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Werner Herzog and The Rebellion of The Human Spirit

de Brabant, A. B. (n.d.). [Photo of Werner Herzog].


In this short piece, the subject of investigation is not going to be the full career and larger-than-life personality of Werner Herzog. Books have been written on both subjects and have struggled to capture even the most basic questions such as ‘who’ and ‘what’ is Werner Herzog, the filmmaker. Even Werner Herzog cannot answer these questions. As he admitted many times when he talked about his movies as being made without any pre-thought regarding any ideology or theoretical meaning behind his films, for he was mostly guided by intuition and experience. In an interview he gave to BBC, he explained that his films are the ones that in a way "throw themselves at him", which seems completely obvious when one reads about his process that often involves exploring, changing, and incorporating things on the go. One of the more extreme examples being Fata Morgana, a production that started off as a science fiction project but ended up as a psychedelic documentary because of the look of the desert where he was supposed to film, re-inspired Herzog to do so. Instead, this piece will focus on Werner Herzog’s treatment of the human spirit and the rebellion he finds and incites in his documentary and fiction films. After all, that is the only thing Werner Herzog can truly say about his films in general.

I have always thought of my films as really being one big work that I have been concentrating on for forty years. The characters in this huge story are all desperate and solitary rebels with no language with which to communicate. Inevitably they suffer because of this. They know their rebellion is doomed to failure, but they continue without respite, wounded, struggling on their own without assistance.

This piece will explore what inspired Herzog to create such characters, how he gained such particular insights into the human spirit, and what methods he used to do so. The process of telling Herzog’s story will hopefully inspire the reader, whether they are interested in cinema or not, to view the World and humans in a way Herzog does. Bravely, honestly, and with unconditional respect and ultimate mercy for the most shamed parts of every human being. The parts that dream.

[Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo]. (n.d.).

This expedition into Herzog's spirit starts with his childhood, which is extremely telling. Like his characters, he grew up isolated, in insane surroundings. Which in his case was a Bavarian post-war countryside where most fathers were absent, poverty was rampant and (at least for him enjoyable) anarchy reigned. He has not seen a banana until he was twelve, used a telephone until he was seventeen, or been in contact with cinema, but he was in a ‘gang’ that found a stash of weapons some SS soldiers left behind. Weapons with which they played in the almost post-apocalyptic ruins of the civilized world. In that ‘insane world’ he and his ‘gang’ found their enjoyment and freedom to be grandiose fantastical stories that in his own words, made for an extremely happy childhood.

Through this anarchy and material lack, Herzog found a gateway into the comical insanity of the human spirit, best characterized by Siegel Hans, the strongest man in Herzog’s village. As a child, Herzog saw Hans try to lift an extremely heavy truck that fell through a small bridge. He recounts: “It could not be done, of course, because it (truck) weighed seven to eight tons. But the very fact that he (Hans) climbed down into the stream and even attempted it was enough to inspire us in awe that I cannot really comprehend today.” It is obvious Siegel Hans directly inspired Herzog’s fascination with characters in futile rebellion, whose main source of ‘insanity’ stemmed up from their bravery and dream-like ambition. Characters like Aguirre, the conquistador who went in search of the non-existing El Dorado, or B.S. Fitzgerald who was determined to build an opera house inside the Amazon jungle, are in a way spiritual descendants of Siegel Hans.

Sometime later, Herzog tells another story about Hans, how police wanted to apprehend him based on some smuggling charges, but he escaped into the mountains. To everyone’s surprise, at the summit of the mountain, Hans sounded his trumpet and alerted the police to his position. However, by the time police arrived, Hans was on another summit, sounding his trumpet again. At the end of a long and comical chase, naturally, Siegel Hans surrendered. His rebellion was futile, but this act of defiance became legendary for Herzog and others in his village. This is the type of character that formed Herzog’s interpretation of the human spirit as well as his own. If ever there was a director ready to try to move an unmovable object, it would be Herzog. From feats like raising an actual boat over a hill in an Amazon rainforest, instead of faking it, as he has done in Fitzcarraldo. To randomly traveling the World frequently risking death, doing odd jobs to survive, getting almost eaten by rats, are all synonymous with Herzog. No wonder then that in his ‘ideal’, ‘Utopian’ film school he would introduce boxing as mandatory, for he believes such physical discipline builds courage and one’s confrontational side that is so important to make movies in a way Herzog does – bravely and without compromise when it comes to his vision.

Bravery is what Herzog needed to produce one of his most confrontational films. - Even Dwarfs Started Small. Like in many other Herzog films, here the main characters are at such a disadvantage in regards to their surroundings that the spectator can feel Herzog’s sardonic anger seeping through the film. The anger he probably first started to develop as he left his isolation in Bavaria and entered the wider German society in which he felt inadequate. He was ridiculed for his specific, Bavarian (almost a different language) way of speaking in film school. As a teenager when he tried to make movies, he was ridiculed and shamed by various German producers and the film society. In short, he was made to feel ‘small’.

Even Dwarfs Started Small is a film about people with dwarfism that start a rebellion in a correctional facility. They are struggling with their surroundings because they are simply not made for them, instead, they are made for ‘normal people’. In one of the more impactful scenes, a pair of lovers is struggling to climb a ‘normal’ bed. More importantly, through sound and general feeling it creates, the film shows how their spirit cannot accept this status quo, but in their powerlessness, the only thing that these rebels can do is to produce anarchy and nonsense in a revolution doomed to fail. To compliment that feeling, most of the audio in the film is just laughter and/or undefined sounds produced by the ‘small’ rebels. From Herzog’s perspective, we are all ‘dwarfs’ and their rebellion in the film was not a defeat because – “… for them, it is a really good, memorable day; you can see the joy in their faces.”

Herzog’s theme of rebellion and confrontation got more refined and filled with more love in a documentary film Land of Silence and Darkness about Fini Straubinger. Straubinger was an old woman who has been deaf and blind since adolescence and who helped other deaf and blind people, some of who have been affected in such a way since they were born. This ultimate isolation and the ultimate strength required to deal with this ‘suffering made bare’ as Herzog calls it, is what attracted him to the subject in the first place. Even though the film is deserving of a discussion, more interesting is the relationship Herzog developed with Straubinger outside of it. Especially important are the moments when Herzog tried to introduce some ‘rebellion’ and ‘anarchy’ into Straubinger’s life by leading this old, deaf, and blind lady on an illegal hunting expedition, on his motorcycle. One can only imagine her experience, the exhilaration she felt as she was being driven on a motorcycle on her way to break the law, and I invite the readers to do so. Once in nature, Herzog fired his gun which made for a fun experience for Straubinger who could feel the shockwaves of every bullet fired. It is this kind of ‘rebellious spirit’ that brings warmth into most of Herzog’s films, whether they are documentary or fiction. Because it is not faked, it’s real, ever-present, and made of pure dreams and pure rebellion of the spirit bent on freeing itself from all the constraints, whether they are natural or societal. From Siegel Hans and his taunting of the police to the laughter of ‘dwarfs’ and... – “… (Straubinger who) was exhilarated because for the first time in her life she had the opportunity to do something which was against the law. When she plucked the pheasant later, she was still delighted about the mischief we had done together, and the pheasant tasted twice as good.”. Afterwards they became good family friends, and an especially strong friendship developed between Straubinger and Herzog’s mother. As this story shows, victory cannot be achieved most of the time. Often it’s not even on the table, but one can still rebel and find courage, find warmth, self-respect, and a deeper meaning to life, no matter how much one fails. With that thought in mind, it is time to come to the conclusion and the film that Herzog sees as a ‘centerpiece’ of his filmography, Grizzly Man.

By Caspar David Friedrich - The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain,

Grizzly Man is a distillation of everything Herzog’s filmmaking represents. Firstly, most of the film is not even shot or directed by Werner Herzog. Instead, the film was, this time literally, ‘thrown’ at him by a man who did film it and direct it and who was in his essence, a pure Herzog character. He was an isolated and misunderstood person who rebelled against his nature and his surroundings to pursue an ‘insane’ dream to be one of the grizzly bears. Timothy Treadwell was an animal activist whose life mission was to protect grizzly bears in Alaska. Unfortunately, but somewhat expectedly, Treadwell and his girlfriend were violently killed and eaten by a grizzly bear during one of his documentary shootings. During his time with the bears, Treadwell filmed around three hundred hours of material that Herzog then montaged into a feature.

The picture above is a well-known painting by Caspar David Friedrich which powerfully represents a Herzog character, especially Timothy Treadwell. One can see this figure of the ‘Wandering man’ as both triumphant and defeated. He’s come to the precipice, the ‘invisible borderline’ as Herzog comments on Treadwell’s desire to be close to the killing machines called bears. It is in this sublime and chaotic nature, filled with hostility and murder that Herzog finds the best real-life example of that recognizable spirit he always searches for. The brave spirit in rebellion towards nature and surroundings, and which in its most distilled form walks on this precipice of death. The underlying discussion of Grizzly Bear is not only whether Treadwell’s death was to be expected, but whether it was an anticipated ending when a rebellion of the spirit is pushed to its limits. Of course, Treadwell, just like most of us did not want to die, and ironically that brought him to the bears in the first place. Treadwell was an addict and an alcoholic that was slowly dying inside the society just not made for him. Then he found the bears and his life’s mission inside the ‘bear society’. It was again, not made for Treadwell, but it was made for his spirit that finally found true freedom and expression, in a life worth living. So the main and final question Herzog asks us then is directed towards our own inner turmoil: Do we want life? Or death worth living for?


  • Herzog, W. H. (2002). Herzog on Herzog (P. C. Cronin, Ed.; First edition). Faber on Faber Inc.

  • Vogel, A. V. (2005). Film as a Subversive Art (Second edition). Random House, New York.

  • BBC HARDtalk - Werner Herzog - Film Director (20/1/15)


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