Herzog's documentaries have the same sense of wonder and mystery that made us all fall in love with the early Spielberg movies. They have adventures and quests daring and exotic enough for Tintin or Indiana Jones, and they have a protagonist as awkwardly entertaining as Michael Moore. Herzog's continuing obscurity may just be a matter of the inescapable arthouse stigma of documentaries — or it could be that goofy, otherworldly voice — but does it not also say something about our world today, that we hunger for well-executed familiar spectacles instead of seeking out quests into the great unknown?
Herzog's fiction films historically have been more celebrated than his documentaries, in particular Aguirre, the Wrath of God and his other collaborations with Klaus Kinski. Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are certainly among the great films of all time, but beyond them I find most of his features oddly pedestrian. Perhaps Herzog is shackled by his own conviction that the great images lie "out there" in our real world, and his own inner vision is confined to what has already been shown in movies, since he so often decries the narrow scope of cinema today. Or perhaps the observation is irrelevant, since Herzog has also said his fiction films are documentaries and his documentaries are all fiction.
The truth is even in his documentaries Herzog does stage many things, and his films all take place in a kind of heightened realm several steps removed from reality. Many of them would meander right out of existence without the support of his narration — Fata Morgana being the wordless, wondrous exception — and there are times when he borders on preening with his self-consciously bizarre interview questions. But scene for scene, no documentary filmmaker alive today has a better knack for uncovering the poignant, the grotesque, and the awe-inspiring in people and places, from a scuba diver in Antarctica to a mysterious waterfall in Guyana. His secret is surely in his own unique mixture of aplomb and bravado, but I speculate that it fundamentally begins with a question he must ask himself every day: "Where is the magic?"
Spielberg, in his time, knew that the magic in cinema lies in the unknown. More than that, it lies in a specific texture given to the unknown, an atmosphere that makes us feel like the world is a vast, dangerous, and wondrous place. But when we go to the movies and see dinosaurs and Transformers and Na'vi, we are thrilled, but then we we leave the cinema and life remains the same because we know that all those things are part of a separate world. When we go to the movies and instead we are transported underneath the Antarctic ice, or we float across the Sahara desert, or we step into a cave which has not been seen by human eyes for thirty thousand years, we come out gasping because suddenly the world we shuffle through every day seems brimming with mystery and potential.
Many filmmakers have gone to faraway lands with cameras and brought back extraordinary images, of course. Herzog's particular formula happens to revolve as much around the people he comes across as the landscapes to which he devotes so much time. (And by now it is very much a formula, so much so that in his new films when he inevitably asks a variation of the question, "Who are these people? What are their dreams?", audiences chuckle with recognition.) His treatment of humans varies, from the fascinating, extended silent portraits in Fata Morgana to the feature-length probing in Grizzly Man, and because of this range it may take a while to notice something curious: a deep warmth and empathy coursing through each and every one of his documentaries.
Roger Ebert aptly observed that Herzog's fixation is mania — the drive of characters toward obsessive quests that take them outside the boundaries of normal human behavior — but it is more than a fixation. Herzog loves these people. When a woman in Encounters describes at length the impossible series of outlandish adventures she lived through when traveling across Africa, Herzog co-opts her narrative so he himself can tell how she was kidnapped in Uganda, stranded in the Sahara, chased by elephants, and caught in a firefight at an airport before being rescued by drunken Russian soldiers; and in his monotone voice there is an unmistakable sense of admiration. Here, he says, is a woman who has truly lived.
If you ever get Herzog talking about the merits of film school, he is frank in his insistence that life should be experienced through doing, and doing as much and as strange of things as possible. (Herzog himself attended the University of Munich, but stole his first 35mm camera and worked as a welder to help fund his first film.) More than just advocating a Wagnerian lifestyle, though, I think Herzog in his documentaries is trying to remind us that we may all still have the ability to surprise ourselves. Wherever he goes, he pokes around the outskirts, convinced that someone or something fascinating will be found lurking just out of sight. He is always right. Perhaps each of us just needs to be asked the right question to realize that we do have something to say about the nature of the universe, or yes, we do think that a penguin might suddenly go insane and run away from the colony to die.
To put it glibly, perhaps there is magic in all of us.
Herzog himself put it another way at the AFI screening of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Continuing with his phone book metaphor, he said, "If you are only focused on facts then you are just making the New York telephone directory. I do not want to make a telephone directory. I want to know if William Smith who lives in Brooklyn cries on his pillow at night."