It’s a rare thing for any filmmaker to have two new releases in theaters at the same time, but never in a million years would we have guessed that Werner Herzog might one day suffer this fate. On April 7, Herzog’s “Salt and Fire” — an ecological thriller starring Michael Shannon and Gael García Bernal — debuted in select theaters and on VOD, with the director’s long-gestating “Queen of the Desert” following on April 14. For the first time in a while, then, Herzog’s fans have an abundance of options, even if that wasn’t exactly how the director expected things to play out.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Herzog admitted that he never had any intention of both films hitting theaters at the same time. “Oh, for God’s sake, no,” Herzog responded when asked if he were trying to make a statement about his return to fictional filmmaking. “I wouldn’t have such a crazy idea. I tried to prevent it, but, uh, my influence has been limited.” Since 2009’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” Herzog has mostly shied away from fictional work; his releases have consisted of documentaries, a television series, and one concert film about American rock band The Killers. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Herzog wasn’t working on films — “Queen of the Desert,” for example, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival all the way back in February 2015 before sitting on the shelf for several years — but it’s an interesting quirk of the system that one of cinema’s most respected iconoclasts finds himself in this situation.
“Queen of the Desert” in particular had a long road to distribution, with Atlas Distribution Co. originally acquiring the film out of Berlin before it was eventually sold to IFC Films. Despite being released first, “Salt and Fire” was actually completed long after ‘Queen’ had its world premiere, debuting at the 2016 Shanghai Film Festival last June before being purchased by XLrator Media only last September. This is another reminder of the odd world of film distribution, where films can often bounce around for years between their festival premiere and their limited or wide release. And while Herzog may be concerned about a cannibalizing effect between the two features — he worried in the Times interview that the films might “obliterate each other” — audiences should not look a gift horse in the mouth. After all, two new fictional films by Herzog is two more than we’ve had for the better part of a decade.