Werner Herzog is one, if not the most, influential documentary filmmaker of our time after a host of incredible and successful documentaries like the incomparable Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and his most recent Into the Abyss. His eye for quirky interview subjects, beautiful scenery, relatively uncovered film subjects, and his penchant for asking really, really, really (REALLY) big questions of the audience have turned Werner Herzog into something of a cultural icon in the film world. His narration is often lovingly mocked by those in the film community, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins has even made it a regular part of his act on television and podcasts. The bottom line is that Werner Herzog is incredibly influential, and has given us some of the greatest documentary and narrative films of our generation, and deserves to be discovered by an even wider audience. These three films were blind spots in my viewing of Herzog’s documentary filmography, and even though I had different reactions to the lot of them, I’m incredibly happy that I finally sought them out. If you’ve never seen a Herzog film, do yourself a favor and see Grizzly Man as soon as humanly possible. It will change the way you view the art of documentary filmmaking.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary was originally released in 3D, and I’m very upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes the audience on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the oldest surviving human art was discovered in the 1990’s. The cave paintings were created over 30,000 years ago, and are very carefully preserved by the French government. Due to the sensitive nature and rarity of the paintings, the general public is not actually admitted to exploring the cave, and even Werner Herzog himself was only able to take himself and three others to film the documentary. Special walkways were created for those permitted into the cave, anything off the path being strictly prohibited.
The cave and the ancient art inside are absolutely beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine that these images were created so long ago. Alongside the paintings are many bones of the now extinct cave bear, a relic and a major find in themselves. Herzog manages to find experts in the archaeological field, interviewing them about various items found in the area surrounding the cave, including an ancient wind instrument, as well as a spear of sorts. These experts in question are ridiculous and quirky and incredibly fun to watch in their brief appearances on screen. One of the experts in question happens to be a perfume creator, and goes about finding cave openings in the woods using only the power his nose, another is openly mocked by Herzog about his spear-throwing abilities. It is these interviews coupled with the imagery that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an absolute delight. I would highly recommend this film to both Herzog rookies and seasoned veterans alike. High recommendation.
The White Diamond (2004)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Graham Dorrington, Werner Herzog, Dieter Plage
This is a film I knew almost nothing about before going into it, as it came out a year before one of Werner Herzog’s greatest successes, Grizzly Man. For a film I knew very little about, The White Diamond absolutely took my breath away, and quickly became one of my favorite Herzog documentaries. In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog and his lovable voice take us on a journey into the dense rainforests of Guyana, a small country in South America. There we find the film’s subject Graham Dorrington, an engineer who has created a terrific white airship (or blimp) in the shape of a teardrop;his mission is to fly the airship over canopies of the Guyana rainforest. The film chronicles Dorrington’s past as an aeronautical engineer, covers the history of modern flight as a whole, and explores the beauty of Guyana’s vast rainforests, specifically taking a look at the massive Kaieteur Falls, as well as astounding white-tipped swifts, a species of bird which roost in an unexplored cave directly behind the falls.
Despite the incredible visuals and Werner Herzog’s always incredible narration and subtle humor, what makes The White Diamond a special documentary and a film to remember is the story of Graham Dorrington’s cinematographer and friend Dieter Plage, who died on an ill-fated ascent in the experimental airship. Herzog films Dorrington telling the story of Dieter Plage’s accident and attempted rescue with unblinking and unflinching direction, never underestimating the weight of Dorrington’s words. The story is incredible, tragic, and heartbreaking, and is easily one of the great moments in documentary film, period. The White Diamond is one of Werner Herzog’s most underrated treasures, and a film I plan to revisit again for the visuals and the incredible stories featured throughout. High recommendation.
Wheel of Time (2003)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: The Dalai Lama, Werner Herzog
Before the impressive White Diamond came Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel of Time, which I knew even less about, but unfortunately wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with that film. Wheel of Time is once again narrated by Herzog himself, taking us on a journey to through Asia to meet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the time was suffering from rather poor health. Herzog covers two ill-fated Kalachakra initiations, one in India, and the next in Austria, presided over by the sick Dalai Lama, as well as the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet; considered by many religions to be a sacred place.
Wheel of Time unfortunately didn’t resonate with me the same way previous Herzog documentaries have done, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. The subject material isn’t something I’m particularly interested in, but that hasn’t stopped me before. I think the biggest reason for my disconnect is Werner Herzog himself, who is incredibly respectful in his chronicling of the ill Dalai Lama, Buddhist traditions, and the Buddhist people themselves. Not that this respect is a bad thing in any way, but Herzog refrains from using his trademark dark and subtle humor throughout the film’s short run-time, instead opting to cover the events in a much more deadpan style. Fortunately the visuals throughout the film are more than worth the price of admission, with several breathtaking moments being caught by Herzog’s sharp eye. One of my favorite scenes featured Buddhist monks on their pilgrimage, giving money to the poor who remain unseen behind a large fence – with the exception of their arms. Wheel of Time has a lot to say about Buddhism as a whole, and beautifully covers some important and notable ceremonies of the faith, but unfortunately it didn’t move me the way I wanted to. I enjoyed my time with Wheel of Time, but none of it resonated with me in any way – unlike most of Werner Herzog’s documentary films. Even though the film did not personally appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a delight to watch, nor does it mean you won’t get anything out of it. If you’re interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, give this a shot. Recommended.