Transgression and Transcendence in the Films of Werner Herzog

William Verrone


Werner Herzog’s films often have characters that are on spiritual journeys that take transgressive turns.  These quests are also existential in nature, for what the characters often seek is transcendence.  Because transgression is a sociological, philosophical, and theological entity, Herzog’s films are demanding because his outsider characters are often not easy to admire.  Still, because they take on very personal self-examinations in their search for transcendence, we can respect their tragic, horrific, or painful excursions. Herzog’s protagonists are almost always outsiders in some form.  Whether “being on the outside” quite literally or figuratively, protagonists like Nosferatu, Kasper Hauser, or Aguirre somehow eschew societal norms and become figures of empathy, fear, or disgust.  Even the characters of his documentary work, like Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, are people who somehow do not fit in with society, and so seek escape through crossing boundaries or intense trials of will and perseverance.  As outsiders, they are shunned, but the way they handle this is sometimes different: through madness (Aguirre), spirituality (Kasper Hauser), or rebellion (the cast of Even Dwarves Started Small).  These characters are in constant conflict with others, society, and themselves.  I want to argue that one of the main reasons Herzog makes both artful, meditative films and ones that challenge spectators’ expectations, is due to the recurrence of the theme of spiritual transformation—or transcendence—that often is transgressive.  Such Herzog heroes as Aguirre, Stroszek, Fitzcarraldo, or even the entire cast of Heart of Glass push beyond the limits of sanity, freedom, and societal restrictions in order to transgress or “pass” into a different mental state.  Furthermore, such moves are spiritual in nature, since the characters become individual disciples of their own imaginings, their own beliefs, and their own codes of behavior.  Both physically and psychically, these characters undertake journeys that allow us to see how difficult, yet ultimately manageable, these passages to transcendence are.  I will discuss several Herzog films and characters that exemplify this tendency, including, Even Dwarfs Started Small, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Grizzly Man.



Herzog; Transcendence; Transgression

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