1. Born in 1942 in Munich, Werner Herzog at age 20 steals a movie camera to shoot his short film Herakles. The director, who loves no myth more than his own, would say, “I didn’t consider it theft—it was just a necessity. I had some kind of natural right for a camera.” He later uses it on his first feature, 1968’s Signs of Life, which wins the Silver Bear award for best first film at the 1968 Berlin Film Festival.
2. Herzog’s bizarre follow-up, 1970’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, casts dwarves as stand-ins for the politically oppressed. His third feature, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is shot in Peru on a tiny budget using hundreds of locals as extras. It marks Herzog’s first collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski—and establishes both as icons of the new German cinema.
3. With his 1976 film Heart of Glass, Herzog enhances his reputation for extreme gambles: In order to faithfully represent onscreen hallucinations, he hypnotizes his entire cast. In 1977, he tops that, shooting La Soufrière around a live volcano.
4. In the late seventies, Kinski and Herzog continue a volatile relationship with Woyzeck and Nosferatu. “I didn’t pull a gun on him,” Herzog later recalled, “but I did threaten to shoot him . . . The bastard understood it was not a joke.” Kinski returned the compliment, saying: “Huge red ants should piss into [Herzog’s] lying eyes, gobble up his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts.”
5. The making of the epic Fitzcarraldo, starring Kinski, is chronicled in Burden of Dreams, one of the best behind-the-scenes documentaries ever filmed (and just released as a Criterion DVD). For one scene, Herzog famously struggles to haul a real steamship over a mountain at a 40-degree incline, despite an engineer’s warning of “catastrophe.” Nevertheless, they raise the ship—and Herzog wins Best Director at Cannes in 1982.
6. In 1980, Herzog makes good on a wager he once made to a young man named Errol Morris. Herzog said that if Morris, a perfectionist, ever completed a film, he’d eat his own shoe at the premiere. Morris, of course, subsequently emerges as one of the world’s most influential documentarians. At the debut of Gates of Heaven, Herzog does indeed eat his shoe, piece by piece, after boiling it with garlic and Tabasco sauce.
7. Now 63, Herzog returns with three documentaries: The White Diamond, at Film Forum through June 15, tracks an inventor and his dirigible in the rain forest; Wheel of Time is an intimate look at devout Buddhists in India; and Grizzly Man tracks an Herzogian kindred spirit: Timothy Treadwell, a mountain man who was obsessed with bears—right up until one killed him.