I’ve been on a Werner Herzog kick recently; you know, the guy who is famous for supposed extreme directing techniques. He’s done some documentaries as well, most famously is “Grizzly Man” about Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear activist who was eaten by his subjects late one season in Alaska. Herzog also did “Wheel of Time” a fantastic documentary about Buddhist faith and the Dalai Lama which is probably one of the closest experiences I’ve seen to what the practice of Buddhism can be.
But one of my favorites so far was the one he did on himself and his relationship to the actor Klaus Kinski titled “My Best Fiend.” The cover image is of this raving lunatic with bulging eyes strangling someone. The opening sequence is of Kinski solo on stage at a mic pronouncing himself as Jesus who, as one person opposes him stands to refute his portrayal as Jesus as messianic raver but as a compassionate leader, Kinski says “No, He didn’t say shut up. He took a whip and smacked their ugly faces! That’s what he did you stupid pig! And if only one of you wants to hear me he has to wait until this fucking scum has left.” It also goes into the rumor that Herzog forced Kinski to act on film with a gun pointed at him from behind the camera on the set of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.”
Several components combine to form my facination with Herzog’s work–his facination with the truth in its bizarre episodes during real time along with his fearlessness to push people to the edge. In films like “Aguirre,” he is 30 years old, directing in German in the Amazon rainforest, 200 miles from the closest part of civilization, and working with locals who threaten to kill Kinski for his radical outbursts of anger. In “My Best Fiend,” he fearlessly puts his intimate relationship with Kinski on film by reliving moments of intensity at the actual locations they took place. Yet he remains coolheaded about it; not stoic or cold, but mildly analytical and self-reflective, like a dialogue with a therapist while out in the field of actions.
Herzog seems to combine high art with pop culture smoothly in these documentaries. They are timely and pertinent to American struggles with spirituality and our facination with self-aplomb. In “Wheel of Time,” the Dalai Lama notes that we are each the center of the universe, that the universe is living within our own inner space and there is one inside of us as well. I believe Herzog captures this moment to indicate to Americans how this can be distorted in our own culture of self-fufillment rather than the purpose of seeing the self as a vessel that has both worlds inside and outside of it, though he never says this.