Werner Herzog, one of the leading figures of the New German Cinema, has remained a radical individualist and a cinematic visionary for over forty years. His films disturb by their questioning of the bases of human civilization and its values. He first attracted notice with Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life, 1968), a war story set on a Greek island, which depicts an individual soldier's futile revolt against his situation. Herzog won the Berlin International Film Festival prize that year for a first work, as well as a German Film Award for outstanding feature film.
In Jeder für sich und Gott gegen Alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974) he commented on fundamental social values via the historical account of a strange foundling child in nineteenth-century Germany. Herzog also tackled a difficult play by Georg Buchner, from the mainstream of German theater, in Woyzeck (1979). Herzog's favorite actor, Klaus Kinski, draws on his characteristic intensity to portray the destruction of a simple little man caught in an absurd, authoritarian society. In Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu, 1978), an homage to the director F. W. Murnau, Kinski gives a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the Dracula figure as a lonely and driven predator envious of his victims for their human relations. With Kinski, Herzog also explored megalomania in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, 1972) and again in Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987). Fitzcarraldo is an allegory of colonialism in its treatment of the actual historical events surrounding the hero's obsession with building an opera house a thousand miles up the Amazon River in the Peruvian jungle. During the shooting of this film, Herzog became involved with dangerous local politics, and one of his crew was killed while filming a wild ride down river rapids. Cobra Verde deals with the eighteenth-century slave trade between South America and Africa, with Kinski reprising his role of the obsessive adventurer who perishes through his overreaching ambition. After this film, Herzog and Kinski parted ways, as it was becoming increasingly difficult for the director to work with the erratic star.
Herzog also has produced several highly personal documentaries in Germany and elsewhere, and has done mainstream work for German TV. Among his impressive documentaries are Mein Liebster Feind—Klaus Kinski (My Best Fiend, 1999), about the director's tumultuous working relationship with Kinski; Wheel of Time (2003), about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhist rituals; The White Diamond (2004), about exploring the rainforest in a unique airship; and Grizzly Man (2005), about an actor who filmed himself living among grizzly bears and who, along with his girlfriend, was killed by one.
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