Herzog’s Sublime and Ecstatic Truth: From Burke’s Physiological Aesthesis to the Dionysian Unveiling

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The encounter with primordial nature draws, in the work of Werner Herzog, on a specific philosophical concept: the sublime. This notion is probably one of the most important keys to understanding the philosophical framework of Herzog’s films, and is all the more relevant as it condenses also some of the major themes of German filmmaker, such as the question of truth, factuality, ecstasy, reality and fantasy.
Herzog, several times (and notably in his famous lecture On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth), establishes points of contact between his films and the sublime, drawing on Kant and, especially, examining the theories of Longinus on the subject. I will try and demonstrate, however, that Edmund Burke’s perspective of the sublime as a physiological experience is closer to the encounter with the absolute presence and material dimension of nature and bodies (human and non-human) in Herzog's films, than Kant's eminent transcendental concept, or even the early theorization by Longinus. Bodies and landscapes, in Herzog's films, function as central aesthetic elements, insofar as they open both immanent and transcendent meanings, simultaneously containing the facts and its overcoming, and opening themselves to what the filmmaker calls the ‘ecstatic truth’. Ecstatic truth is an experience strongly connected with the actions of Herzog’s heroes and anti-heroes in films like Grizzly Man (2005) Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Here, ecstatic truth is experienced as an encounter with natural forces which is very similar to Nietzsche description of the Dionysian as described in Birth of Tragedy, and rooted in a particular aesthetics of the physiological sublime.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Philosophy of Werner Herzog
EditorsBlake Wilson, Christopher Turner
PublisherLexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-7936-0043-1
ISBN (Print)978-1-7936-0042-4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • Herzog
  • Sublime
  • Film Philosophy
  • Burke
  • Nietzsche


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