One of the greatest living filmmakers, Werner Herzog makes movies with an unquenchable curiosity combined with an intrepid fearlessness. His films brim with a kind of madness in an era when Hollywood wishes to control everything and leech out any unexpected qualities. Herzog's newest film Rescue Dawn (57 screens), starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, has opened to strong reviews and has pulled in over $1 million in U.S. box office. After a career stretching back five decades, it's his first film produced by a Hollywood studio. Though far from selling out, Herzog has brought his unique vision to the otherwise timid and brain-dead mainstream. This is good news for everyone; many Americans will see their very first Herzog film (though his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man didn't do half bad), Herzog himself may qualify for prizes usually reserved for those with half his talent, and his example may reverse an irritating trend that has prevailed for almost a century.
The 64-year-old filmmaker began in the 1960s as part of what would come to be known as the German New Wave, sharing the spotlight with, among others, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. Herzog made a small splash with his amazing early feature Signs of Life (1968), and followed it up with the peculiar Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which delved into the lives of little people and blind-and-deaf people with no hesitation or repulsion. His masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) made him an art-house sensation, with its use of the physical, jungle landscape intertwining with man's obsession and insanity. While Herzog continued this exploration of untamed nature and human foibles, Wenders heeded the siren song of Hollywood, while Fassbinder burned out and left a good-looking corpse, well before Hollywood even noticed him.
Almost every foreign-language filmmaker with a notable movie gets the invitation to come to Hollywood. Indeed, in the early days, Germans were everywhere, having come here to avoid the ever-growing presence of the Nazis (Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk, cinematographer Karl Freund, director Robert Siodmak, his screenwriter brother Curt, William Dieterle, etc.). Something similar happened in 1997 when Hong Kong reverted back to Communist Chinese control; many filmmakers fled for the (relative) creative freedom of America. But a trend quickly evolved. The more powerful and artistic a filmmaker was in his homeland, the less power and artistry he was able to wield in Hollywood. Another German emigrant, Fritz Lang, enjoyed carte blanche during his heyday in Germany. He made huge, expensive, entertaining pictures that were beloved by all. His Metropolis -- currently playing as part of the Kino 30th anniversary festival in New York -- is his most famous example, though his 1928 Spies is a better one.
Once in Hollywood, however, Lang was only assigned leftovers and "B" pictures. (I just watched his 1941 film Western Union, which was full of material ripe for -- and probably rejected by -- John Ford.) This treatment must have been a way of keeping him in control and reminding him that, here, the artist is never boss. The visionary Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo's career follows an eerie parallel. He almost single-handedly revitalized the Hong Kong film industry with hits like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989), but when he showed up in Los Angeles, his first assignment was a throwaway Jean-Claude Van Damme film, Hard Target (1993). To this day, Woo can't seem to get his hands on any worthy material, even though, like Lang, he continues to stamp his personal, signature style on everything he does.
One of the most significant examples from the other side of the coin is Milos Forman, a double Oscar-winner for Best Director. Forman was once a member of the Czech New Wave, making wryly observant comedies like Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball before coming to Hollywood and, like Lee, flopping from genre to genre applying the same professional, lifeless touch to each. Unlike Lee, however, Forman has made some entertaining, terribly flawed, but often funny films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, but he can also turn in sludgy junk like the current Goya's Ghosts (49 screens), a laughable costume epic with haughty pretensions.Given all this, Herzog's success is most welcome. Perhaps the key is for the filmmaker to dictate terms when Hollywood comes knocking. Lang and Woo were probably too desperate and became easy prey, whereas Herzog had nothing to lose or gain. Of course, Herzog follows in the footsteps of Mexican directors like Alfonso Cuaron -- who directed the best segment of the current Paris je t'aime (64 screens) -- and Guillermo Del Toro, both of which were the subject of many articles last year, proclaiming the emergence of a Mexican New Wave. These gifted directors have been able to easily slip back and forth between Hollywood and Mexico, supporting each other and keeping their dignity and style intact. It's not surprising that the crafty Herzog has been able to follow their example. Hopefully more will do the same.