Werner Herzog made a film about Russians who believe a city of angels rests at the bottom of a frozen lake. Risking their lives, they crawl out on the thin ice. I said it was an extraordinary documentary. "I made it all up," he told me. Yes, but the ice really creaks under their weight. Herzog says his fiction films are documentaries and his documentaries are fiction. This is the man who used pulleys and Amazonian Indians to haul a steamship up a hill in Fitzcarraldo.
Herzog, 66, has long had a mythical status among film lovers. Now he's gaining wider audiences; his Encounters at the End of the World was a 2009 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary. He's in postproduction on Bad Lieutenant, starring Nicolas Cage, who is capable of the same emotional extremes as Klaus Kinski, the fierce actor Herzog made a documentary about titled My Best Fiend.
Herzog believes our world is "starving for images." He tries to feed us: Kinski as a madman adrift on a raft with gibbering monkeys in Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Timothy Treadwell in Alaska with the bear that would eat him in Grizzly Man; a tiny teardrop airship exploring the rain-forest treetops in The White Diamond.
In 1974 Herzog walked from Munich to Paris to carry his new film to the dying critic Lotte Eisner. To a younger generation, he represents a similar heroism. Ramin Bahrani, the much admired new American director, told me, "If I could meet Herzog, I would crawl to him on my knees."
Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, is at www.rogerebert.com