16/02/2010

Talking to the lord of pain

Werner Herzog, jury president at this year's Berlinale, told Katja Nicodemus about being shot, why "Avatar" ties his stomach in knots, and the Spanish Inquisition.

Die ZEIT: Werner Herzog, a few years ago in Los Angeles, you gave a TV interview during which you were shot at. For anyone watching this scene it seemed as if nothing could shake you.

Werner Herzog
: It certainly surprised me at the time though. During the interview I heard an explosion and I assumed that the camera had exploded because it felt as if I'd been hit in the side by a kilo-sized chunk of glowing iron. But the camera was in tact. Then behind it at some distance I saw a man with a gun, ducking out of sight behind a veranda. He shot at me with an air rifle for the fun of it.

After a short break you then continued with the interview...


I was not injured badly. But the people from the BBC were shitting themselves. That was pretty funny.

Do you like living here in Los Angeles?


Yes. For me Los Angeles is the American city with most substance. Of course I don't just mean the surface, the Hollywood glitz and glamour. But all the most important trends of the last century come from California: the collective dreams in cinemas round the world. The fact that homosexuals are recognised as an integral part of society. The computer technology. All the Internet innovations. And also idiocies like hippies and New Age. There are only two exceptions. The green movement is more of a Scandinavian thing. And Islamic fundamentalism does not come from California either.

You once said that the world only reveals itself to people on foot. Those days must be over now.

Los Angeles is a not a city you can walk in. You look suspicious. The police drive past you slowly and ask what you are doing. Only if you are walking a dog or jogging will you not draw attention to yourself. But I only walk if there is an existential reason for me to do so.

In 1974 you walked 700 kilometres from Munich to Paris. Either out of megalomania or affection or both, you wanted to prevent the badly ailing film historian Lotte Eisner from dying.
I didn't feel she should be allowed to die. We still needed her. Because people still had so many reservations about German cinema, because the reputation of Nazi barbarity still clung to us. Lotte Eisner had written books about F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, she was a Jewish emigre and the chief archivist of the Cinematheque Francaise. She had the authority to give us legitimacy. And she had achieved something critically important with her commitment to New German Cinema in the 60s and 70s . She was also something of a mentor to me. For example she send a copy of my first film "Lebenszeichen" to Fritz Lang, who had said that no more films would ever come out of Germany.

Your walking sacrifice kept her alive for a while.

It was not a sacrifice, it was a refusal of permission: through physical pressure Lotte Eisner was refused permission to die.

In 1970, during the making of your film "Even Dwarves Started Small" in Lanzarote, the actors kept having accidents, so you promised to jump onto a cactus if everyone survived the filming. You seem to have a thing about self-imposed ordeals.


It was meant to cheer everyone up because the actors had survived all sorts of accidents without serious injury. The smallest of the Lilliputians, for example, caught fire and we all just stood there staring at him like a Christmas tree until I put it out. And then I thought that I should give the actors something for their family albums: an act of beauty. Like when kids on snowboards leap into the air and strike a pose.

It took you half a year to recover from the injuries.

It really wasn't that bad. I just misjudged the cacti.

In your diary "Conquest of the Useless" (excerpt) which you wrote during the filming of "Fitzcarraldo", you write that your task and that of the protagonist became identical. Hauling a ship over a mountain with hundreds of Amerindians, was that meant as some kind of sacrifice for art?


That was another act of beauty, taking a ship over a mountain. But there was no sacrifice there either. Although there was some definition of art involved, although I really don't have a proper definition of art. It's this cultural overload. Every writer today comes panting along with a rucksack full of cultural references.

With or without a definition of art: why do you make films?


No idea.

What connected you to the other New German Cinema directors. With Fassbinder, Kluge, Wenders?

There were no parallels in terms of either subject matter or style, it was more a question of pragmatic solidarity. We wanted to build our own apparatus for distribution, get regulations for film funding in place, we started our own festival, in Hof for example. We had the feeling that it was up us to right what was wrong in German film culture.

You were the first generation of German directors after the war who had not been involved in the Nazi era. Did this create a sense of community?

Not really. At the end of the sixties, German film saw itself solely as an instrument of world revolution. People were also babbling on about how we should join forces with the proletariat. And I was thinking: which one of you is from the proletariat? I had actually worked as a welder in a steel factory to fund my first film. So at least I knew something about what factory work meant.

Did the far-off locations of all your films also make you feel like an outsider in German cinema. You made your first film "Signs of Life" at the age of 25 in Greece. The Kinski films "Aguirre: Wrath of God" and "Fizcarraldo" were made in the rain forests of Latin America...


Even before those films I had a very different experience of the world because I had spent so much time abroad even as a child, in Africa, for example. These experiences made me feel quite estranged from the others.

Your filmography is a list of distant locations, extreme working conditions, physical excesses. Do you make films as a challenge to yourself?
No, absolutely not. Of course there are projects that were really difficult and where I had not idea how I was going to finish them. When, suddenly, during the making of "Fitzcarraldo" the rains started and the ramp we were using to haul the ship turned into a mountain of mud. Or with "Fata Morgana" which we were filming in Southern Sahara. That was probably the most difficult film of all.

During the filming in 1969 you and the crew were thrown into jail because they thought you were mercenaries.

We were not treated particularly well, but okay, these things happen. You see how I am trying to avoid talking about challenges because I don't want people to think that I'm doing these things to discover my limits. I'm not on some Reinhold Messner trip.

It could also be that you were looking for psychic or psychological limits. In your work with Klaus Kinski for example.

I have absolutely no interest in psychology.

Why not?


Because I am convinced that self-analysis is one of the terrible mistakes of our current civilisation. Because it means shedding light onto every dark corner of our souls. But a house in which ever last corner is illuminated is uninhabitable. And people whose every last corner has been examined by psychoanalysis become uninhabitable people. I cannot cope with these people and I don't wish to cope with these people. The catastrophe of psychoanalysis is on a par with the catastrophe of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition wanted to shed light on every last corner of people's beliefs. And they also wanted to dig out the Muslim elements which were still coursing through Spain. And psychoanalysis is just as bad.

I was not suggesting that Klaus Kinski should have lain on the psychoanalysis couch.


Probably nothing that interesting would have come out of it any way. Much of him was very banal. And more than anything he had a healthy dose of natural stupidity. Strangely enough, for the last twenty years I have been receiving letters from women who have been involved with Kinski telling me terrible things about him. And for some strange reason they have increased lately. Without knowing about each other, they turn to me as a place to deposit their ghastly stories about him. Unspeakable things. Just wait for the day when his daughter decides to break her silence.

When Kinski wanted to leave the set of "Fitzcarraldo", you threatened to shoot him. Would you have done it?

I'll put it like this: Kinski had enough instinct to know that I was not joking. Essentially, though, his megalomania was a product of total egomania. He was always totally convinced that he would have have made a much better director than that animal Herzog.

Does not every artist need a certain amount of megalomania? You made a film about a ski jumper, "The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner". The dream of overcoming gravity, is that not the dream of every artist: to soar higher that everything and everybody else?

As a young boy I really did dream of being a world champion ski jumper. It was absurd of course. And I gave up the sport after a friend of mine had a bad accident. But of course it's wonderful to have dreams that you can fly, and fly on and on and further than everyone else.

Overcoming gravity, in your films that also means destroying the barriers between fact and fiction. You have often used spoken of ecstatic truth.

That is nothing but a bare concept. But in both feature and documentary films it is possible to have moments when you turn your back on the purely factual. Because fact does not constitute truth per se. Generally facts have nothing lighting them up inside. I always say that truth, a certain deeper layer of truth, can only be reached by stylisation and staging and invention.

Is the ecstatic truth actually a religious term?


Yes, there is something of that there, something of late medieval mysticism. But I want to get away from the religious, from the mystical, because it leads all too quickly to the cloudy waters of the New Age, which is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine in the spiritual realm. And this is something you see in a film like "Avatar" by the way.

It's basically a New Age fairytale film.

What annoys me is the way the film romanticises and idolises nature. It's celebrating a new form of paganism and it gives me knots in my intestines just thinking about it.

But the 3D effects are impressive.


I am a great champion of digital effects, because suddenly everything you can possibly imagine can be made real. There are effects in "Avatar" which are very beautiful. Those little flying phosphorescent jellyfish which sit on your shoulder. I thought: "Crucifix, that's really good, we really don't need all these battering ram effects."

Unlike Roland Emmerich and Wolfgang Petersen, you didn't come to Hollywood to make these sort of blockbusters.


No, I never wanted that. But it was their dream, from childhood on. They both wanted to make films within the definition of the American studio film. But it meant they had to leave their culture behind. You cannot stand with one leg in Hollywood. You have to be be all there or you don't belong. Both realised their dreams. They are doing a great job of it.

And your films? Are they the films of a cosmopolitan Bavarian?

They are very Bavarian films. You see that in all of them, including my most recent film "Bad Lieutenant". A story like this about a drug-addict cop could never have been made by a Prussian director, it's too barren and jaded.

In the film the hallucinations of the police officer played by Nicolas Cage melt into the catastrophe landscape of New Orleans. What was it that interested you here?

The script was originally written for New York. Then after some thinking we suddenly changed it to New Orleans. It was suddenly clear to me that we had to start filming as quickly as possible after hurricane Katrina. I wanted to show a city that was destroyed not only on the outside but also on the inside.

Was it a challenge to film after the flood?

Logistically speaking it was not that catastrophic. We also had a lot of support from the local police force. The police said that they were just happy that films were being made there, that the unique spirit of New Orleans could come to life again in projects like this.

"Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call" is quite a large studio production, your documentaries are highly successful in the US on TV and on DVD, American independent directors like Harmony Korine ask you to act in their films. Would you say that you've had a second career in the US?

People always liked me here. In the last twelve years I have made 15 films, which all ran in the USA and elsewhere but not in Germany. There are a lot of people in Germany who have no idea that I am still making movies. But that could all change now that I am waving my flag at the Berlinale this year as jury president.

Are you something of a pop star in the US?

Not really. I am invisible in Los Angeles. In ten years I have been to two parties and walked the red carpet twice. But there are lots of young directors who see me as a sort of hope. Which is why I have just opened "The Rogue Film School".

The subjects taught there as listed on the website include the art of collecting wood, the art of lockpicking, travelling on foot, the exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully, the athletic side of filmmaking, guerrilla tactics.

That was meant provocatively. It's not about the technical aspects of making film which you learn in other film schools. It is more about a way of life. An attitude. What does life look like if you want to make or write films?

What way of life is that?

It is impossible to describe from the outside. Making films and making them how I make them seems the most natural way of life in the world. I have no choice in the matter. Because no sooner is one film complete than new projects invade my head like burglars in the night. And I have to wrestle with them and fight and see how I can get them out of the house. Or onto the screen as films.

Would you be happy if one day the burglars or demons stopped coming?


I have never asked myself that question. I have enough really great stories in me for the next forty years. And I'm not exaggerating. Well, perhaps I am. But actually I'm not.


*

Werner Herzog (official website) was born in Munich in 1942. At the age of just 24 he made his first film "Signs of Life" which won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. His latest film "Bad Lieutenant" was released in November in the US last year but is only now showing on German screens. He is the president of the jury at this year's Berlinale.

He talked to Katja Nicodemus, a film critic for Die Zeit, in Los Angeles. The interview was originally published in Die Zeit on 9 February, 2010.

Read more of our features by Katja Nicodemus here.


Translation: lp

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

Life in a bubble

Wednesday 21 March, 2012

TeaserPicAwarded a Silver Bear at this year's Berlinale, Christian Petzold's new film "Barbara" is a GDR drama set in the early 1980s. Colourful and romantic beyond any nostalgia for the East, it relates the situation of female doctor caught in the circumstances of having applied for an exit visa. For Petzold, the film is not only a highly personal story of a woman in conflict but a film about what was lost - especially for women - with the fall of the Wall in 1989.
read more

Workers of the world, be entertained!

Monday 13 February, 2012

TeaserPicThis year's Berlinale Retrospective "The Red Dream Factory" rediscovers the legendary German-Russian Mezhrabpom-Film (1922-1936). It tells of incredible film successes, ideological misunderstandings and astonishing blindness. By Oksana Bulgakova
read more

Thailand has woken up

Thursday 27 May, 2010

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film maker who has just won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, talks to Cristina Nord about the political situation in his country and his films.
read more

Playing Lars

Wednesday 16 September, 2009

Charlotte Gainsbourg spent two months in Germany, either blood-spattered in a dark forest or sealed off in a sterile hotel. She talks to Martina Meister about discovering her limits during the filming of "Antichrist" by Danish director Lars von Trier.
read more

Israel's enemies take no prisoners

Tuesday 7 July, 2009

TeaserPicThe Israeli Defence Forces should be judged by different standards than those used for other armies, says Claude Lanzmann. Fifteen years after the release of "Tsahal", his controversial film about the first Jewish army, the French director talks to Max Dax about the logic of war, the value of Jewish lives and Sharon as shepherd.
read more

Marx: the quest, the way, the destination

Tuesday 20 January, 2009

TeaserPicTaking off where Sergei Eisenstein left off, Alexander Kluge has made a nine-and-a-half hour film about Karl Marx and the fairytale of "Kapital". And it's not a minute too long. By Helmut Merker
read more

Cloud 9 at 70 plus

Thursday 11 September, 2008

Emotional chaos in the elderly and the best aesthetic for folds and wrinkles. Birgit Glombitza talks to Andreas Dresen about geriatric love and sex, and his new film "Wolke 9".

read more

And isn't it baronic

Wednesday 16 April, 2008

Billed as the inspirational story of one of the greatest legends of all times, "The Red Baron" is flying, driving and healing Germany at dizzy cinematic heights. There are just not enough superlatives to do this film justice. By Ekkehard Knörer.
read more

The mild bunch

Monday 18 February, 2008

Only one truly original auteur filmmaker made it into this year's Berlinale Competition. With "Night and Day" Korean director Hong Sangsoo proved himself to be one of the great free-thinking talents of contemporary cinema. This aside, emaciated wishy-washy realism prevailed. By Ekkehard Knörer
read more

Berlinale box

Thursday 14 February, 2008

With the Berlin film festival well underway we pick out some of the highlights. Jose Padilha's "Tropa de Elite" might have all the components of an Egoshooter film but it's far off. Hongkong star Johnnie To's "Sparrow" is a bringer of unadulterated joy. Isabel Coixet's "Elegy" stars a couple of aging Roth rabbits. And P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" should be enjoyed on an empty stomach.
read more

Bordering on miraculous

Friday 8 February, 2008

A frighteningly intense Daniel Day Lewis, musical accompaniment from Martin Scorsese, Madonna and Patti Smith, home-made filmic fumblings from a music video genius, a mere smidgen of German material and plenty of Far Eastern promise. After the Berlinale Film Festival hit rock bottom last year, it seems a sharp upwards turn is on the cards for 2008.
read more

All eyes on the December children

Wednesday 5 December, 2007

Romania might have only 35 cinemas but it is having a profound effect on the world of film. Christian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year and the European Film Prize in Berlin on Saturday. By Jan Schulz-Ojala
read more

Floundering Dutch man

Monday 15 October, 2007

A theme running through this year's Netherlands Film Festival is that of men running after deliverance, preferably in the form of young women. There's plenty of tongue in cheek but no changing the facts: the new man, like the old, needs a muse. By Jann Ruyters
read more

Love and two coffins

Monday 8 October, 2007

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" won the best screen play award at Cannes. Now showing in German cinemas, it is a light, bright film about death, an optimistic requiem full of little utopias. By Katja Nicodemus


read more