A sumptuous portrait film reconciles Werner Herzog’s enormous film work: Thomas von Steinaecker’s “Radical Dreamer”.
When the pictures learned to move,” people used to say, somewhat condescendingly, about the beginnings of cinematography. In fact, it wanted far more than running, this cinema in its infancy. Above all, it wanted to teach astonishment. Werner Herzog’s films, which owe so much to silent film, have never given up this noble claim. In cinephile France, thanks to Lotte Eisner, the great critic and curator, this was understood from the start; he has long been a cult figure in Herzog’s adopted California home. And in this country?
In his portrait film “Radical Dreamer”, Thomas von Steinaecker takes a brief look at an inconspicuous document to demonstrate the lack of understanding that Herzog often encountered in Germany. It is a decision from the film evaluation board that refused his film “Aguirre – the wrath of God” the rating “valuable” – with a full majority of 4:1 votes. No wonder that Herzog’s pictures eventually learned to walk themselves and largely turned their backs on Germany.
It may be that he has now buried his grudge about it. In any case, he shows none of this to the German documentary filmmaker, who, like himself, is also known as a writer. He prefers to repeat how little he took the rejection to heart that his documentary artwork Lessons in Darkness received at the Berlinale premiere in 1992. At the time, the burning Kuwaiti oil fields to the sounds of Wagner and Verdi outraged a majority of the audience as an “aestheticization of horror”. The filmmaker’s response: “Time is on my side”.
Herzog, who has apparently forgotten growing old due to his unbridled productivity, casually and pointedly strolls along the milestones of his artistic career. Perhaps anger really is something for the gods for him today. But even if eyewitness Wim Wenders confirms that he hasn’t changed a bit in fifty years (apart perhaps from the fact that he wasn’t that funny before), documents of the angry and vulnerable artist might also have belonged in the film.
In 2001 he received me in Venice for an interview about his film “Invincible” with what anger at an incomprehensible film press. I had even praised him – even if perhaps I was the only one. I didn’t deserve his tirade, but to see him so vulnerable surprised and impressed me deeply. Especially with a man who self-confidently declared in the same conversation that nobody but him could have filmed “Fitzcarraldo”, “except King Ludwig of Bavaria, who could have done it”.
Between these poles of vulnerability and unshakable self-confidence he has created his unique work – even if he presents it in this film portrait at times as smoothly as a Walt Disney of “ecstatic truth”.
If earlier wounds are still revealed, they are in the shadow of present triumphs. He modestly shares his genuine delight at the warm reception he received at the premiere of The Mandalorian series at a major cinema; in “The Mandalorian” he plays one of his now 31 acting roles. “These people cheered when they read my name on the screen.” He had never encountered such enthusiasm.
Could it be that Herzog, who teaches dozens of filmmakers every year, all of them Herzog fans, in workshops and internet seminars, shouldn’t know how much he is admired? A filmmaking course held in Lanzarote also provides the background to a sequence of this documentary. The filmmaker is not impressed by the efforts of today’s young filmmakers to do the same – but all the more helpful: “I see my task as helping the participants to avoid a few mistakes. After all, I have at least a certain amount of experience ahead of them.”
One of the strengths of the film is that it does without the didactic – there are well-chosen film quotes that reveal its recurring stylistic features without words. Patti Smith’s appearance, which can hardly be deduced from Herzog’s filmography, is just as charming: Von Steinaecker invited the singer-songwriter to the film because he knew that she admired Herzog. In fact, the admiration and genuine love that Herzog faces in the US as a maverick and self-made legend also explains fundamental cultural differences. There it was the documentary “Grizzly Man” about the tragic love of an amateur filmmaker that made him better known than all his earlier German feature films. Yet for all his portraits of misfits striving for the superhuman, he himself appears as the most admirable of them all.
The most beautiful scenes come from Steinaecker in Sachrang, the Bavarian village of Herzog’s childhood. Through the window, he looks a little furtively into the modest apartment where he lives with his mother and two brothers – but he doesn’t like to go inside. On the other hand, he shows a small waterfall nearby as a landscape of his own soul: “That’s me”. In this refuge of his childhood, the sublime natural scenery from “Aguirre”, “Fitzcarraldo” or the chronicle of the announced volcanic eruption of “La Soufrière” already appear. Among the dreamers of cinema, even giants started out small.
Werner Herzog – Radical Dreamer . Germany 2021, documentary film. Director: Thomas von Steinaecker. 102 mins