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The 10 best Werner Herzog documentaries

The Teutonic-accented documentary legend has many great nonfiction films—here are the 10 worth checking out first

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Director Werner Herzog is a mini-celebrity these days—he’s read his own version of Go the Fuck to Sleep for hipster parents, and he’s even been a villain in a Tom Cruise movie, Jack Reacher. But the German New Wave icon has a brilliant career behind him, first as a maker of manly back-to-nature fiction movies like 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and lately as a lovably curious documentarian. Herzog’s latest film, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, has him poetically exploring the origins and ramifications of the internet. But he’s got decades of work that’s even better. Here are Werner Herzog’s 10 best documentaries to get started with.

Best Werner Herzog documentaries

1

Grizzly Man (2005)

For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell videotaped his gushing effusions over bears in the Alaskan wild, until one killed him and his girlfriend in 2003. It really was the stupidest of stupid pet tricks; as related in Herzog’s gripping assembly of Treadwell’s own footage and new postmortem testimony, the story becomes a fascinating, strangely touching cry in the dark.

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2

La Soufrière (1977)

Even though this is a shortie (only 30 minutes long), it’s gigantically important within Herzog’s documentary filmography. It was shot on the rim of an active volcano about to explode. How totally Werner is that?

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3

Fata Morgana (1970)

Eschewing narrative in favor of disorienting imagery, this remarkable experimental work, shot in the Sahara, makes the desert look even more like science fiction than the scenes in Star Wars that are set on Tatooine.

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4

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Horses and lions cavort in the dripping darkness: The Chauvet cave paintings are more than 30,000 years old. Feisty Werner has his own take on things. "Do they have souls?" he asks a somewhat mystified anthropologist about the artists. "Do they cry at night?" It’s a fascinating documentary, shot in 3-D.

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5

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

One of the earliest signs that Herzog was becoming a first-rate documentarian, this portrait of a blind and deaf woman struggling to overcome her disabilities manages to avoid any Helen Keller–esque sentimentality.

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6

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

A director known for his penchant for embracing extremes, Herzog decided to travel to the farthermost reaches of Antarctica and ruminate on the love-hate relationship between man and nature. Here’s what he found out: It’s very, very cold. And penguins are totally down with threesomes. We love you, Werner.

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7

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Later dramatized by Herzog himself as the Christian Bale vehicle Rescue Dawn, this intensely gripping survival story about a downed German-American pilot who escaped Vietnam by sheer dint of positivity is not to be missed.

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8

The White Diamond (2004) 

Herzog returns to the Amazonian jungle, site of many of his past achievements (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo), for this absorbing portrait of a hot-air balloonist who hopes to honor his dead friend’s dream.

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9

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Herzog’s documentary portrait of a war-torn Kuwait plays like a guided tour of hell, with fiery, apocalyptic visions as beautiful as they are discomfiting. The director’s usual Sturm und Drang narration somehow seems appropriate here.

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10

My Best Fiend (1999)

Herzog’s half-bitter, half-loving ode to his late colleague Klaus Kinski is a portrait in rage, toxicity and unspoken respect. The doc’s most compelling footage comes from Les Blank’s superior Burden of Dreams (about the making of Fitzcarraldo), which you should start with first. But this follow-up is tons of fun.

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