Modern Cinema: Werner Herzog and Ecstatic Truth

Feb 9–26, 2017

SFMOMA and the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) present Modern Cinema, a film series exploring the dynamic forces interacting between cinema’s past and present.

Do documentaries traffic in truth, or in something else? In his 2010 essay “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth,” Werner Herzog put forth his feelings about veracity in life and documentary filmmaking, stating that he “can only very vaguely begin to fathom the Absolute; I am in no position to define the concept.” Distinguishing between the factual and what he calls the “ecstatic flash” of truth, he writes, “What moves me has never been reality, but a question that lies behind it: the question of truth.”

Taking Herzog’s idea of the Ecstatic Truth as its organizing principle, the second season of Modern Cinema combines a vast range of this master filmmaker’s documentaries with complementary works that operate along similar lines. A number of the films presented are seminal works from early in Herzog’s career. Whether it’s the unforgettable landscapes and nightmarish visions of Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness; the probing looks at preaching and spirituality in Huie’s Sermon, Wheel of Time, and Pilgrimage; or some of his more recent investigations into the natural world, Herzog’s films almost always surprise and provoke in how they approach their topics.

The films by other directors presented alongside Herzog’s work share some of his interests while reflecting their creators’ own particular styles. From idiosyncratic portraits of unique individuals (Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason and Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly) to unforgettable depictions about spirituality (Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence and Herzog’s Bells from the Deep) to behind-the-scenes stories of filmmaking itself (Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams and Herzog’s My Best Fiend), the subjects presented in season two offer visionary realizations of nonfiction work.

Modern Cinema’s Founding Supporters are Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein. Generous support is provided by Nion T. McEvoy and the Susan Wildberg Morgenstein Fund. Additional support is provided by Becky Draper.

Events in this Series

See all past events

Burden of Dreams

Thursday, February 9, 2017, 6 p.m.
Video still, Les Blank, Burden of Dreams

Grizzly Man

Thursday, February 9, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Video still, ​ Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner with How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck

Friday, February 10, 2017, 6 p.m.
Video still, Herzog, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

The Gleaners and I

Friday, February 10, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Video still, Agnès Varda, The Gleaners & I

Jag Mandir: The Eccentric Private Theatre of the Maharaja of Udaipur

Saturday, February 11, 2017, 3 p.m.
Video still, Werner Herzog, Jag Mandir

Bells from the Deep with Pilgrimage

Saturday, February 11, 2017, 5 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, Bells from the Deep

My Winnipeg

Saturday, February 11, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Still, Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg

Into Great Silence

Sunday, February 12, 2017, 3:30 p.m.
Still, ​ Philip Gröning, Into Great Silence

Lessons of Darkness with La Soufrière

Sunday, February 12, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, Lessons of Darkness

Land of Silence and Darkness

Thursday, February 16, 2017, 6 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, Land of Silence and Darkness

Poto and Cabengo

Thursday, February 16, 2017, 8:15 p.m.
Still, ​ Jean-Pierre Gorin, Poto and Cabengo

Fata Morgana

Friday, February 17, 2017, 6 p.m.
Still, Herzog, Fata Morgana

Gates of Heaven

Friday, February 17, 2017, 8 p.m.
Still, Errol Morris, Gates of Heaven


Saturday, February 18, 2017, 3 p.m.
Still, ​Sharon Lockhart, Goshogaoka

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Saturday, February 18, 2017, 5 p.m.
Still, Herzog, Into the Abyss

Encounters at the End of the World

Saturday, February 18, 2017, 8 p.m.
Still, ​Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

God’s Angry Man with Huie’s Sermon

Sunday, February 19, 2017, 3 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, God’s Angry Man


Sunday, February 19, 2017, 5:15 p.m.
Still, Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Sunday, February 19, 2017, 8 p.m.
Still, ​ Kazuo Hara, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun

Thursday, February 23, 2017, 6 p.m.
Still, Herzog, Wodaabe

The Lion Hunters with The Mad Masters

Thursday, February 23, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Still, Jean Rouch, The Lion Hunters

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Friday, February 24, 2017, 6 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Friday, February 24, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Portrait of Jason

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 3 p.m.
Still, Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason

A Man Vanishes

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 5:30 p.m.
Still, Shôhei Imamura, A Man Vanishes

My Best Fiend

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Still, Herzog, My Best Fiend

Wheel of Time

Sunday, February 26, 2017, 5:30 p.m.
Still, Herzog, Wheel of Time

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Sunday, February 26, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Still, Werner Herzog, Little Dieter Needs to Fly