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German filmmaker Werner Herzog has always nurtured an affection for lunacy. His continual recasting of the outrageous actor Klaus Kinski serves as an obvious example of this, as does Herzog’s on-foot trek across Europe (from Munich to Paris, in the middle of winter) to see film critic Lotte Eisner when she was dying. He has long displayed an aggressive rejection of bourgeois, behavioral norms. You might consider him deranged, potentially detrimental to himself and those around him; the cold, deliberate German accent in which he says many a sadistic thing does not always reveal his sardonic sense of humor.
Herzog famously allows his actors and crew to attempt certain chancy stunts only after he himself has tried them. He doesn’t like to work in studios, something he feels kills spontaneity. Studio-filming is certainly safer (no danger of contracting malaria, as Herzog has done several times) but it will always add an undercurrent of artificiality to anything shot there; the space is pretending to be something it is not, and likely the actors would follow suit and give less authentic performances. Herzog likes to shoot in a world not only outside of the studio, but outside of himself; a world that he cannot control with careful light set-ups or an organized producer, but rather one that will continually present obstacles and catch him unawares. This paves the way for some pretty nutty experiences on set.
“Film does not have so much to do with reality as it does with our collective dreams,” Herzog has said. His films are ultimately remarkable, haunting tales of man and nature and poetry. As a director, Herzog seeks not to report, but rather to transform reality, allowing us to witness an “ecstatic truth” (as he calls it). In surface to that pursuit of truth, here are some of the craziest things to happen on Herzog’s many movie sets.
Pulling A Boat Over a Mountain For “Fitzcarraldo” (1982)
While working on the infamous film “Fitzcarraldo,” Herzog demanded that a real ship be pulled over a real mountain in the jungle (as the script called for), and refused to shoot the sequence in a studio with special effects. Fitzcarraldo, the protagonist of this film (played by Klaus Kinski), is driven by his love of music, concocting a grand plan that seems bound to fail: Building an opera house in the jungle, and thus bringing the power of Caruso, Verdi and Wagner to the ignorant natives. In order to raise money and construct his opera house, Fitzcarraldo takes a ship up a tributary and, with the help of a thousand natives, pulls this boat over a mountain and into a parallel river. Typically, enormous sea vessels are not meant to be dragged over mountains. Twentieth Century Fox was originally interested in producing the film, but they wanted Herzog to use a model boat and a model mountain — and Herzog, unsurprisingly, was unwilling to make such compromises.
The pre-production for the film took three years, what with building a boat and a camp that would house a thousand extras plus the crew. Plenty of injuries were incurred in the name of art: Herzog’s cinematographer, filming on board the steamboat, had his hand cut open (and it had to be stitched up without anesthesia). Another crew member was bitten by a venomous snake, and then cut off his own foot with a chainsaw in order to avoid cardiac arrest. But in the end, the boat made its way successfully over the mountain, and Herzog captured it all on film—challenging the basic laws of nature, and triumphing.
A Guy Living (and Dying) With Bears in “Grizzly Man” (2005)
“Grizzly Man” is a documentary portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a man who lived willingly amongst toothy bears for 13 summers in remote Alaskan regions — until he was killed by one of the creatures he sought to protect. During his last five years in Alaska, Treadwell brought along a camera and filmed over 100 hours of footage. Herzog’s film is a collage of sorts, half Treadwell’s own footage and half Herzog’s own interviews with Alaskan natives that were conducted following Treadwell’s demise. Many Alaskans believed a law was violated when a man interfered in the lives of wild animals. But Treadwell disagreed, and was furious with the government and with the Park Service, with tourists and poachers alike. He wanted to protect and to be left alone with his beloved forests and foxes and bears, but this kind of total seclusion is problematic in such an over-populated world. When he was living as part of the people world, Treadwell was sometimes addicted to drugs, at times a suffering alcoholic. Living with the bears saved him from these vices.
The film’s most upsetting scene comes when Herzog sits with Treadwell’s best friend and listens (with headphones on, so she cannot hear) to the audio recording of Treadwell being eaten alive by a bear, along with his girlfriend. Herzog narrates what is happening a little, and Treadwell’s friend watches with wide, horrified eyes. “You must never listen to this,” he tells her after he’s finished. He also suggests destroying the tape, because otherwise it would haunt her for the rest of her life. They hold hands. To Herzog, Treadwell was child-like in his naïveté about nature and the ability to exist in an indifferent landscape with wild creatures. Even though Herzog thinks such idealism ignorant, he still forces us to sympathize with Treadwell.
Everything That Happens in “Even Dwarves Started Small” (1970)
Herzog’s “Even Dwarves Started Small” was censored in Germany when it came out — and it is, indeed, a troubling film. Herzog was forced to rent cinemas himself to screen his movie, and during that time he received multiple death threats. White supremacists, animal activists, and religious folk all opposed the controversial topics presented. The film mocks the political, openly defying bourgeois rituals. The story follows a group of dwarfs who have been kept in an isolated institution for unknown crimes. These dwarfs band together and rebel against the prison’s guards and director (who are, oddly enough, also dwarfs). Chaos ensues: they race around maniacally, breaking windows, starting fires, driving a truck about recklessly and then abandoning it to go around and around in circles. There is no obvious point to this unorganized revolution, other than a sense of discarded oppression and the long-suppressed need to misbehave.
The dwarfs engage in seeming satires of normative rituals, including parodies of marriage and religious festivals, a meal in which they say grace, mention proper table manners (before eating very sloppily), and then proceed to have a raucous food fight. One might assume this freeing revolution would be filled with joy, but it quickly becomes apparent these dwarfs can also act as one another’s tormentors. At one point the group tries to force the two tiniest dwarves to have sex. When they crucify the monkey, the dwarfs are undoubtedly parodying the famous punishment of Christ, but they are simultaneously treating an unsuspecting animal with undeserved nastiness. Perhaps they already know, even from within their guarded, hostile depths, that their rebellion is ultimately useless, that they will always be ill-fitted for the enormous world around them.
Filming A Volcano About to Erupt in “La Soufriere” (1978)
Herzog approached a volcano in Guadeloupe that was on the brink of explosion in order to make the documentary “La Soufriere” (also the name of the volcano). He heard there was one man who refused to evacuate the town, and this fascinated him; he wanted to speak with this person about his resignation and relationship with death. In the wake of an impending natural disaster, the town they find is deserted; Herzog films the traffic lights, still blinking and abandoned dogs rummaging through trash cans. He speaks to a few men left behind on the island; one says he is waiting for death, unafraid of the inevitable, and another says he has stayed behind to look after the animals. Herzog gets closer and closer to the volcano, as noxious smoke billows in front of the camera. Ironically, La Soufriere never ends up erupting. Perhaps the volcano didn’t want to destroy one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers.
Christian Bale’s Experiences on “Rescue Dawn” (2006)
After dropping all that weight for “The Machinist,” it seemed apparent that Christian Bale was not averse to going the distance for a role. Herzog, annoyed by digital effects and wanting his audiences to trust their eyes again, was happy to take him up on his offer of authenticity. The actor had long wanted to work with Herzog and lost fifty-five pounds for the role in four months; he plays Dieter Dengler, a prisoner of war who was held captive in a Vietnamese jungle and eventually escaped. The film is based on a true story.
Lots of drama went on behind the scenes of “Rescue Dawn,” which was shot in Thailand. It wasn’t your typical movie set. There were no trailers for the actors to retreat into. Herzog often wanted to partake in dangerous stunts the rest of the crew didn’t approve of. He had no interest in following rules of regulation or decency. One particular misunderstanding happened during a scene where Bale’s Dieter is being tortured, and is first hung upside-down, then spun around; the men spinning Bale were not native English speakers, and thought they were being urged to do it “faster.” Bale was not able to stand up straight for three days. To his credit, Herzog did everything he asked his actors to do, and he did it first. When Bale’s character had to devour live maggots (in the story, the prisoners are not given much to eat), Herzog showed him how, bolting the maggots down himself. Bale also wrestled with a real live snake (not venomous) for a scene.
Reliving Trauma in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1998)
Before Joshua Oppenheimer made “The Act of Killing,” Herzog made the documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Dieter’s story is the same one the fiction film “Rescue Dawn” was based upon; in 1966, German-American navy pilot Dieter Dengler was gunned down and taken as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. For the doc, Herzog had Dengler revisit the jungle where he was captured and held as a POW, even walking him through the trees with his hands bound so as to really bring back memories of torture and starvation. Herzog hired men to play the parts of Dieter’s captors, recreating the entire ordeal for the camera: Herzog explained this “as a means to draw our attention away from political and historical questions…a means of reducing historical events to localized or individual experiences.” It couldn’t have been easy for Dengler—but being a good friend of Herzog, it’s obvious he trusted him, and it seems he felt comfortable enough to reexamine his trauma and share his story on-screen.
Working with Klaus Kinski
Herzog made five films with Klaus Kinski, a feat nothing short of miraculous. Kinski is one of the most notorious actors of all time, and he was arguably more difficult to work with than all of the jungles Herzog trekked through, combined. On set, Kinski never wanted to acquiesce to a director’s instructions, threatening to quit the production or hurt all those who defied him. Strangely, Herzog was able to tame this beast, at least for long enough to get a tremendous performance out of him. Kinski was more like a force of nature than a person, similar to an avalanche or a tornado. He did not possess many civilized restraints. Herzog has stated that at disparate times, Kinski showed startling bravery, allowing himself to be filmed on a precarious raft amidst fast-moving rapids for the sake of a great shot. In this sense, Kinski was a figure as variable as the landscape itself, sometimes willing to cooperate, and sometimes not.
At one point on the set of “Aguirre: the Wrath of God
,” the Indians living in the Peruvian area where they were filming approached Herzog and offered to murder Kinski for him. Herzog claims he definitely considered the offer, but ultimately decided against it. The director did, however, pull a gun on the actor during this shoot, threatening to shoot him and then kill himself after Kinski tried to walk away from the project. This kind of ultimatum seems to have worked well for Kinski.
“Encounters at the End of the World” is a film neatly paraphrased by its title, in which Herzog journeys to Antarctica and documents a variety of eccentric folk living and working at the world’s end, amidst frequent isolation and icy landscapes. Much of the work done by scientists and researchers in “Encounters” takes place in near silence; there are not very many of them, and they seem keen not to disturb the climate’s stark stillness. In the film’s most visually stunning and alien sequences, divers swim underwater, beneath the actual Antarctic ice, in eerie blue tranquility. Herzog compares their routines to “priests preparing for mass,” as beneath the ice they seem to descend into a hushed, light-stained cathedral.
Herzog’s droll narration warns that these divers are going below the ice without any tethers, so they are able to get more of a range, and that compasses would not work, so close are they to the magnetic pole. There is only one exit hole, and then the impenetrable ceiling of ice, so that these men might become easily trapped or lost. It’s worth it for the footage alone — some of the most beautiful Herzog has ever captured.
A Treacherous Sport in “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner” (1974)
This little-known documentary follows the career of an athlete named Walter Steiner, a youthful but expert “ski-flyer” living in Germany. The movie epitomizes many Herzogian qualities, as it features a ski-flyer careening boldly through the skies, ignorant of all inhibiting rules of sanity. This is a dangerous athletic feat, in which a skier flies down an enormous ramp and into the snowy void below, gliding through the air with nothing to stop him, until he hits the ground and must land on his two feet. Points are awarded for how far each man is able to fly, and this man’s skies often fly off his feet on impact, so violent is the fall.
Herzog notes that “ecstasy” can be seen in Steiner’s face as he sweeps past the camera; just as Fitzcarraldo’s boat moved over the mountain, Walter is defying the laws of gravity, flying for those brief moments on his own above the mountains. He wins prizes, able to stay air-bound for longer than anyone else. He becomes scared or nervous sometimes, and feels hesitant to perform the jumps; he falls from time to time and injures himself, at one point hitting the ground so hard, he temporarily loses his memory. These ski-jumpers do not carry poles as they fly to help steady themselves upon impact, nor do they wear helmets (unbelievably). Without such protection, their bodies presumably are lighter, can fly farther. Walter mentions that if they were to admit the fear they feel before making these jumps — to themselves or anyone else — they would probably never do it.
A Man Changes His Stance on the Death Penalty in “Into the Abyss” (2011)
In the doc “Into the Abyss,” Herzog films and interviews prisoners on death row in Texas. Herzog opposes the death penalty himself, but his film is not political or activist in tone; instead, he simply spends time speaking to the criminals, their families, and the families of the victims, about what happened and how they feel. He also interviews Captain Fred Allen, a former Death Row warden, who personally oversaw over 100 executions. He describes for Herzog the moment, following one particular execution that wasn’t any different from the rest, when he suddenly realized he couldn’t do it anymore. Allen quit his job at the cost of losing his pension, deciding no human being had the right to take the life of another. It’s the law, yes — but “it’s easy to change the law,” he says sorrowfully. This interview with someone who has been there, and done it, and then changed his mind, is incredibly powerful.
Herzog Eats his Shoe to Settle a Bet
“Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
” isn’t technically a Herzog film, but Herzog conceived of the idea, and he’s the star, so we’ll count it anyway. Les Blank directed the short; it involves Herzog honoring a bet he made with filmmaker Errol Morris. If Morris ever actually finished a film (something Herzog accused him of not being able to do), Herzog would eat his own shoe. Morris finished “Gates of Heaven,” and Herzog, a man of his word, ate one of his boots at a theater in Berkeley while Blank filmed him. The shoe was boiled with garlic and herbs, and he didn’t eat the sole, because (he explained) you wouldn’t eat the bones of a chicken. Herzog made a little speech beforehand (a crowd showed up to watch) about how his act should encourage other aspiring filmmakers to have guts and get the job done. This weird little doc is surprisingly inspirational.