Herzog is considered one of the greatest figures of the New German Cinema, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Schröter, and Wim Wenders. Herzog's films often feature ambitious protagonists with impossible dreams, people with unique talents in obscure fields, or individuals who are in conflict with nature.
French filmmaker François Truffaut once called Herzog "the most important film director alive." American film critic Roger Ebert said that Herzog "has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular." He was named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine in 2009.
Herzog was born Werner Stipetić in Munich, to Elizabeth Stipetić, an Austrian of Croatian descent, and Dietrich Herzog, who was German. When Werner was two weeks old, his mother took refuge in the remote Bavarian village of Sachrang (in the Chiemgau Alps), after the house next to theirs was destroyed during a bombing raid in World War II. In Sachrang, Herzog grew up without running water, a flushing toilet, or a telephone. He never saw films, and did not even know of the existence of cinema until a traveling projectionist came by the one-room schoolhouse in Sachrang. When Herzog was 12, he and his family moved back to Munich. His father had abandoned the family early in his youth. Werner later adopted his father's surname Herzog (German for "duke"), which he thought sounded more impressive for a filmmaker.
The same year, Herzog was told to sing in front of his class at school, and he adamantly refused, and was almost expelled. Until he was age eighteen, Herzog listened to no music, sang no songs, and studied no instruments. He later said that he would easily give ten years from his life to be able to play the cello. At an early age, he experienced a dramatic phase in which he converted to Catholicism, which only lasted a few years. He started to embark on long journeys, some of them on foot. Around this time, he knew he would be a filmmaker, and learned the basics from a few pages in an encyclopedia which provided him with "everything I needed to get myself started" as a filmmaker—that, and the 35 mm camera he stole from the Munich Film School. In the commentary for Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he says, "I don't consider it theft. It was just a necessity. I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with". He won a scholarship to Duquesne University and lasted only a few days, but lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his last years of high school, no production company was willing to take on his projects, so Herzog worked night shifts as a welder in a steel factory to earn the funds for his first featurettes. After graduating from high school, he was intrigued by the Congo after its independence, but only reached the south of the Sudan where he fell seriously ill.
While already making films, he had a brief stint at Munich University, where he studied history and literature.
He earned money by participating in preproduction of a documentary for NASA with KQED. Summoned to the immigration office because of a violation of his visa status, he chose to flee to Mexico.
Before leaving school, he bought a house in the UK, in what was likely the Moss Side area of Manchester. There he learned to speak English. In 1962, he made his first short film, Herakles. In school there was an emphasis on Latin and Greek, in which he continues to read to this day.
In 1971, while Herzog was location scouting for Aguirre, the Wrath of God in Peru, he narrowly avoided taking LANSA Flight 508. Herzog's reservation was cancelled due to a last-minute change in itinerary. The plane was later struck by lightning and disintegrated, but one survivor, Juliane Koepcke, lived after a free fall. Long haunted by the event, nearly 30 years later he made a documentary film, Wings of Hope (2000), which explored the story of the sole survivor.
Herzog, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, led the beginning of the West German cinema movement. The West German cinema movement consisted of documentarians that filmed on low budgets and were influenced by the French New Wave of cinema.
Besides using professional actors—German, American and otherwise—Herzog is known for using people from the locality in which he is shooting. Especially in his documentaries, he uses locals to benefit what he calls "ecstatic truth." He uses footage of the non-actors both playing roles and being themselves.
Herzog and his films have been nominated for and won many awards. His first major award was the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury for his first feature film Signs of Life (Nosferatu the Vampyre was also nominated for Golden Bear in 1979). Most notably, Herzog won the best director award for Fitzcarraldo at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. In 1975, his movie The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury (also known as the 'Silver Palm') at the Cannes Festival. Other films directed by Herzog nominated for Golden Palm are: Woyzeck (1979) and Where the Green Ants Dream (1984).
His films have been nominated at many other important festivals around the world: César Awards (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), Emmy Awards (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), European Film Awards (My Best Fiend) and Venice Film Festival (Scream of Stone and The Wild Blue Yonder).
In 1987, Herzog and his half-brother Lucki Stipetić won the Bavarian Film Award for Best Producing for the film Cobra Verde. In 2002 he won the Dragon of Dragons Honorary Award during Kraków Film Festival in Kraków.
In 1999, before a public dialogue with critic Roger Ebert at the Walker Art Center, Herzog read a new manifesto, which he dubbed Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema. Subtitled "Lessons of Darkness," the 12-point declaration began: "Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants." Ebert later wrote of its significance: “For the first time, it fully explained his theory of ‘ecstatic truth.’” In 2017, Herzog wrote a six-point addendum to the manifesto, prompted by a question about "truth in an age of alt-facts."
Herzog was honored at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, receiving the 2006 Film Society Directing Award. Four of his films have been shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival: Wodaabe - Herdsmen of the Sun in 1990, Bells from the Deep in 1993, Lessons of Darkness in 1993, and The Wild Blue Yonder in 2006. Herzog's April 2007 appearance at the Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois earned him the Golden Thumb Award, and an engraved glockenspiel given to him by a young film maker inspired by his films. Grizzly Man, directed by Herzog, won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Encounters at the End of the World won the award for Best Documentary at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature, Herzog's first nomination.
Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris completed the movie project on pet cemeteries that he had been working on, in order to challenge and motivate Morris, whom Herzog perceived as incapable of following up on the projects he conceived. In 1978, when the film Gates of Heaven premiered, Werner Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated into a short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe by Les Blank. At the event, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition.
In 2009, Herzog became the only filmmaker in recent history to enter two films in competition in the same year at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was entered into the festival's official competition schedule, and his My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? entered the competition as a "surprise film". Herzog also provided the narration for the short film Plastic Bag directed by Ramin Bahrani which was the opening night film in the Corto Cortissimo section of the festival.
Dissatisfied with the way film schools are run, Herzog founded his own Rogue Film School in 2009. The program is a 4-day seminar with Herzog, which occurs annually (the last of which was held in March, 2016 in Munich). Courses include "the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance." For the students, Herzog has said, "I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club, or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn’t mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life. And that’s what makes young people more into a filmmaker than academia."
Herzog was the president of the jury at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.
Herzog completed a documentary called Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 2010, which shows his journey into the Chauvet Cave in France. Although generally skeptical of 3-D film as a format, Herzog premiered the film at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in 3-D and had its European premiere at the 2011 Berlinale. Also in 2010, Herzog co-directed with Dimitry Vasuykov Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, which portrays the life of fur trappers from the Siberian part of the Taiga, and had its premiere at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival.
Herzog has narrated many of his documentary films, and he lent his voice to an animated television program for the first time in 2010, appearing in The Boondocks in its third-season premiere episode It's a Black President, Huey Freeman. In the episode, he played a fictionalized version of himself filming a documentary about the series' cast of characters and their actions during the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Continuing with voice work, Herzog played Walter Hotenhoffer (formerly known as Augustus Gloop) in the Simpsons episode The Scorpion's Tale which aired in March 2011. The next year, he also appeared in the 8th-season episode of American Dad! called Ricky Spanish, and lent his voice to a recurring character during the 4th season of the Adult Swim animated series Metalocalypse. In 2015 he voiced a character for Adult Swim's Rick and Morty. He also appeared opposite Tom Cruise as the villain in the 2012 action film Jack Reacher.
Herzog gained attention in 2013 when he released a 35-minute Public Service Announcement-style documentary, From One Second to the Next, demonstrating the danger of texting while driving and financed by AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile as part of their It Can Wait driver safety campaign. The film, which documents four stories in which texting and driving led to tragedy or death, initially received over 1.7 million YouTube views and was subsequently distributed to over 40,000 high schools. In July 2013, Herzog contributed to an art installation entitled "Hearsay of the Soul", for the Whitney Biennial, which was later acquired as a permanent exhibit by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In late 2013 he also lent his voice to the English-language dub of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises.
In 2011, Herzog competed with Ridley Scott for making a film based around the life of explorer Gertrude Bell. In 2012, it was confirmed that Herzog would start production on his long-in-development project in March 2013 in Morocco with Naomi Watts to play Gertrude Bell along with Robert Pattinson to play T. E. Lawrence and Jude Law to play Henry Cadogan. The film was completed in 2014 with a different cast: Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, James Franco as Henry Cadogan, Damian Lewis as Charles Doughty-Wylie, and Robert Pattinson as a 22-year-old archaeologist T. E. Lawrence. Queen of the Desert had its world premiere at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
In 2015, Herzog shot a feature film, Salt and Fire, in Bolivia, starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, and Gael García Bernal. It is described as a "highly explosive drama inspired by a short story by Tom Bissell."
Herzog's films have received considerable critical acclaim and achieved popularity on the art house circuit. They have also been the subject of controversy in regard to their themes and messages, especially the circumstances surrounding their creation. A notable example is Fitzcarraldo, in which the obsessiveness of the central character was reflected by the director during the making of the film. Burden of Dreams, a documentary filmed during the making of Fitzcarraldo, explored Herzog's efforts to make the film in harsh conditions.
His treatment of subjects has been characterized as Wagnerian in its scope, and Fitzcarraldo and his later film Invincible (2001) are directly inspired by opera, or operatic themes. He is proud of never using storyboards and often improvising large parts of the script. He explains this technique in the commentary track to Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
Herzog considers his prose and poetry writings, such as "Of Walking in Ice", and "Conquest of the Useless", as having more enduring value than his films.
Herzog has preferred to develop a team to work with, both of actors and technical people. He has gathered a group who [see below] have appeared in numerous films. Additionally, Herzog was co-executive producer along with Errol Morris on Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film, The Act of Killing, which reported on the mass slayings that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966, following the overthrow of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno by anti-communists of suspected communists and interviewed a number of its perpetrators.Klaus Kinski: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. In 1999, Herzog directed and narrated the documentary film My Best Fiend (or My Favorite Enemy), a retrospective on his often rocky relationship with Kinski.
Brad Dourif in Scream of Stone, The Wild Blue Yonder, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Bruno S. in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek
Josef Bierbichler in Heart of Glass and Woyzeck
Eva Mattes in Woyzeck and Stroszek
Michael Shannon in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and Salt and Fire
Clemens Scheitz in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek and Nosferatu the Vampyre
Peter Berling in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde
Volker Prechtel in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Woyzeck and Scream of Stone
Irma P. Hall in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Udo Kier in Invincible and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
José Lewgoy in Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde
Walter Ladengast in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Nosferatu the Vampyre
Thomas Mauch worked with Herzog on ten films: starting with Signs of Life and Last Words and ending with Fitzcarraldo. He helped to create hallucinogenic atmosphere in Aguirre and the realistic style of Stroszek. Mauch won Film Award in Gold and National Society of Film Critics Awards for Aguirre. He was Herzog's first choice to be cinematographer during Cobra Verde. After excessive verbal abuse from Klaus Kinski, Mauch walked out of the project. That was Mauch and Herzog's final collaboration.
Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein worked with Herzog on seventeen films. Reitwein was Thomas Mauch's assistant camera during Even Dwarfs Started Small. His first independent work for Herzog was Precautions Against Fanatics in 1969. He helped to create the poetical atmosphere of Fata Morgana, Heart of Glass, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Nosferatu. He won the Film Award in Gold for Heart of Glass and Where the Green Ants Dream at the German Film Awards. He last collaborated with Herzog during Pilgrimage in 2001.
Peter Zeitlinger collaborated with Herzog on more than twenty films, from Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995) to the documentary Into the Inferno (2017), including Rescue Dawn and Grizzly Man. He was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in 2009. He also photographed Encounters at the End of the World which was nominated for the Academy Award.
Walter Saxer produced sixteen of Herzog's films, including Nosferatu and The White Diamond. He worked in the Sound Department during seven of Herzog's films, including The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and Echoes from a Somber Empire. He co-wrote Scream of Stone which Herzog directed. Saxer appeared as himself in Herzog's My Best Fiend and in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, in which he was also subjected to the verbal abuse of Kinski.
Lucki Stipetić is Herzog's half-brother, and he produced several Herzog films, including Aguirre and Invincible. He is a head of Werner Herzog Productions. He won the Bavarian Film Award in 1988 for Cobra Verde and International Documentary Association Award for Little Dieter Needs to Fly in 1998. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award in 1998.
André Singer worked either as an executive producer or producer on eight of Herzog’s documentaries, starting with "Lessons of Darkness" in 1991 and ending with "The Wild Blue Yonder." He won the International Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, 2006. He worked on the recent "La Bohème" (2009), and "Into the Abyss"/"Death Row", 2011.
Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus worked with Herzog on twenty films, from Signs of Life and Last Words (both from 1968) to Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). She won the Film Award in Gold during the German Film Awards for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in 1975.
Joe Bini has collaborated with Herzog on nineteen films, from Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) to Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2009). He was nominated by American Cinema Editors for Best Edited Documentary Film for Grizzly Man in 2005.
Ann Poppel collaborated with Herzog on four films, including Nosferatu the Vampyre and Scream of Stone. Gisela Storch worked with Herzog on six films: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. She was nominated for a Saturn Award for Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979.
German Krautrock band Popol Vuh, founded by pianist and keyboardist Florian Fricke, have composed music for eight of Herzog's films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu, The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and My Best Fiend. Their compositions were also used by Herzog in Rescue Dawn. Florian Fricke made a cameo as a pianist in Signs of Life and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The band took its name from the Popol Vuh, a manuscript of the Quiché Maya kingdom. They had seen Herzog's Fata Morgana, in which Lotte Eisner reads parts of the Popol Vuh.
Since 2001 and the passing of Florian Fricke, for orchestral scores Herzog has mostly chosen Klaus Badelt. The first of so far four collaborations, "Invincible" (2001) was actually one of Badelt's first film scores. Badelt also wrote the scores to "Rescue Dawn" (2006), "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" (2010), and is currently working on Herzog's upcoming feature "Queen of the Desert" (2015).
Herzog has invited Ernst Reijseger to compose scores to five of his films. Two were documentaries (The White Diamond and Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and three were features (The Wild Blue Yonder, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, and Salt and Fire). His music was also used in Rescue Dawn and in a video documentary about recording music for Grizzly Man. It was entitled In the Edges: The 'Grizzly Man' Session directed by Erik Nelson. Reijseger also had a cameo in My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done.
Henning von Gierke collaborated with Herzog on seven films and several operas. He was Production Designer during The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo. As a Set Decorator he worked on Heart of Glass and Woyzeck, as Stage Designer on operas Lohengrin and Giovanna d'Arco, and as Costume Designer on the film The Transformation of the World Into Music. Gierke shot additional still photographs on Stroszek's set. He appeared twice in Herzog's film The Transformation of the World Into Music as himself and in Herzog's TV realisation of the opera Giovanna d'Arco. Von Gierke won the Film Award in Gold for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser at the German Film Awards and the Silver Bear for an outstanding single achievement for Nosferatu, at the 29th Berlin International Film Festival.
Herzog has been married three times and has three children, one from an outside relationship. In 1967, he married Martje Grohmann, with whom he had a son Rudolph Amos Achmed, born in 1973. In 1985, Herzog was divorced from Grohmann.
In 1980, Herzog had a daughter Hanna Mattes (now a photographer and an artist), born to his companion Eva Mattes.
In 1987, he married Christine Maria Ebenberger. Their son, Simon Herzog, was born in 1989. Herzog and Ebenberger divorced in 1997.
In 1996, Herzog moved to the United States. In 1999, he married photographer Elena Pisetski, now Lena Herzog.
Herzog is an atheist.Doktor Faust (1986, Teatro Comunale di Bologna)
Lohengrin (1987, Bayreuth Festival)
Giovanna d'Arco (1989, Teatro Comunale di Bologna)
La Donna del lago (1992, Teatro alla Scala, Milan)
The Flying Dutchman (1993, Opéra Bastille)
Il Guarany (1993, Theater Bonn)
Norma (1994, Verona Arena)
Il Guarany (1996, Washington National Opera)
Chushingura (1997, Tokyo Opera)
Tannhäuser (1997, 1998 Teatro de la Maestranza; Teatro di San Carlo; Teatro Massimo)
The Magic Flute (1999, Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania)
Fidelio (1999, Teatro alla Scala)
Tannhäuser (Wagner) (2000)
Giovanna d'Arco (2001, Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa)
Tannhäuser (2001, Teatro Municipal; Houston Grand Opera)
Die Zauberflöte (2001, Baltimore Opera)
The Flying Dutchman (2002, DomStufen Festspiele Erfurt)
Parsifal (2008, Palau de les Arts, Valencia)
Floresta Amazonica (A Midsummer Night's Dream) (1992, Teatro Joao Caetano)
Varété (1993, Hebbel Theatre)
Specialitaeten (1993, Etablissement Ronacher)
The Killers: Unstaged (2012, Paradise Theater, New York City)