Werner Herzog wants you to expand your mind.
When it comes to directors who can straddle both narrative and documentary, Werner Herzog stands above them all. His penetrating gaze and casual wisdom are what make him a treasure to the entire world.
My first experience with a Werner Herzog documentary was with Grizzly Man. I found it to be a stunning portrait of a man possessed, and I never got the "Coyote" song out of my head. I followed that up with a few other Herzog movies and made my way through most of his catalog.
I think his movies have a lot to say about humanity and offer a ton of lessons. I mean, just watching Happy People makes me really happy (and cold)!
Herzog himself is not much of a movie watcher, recently telling the Guardian, "People always believe that a filmmaker would have seen hundreds or thousands of films—if you have a man like Scorsese, for example, he has his own projection room and his own 35mm copies, or [Peter] Bogdanovich, or some of the French filmmakers. They keep watching movies. I don’t. I see about three films per year."
Despite the number of movies he does not watch, he does have some recommendations for the movies you should watch. Ones that are good, ones that don't have the main issue he thinks plagues modern documentaries.
Herzog says those problematic docs "have not divorced [the medium] from journalism. They are very often ‘issue films’ about a social problem, and there has to be redemption and hope at the end. I don’t like this kind of cinema."
But he also says, on the other hand, those that aspire to realism "cannot really claim vérité—that’s silly, and I don’t believe in it."
So what would Herzog have us watch?
What are the Documentaries Werner Herzog Thinks You Should Watch?
In his interview with the Guardian, he listed four films he thinks are essential. Let's dig in to his choices.
1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
This captivating look at war crimes had some Herzog elements in it. Oppenheimer came to him and asked for advice on the final shot. Herzog said, “Leave it uncut and put it in there as it is. Nobody will ever see anything like this again.”
And he put it in there.
2. The Mad Masters (Jean Rouch, 1955)
This is the one documentary everyone seems to agree is a must-see.
It's about workers in Ghana and shot with a hand-crank camera, so none of the shorts are longer than 24 seconds. It's jarring and intimate.
3. The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls, 1969)
This is the tale of France and its resistance, and in over four hours, it tracks the idea from inception to execution. It's a relentless introspective journey.
4. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris, 1981)
I watched this movie in film school and thought it was inspired. I love it when I see people lauding it because it's one of the most "American" movies ever.
Herzog says he admires how Morris spent time with locals and made this documentary just chatting to people and getting to know them.
Have you seen Herzog's favorite docs? Let us know which in the comments!
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