INTERVIEW: Strong Man on a Mission; Werner Herzog Talks About "Invincible"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE: 09.23.02) — Call him the shadow of his own former vampire self. At age 60, Werner Herzog — the movies’ great poet-adventurer — has mellowed. His famously frizzy hair is relaxed, receded and thinned, his temper is now more fatherly than despotic. Though he is as drawn as ever to stories of men who have glimpsed death or madness or both, the man who once proclaimed (famously, on screen, in Les Blank‘s “Burden of Dreams“), “I shouldn’t make movies anymore — I should go to a lunatic asylum,” now bristles at the reminder of the youthful bombast that made him, as much or more so than Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema.
But no matter — this has been among the most remarkable careers in cinema, its towering accomplishments too numerous to fully list. Among them: the magnificent “Signs of Life” and “Fata Morgana,” which together form the great, pregnant glossary of themes, images and ideas that would inform so many later Herzogs; “Aguirre” and “Fitzacarraldo,” those two grandiose paeans to mad endeavor; and the Wisconsin-set “Stroszek,” which may be the bleakest and most liltingly comic vision of the American dream ever recorded.
Collectively, these are movies unparalleled in their suggestion of the universe’s vastness and their questioning of whether all that we take to be modern and advanced about the world can really be called “progress.” They are faraway visions of our planet, populated by alien visitors, like the feral child Kaspar Hauser and the deaf-blind of “Land of Silence and Darkness” (possibly the greatest of Herzog’s “documentaries”). And it is the boldest suggestion of these films that man himself, seen through Herzog’s prism, may be but a captive in an immaculate fortress of his own construction.
The sham “Danish” seer Erik Jan Hanussen, whose life forms the partial subject of Herzog’s latest, “Invincible,” is one such tragic figure. And the real-life Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart, whose fate Herzog fancifully intertwines with Hanussen’s (in reality, there is little suggestion that the two ever met), is another in Herzog’s expansive gallery of blessed innocents forging their way in a corrupt society. The film (shot two years ago and finally brought to theaters Friday) is an indulgence in a variety of pet Herzog devices — hypnotism, carnival-sideshow atmosphere and the ethereal jellyfish of the Monterey Bay Aquarium — that never quite overcomes its convulsive shifts in tone (from Romanesque fable to historical biopic and back again) or the feeling that we’ve been here before (namely, in Istvan Szabo‘s fine 1988 film, “Hanussen“). But there are extraordinary things about “Invincible,” not the least of which is Tim Roth‘s stunning performance as Hanussen — one of his best ever. And what seems minor by Herzog standards can seem major compared to the rest of what’s out there.
“Invincible” will be more widely distributed in this country than any Herzog picture of the last two decades, but it would be as improper to think of “Invincible” as a “comeback” as it would be to regard Herzog’s output of the 1980s and ’90s as anything less than the fitting continuation of a prodigious filmography. To do so would be to ignore the extraordinary “Lessons of Darkness” (“Fata Morgana” revisited via the burning oilfields of Kuwait) and those two sibling films — “Wings of Hope” and “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” — that are among cinema’s greatest testaments to the indomitability of the human spirit. There is also Herzog’s contribution to the omnibus project “Ten Minutes Older” — a short called “Ten Thousand Years Older,” which premiered this year at Cannes and which, in its depiction of the gradual extinction of South America’s last unknown, indigenous people, is one of the most extraordinary things he has yet set to film.
These films have been difficult to see — in some ways, Herzog had begun to resemble the aboriginal tribesman from his excellent, but little-known 1984 feature, “Where the Green Ants Dream,” who speaks a dead language that no one else can understand — but a new series of special-edition DVDs produced by the invaluable Anchor Bay Entertainment is helping to rectify that problem. And if the rock-star-size crowds that greeted Herzog during a recent L.A. retrospective of his work (organized by the American Cinematheque) are any indication, word is getting around. Even though he never went anywhere, Herzog is most indisputably back. And so, the legend continues.
indieWIRE: Let’s begin with a rather boring, but useful question: How did you first come across the story of Zishe Breitbart and decide to make it into a film?
Werner Herzog: I stumbled across the story through contact with a descendant of the real strongman, (“Invincible” producer) Gary Bart. He had lots of materials on his ancestor and, thank God, had the nerve to allow me to reinvent, partially, the historical figure and make a real movie story out of it. I believe I’m a good storyteller, and I sense when there’s something very special. So, we got along very well, and I think that yesterday, when he saw it for the first time on a big screen, with his family, they were very pleased.
iW: Just as you have taken certain liberties with the historical facts of this story, so both of your protagonists were men who very much reinvented themselves: Hanussen, who was himself a Jew, as this Danish mystic; and Breitbart, who came to promote himself as “The New Samson.”
Herzog: But that is not an invention of him (Breitbart) — I wouldn’t call it that. It is more like a mission he senses within him. God has called him. The Creator has put something on his shoulders — strong as they are — that is too much for him; it would crush any human being.
iW: To what extent is this idea of destiny and divine intervention, which recurs throughout the film, taken from the historical record?
Herzog: There are only vague hints in his biography, and one of those hints was a poster that I saw where he first announced himself as The New Samson. I had the feeling there was something big in it — a small detail, but very momentous. And somehow, as a storyteller, I was able to weave it into this larger context of a character.
iW: One of the things that is most striking about “Invincible,” as in many of your films, is the enormous attention that has been paid to the smallest details of design and atmosphere, particularly in the case of the small Polish shtetl where we first see Breitbart at the beginning of the film. Then, even when the film transplants us to Berlin, all the physical spaces maintain a wonderfully lived-in quality.
Herzog: When we set up the market scene (which opens the film), it looked so authentic and there was so much attention to detail — every person who does something was really doing it well. Of course, we had blocked off streets and traffic, and all of a sudden an elderly lady steps out from one of the houses with a big, yellow plastic bag and wants to do shopping at our market! The camera was already rolling, I ran into the scene and I said, “Please madam, this is a movie.” She wouldn’t take it; she wanted to do shopping. She took it as a real market, not realizing somehow that 70 years had passed. At that moment, I had the feeling that we were doing a good job.
iW: That’s particularly high praise coming from a man who once professed to only filming extras when they didn’t know the camera was rolling, because otherwise they were sure to look like extras.
Herzog: But here, they are extremely carefully selected. For example, when you make a movie about the 1950s in America — Elvis time — there were faces of the ’50s that you don’t see anymore. You really have to search — where are they? And a certain form of behavior too, a certain form of moving, a certain form of talking. You have to be very very careful about doing it right. Or in the early 1930s, the krauts and the storm troopers — normally they are stereotyped in movies. But here, every single face you see is a face of the ’30s.
iW: Something you are widely known for is your frequent use of nonprofessional actors, including in this film Jouko Ahola (the two-time “World’s Strongest Man” champion who plays Breitbart) and Anna Gourari (the acclaimed concert pianist who plays Hanussen’s mistress).
Herzog: I have to stop you there, because there are no nonprofessional actors. There are only good ones or bad ones.
iW: That is reminiscent of something Bresson once wrote, with which you may be familiar: “No actors. No parts. No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life.” And, as with Bresson, the “actors” in your films often have the direct quality of “being” rather than “seeming” the characters they are playing.
Herzog: For me, it is a question of facing an audience with my figures on the screen. Are they credible for an audience or are they not? And I think your answer, as a spectator, is yes, they are credible. Showing the strongest man in the world is something very tricky, because as an audience — because we have seen so many Hercules films, gladiator films, etc. — we would know instantly and instinctively, “Oh yeah, that guy isn’t that strong.” Here we have someone who puts the audience back in a very basic position and, as I say often about my films, you can trust your eyes again. You just have the feeling of something very authentic, very credible and I like that. Therefore, I say that they are very professional actors.
iW: It has often been written that your work falls into two categories: documentaries and narratives. But this seems a somewhat limiting view, given that so many of your “documentaries” feature scenes that are scripted or staged, while likewise your “narratives” contain many elements that are the presumed domain of non-fiction filmmaking.
Herzog: Yes. When the strongman lifts 900 pounds (in “Invincible”), it is 900 pounds. Period. And even a 6-year-old child watching the film knows that this is not a joke. This is for real.
iW: So, do you see any such categorical distinctions with regard to your films?
Herzog: I would be cautious about categorizing things, about saying, “This is a documentary. That is a feature film.” I think we shouldn’t spend sleepless nights trying to find categories. Let’s just look at it this way: are the films good or are they bad?
iW: Speaking of your documentaries — though we won’t refer to them as such — there is another current project of yours that I’d like to talk about, a wonderful short film called “Ten Thousand Years Older,” which premiered at Cannes and is now airing on the Showtime cable network here in the U.S.
Herzog: I was invited to participate in a film (“Ten Minutes Older“) that was put together by six or seven filmmakers around the world — there was Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, etc. Every director had to have the same subject, very vaguely: it had to do with time and, secondly, you only had 10 minutes. That was the frame. And it’s very difficult to tell a story so momentous and so tragic within 10 minutes, about people who are being pushed by 10,000 years within minutes of the first contact they make with civilization. But it’s like writing a poem: you have to be very essential; things have to boil down to the very essence. Not easy, and not easy for anyone who participated in the project. But I loved doing the film.
iW: And I would venture to say that one of the reasons you might have related so well to the events of “Ten Thousand Years Older,” to this notion of advancing 10,000 years in a single moment, is that you yourself grew up in a very remote village and did not even see a movie until you were a teenager.
Herzog: Not that I didn’t see films: I did not know of the existence of cinema. Nor did I know of the existence of telephones. Nor had I ever seen a banana or orange. And I had never heard the word “banana” or “orange.” Sometimes, I saw a car and all of us kids would run and look. I made my first phone call at the age of 17 — tell that to the kids out there on their cellular phones!
iW: So, what was it like for you to discover cinema at an age much older than when most people have their first encounters with movies?
Herzog: Strangely enough, the very first films I saw didn’t impress me. They were pretty lousy: documentaries on Eskimos building an igloo, with some sort of pompous commentary trying to make us believe that Eskimos still today live in igloos. And you could tell they did a bad job. As I grew up in the mountains and had to deal with a lot of snow, I could tell it was just fake. But soon, I started to discover cinema in a much deeper way, because I started to observe cinema from a different point of view.
The key moment was Dr. Fu Manchu. In one of the Dr. Fu Manchu series, a bad guy — one of his henchmen — is shot from a rock, somersaults in the air and does a strange, odd kick; five minutes later, there is another gun battle, people drop dead on either side and, all of a sudden, I see that they recycled that one shot. I realized it was the same because he did this odd little kick in mid-air, and all of a sudden I woke up and thought, “This was fake. How is a movie narrated? How is it put together? How do they create suspense?” And I started to look out for these things. Why does no one in a western ever eat noodles? Why do you see no chickens on their ranches? All these questions came, and I saw movies with different eyes. I owe it all to Dr. Fu Manchu.
iW: The moment when you began to make films — the late 1960s and early 1970s — was something of a watershed moment in world cinema, particularly in France and in Germany, where you were accompanied by Wenders, Fassbinder, Syberberg and others who constituted what would become known as the New German Cinema. In hindsight, what is perhaps most striking about this moment is the sense of freedom that permeated the films it produced — a boundless freedom of the screen, but also a boundary-less one, so that a German filmmaker such as yourself needn’t think twice about making a film in Africa, South America or Hershey, Penn.
Herzog: But don’t despair, just look around. There is a man like Harmony Korine doing “Gummo” or “Julien Donkey-Boy” — how totally innovative is that? Or, you have a man like Errol Morris working — what is that against the kind of documentaries you normally see on TV? Or, you have people like David Lynch. Or, you have people like Spielberg, who creates dinosaurs on screen, palpable dinosaurs made out of pure fantasy and with a new tool that is one of the greatest gifts that science has given to human kind — what a great achievement that is! These films still exist.
iW: And yet, there is such a disparity between the number of people who see a Spielberg film and the number of people who see a film by Harmony Korine, or even one of your own films.
Herzog: Yes, but still do not despair. Spielberg is a great storyteller — do not forget that, do not overlook that. He deserves the position he is in, because he has understood something more than many others who are just into the fireworks of big special effects. He is the one who weaves them in very coherent, very good stories. He’s a storyteller more than anyone else, and we have a deficit of storytelling in cinema nowadays. It’s not only in the United States; it’s a worldwide sort of event, because audiences look more for stardom, they look more for special effects. And we don’t have stories like, let’s say, “Casablanca” or “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” — the great storytelling that doesn’t need big effects, that stays in our hearts forever. Spielberg is one of those who understands it.
iW: Something you have talked about wanting to do with your films — and something I think you have succeeded at — is to formulate a new cinematic language, to create new, unseen images and to convey, as you call it, an “ecstatic truth” that is close to the immediate meanings and emotions we associate with poetry or music.
Herzog: And it always has an inherent, deep truth. In real poetry, there’s always a truth in it that you sense. You don’t have to articulate it and you don’t have to analyze it — you know it and you sense it. I know that sometimes I’ve gotten close to it, maybe achieved something here and there, but the quest is not over. I’m still trying to be the good soldier of cinema.
iW: You referred earlier, somewhat derisively, to cellular phones and, indeed, there has always been a certain skepticism in your work — dating back to well before the age of cellular phones — towards technology and the “conveniences” of the modern world. And you have often given us characters, Zishe Breitbart being but the latest, who are at odds with this modernity and who are that much more pure, that much more virtuous as a result.
Herzog: It somehow corresponds to my life, because all of the essential things in my life I would do on foot, traveling on foot. Not jogging. Not hiking with a backpack. I am traveling on foot, which means almost no luggage — just a few essentials. I would walk, I would travel on foot regardless of what the distance was. I traveled on foot, for example, when my great mentor, Lotte Eisner, was going to die. Or, for example, proposing to a woman — I did that on foot, crossing the Alps. You see, I could have done it over the phone and I probably would have gotten a yes. But I think a man, when it comes to that question of having children together and putting your fates together, you just don’t do it over the phone. And you better not fly in. You don’t take a taxi. You had better walk.
And let me say this. You speak of telephones and the Internet and whatever. Sure, we have seen and are still witnessing an explosion of instruments of communication. And yet, at the same time, our solitudes increase in the same proportion. The century that we are going to live now will be the century of solitudes. It’s not isolation, it’s something different. It’s solitudes.