Werner Herzog has never played by the rules. From the very start of this short film documenting his life, we are confronted with his enigmatic, off the wall view of the world. Having lost a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris, that he would never finish the film Gates of Heaven, he kept his promise to eat his own shoes. In this bizarre clip we are shown Herzog stewing his shoes in a large pan and subsequently eating them. It is just one example of many in the film that showcases Herzog's unique personality and is perhaps one of the reasons he is so revered by his cult following.
Given Herzog's inclination to veer to the unusual, it is surprising how linear the documentary is. We are taken on a brief but emotional look at his upbringing and a fairly chronological view of his filmography. If you're unfamiliar with Herzog, you may find it disappointing that the director, Thomas von Steinaecker, chose not to delve deeper into his personal life. Although one scene in particular really gives a sense of Herzog's struggles early on in his life. He recounts his mother telling him that they only had one loaf of bread for the week, and for each day a slice was cut from the loaf. In a heartfelt explanation Herzog breaks down, telling the interviewer that they rarely made it to the weekend before the bread was eaten. It's scenes like these that give a sense of his upbringing, it is a shame that this is one of a few that reveals the man behind the camera.
His work relationship with Klaus Kinski is featured prominently showing his importance to Herzog's work. The intense internal and external pressure generated by him as an actor was revered by the famous director during the marking of his films. The combination of the two unique energies, which at first complemented each other, became too much in the end and Kinski's deteriorating mental health meant they didn't work together again after Fitzcarraldo (1982). It is perhaps surprising that they were able to work together for as long as they did as some behind the scenes shots show a man on the edge, regularly hurling abuse at Herzog and at times coming close to violence. It is incredible the lengths at which Herzog goes to in order to film a scene. In Fitzcarraldo, we are shown how a huge steamboat is pulled by hand over a mountain by the crew of the film. It resulted in a fractious atmosphere on set with one person even dying during filming. Watching the documentary, it makes the viewer question how much of Herzog's admiration is from acting out of the mundane and pure shock value? It certainly plays a role, the extent of which is unclear.
At a running time of 90 minutes, it at times feels a little brief; with a director of Herzog's standing, it would be expected to be a more in-depth memoir on his life. Those who are already die-hard fans will no doubt enjoy running through each of his films and seeing the director give glimpses into his production methods. For those who are unfamiliar with his work it can be a difficult watch, with the documentary mainly covering in a very linear way, the films of the man. In better documentaries like Listen to Me Marlon (2015), a deep dive into Marlon Brando's life, it isn't necessary to have seen his films, yet it is a thoroughly enjoyable account of an extraordinary person's life. In Radical Dreamer, it falls short in getting to know the man behind the camera. What we're left with is a fairly interesting recount of his filmography but as a viewer Werner Herzog remains somewhat of an enigma.
Opening in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on 19 January 2024