Werner Herzog: DVD Edition – Documentaries and Shorts

lastwords.jpgWerner Herzog is undeniably one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Even though his movies aren’t completely accessible to the mainstream, their influence undoubtedly finds its way through the work of more commercial filmmakers. Sited by many of his peers as an inspiration, Herzog’s quest to create more adequate images has been marked with praise by critics and filmmakers alike. It was with great excitement that I came across a six disc box set available exclusively through Herzog’s own website, featuring some of his earliest and rare short films and documentaries. Luckily, I’ve had a chance to sit down and review the ‘Werner Herzog: DVD Edition – Documentaries and Shorts’.

After some minor mainstream success with 2005’s ‘Grizzly Man’, Werner Herzog found his way into the homes of many who’d otherwise never heard of his previous films. With a massive filmography under his belt, Werner is a rare example of someone who’s equally successful and continually active in both the non-fiction and fictional sides of filmmaking. Although it has been noted that the documentary films of Werner Herzog sometimes tend to walk a fine line of non-fiction and fantasy, letting fact checking take a backseat to cinematic storytelling. Herzog’s first film shows early signs of his penchant for experimental non-fiction storytelling through unusually cinematic means. Herakles, shot on black and white in 1962, combines footage of Herculean muscle men lifting waits with title cards and an array of stock footage ranging from WWII bombers and a horrible race car accident.

gods_angry_man.jpg‘God’s Angry Man’ is a 45 minute look at televangelist Gene Scott’s UHF public access show in which he manages to raise close to 300,000 dollars in one night. His onscreen persona screams and yells at the audience as he grumpily reads off the amounts written on stacks of checks, ($3000, $1200, $10,000) unimpressed by the donation numbers. Behind the scenes he talks about his desire to retire and build a family, and claims that he makes absolutely no money from his show. But of all of the shorts featured in this collection, there are two that automatically stand out for me as being both innovative, and absolutely hilarious. ‘Last Words’ and ‘Precautions Against Fanatics’ are both seemingly fictional, yet incorporate many documentary style devices. The first, Last Words, tells the story of a man who lives alone on an island, only to be discovered and re-introduced into society. An Abbot & Costello style police duo retell their discovery of the man repeating the same sentence over and over, until one of the men seems to give up. ‘Precautions Against Fanatics’ features some interesting characters at a horse race track. One of which explains his role as a self-appointed stable guard, protecting the horses from fanatics, chopping slate blocks in half with his bare hands. Both films seem to have been cast with real people under the direction of Herzog.

wingsofhopeboxset.jpgSome of Herzog’s most notable documentary films are also included in this set. Land of Silence and Darkness follows Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman, as she attempts to communicate and teach others born with the same affliction. Fata Morgana is a film about mirages, equally as known for the crazy stories surrounding the making of the film. (Herzog and his crew ended up held prisoner and tortured due to a bad case of mistaken identity. Or so the story goes.) Lessons of Darkness, like Fata Morgana, is told to be a hybrid of documentary and science-fiction, revealing stunning images of men plugging the out-of-control oil wells after the Gulf War. Both films are great examples of Herzog’s insatiable urge to continually put himself in harms way during the making of his films, even if he says he never considers himself to be in true danger. (See La Soufriere in which Herzog and his crew travel up the side of an active volcano) On many occasions, Herzog’s own life bleeds over into his films. Wings of Hope is the story of a fatal 1971 plane crash in the South American jungle. Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of the crash, somehow managed to survive in the jungle and walk out alive at the age of 17. The interesting twist is the fact that Herzog had initially been scheduled to take the exact same flight that nearly killed Koepcke. Not unlike Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the two revisit the sight of the crash as Juliane retells her story of survival to the camera.

At a total of 24 films, spanning over three decades, this ‘Documentaries and Shorts’ collection is essential viewing for any fans of Werner Herzog’s films, fiction or non-fiction. The only downside to this collection is the price tag, coming in at around 300 dollars after exchange and shipping. But cost aside, the films collected in this box set are a must have for fans of Herzog or documentary filmmaking in general.

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