Film Review: Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer documentary

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer Review

“It’s an injustice of nature that we do not have wings."

Few directors have fully embraced their pop-culture celebrity status like Werner Herzog. Parodied, copied, emulated, and admired, Herzog has achieved what few directors have in their careers, transforming cinema and transfixing audiences in not just his fiction and documentary films but with who he is as a person. Never one to shy away from training the lens on himself, the stalwart of New German Cinema is now the subject of an entertaining new documentary by Thomas von Steinaecker.

Opening at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on January 19 and expanding to other major markets this month, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer meanders through Herzog’s life and career with rambling reflections from the man himself. An overview of Herzog, the film plays out like a 101 course, delivering the biographical basics and charting his early childhood dreams through to the well-known stories of chaos working on Aguirre: Wrath of God or the humanity he displayed in Grizzly Man.

“It’s an injustice of nature that we do not have wings,” Herzog says, reflecting on his youthful aspirations to become an athlete. It is these insightful and articulate bon mots that have helped Herzog attain his pop culture status that impresses his contemporary, Wim Wenders, who remarks that Herzog really made it by being parodied on “The Simpsons.”

Wenders is but one of a slew of A-listers von Steinaecker has gathered to reflect on their relationship and working experience with Herzog.  From Queen of the Desert stars Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson reflecting on his good nature and Rescue Dawn’s Christian Bale remarking that “he’s got a good face,” to Joshua Oppenheimer, Patti Smith, Chloe Zhao, and his The Mandalorian co-star Carl Weathers sharing observations, their working knowledge helps paint a delightful picture of Herzog.


A man known for his eccentricity, whether that involves having his film crew haul a steamship over a Peruvian mountain, cooking and eating his shoe, or getting shot on camera, Herzog is a real character. To paraphrase Bale, Herzog is a target for fascinating and unlikely events because he wants to be. Von Steinaecker wonderfully illustrates this in the opening few minutes by showcasing some of those more eccentric moments, setting the tone for the less-initiated. But rest assured, the film takes a deeper look into what makes Herzog tick beyond his wilder moments.

With his wife, ex-wife, and brothers filling in the biographical details, Herzog appears casually on camera commenting on his own life in a way that only Werner Herzog can. Perhaps best described by Zhao who says all of his films are about the same thing – himself – he winds up pushing the limits of sanity through his alter ego in his films with Klaus Kinski, the obsessive Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, a solitary penguin in Encounters at the End of the World, or as Nicolas Cage’s reckless cop in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. “Radical dreamer” is an apt descriptor of the man who thinks big on-screen and off, constantly balancing risk and reward in life and art.

A straightforward portrait, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer will satisfy both established Herzog fans looking for quirks and those interested in him from a pure filmmaking background. Though any Herzog fan will tell you there are even more unbelievable stories left out of the documentary (my personal favourite is the time he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, which was turned into a wonderfully animated recollection here). Nevertheless, there is plenty here to dig into, analyze, and discuss when it comes to Herzog’s pop culture impact and celebrity.

But perhaps Herzog’s wife Lena sums him up best: “Werner doesn’t really care what anyone thinks.”


Check out Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer this month at select cinemas:

Ted Rogers Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Toronto, ON – Jan 19

Vancouver International Film Centre (VIFC), Vancouver, BC – Jan 19

Playhouse Cinema, Hamilton, ON – Jan 26


Princess Cinema, Waterloo ON  – Jan 26

Hyland Cinema, London, ON – Jan 26