During over four decades of writing film reviews, Roger Ebert, who died at age 70 on Thursday, had a continually keen eye for blossoming talent, picking out directors like Martin Scorsese as ones to watch from their very first films, and he found plenty of filmmakers worthy of “two thumbs up” throughout his career. But one filmmaker whose work he championed with particular enthusiasm over the years was Werner Herzog.
The German director’s work — exotic films that blend the surreal with the real, fiction with non-fiction — includes the acclaimed documentaries Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly and the features Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Rescue Dawn.
More than once, Ebert expressed admiration for Herzog’s determination to make films on his own terms without any consistent source of funding. The independent filmmaker has made over 50 films since he released his first short in 1962. In a 2007 letter to Herzog, Ebert wrote, “You and your work are unique and invaluable, and you ennoble the cinema when so many debase it.”
When EW spoke with Herzog on the phone Thursday, the Munich-born filmmaker recounted their mutual admiration for each other’s work and reciprocated Ebert’s praise with similar reflections on Ebert’s own steadfastness amid the changing cultural views of entertainment .
“I always loved Roger for being the good soldier,” Herzog told EW, “not only the good soldier of cinema, but he was a wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on and soldiered on and held the outpost that was given up by almost everyone: The monumental shift now is that intelligent, deep discourse about cinema has been something that has been vanishing over the last maybe two decades. And it has been systematically replaced by celebrity news. It is what it is, and we have to stand the tide. I try to hold out and keep up what Roger was after.”
Herzog dedicated his 2007 documentary shot in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, to Ebert. The director explained to EW that he typically does not dedicate his films to anyone, but he decided to give Ebert that shout-out in the film “to send a signal in his direction [of] admiration, friendship, respect, encouragement because he was the wounded soldier still holding out.”
When the film was released, Ebert expressed his thanks for the dedication in the letter referenced above but told Herzog that he would not review Encounters because it would be a conflict of interest. But at Herzog’s urging, Ebert still published a review of the documentary — with a disclaimer informing readers of the dedication. He gave the film four out of four stars.
Herzog told EW that Ebert and his reviews will be missed, though there “will be a long, long echo [of his work] reverberating for a long, long time.” Herzog added that Ebert will continue to be an influence in his work. “I’ve always tried to be a good soldier of cinema myself, so of course since he’s gone, I will plow on, as I have plowed on all my life, but I will do what I have to do as if Roger was looking over my shoulder. And I am not gonna disappoint him.”
For more about the life and career of Roger Ebert, read EW’s obituary here.
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