porn, ecstatic truth and passion
Werner Herzog speaks his mind
Werner Herzog’s intense curiosity about the world has landed him in some unorthodox places. He has been slung in jail in Cameroon and contracted blood parasites while filming mirages for Fata Morgana; he has faced mutinous Amazonian tribes while dragging a 300-tonne steamboat over a Peruvian mountain for Fitzcarraldo; he has explored the corridors of death row, the sub-zero temperatures of Antarctica and the snake- infested jungles of Laos. In 1977’s La Soufrière, he travelled to a Caribbean island wreathed in toxic fumes on the brink of volcanic destruction to interview the one person refusing to leave. Even on the relatively tame streets of Laurel Canyon, he managed to get shot while filming an interview for the BBC (he barely inched, peering at his abdomen and describing the bullet as “insignificant”). Today the Munich-born 74-year-old, who has made over 60 fictional and documentary features shot on all seven continents, has transitioned from a cult maverick to a filmmaking legend whose inimitable Teutonic monotone is so recognisable it has inspired ‘Werner’ chatbots.
Last year, Herzog revisited his volcanic fascination with Into the Inferno, exploring lava-spitting volcanoes and the communities that live in their shadows, from Iceland to North Korea and Sumatra. Just days afterwards, seven people were killed at the very location Herzog was filming. Moving from the primordial to the pioneering, the prolific filmmaker also released Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a mind-boggling tour through technology and cyberspace, with a disconcerting peek into a future of self-driving cars, colonies on Mars and telepathic tweeting. The following interview is an excerpt from a two-hour-long dialogue with the great auteur, instigated by Paul Holdengräber, the founder and director of LIVE from the New York Public Library. The conversation was originally published in the Canadian literary journal Brick under the title “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?” In it, Herzog reflects on a childhood growing up in Alpine Bavaria, his unique brand of humour and his search for ecstatic truth. Consider it a living archive of his deep thoughts on a bygone era.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I know you’ve said that Fred Astaire for you is essential filmmaking, as well as kung fu movies and porno movies.
WERNER HERZOG: Don’t misunderstand me, but there’s something very essential about pornographic films, because they have moved technology to quite a degree. The driving force, for videos I believe, was pornography, so we should not underrate it completely and dismiss it as something which shouldn’t be on the screen. Of course, pornography is a more private thing and people watch it in seedy motels, a sort of motel-room ugliness.
HOLDENGRÄBER: But sometimes they’re much better than movies, other movies.
HERZOG: Much better than pretentious movies, these artsy-fartsy films that I just can’t take any longer, so I...
HOLDENGRÄBER: You switch to pornography.
HERZOG: I switch to WrestleMania. Yes, because, I believe, Paul, that that’s one of my dictums. The poet must not avert his eyes.
HOLDENGRÄBER: As an adolescent, what was your view of America? I know you said you started to watch films late.
HERZOG: I had very little experience of America, with the exception of right after the war. My knowledge of Americans then was that they were fishing for trout; so we found them little worms, and they gave us chewing gum. So America was a trading partner. And we knew it was dangerous with them around because we found a lot of weapons that were dropped and hidden by the last SS men fleeing into the mountains. At the age of four I was in possession of a submachine gun, a functioning submachine gun, and my brother had a hand grenade. I tried to shoot a bird, a crow, actually, because we were always hungry. Hunger is one of the great reminiscences of that time, two and a half years of hunger.
Later, when I went to school in Munich, everybody in my class went wild over Elvis. I went with them to a movie theatre when the first Elvis movie arrived. It was a very strange scene, because everybody was seated quietly, all of them young people. They watched the film, and then, like one man, they got up and systematically and quietly took the place apart. They ripped out the seats and started to destroy the theatre — without shouting, without rioting — just quiet, methodical destruction of the theatre. It was a massive event, but it didn’t interest me.
HOLDENGRÄBER: But something must have a affected you in this collective grouping of people in a darkened room.
HERZOG: Yes, but at that time, I didn’t see much more than let’s say Elvis films and Dr. Fu Manchu and Zorro and things like that. It didn’t dawn on me that I would make films. That came when I was 14 or15. At the same time I had a dramatic religious phase. I started to travel on foot and I knew I was going to make films, and I walked around Albania, following the border.
HOLDENGRÄBER: When you started to make films, and as you grew up, what perception did you have of American films?
HERZOG: Not much actually. I liked how John Ford deals with landscapes — like an inner concept of America, not just a backdrop, something essential about the American soul. But American cinema didn’t affect me that much. In fact, cinema didn’t affect me that much, and it still doesn’t. I’m not a very frequent movie goer. A year ago during the entire year I think I saw two films.
HOLDENGRÄBER: You claim to have no irony. Really? What do you mean? Obviously there’s a big distinction to be made between irony and humour.
HERZOG: Humour, yes, I’ve got that. All my films are full of humour. In a film like The Wild Blue Yonder, people are rolling in delight and laughter, they laugh more than at Eddie Murphy films. And My Best Fiend — people really laugh at that because it’s so absurdly intense and so, so crazed. Irony is a very different concept philosophically — it’s so often a French thing. I can’t be in a conversation with French people in a café; they immediately show how beautiful their language is, and they listen after the sound of their sentence. They speak ironically and I’m sitting like a Bavarian beer drinker and I answer them straight. The one you never should trust is Godard. For the sake of the bon mot he says, “Cinema is truth 24 times per second.” I mean, how can a human being with an ounce of brain say that?
HOLDENGRÄBER: This speaks to some of the comments you have made about cinéma vérité.
HERZOG: Oh yes, now we are coming into what is assumed to be truth, cinéma vérité. I’ve insulted them by naming them ‘the accountants of truth.’ Of course they were really miffed. But there is something I’m after, something much deeper, some sort of an ecstasy of truth, something where we step beyond ourselves, something that happens in religion sometimes, like medieval mystics, an understanding of God in the form of ecstasies. It’s possible in music and in poetry and in cinema. But truth is extremely elusive.
HOLDENGRÄBER: In cinema, is it particularly possible in your view to arrive at that ecstatic truth?
HERZOG: Well, I’m striving to achieve it. Maybe sometimes I got kind of close, but I’m not a good judge. I’ve just written a screenplay for a feature film, and a central image in it haunts me because it’s so strange and points at what truth — or what truth of vision — is all about and how misleading it can be. There is a monastery in Rome, Santissima Trinità, and in the cloister, when you look along this corridor, there is a painting of Saint Francisco di Paola. And you see it clearly, you see a saint in some sort of rapture under a tree. But when you approach this image, the more distorted and the more incomprehensible it becomes. When you’re standing right in front of the image, the saint has disappeared. The face of the saint, his hands, everything, has morphed into a landscape. What fascinates me about it is the very clear point that the painter makes: when you think you have grasped the truth of an image, the closer you get, the more incomprehensible it becomes, until it finally morphs. [The image appears in Herzog’s 2016 feature film Salt and Fire.]
HOLDENGRÄBER: Landscape is clearly of great importance to you. In My Best Fiend, there’s a moment where you compare your view of landscape to the view that Klaus Kinski has.
HERZOG: In this case with Kinski, the backdrop was Machu Picchu. You have a sugarloaf- shaped, very, very intense mountain in the background, Huayna Picchu, and Kinski wanted to stop ahead of his army and pass through the ruins of Machu Picchu. And I said to him, “This is postcard kitsch now and I’m not into that, it’s not a backdrop.” I want to have a much more limited frame for the landscape, where it’s completely ecstatic, not recognisable as a backdrop but like a part of our innermost being, our soul.
HOLDENGRÄBER: You see a physical aspect to filmmaking.
HERZOG: I just got sick and tired of over-academic zealots who tried to talk me into very complicated academic concepts. I said, No, it’s not so much cerebral, academic work that I do, it’s much more physical. It comes from physically understanding; for example, the jungle. The way in Rescue Dawn we plowed through the underbrush of the jungle in a way that is extremely physical. Whenever it’s as physical as that, I’m good as a filmmaker.
HOLDENGRÄBER: You’ve spoken about yourself as a good soldier of cinema.
HERZOG: Yes, but that’s more like a metaphor of someone who tries to hold out at an outpost that has been abandoned by almost everyone around, and not being afraid, and having a sense of duty. I have a sense of duty. And I’m saying that without pretension.
HOLDENGRÄBER: You have also said that a filmmaker needs to know how to pick locks.
HERZOG: Yes, among other things, you have to have a certain amount of criminal energy. You have to be able to forge documents and to do all sorts of fraudulent things en route to make it possible to make a film.
HOLDENGRÄBER: Paul Cronin’s excellent book Herzog on Herzog opens with this thought by David Mamet: “Those with ‘something to fall back on’, invariably fall back on it. They intended to, all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently.”
HERZOG: Yeah, I think that’s a good choice as some sort of a motto. The fact is I have no fallback position, it’s true. There are no trenches behind me into which I can jump and duck.
HOLDENGRÄBER: And your work comes purely out of your imagination.
HERZOG: Not only. Many of the things I’ve seen and lived through I transform and bring to the screen. In the way, for example, Joseph Conrad would experience the jungle in the Congo or in Southeast Asia and remember all these things he had seen and experienced and write short stories about it.
HOLDENGRÄBER: Many people may not know that you now make your home in Los Angeles. And if I’m not mistaken, you are known to say that Los Angeles is perhaps the only place in America with substance.
HERZOG: Yes, you find it funny, I know. But I’m speaking of cultural substance. If you look at New York, which would be a close candidate, the real substance of this city is finances and not so much culture. Culture is more being consumed here. Things get done in Los Angeles. As ugly and as vulgar as it may appear on the surface, and as bizarre as things are — the stretch limos, the people who talk seriously about pyramid energy, and a neighbour who is a very reasonable, decent man, whose cat was kind of freaked out so the neighbour called the cat psychic and the cat psychic spoke to the cat for ‘only’ $160 for three minutes and the cat calmed down. It is utterly strange and utterly bizarre, and yet you have this wild exuberance of collective, very often vulgar, often intense and interesting dreams.
HOLDENGRÄBER: In closing, let me ask you. Why did you shave your moustache?
HERZOG: Yeah, it was a good one, I must say. Somehow it was some sort of a defence and I could hide behind it, like I am hiding behind an adopted name. I liked it. I wish I could do my work anonymously, like the painters in late medieval times, like the master of the Cologne triptych, but of course nowadays with the media and so on there are too many people involved, you cannot hide. But the moustache was some sort of a bastion behind which I felt kind of safe, but then in the travails and tribulations of life I kind of lost it.
Photo credits: Lo and Behold, 2016, a Magnolia Pictures release, both courtesy of Magnolia Pictures; Into The Inferno, 2016, all courtesy of Netflix