It’s been almost fifty years since Werner Herzog’s first feature film was released, and yet he’s remained an eminently vital and challenging director. Herzog’s body of work can be somewhat divided into fictional narrative films and documentaries, but that line isn’t a hard-and-fast one. He’s been known to stage scenes in documentaries for reasons of “ecstatic truth,” and some of his narrative films borrow biographical details from the actors featured in them. Herzog’s films investigate — in the best way — the human condition: some examine questions of how we perceive the world, others look at the aftermath of war or exploitation, and still others focus on singular, obsessed figures and push them towards a decisive moment.
Some of Herzog’s films focus on outsiders — generally men (a notable exception: 2015’s Queen of the Desert, a film about the explorer and writer Gertrude Bell) — who find themselves either unable to fit in or fundamentally at cross-purposes with society. Herzog is also fond of feats of endurance. He himself once walked from Munich to Paris, a trip documented in his 1978 book Of Walking in Ice. And while his distinctive voice and skewed perspective can be easily parodied, Herzog’s work continues to possess the power to unsettle. Here is a look at ten of Herzog’s best films, ranging from surreal and haunting period pieces to somber documentaries about the aftereffects of war or the human condition.
One piece of advice: Probably don’t binge-watch these. Maybe one a month is a good bet.