In the ’70s and early-’80s, Werner Herzog was the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, the visionary auteur-explorer who made “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” “Stroszek,” “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” and “Fitzcarraldo.” He approached his work as if he were a cross between a Wagnerian romantic and a modern conquistador. Beside such tortured genius, his great contemporaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders seemed merely diligent.
Who would have predicted that, by the 2010s, Herzog, now 69, could justifiably claim to be the busiest man in show business? Last year saw the release of two penetrating Herzog documentaries, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” his 3D investigation of the oldest known art in the Chauvet caves in Southern France, and “Into the Abyss,” a study of a Death Row inmate (who was subsequently executed) that argued against capital punishment.
Since then the sometime actor Herzog has completed his role as a homicidal maniac, known as “The Zec,” opposite Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher in the Paramount thriller “One Shot.”
Yesterday came the news, via comments given to the British trade Screen International by Herzog and his producer partner Andre Singer, that the indefatigable filmmaker is lining up three films that will all have a “must-see” vibe about them.
The first he hopes to put before the cameras is a “stylized documentary” about volcanoes. “I have become friends with a great volcanologist from Cambridge University called Clive Oppenheimer,” Herzog told Screen. “He wrote a wonderful book called ‘Eruptions That Shook the World’ about cataclysmic events of the past, some that almost wiped out the human race.”
Also in conversation with Screen, Singer noted that the film could echo his and Herzog’s first collaboration, “Lessons of Darkness” (1992), which documented the 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires. “The Herzogian hell-on-earth images in that film could be similar to those Werner strives for in the volcano documentary,” Singer said. “But it is obviously dangerous to predict what it will look like as Werner could take it in any direction.”
Herzog has also been asked by June Browne Newton, the widow of Helmut Newton, to direct a documentary about the celebrated German-Australian fashion photographer, who died in 2004. (Newton famously shot Nastassja Kinski, the daughter of Herzog’s iconic star Klaus Kinski, for Playboy.)
He is also developing a fictional film about Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the British explorer, Arabist, archaeologist, diplomat, administrator, and spy who with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I helped lay the foundations for modern Iraq. Naomi Watts will play the extraordinary woman, sometimes known as “Gertrude of Arabia,” who, for all her pioneering, was an ardent leader of the Anti-Suffragette movement. There has been a talk of a rival Ridley Scott film about Bell to star Angelina Jolie, but the Herzog-Watts version is potentially the more subversive one.
With all this frantic activity, the danger is that Herzog won’t have time to guest on “The Simpsons” again.