Review: Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer Attempts to Capture the Work (and Humor) of the Consummate Creator

Naturally, it’s impossible to tell the story of German-born filmmaker Werner Herzog in only 90 minutes. So what documentarian Thomas von Steinaecker has done with his film Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is to make it clear that his subject is more than just a maker of movies. Sure, he started out in Germany as a visionary trailblazer with films like his feature debut, 1968’s Signs of Life, but he went on to make some legendary films about men with a mission (Aguirre–The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) and then became one of cinema’s most intriguing and insightful documentary directors (Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

Beyond that, after Herzog moved to Los Angeles many years ago, he became a cultural phenomenon, known for his probing and gripping voice (he’s narrated very serious films and lent his voice to The Simpsons), and for becoming a serious acting force in the film Jack Reacher and in The Mandalorian series. As his fellow countryman and friend Wim Wenders says, Herzog invented his own accent, and everybody tries to imitate it. With the help of some of Herzog’s more famous collaborators and fellow filmmakers, Radical Dreamer gives us a taste of the power, influence, and reach of this singular creator who seems very much in on the joke.

What the film makes clear is something many of us have known for years: Herzog’s career is like that of no other. There are many respected German filmmakers, but how many of them made films like Rescue Dawn; Queen of the Desert; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, or that insane Bad Lieutenant sequel starring Nicolas Cage? How many esteemed filmmakers would allow themselves to be filmed eating their own shoe because he lost a bet (see: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe)? In an interview I did with Herzog years ago, he called Roger Ebert a soldier of cinema, but I think that title fits Herzog just as well.

The interviews by the likes of Christian Bale, current wife Lena Herzog, Nicole Kidman, directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Chloé Zhao, and Herzog contemporary Volker Schlöndorff, Robert Pattinson, Patti Smith, and Carl Weathers, all add layers of understanding to the one-man creative wellspring whose most famous collaborator was a madman (Klaus Kinski). But we probably learn the most from the interviews Von Steinaecker does with Herzog himself, in which he attempts to self examine his career and life to varying degrees of success. During the end credits, we see footage of Herzog doubting every word he’s spoken in these interviews, and it’s quite funny.

Radical Dreamer doesn’t attempt to cover all of his films—I’d even go so far to say it doesn’t cover enough—but this is a fantastic stepping-off point. It certainly made me want to revisit Herzog’s older works, some of which I haven’t seen since college. But the movie also reminds us of his generosity as a teacher of young filmmakers and his undying enthusiasm for getting to the heart of whatever he’s shooting. Why does the image of a single penguin walking across the tundra toward certain death captivate him more than what the rest of the penguins are doing? Because that suicidal penguin is far more interesting and emotionally gripping. Herzog’s boundless curiosity and ability to point his camera toward what most others would try to avoid is what makes him invaluable as a storyteller.

The film is now streaming digitally.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.