For five decades, the legendary German director has captured it on screen -- sometimes it's real, sometimes imagined.
His brilliant 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" told the story of a troubled man who leaves the human world to live and die with wild bears in Alaska. It's a true story -- one that echoes films Herzog made with Klaus Kinski.
You know, the megalomaniac with the bulging eyes and militant swagger who starred in "Fitzcarraldo," "Nosferatu the Vampyre" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God."
While filming "Aguirre," they feuded so much that Herzog allegedly threatened to kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself.
When it comes to Herzog, you must remember the infamous line in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Herzog, after all, is a man of legends -- whether he's exploring them on screen or telling his life story.
I got an earful of legends during a 30-minute conversation with Herzog, who was calling to talk about "Caves of Forgotten Dreams."
The 3-D film, which opens Friday at the Capitol Theater in Cleveland, ventures into Chauvet Cave in southern France. Discovered in 1994, it contains the oldest examples of cave art from the Paleolithic era -- spectacular images that are 32,000 years old.
"This art reveals the modern human soul bursting onto the screen," he said, via phone from Los Angeles, where the Bavarian-born director resides. "It's very mysterious how we see echoes of these works in Picasso."
Herzog, 68, displays the excitement of a giddy child while encountering the Paleolithic jewels in "Caves of Forgotten Dreams."
No surprise. He's been fascinated with Paleolithic cave painting since the age of 12, when a book on the subject "sent his heart pounding."
"An indescribable excitement took hold of me," he said, with the drama he's perfected while narrating countless documentaries. "And the shudder of awe and wonder has never left me."
In "Cave," the director also explores the earliest traces of music, played on a flute-like instrument by Paleolithic man. It led Herzog to share a story about a childhood trauma.
"I was cut off from music between 13 and 18 due to a little school tragedy," said Herzog. "The music teacher tried to force me to sing in front of the class and when I wouldn't he called the principal in. They held the class hostage until I did -- and from then on I refused to sing again or play an instrument. I refused to even listen to music until I was 18."
Without prompting, Herzog imagined himself as a Paleolithic man.
"I would hunt a horse," he said. "A deer zigzags, but a horse runs straight so with two or three men you could chase him into a ravine or into a deep hole that you'd cover up so he'd fall in."
He could only speculate, of course. Herzog admitted he knows nothing about riding a horse.
But that didn't stop him from relaying a story about riding bulls -- during a legendary story about a stint in Mexico.
"I was living in America and I was about to be deported to Germany," said Herzog. "So I fled to Mexico."
"I worked as a rodeo rider -- well, more like a rodeo clown," he said. "I had to abandon my career as a rodeo rider because I kept falling down and with every fall my injuries got worse and worse."
So, what subversive act led to him being deported?
"I had a scholarship to study at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I quit after four days, which violated my visa status."
It did give him the opportunity to travel the Midwest for five months, in 1963.
"To me, the Midwest is special," he said. "The greatest American artists come from the Midwest or the South -- Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemmingway. There is a depth to the people there that you won't find in New York City."
Herzog recounted traveling to Cleveland for his Midwestern adventure.
"I went there for research," he said. "I was working on films for NASA."
"C'mon, really?" I asked.
"You heard the one about me getting shot?" he said, referring to a 2006 incident in which he was shot while giving an interview for the BBC. "That was a true story and people made a big deal about it, but I called it 'an insignificant bullet.' "
"Other people make a big deal about these things, not me. The stories become unrecognizable thanks to the Internet."
Herzog doesn't do social networking. That doesn't mean he's not out there.
"There are a dozen fake Herzogs posing as me on Twitter and Facebook," he said. "I don't mind -- I look at them as my unpaid bodyguards."
"Have you seen the Herzog parodies on YouTube?" I asked. "Some make you seem a little mad."
"I'm the only one in worldwide cinema who is clinically sane," said Herzog. "Because my movies make a lot of sense."
"Well, Klaus Kinski disagreed with that assessment," I said.
"Yes, he was of the opinion that I was not right in my head," said Herzog. "But you must remember: He was clinically insane."