Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is a conventional yet crucially curious documentary about popular cinema’s most daring explorer.
Werner Herzog (b. 1942) shouldn’t need an introduction to most film fans. The German writer, director, producer, and actor has made 54 feature films in places as far and wide as Antarctica, the Amazon and Japan, worked with some of film’s biggest stars and has no shortage of stories about the difficulties that plagued his most famous productions. A project like Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is in itself ambitious; how do you tell the story of such a folkloric life and continuously successful career in just 90 minutes? The answer? You can’t. For a film about such a unique trailblazer, Radical Dreamer is surprisingly conservative in its form. We mostly hear from Herzog himself, and even see him return to his childhood home, where he recounts growing up in poverty as a refugee (his original home was next door to a house that got bombed in the war), and give us a tour of his favourite museum in his current home of LA.
One of Radical Dreamer’s greatest strengths is its choice of source material. It’s impossible to properly show the incredible diversity of Herzog’s work in a single documentary, so, crucially, writer-director Thomas von Steinacker curates a selection of clips that give a glimpse into some of Herzog’s most prominent themes. In Aguirre, Wrath of God and Cobra Verde, it’s ego and colonial hubris. In Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, it’s nature’s supremacy and ‘indifference’ to man and penguin, and in the criminally underrated but clumsily titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, one of the first Cagesploitation films, it’s institutional corruption and abuse of power.
The film that Radical Dreamer focuses on the most is, naturally, Fitzcarraldo, a brilliant moviefilm whose troubled production is an incredible story in itself. Based on the story of a rubber baron who had his boat disassembled and the pieces carried over a hill before being reassembled again at the other end, Herzog’s film was a logistical nightmare to make. The fictional Fitzcarraldo has the whole boat pulled up the hill in one piece, and when lead Jason Robards fell ill, his management refused to let him continue. Said delays forced supporting actor Mick Jagger, who had a Stones tour coming up, to drop out too.
Stepping up to replace Robards was Klaus Kinski, whose difficult nature you can learn more about in Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend. Kinski starred in five of Herzog’s films and didn’t need to act to convey intensity, hostility and arrogance; it was part of his personality. These five collaborations form an important through line in Herzog’s career, for his relationship with said lead was filled with conflict and resentment.
Most of Herzog’s actors have been much easier to work with. Contributors include Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson (both Queen of the Desert), Christian Bale (Rescue Dawn) and directors Chloé Zhao, Carl Weathers (who acted alongside Herzog in The Mandalorian) and Joshua Oppenheimer. Directors speak gushingly of Herzog’s influence on their own work and actors recount their strange and often challenging experiences on set – Christian Bale’s on Rescue Dawn could be a Herzog film in itself.
Oddly, the rather conventional structure works to the film’s benefit, because it’s an excellent introduction to the work of Herzog to anyone less familiar with his work, and for die-hard disciples, it gives you about 80 minutes with the man himself, who’s a joy to listen to and learn from. Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is anything but radical, yet still worth watching. Herzog’s persistence and hard work is very inspiring – when the credits roll, you will feel like doing a workout, starting a painting, learning a language or pulling a boat up a hill.
Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer will open in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on 19 January 2024, alongside January’s Werner Herzog retrospective at BFI Southbank, and will be on BFI Player and Blu-Ray from 19 February. The film is now available to watch on digital and on demand in the US and select countries.