Sarah Griffin enters Laurie Ruth Johnson’s Forgotten Dreams: Revisiting Romanticism in the Cinema of Werner Herzog.

There is often a fine line between general interest film theory books and their academic counterparts aimed more directly at students and researchers.  Demarcation generally occurs in language style and – quite often – in subject matter.  Laurie Ruth Johnson’s treatment of Werner Herzog’s oeuvre through the lens of an alternative discourse on romanticism almost straddles both categories – possibly down to the commercially viable nature of Herzog’s well-known films – but delves so deeply into individual aspects of his impressive career in its chapter breakdown that interdisciplinary academics will find plenty to get lost in.

Johnson’s introduction lays the groundwork in outlining a deceptively small chapter count, and impressively links a filmmaker of the New German Cinema in the 1960s, whose move to Los Angeles in 1995 also influenced a late-career change in tone, to the continued legacy of romanticism.  Moreover, Johnson discusses cinema’s place in the recording and influence of history, romanticism’s belief in a fragmented truth, and Herzog’s particular contribution to bringing these tenets in sync – to see, in fact, “…his films as present day re-representations of significant aspects of German cultural history”(P.2).  German romanticism is the main focus of Johnson’s work, and the introduction ably breaks down the four key tenets of the movement – anti-dogmatic; always moving and questioning; reciprocity and need for people; and the belief that beauty lies in the fragmentation of an unreachable ‘whole’.

Marrying philosophy, literature, science and art, this particular vision of romanticism – Johnson contends – is an integral part of Herzog’s cinema.  Herzog himself has denied the link, though that is not in itself particularly surprising considering Germany’s rigorous post-war rejection of romanticism.  Johnson acknowledges Herzog’s stance, but feels that his interrogation of romantic ideals gives ground to her argument – as well as her contention that it is often necessary to “…question the ultimate authority of the auteur.” (P. 10)

Featuring an impressive collection of notes and an extensive bibliography, the scope for further study into micro fields of interest is vast.  This will certainly appeal to students who wish to use this book as a reference point in beginning to understand an alternative view of Werner Herzog’s long and fruitful career.  To that end, Johnson has brought together her chapters in a non-chronological (in terms of film output), subject-driven manner, providing a “concept-driven feedback loop between romanticism, German cultural history, and Herzog’s films.” (P.3)  The chapters are therefore sectioned thematically, concluding with a reading of Herzog’s own commentaries on his productions.

Chapter one is titled ‘Image and Knowledge, and begins the argument connecting Herzog to a certain alternative romanticism, focusing on how the romantic self is still very present in his work.  Chapter two, ‘Surface and Depth’, discusses Herzog’s rejection of cinema verité, and delves into his particular documentary style – querying what it is to make a film that presents an interpretation of the truth without discarding or discounting emotional influence.  From there we move to Chapter three, ‘Beauty and Sublimity’.  Here, one of the central ideas of romanticism is explored, focusing particularly on ‘the sublime’ – unique moments of beauty and awe, not common or repeated.  Johnson delves into Herzog’s choice of landscape for his movies, many of which are extreme and emotionally layered – juxtaposing the mundane with the sublime as characters act out their dramas.  Chapter four, ‘Man and Animal’, speaks of Herzog’s representations of otherness through the use of animals, combining it with the familiarity Herzog clearly feels with his filmed creatures as he interprets their consciousness.   Finally, Chapter five – ‘Sound and Silence’ – meditates on the significance of both sound and its absence in Herzog’s films.  This chapter focuses on frequent collaborators with Herzog, who are critical in the creation of – as Johnson puts it – his “…ironic, melancholy cinematic romanticism” (P. 10)

Throughout, Johnson argues for the case of an alternative romanticism, but also explores the postmodern movements between the historical period of romanticism and the present day – an interdisciplinary approach that brings psychoanalysis and poststructuralism into the discussion.  The book has a narrative flow that in fact seems to reflect Johnson’s interpretation of Herzog’s work; “…Herzog’s documentaries and features present stories that are comprehensible yet often non-chronological, reminiscent but not nostalgic, technically challenging without being inaccessible, and full of sublime, yet incomplete (ruined, tangled, even wasted) settings.” (P. 9)  Her insightful and lyrical style of writing compliments the discussion of a filmmaker whose work is at once conversational and piercing, civilised and wild, rational and yet passionate.

Forgotten Dreams is a worthy addition to any interdisciplinary study of Herzog’s films – and the influence of alternative German romanticism as well as formal romanticism on moviemaking – though it has to be said that the pictures let down the final product somewhat.  Printed cheaply and much too small to be of real use, they have the slightly distasteful flavour of an afterthought.  This is particularly disappointing for comparing artworks to Herzog’s mise-en-scéne, and quite a big drawback when using pictures to substantiate an argument on the visible romanticism of Herzog’s works.  Despite this slight negative, Forgotten Dreams is an impressive unravelling of Werner Herzog’s valuable contribution to cinema through a viewpoint not previously attempted, shining a light on some intriguing cultural influences and their effects on this fascinating filmmaker.


  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • Publisher: Camden House (1 Feb. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1571139117
  • ISBN-13: 978-1571139115
  • Product Dimensions: 16 x 1.8 x 23.6 cm

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