Werner Herzog's Short Films: The 60s and 70s

So we've been chugging our way through The Werner Herzog Collection from BFI and Herzog: The Collection from Shout Factory, but now it's time to address the really complicated situation of Werner Herzog's short films.  Between the two aforementioned sets, the BFI has substantially more short films than Shout's, and it's lovely to see them cleaned up and presented in HD often for the first time.  But even the BFI set certainly doesn't include them all, something I'm going to get ambitious for today, and hopefully cover every single one of his short films that are available on disc to date... most of which, as the above image indicates, can be found in the big boxed set that comes direct from Herzog's own site, if nowhere else.  Several early shorts were also included as extras on Raro's 2-disc DVD of Signs Of Life.  And quickly, before we take this deep dive, I'll just point out that I've already covered two of his short films already.  So just follow the links to read about Christ and Demons in New Spain, Gesualdo and Pilgrimage.  But for now, let's begin at the beginning.

Update 10/13/19: Adding a couple more short film editions with Revolver's Encounters In the Natural World blu-ray boxed set.  They're not amazing, but viable alternatives compared to what else we've got.

Update 6/23/22: Shout Factory has issued new editions of a couple of these shorts in their new Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 blu-ray set. Specifically, on this page, they've released The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, La Soufrière and How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck.
Let me start us off with a personal opinion, if you'll indulge me.  Some of Herzog's short films are truly compelling films that stand up right alongside his feature work.  And others... hold their value as curiosity pieces, early steps or experiments of a talented artist mostly of interest to serious fans and completists.  Something like Wings of Hope I'd recommend to any film fan with discerning tastes, and then there are the ones like Herakles, Herzog's first film from 1962.  It's worth checking out because it's his first film, an intriguing mash-up of bodybuilders and stock footage, loosely suggestive of Hercules' famous tasks, all set to a heavy-handed jazz score.  This is not featured on either of the blu-ray boxed sets or available in HD at all.  It's in the wernerherzog.com box, though (and the 2009 Australian version of that box from Shock), and Raro's DVD.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Raro DVD bottom.
There's a pretty big distinction in these screencaps.  They're both standard def, 1.30:1 presentations of some pretty rough looking source material.  That can be put down as much down to this being Herzog's only 16mm effort, though (all his subsequent shorts are in 35... or eventually digital).  Anyway, the Raro disc cleans up the destructive interlacing, which makes it the far more attractive of the two.  This is a silent film, apart from the music, so there's no question of language tracks or subtitles.  Really, the interlacing is the only important distinction between the two discs, but boy does it make a difference.
Next, we come to The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, a kooky student film-like effort where four young men wander into an abandoned fortress and take up arms to defend it from... nobody.  It's essentially another silent film, except this time with narration in addition to the music, all playing over a montage of the quartet performing absurd military maneuvers.  It's sort of a satire of mankind's penchant for war-mongering and sort of a dream experience.  This one is available on blu, in the BFI set, as well as in the Herzog/ Shock boxes and that Raro DVD.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Raro DVD mid; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
In addition to boosting this film to HD with a new 2k scan, BFI has done some serious restorative clean-up.  On both DVDs, the film is full scratches and damage, both in the picture and sound.  BFI tidies up both substantially.  It ups the contrast a bit, giving us more genuine blacks, and has an authentic, film-like capture.  It also corrects the AR from 1.30:1 to a more common 1.33:1, with slightly adjusted framing.  The DVDs themselves are virtually identical except for the .com box being seriously interlaced.  Get used to that; it's a consistent problem with the box.  And we're not just talking one out of every six or so frames, more like every three out of five.  Raro has its own problem this time, though: forced Italian subtitles burnt into the picture.  If you select English subtitles, they display at the top of the screen, above the Italian subs.  Neither of the other releases have that issue, simply giving you optional English subs with nothing burnt in.
Still in the late 60s, we come to a strange exercise called Last Words.  This was apparently filmed and edited during a break in the Signs of Life shoot.  Somewhere in Greece, various characters speak directly to the camera, repeating their lines over and over, loosely telling the audience about a man who left a leper colony.  This is intercut with said man playing music in a bar.  What does it all mean?  Who knows, but we have it in HD!  Once again, this is available in the boxes, the Raro discs and BFI's 2014 box.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Raro DVD mid; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
We're gonna start burning through these, because the conditions are pretty much the same film after film.  The box set version is badly interlaced.  BFI's new 2k scan from the original 35mm negatives slightly widens the AR and adjusts the framing, though this time we go from the DVDs' 1.33:1 to 1.37:1.  The DVDs are naturally softer with compression issues that BFI's new scan clears up for a much higher quality feel.  One difference, though, is that Raro's Italian subs aren't burnt in this time.  It has optional Italian and English subs, while the .com boxset has English and German and the BFI just has English.
We step into the world of color with 1969's Precautions Against Fanatics, and find ourselves even deeper in absurdism.  Various people stand around a horse race track and explain to the camera their jobs, all of which are insane nonsense.  Herzog's boxset describes the film simply as an "elaborate, on-camera practical joke," possibly because the filmmakers are trespassing and spouting their crazy claims in the proximity of real employees?  Is that the idea?  I'm not even really sure, but it's strangely engrossing, and another one that's featured in the boxes, on Raro and BFI.  There's also a long out of print New Yorker DVD of three Herzog short films, including this one, which I've never seen.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Raro DVD mid; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
This time the Raro disc is interlaced, too, and the boxed DVD is still interlaced, but not as badly (and, as you can see, different frames are affected).  But who cares now that we have this beautiful new transfer from BFI?  It's another 2kscan from the 35mm negs, and as you can see, the colors that were much too red on the DVDs have been corrected, more image is revealed around all four sides, and it's decidedly sharper.  Once again, all three discs include optional English subtitles, while the Raro also has optional Italian ones.
Say goodbye to Raro and BFI for this next one, however, which is a shame because I think 1970's The Flying Doctors of East Africa is a more powerful film than any we've looked at thusfar, and it would be great to get it restored on blu.  I mean, jeez, when you see that tiny child who was speared through his stomach.  It's a documentary, and pretty straight-forward in style even compared to his other docs (which, after all, are often quite stylized).  You might point out that it was released on blu by Revolver in the UK, but the short films they put on their 2009 Encounters At the End Of the World blu are SD upconverts, and there is no HD master available yet.  That's disappointing.  Still, I've got it, so we'll have a look.  And it's available on a couple other DVDs around the world, including one from Art Haus as an extra for Even Dwarfs Started Small, and in the wernerherzog.com and Shock boxes.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Revolver blu bottom.
Unfortunately, the interlacing hasn't gone anywhere on the DVD, and Revolver's blu is really just a standard def upconvert of the same transfer.  But there's one happy difference - Revolver's blu corrects the interlacing.  So it's not HD, but it is an upgrade.  Otherwise, though, the flat, 1.33:1 image is the same anywhere you look.  It's soft and would surely benefit from a nice 2k scan, that's for sure.  One nice thing about the version in the DVD set is that it includes both the English and German audio versions, with optional English and Italian subtitles.  So you can watch it either way; though I should point out that neither narrator is Herzog himself.  Revolver, meanwhile, only gives you the English audio with no subtitles.  Still, it's the way I would go, given the interlacing issue.
It's another serious, moving documentary short in 1971: Handicapped Future.  "Future" because we're looking at children and young adults, and specifically how Germany was not well equipped to deal with their special needs as they moved on to adulthood.  The last act follows one man who moved to America, because it's so much better here.  The most memorable scene, however, is an interview with the mother of a young child, who seems to be dealing much worse with her son's issues than he is.  Happily, and maybe a little surprisingly, this is one of the shorts that found its way to blu courtesy of BFI.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 BFI blu bottom.
This film has a soft, handheld look to it, and BFI was only able to access 16mm print or reversal elements this time, so the gains in HD aren't quite as obvious here as they are one some of their previous shorts.  Fixing up the nasty interlacing from the boxed set's DVD, sure, that's obvious.  After that, though, it's a bit more subtle, with the saturation a little more muted, detail soft and smooth and grain washed away.  The aspect ratio is broadened out slightly from 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, and both versions offer optional English subtitles, with the DVD throwing in Italian subs as well.
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is next, and we begin to see some of the artistic flourishes of Herzog's earlier work creep into his documentaries, in this case a lot of pensive, slow motion shots of high flying action set to the music of Popol Vuh.  Yes, this their first Herzog short.  We also see Herzog step in front of the camera, which he wasn't doing in his earlier work, but of course is quite famous for now.  Walter Steiner is an Olympic ski jumper, who yes, also works as a woodcarver.  Here we see him break records and nearly break his own body jumping to very dangerous lengths, to the point where he handicaps his starting point just to stay alive.  Again, this one's in the boxes and the BFI set, though it's also apparently on another one of those rare, out of print New Yorker DVDs that go for hundreds of dollars online.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 BFI blu mid; 2022 Shout Factory blu bottom.

We're back to a real, film-like feel with distinct grain, though it's taken from 16mm rather than 35 elements.  You can see the colors have been corrected again, getting rid of that ugly yellow push of the DVD.  And of course, it goes without saying at this point, clearing up that horrid interlacing.  The 1.33 AR is the same this time, though the framing has been lightly shifted.  And Shout's blu is clearly using the same restoration as the BFI, looking almost identical.  But there is one difference: Shout's blu is a shade lighter.  I think I slightly prefer the BFI, then, for having deeper black levels, but it's a very minor distinction.

Once again, we just have the original German audio with optional English subtitles, and additional Italian ones on the old DVD.  Yay, for blu-rays!
Well, they're nice when you can get them anyway.  But this next film, 1976's No One Will Play With Me, is another DVD-only title, I'm afraid.  This one's kind of an oddball, not so much on its own terms but within Herzog's body of work.  It looks like it might be a documentary at first, along the lines of Handicapped Future, but these kids are acting.  Apparently, he talked to school children, listened to their stories, and then made a little drama based on what they told him.  It's pretty much all filmed and takes place in a classroom.  I'm not sure it's really for children, though, as our star talks about his father beating him and his mother being too sick to feed him properly.  It's like the world's cutest film with very dark undertones.  And it's just fourteen minutes long.  No blu-ray, but at least this one's been released by Raro, so they should have our back with the interlacing, right?
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Raro DVD bottom.
Wrong; both DVDs are interlaced.  The exact frames afflicted aren't always the same, and the 1.30:1 framing is slightly different.  But it's all academic; neither one can really be said to be better than the other, they just have insignificant, arbitrary distinctions and are clearly using the same, root master at their cores.  Both have the German audio and optional English subtitles, though only the Raro also has Italian.
And we were blu-less for 1977's La Soufrière for a long time, too, except again for that Revolver White Diamond blu that really just slapped this on as an upconverted, standard def extra.  This is peak Herzog, though: a documentary where he goes to film an erupting volcano on Guadeloupe after the area's been evacuated.  He talks to three eccentric locals who've decided to stay, at least one specifically out of a desire to die.  If you want to see one of his famous, mad journeys where he puts himself in ridiculous damage in the name of film, and capturing footage no one else would dare, here you go.  I've got it in the .com and Revolver boxes, but it was released on one of those rare New Yorker DVDs, too.  However, Shout's new HD restoration as part of their Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 is now easily the definitive edition.
2006 .com DVD top; 2009 Revolver blu mid; 2022 Shout Factory blu bottom.
Yeah, the DVD's interlaced, and yeah, it's kind of green and murky... although some of that could be attributed to the sulfurous smoke and dust Herzog's carrying his camera through.  The 1.29:1 framing is also probably a little too slim.  But Revolver fixes... some of this.  It's still clearly using the same low-fi master, but it's not interlaced and framed at a more reasonable 1.34:1.  It's also one teensy tiny iota less green.  But it's Shout's blu that really cleans up the colors and smartens up the image.  I mean, even without clicking through the screenshots to see them fullsize, the superiority is obvious.  It's like a sheet of wax paper had been covering the film, and Shout just lifted it.  And despite still being 1.33:1, it pulls back to reveal more along the top and sides than Revolver.

An upside to the DVD, though, is that it includes both the German and English audio, as well as optional English and Italian subs, while Revolver gives us just the English track with no subs, and Shout also limits us to the English track, though at least the English subs are back.
At least we can end (Part 1, The 60s and 70s) with a short that has been restored again.  1978's How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck is a silly but entertaining study of what Herzog calls a new language: cattle auctioneering.  It's filmed at a "world livestock championship" in Pennsylvania.  It's full of fun characters from Amish locals who show up and give out free food to the first ever female contestant, the international champion and plenty of bulls.  The interviews are all a kick, though the auctioneering itself does start to grow tiresome after a while.  We've got just two discs again, the .com box and the BFI blu, though this is another one of those available on a rare New Yorker DVD as well.
2006 .com DVD top; 2014 BFI blu mid; 2022 Shout Factory blu bottom.

Honestly, if all BFI did was fix that interlacing, I'd be happy.  It's just so gross.  But of course, they did plenty more than that, clean up noise, pulling in a little more picture around the 1.33 edges and bringing the slightly over saturated (overly red) colors back down to normal.  But I just look at these shots and all I can think is finally, no more of that combing!  Now if I can just get the replace the rest of the titles in this box, I'd be all set.  And once again, the Shout and BFI are virtually identical, using the same master, except Shout is a shade brighter.  One extra bonus: while both discs give you the choice between the English and German audio tracks, BFI and Shout disc threw in English subtitles as well (the DVD just has Italian subs). 

So here feels like a good spot to call it a day: right at the dividing line between decades.  We'll pick back up with Part 2 in the 80s, and go straight through to the early 2000s.  We've got another ten or so short films still to go, and we'll shake up the monotony a bit more next time with some more discs from some more different labels.  So see ya then!

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