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Movie poster for Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Films and Books Werner Herzog’s Students Must Watch and Read


Five books and seven films required to take Werner Herzog’s course in his Rogue Film School.

Renowned German director Werner Herzog teaches courses in different cities around the world as part of an itinerant school called the Rogue Film School. Before taking these, his students must have read five books and watched seven films.

Courses on cinematic techniques are not taught in the Rogue Film School. Rather, it is a type of school of inspiration where mainly music, poetry, literature and images are discussed, in addition to reviewing some films by the director and the participants.

In Herzog’s school, matters related to the plot and the role of every scene in the film are also discussed, together with what he calls the “athletic side of filmmaking”: learning to force locks; forge filming permits, guerrilla techniques and dealing with bureaucracy, among other things.

Herzog asks that, before taking his course, his students have read the following books:

Georgics (29 BC), a didactic poem by Virgil that mainly speaks of agricultural labor, cattle raising and field life in Ancient Rome.

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1936), some of Ernest Hemingway’s most important short stories, which narrate the life of a man who travels to Africa to hunt wild animals, but, who actually goes there to deal with his fears (and those of his wife).

The Peregrine (1967) by J.A. Baker, a lyrical recounting of the hibernation of the Peregrine falcon —the author’s great obsession— near his home, in east England.

The Poetic Edda (specifically the translation by Lee. M. Hollander), a collection of poems in Old Norse, one of the most important sources of Scandinavian mythology and the legends of Germanic heroes.

The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo Written by Himself Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain (1568), one of the main chronicles about the Mexican conquest in the 16th century.

He also requests his students have seen the following films:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a classic by director John Huston (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart. It tells the story of three students who travel across the Mexican Sierra Madre searching for gold; the treasure will save them from their misery and expose their deepest ambitions.

Viva Zapata! (1952) By Greek-American director Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata, the film narrates the revolutionary leader’s story from his birth to his murder.

Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo, a film that takes place during Algeria’s independence war and tells the story of a delinquent who turns his life around and enrolls in the Nationalist front to fight for the independence from France.

The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) Three films —Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)— which tell the story of Apu, a Nengali man named, from his childhood, education to adulthood, at the turn of the 20th century. The trilogy was musicalized by Ravi Shankar.

Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), a film about the adventures of a child who, without knowing it, has taken his friend’s book and must return it before he gets expelled from school.

In addition to including these classics —which we should all review—, the list of works clearly echoes some of Herzog’s own films: The Peregrine, for instance, was written by a man who ended up imitating peregrine falcons, which the main actor in the documentary Grizzly Man (2005) also did, in this case with bears; and the required reading of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s chronicles reflects Herzog’s obsession with the history of European conquerors in America, which would lead to one of his masterpieces, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

Consisting of films and books that are extremely different to each other, the list represents an opportunity to delve into sensitivity, aesthetics and the mind of Werner Herzog. It also faithfully reflects his obsession: the epic quality of a story, human ambition and the wild —as a condition shared by men and animals.

This synthesis is a fragmented, sensitively strategic bubble, for anyone who wants to navigate the seventh art… courtesy of a great master.


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