Werner HerzogThe poster strapline for Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), released in the UK in May, claims that “The Only Criminal He Can’t Catch Is Himself”. Although clearly dreamt up by a junior marketing exec this otherwise throwaway line manages somehow to suggest the philosophy that has obsessed Herzog throughout his cinematic career: the endless pursuit, the quest for the useless. This preoccupation can be traced throughout his films, from Strozsek (1977), which depicts an alcoholic ex-con, hoping to move to America, to Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his documentary on life in the Antarctic. The quest reached its apex in the early 1980s, when Herzog shot Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the jungles of South America. During an infamously troubled production, he strove to tow a boat over a mountain, became caught in a war between rival tribes and suffered the deaths of several crew members. At the point at which any other filmmaker would have given up, he allegedly vowed to continue, claiming that the film’s completion had become his life’s quest. The result was, sadly, a bloated, overlong and, in places, tedious film. The production did produce one document that captured Herzog’s philosophy; it was not, however, Fitzcarraldo, but Les Blank’s production-diary-cum-documentary Burden of Dreams (also 1982). It is in this film that Herzog utters his most famous monologue. Progenitor of a thousand YouTube parodies (where his laconic, easily mocked Bavarian accent graces such gems of home-made satire as “Werner Herzog reads Where’s Waldo” and “Speed Dating with Werner Herzog”, best line “I made a film about mountain climbers … they all died”), this speech shows Herzog seemingly at his most insane, his most self-contradictory; it is easily misinterpreted as raving or irony, when in fact it contains one of the key claims by which Herzog and his work can be understood.

Standing in the sweating rainforest, he speaks to the camera, his words intercut with footage of men plucking brightly coloured plumage from a parrot, before skinning the bird. He begins, addressing the wilderness that surrounds him:

“It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger ... It’s the only land where creation is unfinished yet ... Taking a close look at what is around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only look like badly pronounced and half finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel ... There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get used to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But, when I say this, I say this in all admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it, I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgement.”

Almost laughably portentous, nevertheless this speech also typifies Herzog’s undeniable, and unfashionable, moral seriousness, which marks him out from so many of his contemporaries. There is something of the restless wanderer and autodidact in his oeuvre that reflects his unconventional nomadic past. As a child, Herzog and his family shuffled across Germany, to avoid Allied bombing, moving from Munich to the Bavarian Alps, and then back again, when Herzog was 12. Famously, the young director had no contact with cinema for the early part of his life (putting him in a unique subgenre of filmmakers, along with the likes of Paul Schrader), but he had seemingly little artistic experience of any kind, reportedly not listening to any music until the age of 18. He studied film at Munich Film School, from where he stole a camera – an incident about which he is notoriously blasé – before moving to America. What followed was a 1960s full of part-time work in steel factories, performed in order to finance his movies, which began to emerge at the end of the decade. By 1972, Herzog had directed three features, and began work on what is still one of his most influential films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

The production history of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is overwritten. The stories of violent clashes between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, his tantrum-prone lead, have been exaggerated to the extent that Herzog has threatened, tormented and shot Kinski (in fact he only almost shot Kinski and that was on the set of Fitzcarraldo). Herzog fed the myth himself with his 1999 documentary about Kinski, My Best Fiend.

This dysfunctional but artistically intense relationship often overshadows appreciation of Aguirre as a film, which is a minor tragedy. Because, regardless of poor on-set relations, the movie is close to a masterpiece, and wildly influential in ways that are still being felt. It was initially overlooked partly because of its staggered release – it was not shown properly in the United States until 1977, when the New Hollywood dream was in its death throes. Yet it was evidently a huge influence on Apocalypse Now (1979). The final shots of Kinski as the deranged and traitorous conquistador Aguirre, floating upstream on his raft populated only by monkeys, is as close as Herzog ever got to capturing his quest for the useless in a single image. The scale gets bigger in Fitzcarraldo and, later, more poignant in Encounters at the End of the World (2007), but here it is at its purest and most immediately affecting.

Indeed, it is an image that can be found, in different forms, in almost every one of Herzog’s films; it is an image – be it a boat atop a mountain, or an existential penguin disappearing over the skyline toward certain death – that is a conjoining, a cinematic unity of sight and mind that represents what the director calls an “ecstatic truth”. This is a term that Herzog will often wheel out in interviews, usually presented as if it had just occurred to him. It’s hard to tell, as with so much of Herzog, whether this is modesty or arrogance – is he so artless as to be unaware that he has said it before, or merely repetitive of his own grim insights? He glosses this “ecstatic truth” as being analogous to an aesthetic and intellectual balance, an insight into the human condition that occurs suddenly and totally. By his own admission, it is a state that he in his films has yet to reach. Despite this humbling concession, others may disagree (after all, he is only the director), especially when considering one of his most recent documentaries.

Grizzly Man (2005) will come to be seen as a landmark for Herzog and perhaps for cinema too. Fitzcarraldo may not have broken him, but the 1980s and the 1990s came and went, during which time he remained prolific but became somehow marginal, and it is only with Grizzly Man that he found himself back in public attention. This is put down by some as a “comeback”, though he was never really away. Whichever way the critics will have it, Grizzly Man struck a chord. And this is not because of a return from cinematic ignominy but rather, more simply, because Grizzly Man is the film in which Herzog comes closest to locating some sort of truth about the human condition. The film documents the last 13 years of the life of Timothy Treadwell, a man who chose to spend the summer of every year amongst the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska. This he did – and filmed himself at it – until 2003, when he, along with his unfortunate girlfriend, was eaten by a bear.

It is telling that the majority of the footage shown in Grizzly Man is Treadwell’s, not Herzog’s, and it seems that in Timothy Treadwell Herzog found a parallel to the many dreamers and madmen that he wrote into his own films. Having a genuine self-created pariah to spar with, Herzog plays with the story every way he can, arguing ideologically against Treadwell one moment, and praising his unschooled cinematic invention the next. The result is an uneasy truce, in which both Herzog and the viewer remain rapt by Treadwell’s idiotic plight. And here is the film’s true skill: Herzog manages to recognise and portray Treadwell as naive and shallow, at the same time as showing his story to be both humbling and able to stand for a greater metaphysical truth. It is a true humanist tragedy.

Indeed, Herzog is enamoured of cinema’s ability to engage with metaphysical quandaries of his own devising. As philosophical enquiries go these tread a line between the profound and the banal. At the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog’s voiceover asks us to consider why apes don’t mimic humans more. Is this supposed to be a serious question? Probably not; it’s accompanied by a badly drawn illustration of a chimpanzee on a horse. This might seem a deliberate undermining of his own principles, but what it demonstrates is Herzog’s affinity for the ostensibly “deep” juxtaposed against the brute, the physical (here is a man with an unabashed adoration for Wayne Rooney). What this peculiarly German combination gives us is, in theory, Herzog’s “ecstatic truth”. His quest to achieve this “truth” is, as noted, incomplete. Thus his films can be categorised in a broad spectrum, each trying to gauge a balance and each ranging from the inscrutably intellectual to the crazily somatic. The former could be, say, The White Diamond, his 2004 documentary about an aeronautical engineer obsessed with balloon flight, or the hypnotic, structureless Lessons in Darkness (1992), featuring the Kuwait oilfields aflame. The latter is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Of all the criticisms levelled at Bad Lieutenant (and there have been many; it has sharply divided critical opinion), accusations of gratuitousness have been infrequent. This is surprising considering the sheer amount of gratuitous bad lieutenant-ing that takes place. In one scene the corrupt Detective Terence McDonagh, played by the excellent Nicolas Cage (look to his performance in 2002’s Adaptation for something closely parallel, or perhaps a quieter cousin of a character), threatens two elderly woman at gunpoint, and calls them “cunts”. That no one has complained about the levels of vileness is due to Bad Lieutenant being almost entirely successful in its aim to capture what Herzog calls the “bliss of evil”. Thus, McDonagh’s violence may be gratuitous but the film’s is not. Instead it is always a knowing step towards the goal of capturing this “bliss”, this ecstasy of badness. That it achieves this encapsulation of terror is unquestionable. What is questionable is just where it fits into Herzog’s repertoire.

The tragic humanist drive that characterises so many of Herzog’s other works is conspicuously absent in this most recent movie. In its place is a succession of cop-genre stereotypes (the gang boss clearly modelled on Pacino’s Tony Montana, the sportsman forced to throw the big game, the indistinguishable duo of federal agents), and a straight refusal to play ball with any of the expected catharses of this genre. Cage’s character suffers no comeuppance. Indeed, all of his problems are solved in one glorious scene that lasts all of 60 seconds. Is this brainless? Absolutely, but in engaging with the typical Hollywood aim (“don’t think, just enjoy it”), Herzog succeeds in making us think.

In Bad Lieutenant Herzog treats genre as playground. Here is a movie that flinches from every attempt to appreciate or analyse, that denies the viewer any sense of meaning or closure. Where Grizzly Man comes to some kind of volatile intellectual conclusion, Bad Lieutenant is a film that totally collapses under the weight of its own paradoxes (Cage, playing a serial alcoholic: “We’ll stick with the mineral water”) and the overriding sense is that this is Herzog’s perverse intention: Bad Lieutenant is his transformation of Hollywood – in both its cultural and technical senses – into his plaything. If you leave the movie feeling empty, then his is the last laugh.

Five Herzog favourites

Even Dwarves Started Small (1970): Inscrutable and fairly unwatchable black and white curiosity focused on a group of dwarves living in an unidentified home. Notable mainly for the many accidents that happened during filming, with one actor getting both run over and set on fire. Unsettling and deeply odd.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972): Herzog’s masterpiece traces the unravelling of an ill-fated conquistador expedition. Shot on location in the Andes and Amazon, and featuring a bravura performance from long-time collaborator Klaus Kinski, it’s a towering indictment of human ambition

Nosferatu (1979): Critics scorned this shot-by-shot remake of Murnau’s classic, but it retains a wonderful menace, enhanced by washed out 1970s palette and another borderline deranged performance from Kinski.

Fitzcarraldo (1982): How else to tell the story of an insane Irishman who wanted to kick-start opera in South America by dragging a ship over a mountain than to drag a ship over a mountain and film it? Cast deaths, tribal wars, Kinski unhinged and, of course, “der chunkle”. Classic.

Grizzly Man (2005): A cut ‘n’ paste of footage shot by “Grizzly Man” Tim Treadwell, before he was eaten by his leading man, intercut with recollections of friends and family and Herzog’s own deadpan voiceover. Herzog’s agonising about whether to play the tape of Treadwell being ingested is mesmerising.