Now 72, with more than 60 feature and documentary films behind him, legendary wild card director Werner Herzog shows no sign of slowing down: in recent years he completed the acclaimed documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss, directed a frenzied Nicholas Cage to perfection in Bad Lieutenant, and has a new film due to premiere this year - Queen of the Desert - at Berlinale.
As befits a man with such a fascinating filmography, Herzog has quite a few stories to tell, so much so that Paul Cronin (who edited the original book Herzog on Herzog) has turned over a decade’s worth of talks with the director into a substantial published collection entitled Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed. Appropriately, the tour to promote the book has involved Herzog engaging in conversation in front of an audience with Paul Holdengräber (founder and director of LIVE from The New York Public Library), although the interviewer has preferred to call it more a “continuation” of an ongoing dialogue with his interviewee. Thus, audiences in Westminster in January who turned up to hear the acclaimed filmmaker speak were somewhat thrown into things, with Holdengräber and Herzog seemingly picking up their respective trains of thought from where they last left off. Here are just a few things the audience learned:
Herzog would much rather watch “movie movies” than the works of Godard:
Before coming on stage, Herzog played for the audience a dance sequence from the Fred Astaire musical Top Hat .This might have surprised some who were expecting a clip from his own filmography, but in fact Herzog has referred back to Astaire’s work before, such as when he used it to illustrate Cave of Forgotten Dreams. For Herzog, this Astaire film is a “movie movie”, like Kung-fu films; accessible and enjoyable, the best example of what Hollywood can do. Godard, Herzog believes, is not a filmmaker who makes these kind of “movie movies”. Instead Godard makes in his opinion: “cerebral stuff, and much of it is counterfeit money”.
Herzog is currently intrigued by immersive, Oculus Rift-type cinema:
Having toyed with 3D before in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog now sees potential in new immersive viewing devices: “I am fairly certain this is not just an extension of 3D cinema or video games, it is something completely different and new, it is not anything that we can edit like we could edit a film, because we see things all around us. It is an utterly new instrument and nobody knows how to play it.” The more contemplative possibilities of this technology interest Herzog, he mentioned one programme he has seen featuring a Mongolian yurt and its inhabitants, which the viewer can enter using such immersive viewing headgear and look around in all directions.
For Herzog, this is possibly going to be a truly game changing point in cinema, which he believes has been a largely static medium for most of its lifetime since the Lumiere Brothers: “Very early on you could see what you could so with cinema…everything you could see in cinema and that was possible was basically there except for 3D.” A more contemplative approach to this kind of wraparound cinema he believes might be very beneficial to viewers in rehab or experiencing some kind of mental illness, or even those on death row.
His childhood growing up in post-war Munich was tough, but he was not short of inspiration and fascination:
Herzog was once stuck in hospital as a child during a severe German winter, where he kept himself occupied for over a week with a single piece of thread pulled from his blanket. Herzog described to the audience that as a youngster roaming the post-war landscape, playing with the detritus of WWII, the tiny things he found there turned out to be: “full of fantasy for me, full of stories.”
“I understand what a rope is all about, it is not just an instrument, it has some secret life in it, some purpose in it. You can develop whole stories around a rope, or a piece of thread. Somehow that has always been within me.”
Continuing in this vein, Herzog described his powerful first experience of seeing an orange as a youth: “I remember for the first time in my life seeing an orange in the hospital as I was given one. I studied the orange, as no one had shown me this before. They told me to eat it, so I very carefully licked the skin, finally understanding that you had to peel it. Then inside were the segments; I peeled them very carefully, and inside them, I found the liquid fluid filled with tiny parts. I took them apart, and bit by tiny bit I ate it. It took me five days to eat this orange!”
He has carefully developed his use of language and speaking voice:
Herzog’s distinctive, accented voice is an inseparable part of many of his non-fiction films, and he has even made a few on-screen appearances, such as playing the villain in the 2012 Tom Cruise thriller Jack Reacher. He has given quite a lot of thought to fashioning a particular speaking voice, drawing from a variety of sources, some quite surprising (Herzog thinks the narration on factual crime shows on American TV has had a lot to offer). The Iliad is a personal favourite: “The musicality and the incarnation is something that has never, ever left me. This has followed me even today, even when playing a villain. I’m good at playing a villain, let’s face it!”
He doesn’t find his own dreams illuminating, and is suspicious of psychoanalysis:
Despite being a director so associated with films about dreams and ambitions, Herzog himself claimed he doesn’t draw much inspiration from his own sleeping visions. “There is something illuminating about dreams which I personally do not have”, Herzog confessed to the audience, “I do not dream, probably because I don't dream I make movies. I compensate.”
Continuing with the subject of dreams, Herzog was challenged to explain why he once claimed psychoanalysis was worse than the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. “Well, I would put them on a par today,” he confessed. What made the Inquisition so similar to today’s psychoanalysis is the way it too aimed: “to force you to explain the deepest nature of your faith.”
He continued: “I think it doesn’t do us any good to self-scrutinise ourselves too much. We should be very, very careful; I certainly am not to circle around my own navel. It doesn’t do good for us. I think the 20th Century in many ways was a mistake and one small part of that was psychoanalysis.”
He hates being called a “romantic”:
Herzog had this to say about the oft-repeated claim that he is a German romantic: “I don’t like cliches or shallow inaccuracies. I can deal easier with an outright lie than this sloppy, half-witted, half-informed pseudo-reality statements. I never felt really deeply connected to the culture of romanticism. For example, look how I view Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man: the vanilla ice cream romanticism is on the side of Treadwell there. In my commentary for the film I have an ongoing argument, and I say that here I differ with Treadwell; the world is not like Walt Disney movies full of fluffy bears to whom you are singing.”
“For me wild nature is rather hostile, murderous and chaotic. You do not dance with the bear, you don't love the bear. You respect the bear. I learned that from an Alutiiq native with a PHD from Harvard who ran a museum on Kodiak Island. He spoke to me about respecting the bear, and understanding the boundaries.”
That being said, the cover of his new book of conversations is not Photoshopped. Herzog was, apparently, really standing in front of that bear.
His favourite actor of all those he has worked with is Bruno S (Bruno Schleinstein):
Herzog has worked with some of the most highly - regarded performers in the industry, including Christian Bale and Nicole Kidman. But Herzog maintained when asked that his favourite actor remains Bruno Schleinstein (AKA “Bruno S”). Schleinstein, who died in 2010, was a deeply damaged individual, who was often beaten as a child, and spent much of his youth in mental institutions. A largely self-taught musician, he was spotted by Herzog in a documentary and was promptly cast as the lead actor in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and later in Stroszek (1977), which Herzog wrote especially for him. He gives a truly mesmerising and unsettling performance in both.
Herzog recalls how Bruno had seem to him “beyond repair” given the decades of abuse he had suffered. And yet he was: “the deepest and greatest of all actors with whom I have ever worked. There is something about him that moves me to my core.”
When given the choice of going anywhere he wanted in the USA to study, he chose Pittsburgh:
In 1964, Herzog ended up in the unlikely location of Pittsburgh, USA, arriving by boat after winning a scholarship (which he claims was based on a “fraudulent paper”). Rejecting the “fancy Ivy League institutions”, he chose to study Pittsburgh so he could see first hand what he calls “real people, steel factories, workers and welders.” Herzog felt an affinity with blue-collar types, having worked as a welder himself on a night shift during school to earn money for his films. He gave back his scholarship after three days though, unsatisfied, and this left him homeless for three weeks until an American family took him in after they noticed him wandering around. They ended up putting him up in their attic with all its old furniture for six months.
“It was the most wonderful acceptance in America, in mid-America you can find this, thats what I love”, Herzog recalled, even if the family was “completely crazy” and included a 94-year old, failed rock singer grandmother who talked to a dog in an invented language. “In politics the highbrow east and west coasters call them the ‘flyover states’ ”, Herzog explained, “but I do not like this term as I have had my best experiences in America there.” He lives in the US to this day, in Los Angeles.
He doesn’t take light reading on holiday:
Original translations of Luther, and books on Hannibal and the Punic Wars are some of the texts the director packs in his suitcase when going on trips. Currently Herzog is getting through The Peregrine by English author J.A. Baker: “a writer about whom we know almost nothing. Everyone who wants make films, or be an artist, should read this.” Herzog enjoys the “consolation” he finds in literature, and obstacles a leader like Hannibal and the Roman commanders opposing him had to face offer many analogies for the “daily humiliations” involved in trying to get a film made. Herzog once said that he felt: “the hand of Fabius Maximus (the Roman commander who fought Hannibal) on my shoulder” when struggling to drag the steamer over the mountain ridge during the production of Fitzcarraldo.
He thinks Mike Tyson is a fascinating, underrated figure:
It was Herzog who recommended to his interviewer Paul Holdengräber that he invite the former boxer onto his New York Public Library programme, urging him to quiz Tyson on his surprisingly deep knowledge of the Frankish kings and the Roman Republic.
“What is so wonderful about it is looking at where Tyson comes from. I think he was a semi-literate, his mother a prostitute, and they were living in one room - the same room where the clients would come in. He would go through the pockets of they clothes hung on the chairs. I think before he was eleven he had been arrested forty times, and on, and on. And now this man has this fervent desire for literature and history; it isn't just astonishing, it moves me deeply. That is something I do not believe we should overlook, and we should not dismiss him as just a violent man.”
The enigmatic characters that appear across his films are connected in some way:
From the megalomania of Fitzcarraldo to the flight-obsessed Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, both Herzog’s feature and non-fiction films showcase a medley of weird, complex, near-unclassifiable individuals. He finds it difficult to explain what draws him to them, and them to him: “It is a very complex thing, as complex as families are. Families are very strange creatures. Yet there is a kinship, and you know they belong together somehow, and for the oddest reasons. For example the skier in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner who defies gravity is a close relative of Fitzcarraldo, who defies the laws of nature and of gravity, who moves a ship over the mountains.”
“But it is not just in these few films, though I would dissuade anyone from trying to watch my films all in one go, you would need to go on a cruise ship after to recover. It is complicated and I don’t fully understood it myself, but I know right away they belong together. You don’t need to explain everything and you don't need to know yourself, completely.”
He doesn’t approach his documentaries as a journalist:
Using his American death row documentary Into the Abyss as an example, Herzog explained how he approached the inmates and staff of the prison in a particular way, at one point prising out a tearful response from the resident priest by asking him about squirrels of all things. “I like to bring something out of them, some kind of humanity, though that does not mean I sympathise with them. To one of the young men, Perry, who features in Into the Abyss, I told him within two minutes of filming: ‘I sympathise with some of you arguments but this does not necessarily mean I have to like you.’ Of course, the film could have been over right then and there. But I had a way to talk to him, and it is completely divorced from journalism.”
“I think it is a massive mistake of much of what we see in documentaries: they have not divorced themselves from journalism. And I do that. I have no questionnaire, I come in with no idea of what is going to happen, ready for anything. I do it probably now much better than many years ago I have more experience in life, I can respond and figure things out quicker. I know the hearts of men.”
The best you could do with actor Klaus Kinski was try to make his insanity productive:
They worked together across four feature films, but Herzog admitted that Kinski’s hysteria remained beyond “shaping” as a performer. “No, he just had it, you couldn't shape it, only give it a frame and make it productive. I didn't invent it; he was on his own.”
After listening to Holdengräber recite an epic essay Kinski once wrote discussing the number of ways he would like to see Herzog tortured to death, Herzog added that he would often help the frenzied actor, when in the peak of his rages, add even more florid prose and vile metaphors to such writings. “He always said to me: ‘Werner, I have to do these things, because the vermin out there, the readers, need this kind of stuff otherwise they won’t buy the book!’” Kinski’s simple screaming fits (his “yell outs”) Herzog learned to deal with and sometimes provoked them, as they were less serious than having the actor smashing a camera, destroy a set, or trying to break his contract and leave.
Herzog remains fatalistic about dealing with egos: “When you make films, you have to deal with this. If you can’t deal with it: don’t do the job.”
Despite all our problems, it is good to be alive today:
Humanity might be on course to trash the planet via climate change, but Herzog is dismissive of the comforting idea that technological advances will let to escape our fate, as in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. “Yes, we are too many and we consume too much, it doesn’t look good, but at the same time we cannot be nostalgic and say: ‘well we can always go back to being nomads again.’ We just won’t. This is what it is. It is a very precarious existence and situation.”
“I hear it all the time; ‘Ah, but we will evolve and colonise the planets. No, we wont’! The biggest planets are only gases. The solar system is unfriendly. We shouldn't even be on the moon! We need air to breathe, that breath comes from hundreds of millions of humans and trees and volcanoes that have exhaled too. The history of breath doesn’t exist out there!”
So, like it or not, we are stuck here on terra firma and Herzog believes we should celebrate the brief time we have: “It is wonderful to be alive; to plant an apple tree or make a movie. Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world came to and end tomorrow. And he said: ‘today I will plant an apple tree.’ That was a good one. I would start a movie. It would remain unfinished of course, but so what?”