (2003)
Tibetan Buddhism is religion deeply concerned with the soul and its essence, much like Herzog’s films. In Wheel of Time, Herzog documents two Kalachakra initiations and interviews the 14th Dalai Lama. The initiations, one of which is interrupted by the Dalai Lama’s health, are sumptuous to watch — beautiful and deeply serious. Wheel of Time is at its most fascinating when Herzog interviews Jigme Zangpo, the longest-serving political prisoner from Tibet. He spent 37 years locked up in Chinese due to his devout and outspoken support of the Internation Tibet Independence Movement. The words he and Herzog share with one another are reason enough to seek out this wonderful piece of cinema.
26. Pilgrimage (2001)
Herzog, always one to embellish, opens this documentary with a quote that Herzog came up with, but he credits it to Thomas à Kempis. Beyond that, Pilgrimage has a tangible feeling of natural, waking life. Shots are only accompanied by music and the imagery therein fluctuates between pilgrims by the tomb of Saint Sergei in Sergiyev Posad, Russia, and pilgrims who have flocked to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. As an entire work, Pilgrimage is deceptively simple. What it lacks in urtext it makes up for in a subtext that is so rich and overflowing with human emotion.
25. From One Second to the Next (2013)
Well, this is a weird one. Like, weird even by the standards of Werner Herzog. In 2013, he teamed up with — you’ll never guess it — AT&T to make a short documentary about the harms of texting and driving. Honestly, it is a rather cut-and-dry work, but I put it somewhat far down this list because, when one watches it, they are filled with mental images of Herzog and some AT&T marketing executives workshopping ideas together. If that doesn’t sell you on From One Second to the Next, then Herzog’s ever-humanist interviews will.
24. The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984)
Always one to subvert audience expectations, Herzog’s The Dark Glow of the Mountains is sold as a mountain-climbing documentary when, in fact, it is about the internal motivations and desires of those who seek to risk their lives endeavoring on dangerous mountaineering expeditions. Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerland are freestyle mountain climbers whose collective goal is to climb two peaks (Gasherbrum 1 and 2) without returning to basecamp. Yet, we rarely see the climb itself. Instead, Herzog peels back the layers of these men and studies them at their metaphysical core.
23. The White Diamond (2004)
The history of aviation is rife with struggles and eventual triumphs, and Herzog uses a modern-day example of aviation exploration to recount the history of aviation, itself. The White Diamond follows an aeronautical engineer named Graham Dorrington who has designed a white, teardrop-shaped airship that he wants to test out over the forests of Guyana. By focusing on the man behind the airship’s creation, Herzog gets to delve into the struggles of the creative process. Furthermore, Herzog turns his lens from the skies of Guyana to the forest floor, where we see the life of a local diamond farmer named Marc Anthony Yhap. There is a lot going on in The White Diamond and it is a testament to Herzog’s skills as a filmmaker that the film ends up flying rather than crashing to the forest floor.
22. Ten Thousand Years Older (2002)
Only Werner Herzog could pack so much thematic density into just 10 minutes. Ten Thousand Years Older is a documentary short that is part of the Ten Minutes Older Project and focuses on the Amondauas people of Brazil. The film begins with archival footage of the Amondauas’s first contact with the modernized world. Before that meeting, they lived a life akin to a “stone age existence”. But after being found by the modern world, the majority of the tribe died — most were killed by the common cold and chicken pox. Herzog visits the tribe 20 years after they were initially discovered and speaks to village elders who long for the life before their discovery. Yet, the children are embarrassed by their elders’ adherence to old ways and overall reluctance to modernize. It is gut-wrenching stuff that Herzog handles with a grace that stands in stark contrast to his immensely serious and emotionally distant voice.
21. Jag Mandir (1991)
A lot of Werner Herzog’s films have a subtext that is concerned with performance, or what it means to be performative in a documentary sense. Jag Mandir is wholly concerned with performance and the many aspects that make up theatre — on both a large and small scale. The majority of the film is focused on a bombastic theatrical performance, helmed by André Heller, for the Maharana Arvind Singh Mewar at the City Palace in Rajasthan. Two thousand performers take place in an elaborate theatrical performance that spans over many hours in a single day, and Herzog’s documentary splits up a lot of this performance with rehearsals that took place over several days prior to the stage performance. It is colorfully bombastic and texturally rich.
20. La Bohème (2009)
Commissioned for Sky Arts and the English Opera, La Bohème is a four-minute documentary that focuses on the harsh realities of life in Ethiopia. The confrontational imagery is set to the operatic duet “O soave fanciulla” from the opera La Bohème. It is a deeply expressionistic work that showcases Herzog’s documentary form stripped down to its very essence. It captures a specific feeling of a harsh place that is often neglected by the western world.
19. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
Sharing directorial duties with Dmitry Vasyukov, in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Herzog showcases the life of people in the village of Bakhtia beside the Yenisei river in the Siberian taiga. Harsh, desolate, and existential — this is Herzog where he is most comfortable (and relatable). It focuses on many fur trappers and hunters, as well as the life of the native Ket people. Herzog’s voiceovers are poetic, and he tries to unpack the specific form of the human experience that could keep people happy and content at the farthest reaches of the habitable world. Ever the humanist, Herzog finds his answer among many other answers, as everyone shown in the film has a different idea of what it means to live in the Siberian taiga.
18. The Transformation of the World into Music (1994)
Opera is an often daunting form of art — it is at times confusing and one often needs a bevy of external knowledge to understand and enjoy the insular world of the artform. But Herzog’s The Transformation of the World into Music invites all types of viewers into the fascinating world of opera. Focused on bringing the operas and music of Richard Wagner to life, this film shows all of the behind-the-scenes machinations that goes into staging an opera specifically for the Bayreuth opera festival. Herzog focuses on every aspect of opera, from specific music sheets to the finding of the right performers. Furthermore, he does not shy away from the complicated history of Wagner, one of Germany’s most well-known composers. His ties to Nazism and Adolf Hitler are broached and confronted in both a humanistic and damning way. Wagner’s legacy is eternally tarnished, but Herzog argues that his music rises above such controversies. Yet, he also leaves it to the viewer to come to their own conclusions on such a touchy matter.
17. Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995)
Werner Herzog’s stoic face may lead one to believe that his heart is as cold as ice, but if one watches any of his works, then they will come to the inevitable conclusion that Mr. Herzog’s heart is as big as a mountain. That is why it is surprising that he calls Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices “one of the films closest to my heart.” He focuses on the music and life of Carlo Gesualdo, a musician with an endlessly fascinating and unsettling life story. Intercut with scenes of Gesualdo’s madrigals being performed, Herzog’s camera studies Gesualdo’s supposedly cursed castle, the legends of his personality, and the eventual murder of his wife and her lover by his very hand. This is undoubtedly one of Herzog’s oddest documentaries in that a surprising amount of it is staged, which subverts the very idea of what it means to document reality. One of the most memorable segments sees Herzog walking through Gesualdo’s castle and coming upon a man who plays music into the castle’s cracked walls in order to keep the demons therein at bay.
16. Wings of Hope (1998)
Julian Koepcke is a German-Peruvian woman who happens to be the sole survivor of the fated LANSA Flight 508. Herzog’s Wings of Hope explores her story and recounts the crash and her escape from the jungle. He has a deeply personal connection to Flight 508, as he almost took the flight when getting ready to location scout for Aguirre, the Wrath of God. His flight ticket was canceled at the last minute due to an eternally lucky scheduling error. Herzog and Koepcke fly from Lima to Pucallpa and they sit in the same seats she was in when her flight crashed. Later, they visit the crash site in the jungle and unearth fragments of the plane, and they then trace the path of her escape from the jungle along specific river routes. Herzog has a sixth sense that allows him to unearth the deepest, most complicated emotions of individuals who have suffered not of their own accord. Better yet, he knows how to handle these emotions in a confrontational manner that is both uncomfortable and somehow deeply moving.
15. Portrait: Werner Herzog (1986)
Werner Herzog is never one to shy away from the spotlight in his films, whether it be through his frequent narration and subjective documentarial gaze or embellishing tales of his filmmaking struggles. Yet, in Portrait: Werner Herzog, He makes a short autobiographical documentary that is as simple as it is heartfelt. He recounts tales spanning from his childhood to the present day of 1986, and he even gives commentary over certain parts of his films. But what really elevates this film is Herzog’s onscreen conversation with Lotte Eisner, a film historian that Herzog deeply admired. They speak as equals but his reverence for her is warmly palpable.
14. Meeting Gorbachev (2018)
Werner Herzog and Andrè Singer‘s Meeting Gorbachev is a simple and fascinating documentary about the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The film was shot over a span of six months, during which Herzog would simply sit down with an old and sickly Gorbachev and just talk. Yes, there are pointed questions — Herzog even brings Gorbachev a cake — but the majority of the film feels almost entirely conversational. It is as fascinating as it is meandering, with conversations winding back and forth and colliding into one another.
13. Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)
It seems that a lot of Herzog’s documentaries were made at the behest of his friends, and Ballad of the Little Soldier is no exception. Urged on by his co-director, Denis Reichle, the film puts the plight of child soldiers in Nicaragua on full display. Focusing on a group of Miskito Indians who used child soldiers to fight against the Sandinistas, it sees Herzog at his most political (though he’d probably refute such a statement because Herzog is gonna Herzog). It is fascinating to see him exert an overtly political gaze in Ballad of the Little Soldier, and such a viewpoint affords this film a relatively unique quality in Herzog’s oeuvre. It is unforgettable and truly unshakeable.
12. Echoes from a Sombre Empire (1990)
Herzog takes a backseat in Echoes from a Sombre Empire. There is none of the commentary or narration by that most people expect to hear when they watch a Werner Herzog documentary. Instead, the film follows the journalist Michael Goldsmith upon his return to the Central African Republic. Here he was imprisoned and tortured by Jean-Bèdel Bokassa‘s regime. Upon returning to the country, Goldsmith interviews various people who had ties to Bokassa’s personal and professional life, and Bokassa only ever appears in stock footage. Yet, what makes the film all the more unsettling is Goldsmith’s fate. Between the time of the film’s making and its completion, the tenacious journalist disappeared in Liberia while covering its first civil war. This knowledge hangs over the film like a heavy sheet of fog that both obfuscates and makes clear the fragility of life. Haunting does not even begin to describe it.
11. Into the Abyss (2011)
Into the Abyss is Herzog’s answer to Errol Morris‘ The Thin Blue Line. Focusing on a man, Michael Perry, on death row, this film sees Herzog at his most detached. There is minimal narration, and Herzog never appears on screen, but his presence, like that of the horror of prison and awaiting death, is felt in every single frame. Perry is on death row for a triple homicide committed all for the sake of a joyride. Convicted in 2001, eight years before filming, Perry denies all responsibility for the killings. Yet, the film neither focuses on the dueling concepts of guilt and innocence. Instead, Herzog is more interested in what goes on in a man’s mind before he is put to death after years on death row. Interviews with the victims’ families and law-enforcement officers seek to highlight the ripple-effect(s) of murderous acts, but the interviews with Perry are the most intriguing. As he gets closer to death, he begins to say more through body language than through words. The final interviews for the film were shot a mere eight days before his execution. Herzog’s dive into the penal system and the dark depths of the human psyche leaves an impact on viewers that is hard to shake.
10. Into the Inferno (2011)
Only Werner Herzog would look at a volcano and see the nature and origins of humankind as a species. Yet, in Netflix’s Into the Inferno, he and volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer visit active volcanoes all over the world in order to better understand what their presence means to humanity and those who live within their reach. Oppenheimer wants to figure out how to lessen the environmental impact that comes with volcanic eruptions, but Herzog seeks to understand the violence and beauty of nature and what that can mean for our species. He views these volcanoes with such revery and seems humbled as if he is a pilgrim who has finally found his way to the promised land. Into the Inferno features some truly jawdropping imagery that showcases the indifference of nature, and just how such a dangerous natural presence can be so beautiful. Seeing molten lava undulate and bubble has the capability to bring one to tears.
9. Herdsmen of the Sun (1989)
Herzog hates being put into a box, so when critics and filmgoers deemed his Herdsmen of the Sun ethnographic, he fought back by saying, “I do not make films using images only of clouds and trees, I work with human beings because the way they function in different cultural groups interests me. If that makes me an anthropologist, then so be it.” Yet, the film showcases the culture and social gatherings of the Wodaabe tribe, who are nomads in the Sahara desert. It comes off as almost entirely ethnographic, but is that such a bad thing? No, it is not. Herzog frames the Wodaabe at eye level as if to emphasize that he is viewing them at an equal level. He never looks down on them or sees them as lesser. He just shows their way of life for what it is. One of the most interesting segments of Herdsmen of the Sun is focused on the Gerewol celebration, which is a male beauty contest that ends with the most beautiful male winning a wife. Herzog captures this weird contest with no outside influence. The ethics of it are questionable at best, and it shows that the inegalitarian nature of the world is all-encompassing, but Herzog never implements this external pressure. Beautiful, subversive, and yes, I’m sorry Mr. Herzog, but your documentary is one of the best examples of ethnographic filmmaking in all of cinema.
8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Never one for gimmicks, it is surprising that Cave of Forgotten Dreams sees Herzog entering the 3D realm. But it pays off, as seeing the oldest human paintings in the world in the Chauvet Cave in southern France rendered in 3D is a quasi-religious experience. The footage of the cave is unforgettable and the added interviews with historians and scientists further ground the importance of the cave paintings. These ancient works had never been filmed, and Herzog and company had to receive special passes to enter the cave. Furthermore, they had to wear special suits due to the near-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and radon. Cave of Forgotten Dreams encountered many difficulties with shooting on location with 3D cameras, but the struggle was truly worth it. This is one of the best documentaries about the human experience and of the complete and total history of the human species.
7. My Best Fiend (1999)
Few stories and relationships in cinema are as well-known and dangerous as was Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski‘s tumultuous working relationship. My Best Fiend sees the former returning to the films he made with the latter in order to better understand their relationship and the man behind the madness of Klaus Kinski. The film opens with Kinski performing as Jesus on a stage, and the crowd is obviously not into it. Ever the man to flex his hubris, Kinski bursts into a maniacal fit of rage, and this is only the film’s start. Herzog visits old apartments they shared, recounts the first time he saw footage of Kinski, and revisits Burden of Dreams, in which he waxes on about how the making of Fitzcarraldo was notoriously difficult for them both. Where most biographical documentaries seek to elevate the subject, Herzog continues to butt heads with Kinski, even after the actor’s death. Yet, for all of the acidity in their relationship, there was deep respect (even if neither men would ever admit it). In My Best Fiend, two colossal egos collide.
6. Grizzly Man (2005)
Even if one does not know Werner Herzog by name, they will still probably be aware of Grizzly Man. It is probably the filmmaker’s most welcoming and commercial documentary, and it permeated into the public consciousness like none of his other works ever have. Timothy Treadwell was a man who felt more at home with grizzly bears then he did with any human being. His life was hard, and he found solace in the vast natural refuge of Katmai National Park in Alaska. He filmed almost every aspect of his 13 summers there, and Herzog uses a lot of Treadwell’s footage. But Treadwell’s comfort in the wild became too expected, and on October 6, 2003, he and his girlfriend were brutally killed by an unfamiliar bear. What makes this film so unforgettable is one striking moment when one of Treadwell’s closest friends, Jewel Palovak, listens to the audio of Treadwell’s death. Herzog does not use the audio in the film, and he lets the silence and the mangled expressions of he and Treadwell’s friend say all that needs to be said. He then tells her, “You should never listen to it, and you should rather destroy it. It should not be sitting on your shelf in your living room all the time.”
5. Fata Morgana (1971)
Fata Morgana blurs the line between documentary and fiction. On the one hand, it features footage of mirages in the Sahara and Sahel deserts, but on the other hand, it is a weird and expressionistic creation myth told in spoken word by Lotte H. Eisner. She recounts a creation myth of the Mayan people — the Popol Vuh –that Herzog had rewritten. The imagery on display and the emotion such beauty elicits is hard to replicate in words, but Fata Morgana elevates the natural world into something mythic. Better yet, some of the anecdotes about the making of the film are quite interesting. For example, the film crew was imprisoned in Cameroon, and later on, Herzog was jailed again and beaten, and he contracted the disease bilharzia. Such struggle imbues the film with a sense of fleeting life, of purpose found through rising above the dangers of the desert.
4. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
If you had to take a shot every time I mentioned the human experience in this list in relation to Herzog’s films, then you would have passed out long before you got this far down the list. But his Land of Silence and Darkness is arguably the documentary of his that is most concerned with the human experience and the various conditions that make up said experience. Herzog joins a blind-deaf woman named Fini Straubinger on a journey in which they visit other blind-deaf people and learn about their struggles and how they live their lives in a modern world that is rapidly passing them by. It is a somber, beautiful piece of work that shows how the human condition is different for every single person and, if we are to continue as a species, then we must learn all we can about our fellow humans. Land of Silence and Darkness ends with a blind man seeing a tree through the power of touch. He feels it, examining the bark and divots with his hands, and he then embraces it in a deep hug.
3. Encounters at the End of the World (2008)
Antarctica is a cold and desolate place that a small fraction of human beings from all over the world call home. These people are scientists of all varieties who seek to unlock all the knowledge hidden away in the rapidly melting ice. Yet, Herzog rarely focuses on the land mass of Antarctica. He is more concerned with the dreams and lives of the people who call such a dangerous and quiet place home. His interviews with the various scientists (including Clive Oppenheimer) and workers are interesting in that they all have different motives for being there, but they all seem humbled by what they have experienced while in Antarctica. The indifference of nature is a common motif in Herzog’s documentaries and it is at its most apparent here. These people are a blip on the massive land mass of Antarctica, and Herzog’s film truly captures the fleeting desires and the dreamlike wonder of most of the scientists. Herzog’s narration is all-consuming and existential in the most moving ways possible—Encounters at the End of the World is a testament to humankind’s desire for knowledge and the lengths they’ll go to in order to acquire it.
2. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
“Friendly” and “warm” are not words one would think to label Little Dieter Needs to Fly when reading the film’s synopsis, but Herzog’s documentary about a German-American pilot just exudes an essence of blooming friendship. The film’s subject, Dieter Dengler, and Herzog are kindred spirits, and the filmmaker seems to be genuinely having fun as he engages with Dengler and his story. Dengler’s fighter jet was shot down in 1966 near the Laotian border during the Vietnam conflict. Dengler was then taken prisoner and starved and tortured for months. Yet, after a long planning phase, Dengler escaped his captors. Herzog and Dengler return to the jungles of Laos to recreate his capture and escape. At first, Dengler doesn’t seem to be taking the reenactment all that seriously, but as it goes on we see that all of the experiential memories come rushing back. The fear and unease in his eyes are palpable. Yet, he continues to go along with it. That is what makes Dengler so compelling. He is a kindly warm soul who entrusts his trauma and stories to Herzog, and at the end of the film, when all is said and done, it seems like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. He’s always loved to fly, but now he can fly knowing that what happened down below will no longer follow him into the cockpit.
1. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
As a companion piece to Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness feels inevitable, but as a standalone work, it becomes transcendent. Herzog’s decontextualized and disconnected look at the burning oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait is one of the most haunting documentaries ever made. Narration is sparse and context is limited, as Herzog wanted to re-orient images that had become hyper-politicized at the time. Less concerned with the human cost of what we are seeing, Herzog is more concerned with the spiritual and Earthly annihilation and catastrophe that is on display. Lessons of Darkness opens with a narrated quote that entirely sums up its purpose: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur — like creation — in grandiose splendor.” The film is broken up into 13 sections, each one more concerning than the last. The negation of context gives the film and its imagery an all-consuming feeling of stumbling into an apocalypse that is still in the process of occurring. Lessons of Darkness is not only Werner Herzog’s best documentary work, but it is also one of the most strikingly beautiful displays of man-made doom ever captured on film.