Werner Herzog, the Manic Genius

“They call me ‘mad’. But I don’t care. The only thing that counts is what’s up on the screen.” This is Werner Herzog. Entirely single-minded, his every action is only directed towards fulfilling his destiny – the creation of “authentic” cinema.

One of cinema’s most controversial and enigmatic filmmakers, Herzog has a vision of real life and fiction feeding off each other for mutual poetic inspiration, persistently pursuing his “ecstatic truth”. Through wild imagination and stylization, his films are immersed in a universe filled with destruction and the demise of the individual. These themes emerge throughout a body of work at once stunning and perplexing.

With a compulsive drive for authenticity and a pathological addiction to sensationalism, he has a reputation of going to extremes to realize his vision, to the point of risking his own and other people’s lives. These stories include his threat to kill anyone who tried to halt his filming of Signs of Life (1968) on the Greek island; and his reckless decision that put his team through hell in Amazon rainforest when shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Yet, he has beaten seemingly unbeatable odds, and created a hallucinating world of utter absurdity and exquisite beauty.

His worldview often seems bleak and distressing, featuring an uneasy balance between anti-humanistic views about civilization and a genuine sympathy for the very human beings. Many of his heroes are quixotic outsiders who reject or are rejected by society, only to be crushed by the weight of their own ambitions. Be it a genius or a madman, Herzog is not alone. Together with Klaus Kinski, his turbulent “nemesis” whom he always plotted to murder, they have created a mythic legacy of five classics, including Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).

This retrospective of Herzog’s early works represents his audacity and fearless vision as an elusive auteur. The 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival and the upcoming Cine Fan programme will continue to tell his mesmerizing tales of conquest and obsession.

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