Werner Herzog's latest film, Grizzly Man (15), is the darkly hil-arious true story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 years on a nature- defying quest to live among grizzly bears. Treadwell's odyssey ended when one of his "friends" was spotted chewing "Tim's head and a bit of backbone still attached". It is a brilliant and original film, featuring ground-breaking footage that Treadwell shot of bears in the Katmai National Park, Alaska, punctuated with reminiscences from a ragbag of his friends and supporters. Herzog - as panoptic editor - narrates with relish, delighted to have found such a gold mine in Treadwell's tapes.
It is inspiring that, 50 or so films into his career, Herzog is still producing work as entertaining as this. A Bavarian autoch-thon, he has been a passionate image-maker since the early 1960s. Although only about a dozen of his films have not been "documentaries", his reputation rests chiefly on a cluster of sumptuous, Brueghel-coloured features he directed in the 1970s, when he was misleadingly grouped with the New German Cinema. But it has never been easy to categorise him, and he remains the ultimate original.
None the less, Herzog has been lucky with his collaborators. His fetish for the vehemently demented actor Klaus Kinski resulted in a productive (if tumultuous) partnership, Kinski's virtuoso intensity enlivening six of his films. Herzog is especially good at coaxing out people's essences, and he has captured great performances from non-trained actors, such as the psychologically damaged Berlin street musician Bruno S in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, or the endless Native American and African extras in Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, and even Mick Jagger.
Herzog films are engrossing journeys that create an instantly recognisable universe. A familiar theme is that man, however driven and determined, is ultimately humbled by indifferent, merci-less nature. Herzog casts natural backdrops with the same care he brings to his choice of actors, and his films often begin with lingering shots of raw, semi- fantastic landscapes. Generally, his human subjects are extraordinary, quixotic figures. Herzog is fascinated by grandiose, if often highly personal, human endeavours. He extracts the mythical core from people outside the mainstream of society and crafts them into legends.
Eschewing studios or special effects, the director is as uncompromising as his characters. To make a film about a community seized by collective madness, he hypnotised his cast (Heart of Glass). He shot one of his films - La Soufriere - on a volcanic island mid-eruption. For Fitzcarraldo, about a man who drags a steamboat over a mountain, he spent four years in the jungle trying to do exactly that. As Herzog admitted, to have given up would have made him "a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that: I live my life or I end my life with this project".
If the presence of Herzog is tangible throughout his features, in his documentaries he has increasingly begun to appear as a character in front of the camera. All of them are narrated in his Bavarian monotone, and he can frequently be seen goading his subjects to revisit their darkest moments: in Wings of Hope he leads Juliane Kopcke - the sole survivor of a passenger jet that exploded 28 years earlier - back to the Peruvian jungle where the wreckage still lies.
What distinguishes Herzog's films is the unsensationalist, sometimes dizzyingly even-tempered gaze that he turns on his subjects. In Land of Silence and Darkness, for example, he patiently records the painstaking attempts at communication of the deaf-blind. Herzog's gravitation towards dwarves, the deaf, the down-trodden - and the unsentimental way he portrays them - has often led to charges of exploitation, but this is missing the point. His films reveal all that is entertaining and enlightening in their subjects, without being patronising or losing sight of anyone's humanity.
When Herzog sets up a conflict between nature and civilisation, he tends to arrive at the realisation that man is more bestial than he likes to believe. This is not as bleak as it sounds: if there are any "heroes" in his films, they are those people who risk everything in pursuit of an epiphany. The dreamers, he seems to say, are the true driving forces of any given age.
Yet no discussion of the content of Herzog's films can convey the awe that comes from watching one. Quite simply, they are among the most visually exciting ever made. Herzog has repeatedly decried the "abused and useless and exhausted" images of contemporary culture, and has made it his mission to create extraordinary images of his own. Grizzly Man might look like a change of tack, as most of the footage was shot by Treadwell. Thankfully, however, this is every bit a Herzog film - even if it is on general release.