1. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
Not only Herzog’s greatest short documentary, but I think his best, most essential film. So many of the classic ingredients are here: hypnotic long takes, a terrific soundtrack by Popol Vuh, Herzog’s own quirky on-screen presence. The story of world champion ski-flier Walter Steiner (ski-flying as distinct from ski-jumping, which places less emphasis on distance), an athlete so gifted at his sport that its regulating committees seem bent on pushing him to break distance records even at the risk of his life, Herzog presents a man as much cursed as blessed by his own talents. Still early in his career, Herzog seems less self-parodying than he sometimes comes across in later films. We also get a bit of his Burden of Dreams-era megalomania when his first reaction upon hearing Steiner has crashed at the bottom of the ski jump is to wonder what it will mean for his movie. (As it turns out, it lends the film its most ingenious scene: the audio of Steiner in concussed delirium raving to his doctors over slow motion footage of the crash as it happened moments before.)
2. God’s Angry Man (1981)
Most great Herzog documentaries feature a compelling protagonist, and God’s Angry Man is no exception. Dr. Gene Scott was a televangelist in Los Angeles who offered nightly religious programming to viewers starting in the mid-seventies. A larger-than-life figure with a wild temper (think Herzog’s other famous spitfire, Klaus Kinski), Scott was known for lapsing into moody on-air silences that could stretch out to ten minutes whenever phoned-in donations to his church were slow, these epic stare-downs punctuated by Scott leaping out of his chair to rage at his stingy audience. Herzog includes Scott’s temper tantrums in their unedited glory, which have a sick fascination, but the film’s most revealing moments occur off-stage, where Scott comes across as a haunted, work-driven man who has traded his own privacy and personal fortune for the sake of his God. One of the most startling scenes in all of Herzog’s work is when Herzog gets Scott to admit to being sterile and having no friends. It speaks to Herzog’s skills as both a director and interviewer that he was able to earn such candor from such an otherwise unknowable man.
3. The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984)
Another great Herzog documentary offering startling candor from an obsessed protagonist. At first glance, famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner seems like the kind of guy who knows how to work the media. Admired for climbing 8000-meter peaks without oxygen or any other specialized equipment, Messner spent the seventies honing his brand on German talk shows. Kind of like mountain climbing’s Bruce Jenner, Messner had a public persona that concealed as much as it revealed, and Herzog masterfully chips away at Messner’s polished surface to uncover a man driven by pain and compulsion. Messner and Herzog share a love for walking, and they do a lot of it in the film as Messner and his climbing partner attempt to ascend the twin Himalayan peaks, Gasherbrum 1 and 2. The images of the imposing landscape are stunning, but what sticks is the moment late in the film when the normally well-rehearsed Messner reluctantly bursts into tears as he recalls his brother, who’d died on an earlier expedition. It’s then we suddenly know what’s really at stake.
4. La Soufriere (1977)
The Herzog documentary with the most twisted backstory to it. Having earned a reputation as a cinematic daredevil, especially for his work on Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog and his cameramen traveled to Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe, supposedly to film a volcanic eruption on the island. Had the eruption actually occurred, Herzog surely wouldn’t have survived, so the irony is that by not getting what he wanted, Herzog got to hang onto his life. What fascinates about La Soufriere is Herzog’s grim determination in the face of danger, along with haunting shots of deserted towns and the few stragglers who’d decided to ride it out.
5. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
In some ways a companion piece to Herzog’s much earlier, impossible-to-categorize Fata Morgana (1971), Lessons of Darkness received some criticism upon its release for allegedly aestheticising violence. (The same claim could be leveled against the ski-crash sequences in Woodcarver Steiner.) Whether he does or not is less interesting than the way he portrays the burning Kuwaiti oil fields after the First Gulf War as a kind of abstract horror. Working with a bigger budget than before, Herzog uses smooth and slow-moving aerial photography to gaze down upon the wreckage of signal towers and craters left by bombs. The film is an artful document that on the surface seems ambivalent about war, but whose restraint expresses a numb and traumatized grief over what mankind does to itself, and to the planet.
1. No One Will Play With Me (1976)
Herzog’s least successful short films aren’t bad so much as ephemeral. To call No One Will Play With Me a documentary is perhaps a stretch (many other Herzog documentaries, like Little Dieter Needs to Fly, contain staged elements), but it’s so informally performed and shot that it feels like one. Made with pre-school children, the film tells a little tale about a neglected boy and the girl in his class who befriends him. It has its charms, but over the course of fourteen minutes, the story comes and goes in such a rush that we’re hardly given time to care. Coupled with some pretty stiff “acting,” even from the one adult in the film, No One Will Play With Me very much feels like the low-stakes side project it was.
2. Huie’s Sermon (1981)
Here Herzog’s subject is interesting, but his approach to filming him is not. The film emerged from a chance encounter between Herzog and Bishop Huie Rogers while Herzog was taking a break from pre-production on Fitzcarraldo. Herzog asked Rogers if he could film one of his sermons at his Pentecostal church in Brooklyn, and Huie’s Sermon is the somewhat literal-minded record of that. In fairness, Herzog’s passive approach seems at least intentional (in an anthology of interviews, Herzog on Herzog, Herzog claims, “The film needs no discussion. It is a very pure work about the joys of life, of faith, and of filmmaking”), but the relative lack of any directorial choice—except in the sense that Herzog’s rare self-effacement amounts to a kind of choice—makes the film feel incomplete, almost as if it were shot for archival purposes.
3. The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969)
A case of Herzog suppressing his more visionary qualities for the sake of a specific project. The Flying Doctors was filmed at the same time as two other, far greater Herzog films, Fata Morgana and Even Dwarfs Started Small, and it’s possible Herzog’s imagination was being siphoned off in too many directions. Here the film’s subject—international doctors working to bring medical supplies and services to people in Tanzania and Kenya—trumps Herzog’s unique eye, and while this can be admirable (Herzog’s purpose is not to make an “art” film but to bring attention to a worthy effort), the result is a bit flat and matter-of-factual.