I’ve spoken to Werner Herzog twice in the past year. Most recently, for this Vulture interview about his intriguing new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (The earlier one was this chat for IFC.com, pegged to the DVD release of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) The guy is obviously a very engaging fellow, and my big regret with both of these interviews is that they happened on rather short notice, not giving me enough time to revisit some of the films and think up interesting things to ask him. (I do think, however, that I’m on to something with my comparison of Cave of Forgotten Dreams to Bells from the Deep.)
There is one thing about Herzog’s work that I wish I could talk to him about, but I’ve never really figured out how to approach it, for perhaps obvious reasons. Herzog has always switched between documentary and narrative filmmaking, but recently, I feel like a strange transformation has occurred in his work. Before, his documentaries had an experiential, direct quality. At some point, they became more reflective, with Herzog deconstructing his subjects as he explored them. This coincided, I feel, with a certain detachment and listlessness in his narrative films.
This deconstructive, somewhat intellectualized quality seemed to make the documentaries more compelling, more insightful, while the fiction films began to feel increasingly like tossed-off oddities, bemused decipherings of one-dimensional characters and situations. Even Rescue Dawn, which I didn’t particularly hate, and which is obviously based on a real character and situation (one that Herzog had previously made a brilliant documentary about), has an almost confrontational thinness. Over the last couple of decades, I think the only Herzog fiction film I’ve genuinely loved was Invincible. Then again, I seem to recall almost everybody hating that film, so what do I know.
At the same time, though, I’d still list Herzog among my favorite working directors, because I really think of him these days as a documentary filmmaker who occasionally dabbles in narratives. Which is to say that as much as I dislike stuff like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I don’t really hold it against him. Their lameness is almost a side-effect of his other cinematic accomplishments, maybe like a bad novel that might be written by a great essayist.