Born in 1942 in Munich, Germany, Werner Herzog debuted his first feature film in 1968. He worked with actor Klaus Kinski on several projects, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). More recently, Herzog directed Rescue Dawn (2006) with Christian Bale. He also directed several documentaries, including 2011's Into the Abyss.
Born Werner Herzog Stipetic in Munich, Germany, on September 5, 1942, famed director Werner Herzog spent his early years in a small Bavarian town called Sachrang. In his early teens, he and his mother moved back to Munich after his parents' divorce.
Herzog grew up in post-World War II Germany. He later explained what it was like for him during this time to Psychology Today: "People think growing up in the ruins was a such a bad thing for children. On the contrary, it was wonderful. We were the kings of bombed-out blocks in the cities." Around the age of 13, Herzog first encountered Klaus Kinski, his future film star; the pair lived in the same building for a time. While he received little encouragement in school, Herzog began writing scripts at a young age, later working a number of jobs to fund his early film efforts.
In 1968, Werner Herzog released his first feature-length film, Signs of Life. He quickly became a leading avant-garde director in Europe, known for his challenging film shoots. For Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972), Herzog brought his cast and crew to the jungles of Peru. The film, which stars Klaus Kinski, tells the story of a Spanish conquistador on a mad quest to find the legendary El Dorado. The combination of the jungle's damp, brutal heat and the actors' heavy historic clothing nearly proved to be too much for the cast. Kinski threatened to quit the film, and, in return, Herzog threatened to shoot him. "I told him I had a rifle and he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head—the ninth would be for me," Herzog later told Cineaste magazine.
Despite their stormy relationship, Herzog and Kinski worked together on the film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)—Herzog's retelling of the classic 1924 F.W. Murnau silent movie about a Dracula-like vampire. Around this same time, Herzog took on another epic film project, Fitzcarraldo, which explores one man's odd obsession to build an opera house in the wilderness. Part of accomplishing this goal involved dragging a huge steamship over a mountain. Committed to realism, Herzog insisted that a real ship be pulled over a real mountain, explaining to Esquire that he "wanted the audience to be able to trust their eyes."
Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were the film's original leads, but the two eventually dropped out after the production ran into delays and other challenges. Herzog subsequently brought in Kinski to play the title character. Herzog's years spent struggling to make Fitzcarraldo paid off in the end: For his work on the widely acclaimed film, he won the Director's Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982.
In 2006, movie audiences saw another gritty epic from Herzog: He created a prisoner-of-war camp in the jungles of Thailand for the Vietnam War-era action-thriller Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale. Bale dropped more than 60 pounds to play a U.S. pilot taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese in the film.
Over the years, Herzog has continued to make interesting, if not always successful, choices for his film projects. He directed the much-maligned Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which was released in 2009 and stars Nicolas Cage. In the film, Cage revisits the role of a drug-addled cop—a character originated by Harvey Keitel in 1992's Bad Lieutenant.
In addition to feature films, Herzog has made numerous documentaries throughout his career. He turned his lens to a personal subject with 1999's My Best Fiend, about his relationship with actor Klaus Kinski. Not a traditional biographical project, Herzog told Cineaste that the film "is as much about me as it is about him, about our strange relationship." The director later explored a story of man and nature with Grizzly Man (2005), a documentary following the work of Timothy Treadwell, who lived with and studied grizzly bears in the wild.
In 2009, Herzog released two documentaries: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores some of the earliest human drawings found on cave walls in southern France, proved to be one of the top-grossing non-fiction films of the year. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, which Herzog co-directed with Dmitry Vasyukov, looks at life in a Siberian village.
Herzog has always maintained a strong stance against the death penalty. In 2011, he delved into this issue with Into the Abyss, a documentary about Michael Perry, a prisoner who was sentenced to death. Herzog revisited the topic in the 2012 television miniseries On Death Row, which generated enough interest to spur a follow-up series. Around this same time, the director reportedly began working on a documentary series examining hate crimes, entitled Hate in America.
Herzog has been married to his third wife, Lena, since 1999. The couple lives in San Francisco, California. Herzog has three children—a son named Rudolph with his first wife, Martje Grohmann; another son, Simon, with second wife Christine Ebenberger; and a daughter, Hanna Mattes, from his relationship with actress Eva Mattes.
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