Werner Herzog has had an illustrious career in filmaking. We'll be ranking his best documentaries.

1. Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man centers around Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers in an Alaskan State Park to live and protect Grizzly Bears (the last of which he was killed by the Bears he vowed to protect). The film acts as an intermediary between Herzog and Treadwell, a communication of ideals and boundaries, questioning Treadwells motives.The film is not just the life and death of Treadwell but a discussion around what it means to document a subject and the interaction a filmmaker has with the subject. 

The film is a juxtaposition between Treadwells perception of a harmonious nature and Herzog's disagreement with this notion of nature. While commending Treadwells ability to capture the beauty in this nature, the film is organised in a way which allows Herzog to place his views at the forefront of the documentary. The narrative of chaos within nature is shown throughout the film. The hardships faced by the bears and the indifferent suffering within nature, which ultimately entoiled itself with Treadwells life. 

The beauty of Grizzly Bear however rests with the sympathy shared between the filmmakers. Herzog has spent his career trying to express the ‘deep truth’ behind human nature and unveiling what pushes the momentum of human desire. The solitude and despair that led Treadwells life into the direction of bears originated from his struggles. Herzog recognises the epiphany that occurred in Treadwells life, and represents this affection with intimacy. The complexity and tragedy of a man's life is deliberately discussed, forcing the viewer to relate. 

Grizzly Man is the most accessible of Werner Herzog’s documentaries and provides the clearest example of how he questions the subject matter in his documentaries. Herzog constructs his films around humanness. This documentary is a testament to the introspection in which Herzog’s search for an understanding takes form.

2. Lessons of Darkness

Lessons of Darkness is an exploration of the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Filmed in a non contextual way to highlight the destruction and despair of Kuwait in the post war period. Shot from the perspective of an observer Herzog takes a step back to highlight the eradication of sanity and life that war provides. The film has few interviews and no explanation as to why or what the war is about, instead letting the visual narrative lead the conversation.

The harrowing scenes captured in the film is almost alien to everything seen in life. It is an apocalyptic vision of hell on earth, with Herzog's narration acting almost as a premonition of disaster. With the removal of political or historical context the film revolves around the imagery, this allows for a unique viewing of a landscape that could be the result of any war in any place.

The unimaginable carnage that this film captures is otherworldly. It is hard to imagine that this is a place on earth, it is incomparable to nature, but this is exactly the lesson and topic of the film. The horrors of man are captured, the surreal complexion of ruin are encapsulated, something that Herzog seems situated to arrange.

 3. Encounters at the end of the world

“My questions about nature were different.”

Herzog goes to Antarctica to document the idiosyncrasy of the pole, not to make a film about “fluffy penguins” (although it does include penguins) but to document the workings of the frozen region and the people it attracts. The cinematography would alone be enough to carry the film, but once again Herzog manages to conceptualise a sense of humanity through the unique lives of those living in the frigid continent.

Herzog engages with the environment reaching the mystical land of the freezing underwater, the land of deranged penguins and the shack of the first explorers unchanged by time. During the journey he meets an acclaimed descendent of Aztec royalty, someone whose hobby is to be zipped into suitcases, two scientists having a guitar duet after discovering a new species and a banker who now drives a bus in the antarctic. Herzog has an option to make this film about the incoming destruction of the earth but instead chooses to direct an ethereal piece of art exploring the distant lands and presenting the curious human condition.

“In a way, from the South Pole onwards there was no further expansion possible. On a cultural level, it meant the end of adventure. Exposing the last unknown spots of this Earth was irreversible, but it feels sad that the South Pole or Mount Everest were not left in peace in their dignity. It may be a futile wish to keep a few white spots on our maps, but human adventure, in its original sense, lost its meaning, degenerated into absurd quests, an issue for the Guinness Book of World Records.”

4. Little Dieter needs to fly

This documentary is about Dieter Dengler, a man who dreamed of becoming a pilot and in doing so ended up being shot over the Laotian border in the Vietnam war. Dengler recounts an early memory of his village being destroyed by allied aircraft, and this designated a desire to fly. Growing up in post-war Germany Dengler struggled and soon migrated to America joining the Airforce and Navy in order to fly.

Little Dieter needs to fly is however predominantly focused around Dengler’s experience once the plane crash lands. The majority of the film recounts the traumatic experiences Dengler encountered while being held prisoner and the perilous journey in which he endured in order to escape his captors. Herzog seeks to reveal what drives people and what gives them hope in times of true despair. This documentary is an insight into what keeps someone going, the someone in this case is in a jungle alone far away from safety with no food deep within rival territory. 

Herzog does not alone focus on the past, he instead concentrates on how the past haunts those who experience it. Dengler is asked to recreate scenes and revisit the places in which his past unfolded, in doing so Herzog tries to reveal the Denglers defiance of death and his struggles to come to peace with this past. Herzog’s obsession of finding the most evocative stories is preserved within this film, although in order to accomplish this the documentary seems utterly unconcerned with the notion Dengler wasn't just flying his plane, he was bombing a country and people.

5. Cave of Forgotten Dream

“What Constitutes Humanness?”

Here Herzog returns to his existential monologues, being invited to direct a film about the oldest cave paintings in the world. The Chauvet caves of Southern France contain cave paintings from 35,000 years ago, discovered in the 1990’s it has been locked off from the public in order to maintain its preservation. Herzog excels in making his films about the human experience and this film provides him a free pass to query his ideas of humans and relate the ancient past of humans to the present.

Herzog attempts to bring the audience into a state of imagination, to understand the condition of the cave once the human and animal presence departed. To do this scientists and their studies are introduced to explain paintings, patterns and people that enlighten the cave. This documentary is fuelled by interest, with prehistoric flutes in the pentatonic key, (the key same we use today) ivory female figurines  and a perfume expert who can smell caves.

This is all without talking about the beautiful cinematography, which was also filmed in 3D to heighten the experiential event. If anyone was able to develop a film around ancient cave art, fulfilling the aesthetic, cultural and historical processes it would be Herzog.

6. Into the Inferno

“It is a fire that wants to burst forth and it could not care less about what we are doing up here.”

Making a documentary about volcanoes would seem fairly straightforward, but Herzog manages to extend the topic much further. Herzog travels the world encountering cultures that are enthused by the volcanic mythology. From the dictated ideology of North Korea to an ex cannibalist island, and an island that worships the return of a US soldier. The allure of the volcanoes draw Herzog’s interests, but he is just as interested in the volcanoes role as a centerpiece of power, influencing human cultures.

Joined by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer first met in Encounters At The End Of The World, Into the Inferno seeks to explore the complex nature of volcanoes and how this has affected human history. From chicken churches to discovering some of the oldest human remains in Ethiopia, Into the Inferno presents itself as a passion project. With two people having so much fun and fascination in the subject it is hard not to be carried along with the film. 

Every turn within the film is unexpected, but the plot remains coherent enough for it not to be lost, in the examination into one of the most destructive natural phenomena in history. The unfocused narrative embraces a loose structure which allows Herzog’s approach to storytelling to unravel itself in intrigue. 

Into the Inferno is now streaming on Netflix.

7. La Soufrière

A precursor to Into The Inferno, La Soufrière is based upon the volcano of the same name and the surrounding land which the populus left in fear of eruption. Herzog first became interested in the island after hearing that all but one man had left the island. The inquisitive nature of Herzog took him to the island in search of this man, irrelevant of the danger to himself and his crew.

An early conception to what the Herzog documentary would become, the sense of playful exploration is found within La Soufrière. A young Herzog completely ignores all warnings of harm choosing to film the volcano with the awareness that it was predicted to erupt at any moment. The fearlessness vering on stupidity Herzog retains drives this film, with the abandoned town being captured purely because unlike the inhabitants Herzog refused to leave.

Although Herzog shot this film as if it was the last interaction with the island of Guadeloupe before it was completely enveloped in ash, fire and destruction, the eruption never came. The highlight of the film comes from the men who refused to leave the island instead. Herzog’s films tend to focus on individuals who have an eccentric or egocentric worldview, the men who refuse to leave the island fall into this category, perceiving death as completely inevitable. This 30 minute short film isn’t too deep or profound, but as a short film it's interesting and an exemplifier of greater things to come.

8. Into the Abyss 

Werner Herzog’s examination of capital punishment. Into the Abyss is driven by interviews with a death row inmate, and the lives of others he effected with his decision to commit murder. Herzog’s investigation unveils layers of humanity, questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and whether it can provide justice to those who have done wrong. 

Herzog takes a backseat in this documentary allowing the viewer to reach their own conclusions with the interviews coming to the forefront. Herzog reveals the utter senselessness of murder and the sorrow of those put to death. Into the Abyss presents a disenfranchisement of the death penalty with the stories of those who are left behind by the American state, and the immorality of the same state that then takes the lives of its citizens. 

The presentation is underwhelming, but Herzog emphasises the personal experience, prioritising the emotional weight of those interviewed. The film isn’t a masterpiece, it is instead an engagement into the sad reality of murder and the death penalty. An examination into this subject unleashes the somber sensibility that life is precious and it can come to an end for no just reason.

9. Wings of Hope

Wings of Hope documents the German woman who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the amazon rainforest. Herzog was inspired to make this film since he had narrowly avoided taking the same flight in 1971 while he was location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God, his reservation had been canceled due to a last minute change in itinerary. The film is comparable to Little Dieter Needs To Fly due the fact that Herzog retraces the events with the survivors.

Juliane Koepckem, 17 at the time landed alone in the Peruvian Jungle, with no live human life around her. This phenomenal story concluded after 12 days when Juliane was eventually reunited with her father. For those twelve days, Juliane waded through the jungle with a broken collarbone, a gash to her left leg and to her right arm, eating only sweats found at the crash site. 

This phenomenal story feels much more grounded than its counterpart, but this due to Koepckem’s subdued response to the film around her. This is not a bad thing, as it reveals a perfectly acceptable way of coping, but it provides Herzog less manipulation with the cinematic events. The film is nonetheless compelling, it just feels insubstantial in comparison to his other work as it doesn’t reveal any ‘ecstatic truths’ that one becomes accustomed to in Herzog films.

10. Wheel of Time

Herzog turns to Buddhism and the Kalachakra initiation events which prompts Buddhists from different whereabouts to begin a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya. Herzog concentrates the documentary around the pilgrimage to the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi tree, taking him to Mount Kailash in Tibet. The documentary includes a personal interview with the Dalai Lama, as well as a former political prisoner who was imprisoned for 37 years due to his support of the independent Tibet movement. 

This is one of Herzog's most patient films, contemplating around the sand mandala which is created over days to perfection and then dismantled to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life. Herzog's philosophy on the brute nature of the world, its impermanence and suffering is shared and he has great respect in trying to understand the dedication of the monks.

All this considered Wheel of Time lacks the intensity of many of Herzog's works, potentially intentional to reflect on the patience of the pilgrims, there are many moments of tedious nature. The pacing is completely slowed down, but this reveals Herzog’s fascination. While being interesting, it lacks a narrative focus, but nonetheless a quiet inquisitiveness and thoughtfulness pervades.

Wheel of Time is Streaming now on Mubi.

Special Mentions – Burden of Dreams

'If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project'.

Herzog is stranded in the jungle with a 300 hundred ton steam ship that won't move and time is running out.Behind his back some of the actors are talking about getting out while the getting is good. Only a few of the vast crew and natives believe in his dream anymore.

Burden of Dreams is a documentary about the making of Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo. It shows the trials and tribulations of a Director pushed to the edge. Encountering continuous setbacks, developing at every stage of its creation, this documentary highlights Herzog’s aspiration to finish his project. No matter the cost. A key film to watch in the attempt to understand Herzog and his search for ‘ecstatic truth’.

Other Notable Mentions: 

  • Happy People A Year In the Taiga.
  • My Best Friend
  • Ballad of the Little Soldier
  • Land of Silence and Darkness
  • Fata Morgana
  • Meeting Gorbachev