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What can I say? This is one serious box set, which almost fully covers the highlights of German filmmaker Werner Herzog up until the year 1999. A basic lack of access has impeded the popularity of German directors like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It wasn't long ago that one had to put up with scattered and inadequate disc (and VHS) copies of a number of the titles in this set. Herzog's films have rich visuals, and the HD transfers presented here bring them back to the quality we remember from their film festival debuts. I think I saw most of his 1970s and '80s output in 'iffy' quality film transfers on Los Angeles' legendary "Z" Channel cable station.
Shout! Factory's deluxe release is limited to 5,000 copies. Each box contains 16 full features and documentaries, all but one of them on Blu-ray for the first time. The collection has been promoted with the promise that the first 100 buyers ordering directly from Shout! Factory will receive a director-autographed copy.
Part of the package is a forty-page book with essays on the director and comments on all of the films. A majority of the films contain director commentary tracks, some in English and some in German (with English subtitles). Werner Herzog commentaries are always good. He speaks candidly about all aspects of his work, and is simply a great raconteur.
The titles in the collection are all from before the millennium, which leaves out some later items like Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World and Rescue Dawn. Herzog's filmography is packed with documentaries short and long, theatrical and TV-sponsored. Some are controversial and others not; at present he seems to be working on a TV series docu called Hate in America, which tells us that he's not yet ready to back away from confrontational subject matter.
Shout! Factory's text blurbs describe Herzog's work as a blend of documentary and fiction. He's made a great many straight docus and a number of dramas based on real life. I'd say what sets Herzog's work apart from most filmmakers is his drive to take his filmmaking to extremes rarely seen. Just in the geographical sense he's an explorer, shooting complex pictures in the heart of the Amazon, on the Australian outback, deep in caves and at the South Pole. But his films are never travelogues; he's always probing the human factor. His early features about societal misfits and outcasts make demands of the audience yet repay our attention with moving insights. Many of his films were partly shaped by conditions and opportunities found on location. The best content in Aguirre the Wrath of God seems composed of things -- weird river currents and tribes of monkeys -- that couldn't have been foretold at the writing stage.
All who have seen the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams knows that Herzog is a man of extreme opinions, looking for extreme experience. To watch one of his adventure films is to see an explorer striving to find the limits of danger. Fitzcarraldo seems purposely designed to drive a filmmaker bankrupt and insane; Herzog's mad quest in the jungle is more outrageous than his character's scheme, to drag a steamship over a mountain 1,000 miles from civilization.
Herzog's docu concepts have also had a second life as feature films. The obvious example is Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a docu about a German who flew combat missions in Vietnam, and was shot down and taken prisoner. It was re-thought as a suspense drama in Rescue Dawn.
Although I think part of the relationship has been exaggerated for good publicity, Herzog's multi-film collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski has a manic quality that bleeds onto the screen. Aguirre, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde (all included in this set) are tense, menacing experiences. According to Herzog's later My Best Fiend (also included) Kinski was one of those impossible actors that drives a director crazy yet turns in extraordinary work.
Perhaps calling the films 'experiences' is not a bad idea. Many of them leave the viewer with very strong impressions. Ballad of the Little Soldier is about guerrilla combat in Central America, and delivers a strong image of the use of child soldiers to kill and terrorize rural regions under dispute. The avant-garde picture Fata Morgana is a visual poem. Where the Green Ants Dream takes an eccentric look at the Aboriginal resistance to business interests developing their lands. The films vary in subject, approach and interest so much that it's not necessary to see them in the order they were made. Herzog's probing, unsparing personality comes through; most of these films made me think that I knew him better, even when his distinctive critical voiceover isn't used. The fierce Aguirre, the Wrath of God makes a directorial statement more powerful than would a straight documentary about Conquistadores -- the moment we see Klaus Kinski's fanatical stare, we know we're on a mad quest to nowhere.
I watched about half of the films and sampled the rest, coming up with no bad discs and no transfers of inferior quality -- the set appears to have been produced as a unit rather than gathered up from a lot of disparate sources. Here's my rundown on what I saw, with a quick description.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is a controversial film about an asylum on a Spanish island; it's been compared to Todd Browning's Freaks. Herzog may have made it so bizarre (and repellent) as a way to jump-start his career.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of Herzog: The Collection Limited Edition will be a tempting package for film fans that remember being transported to new realms of thinking by Werner Herzog's movies. Many of the films are encoded with stereophonic tracks, and most have optional English-language tracks. All are encoded with optional English subtitles.
I'd rate the transfers excellent overall. Even the 16mm films are in excellent shape, and the later Super-16mm titles are for the most part indistinguishable from 35mm.
The only feature already available on Blu-ray is 1979's Nosferatu: The Vampyre, which was separately reviewed at DVD Savant just a couple of months ago. Both the German and English language versions are present. The larger volume of digital content may account for the slightly less sharp image quality on this particular title.
The Herzog Collection contains the better part of a lifetime of film work by a director who clearly didn't believe in the easy way of doing anything; I'm quickly catching up on titles I've read about for years but never had an opportunity to see under good conditions. I hope it is successful enough to set a precedent for Herzog's contemporaries Wim Wenders and Betrand Tavernier. Good going, Shout! Factory -- this release is a classy move.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.