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My Dinner With Herzog

My Dinner With Herzog

It is not everyday you get to meet the artists that have inspired you; it’s even more special to be able to receive their validation. Last month, in conjunction with my work as the Director of Programming at the Sarasota Film Festival, I was honored to host Werner Herzog and a retrospective of his non-fiction films. For those of you unfamiliar with Werner’s life, a brief biography is in order:

Werner Herzog (originally Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child. He started traveling on foot from the age of 14. He made his first phone call at the age of 17. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films and made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than forty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas. — (

I stumbled onto Werner’s work as a young man purely by judging books by their covers; stumbling through the foreign film section of the late, great Michigan Video in Flint, MI, I grabbed a copy of Herzog’s classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God based solely on the crazed expression on the face of Herzog’s star and muse, Klaus Kinski (I was 13 years old, sue me). I admit that the dark tale of a colonial Spaniard gone mad searching for the lost city of El Dorado in the mountains of Peru was clearly over my head in the mid-1980’s, but there is no question that the film has stayed with me over the decades. The image of the insane Aguirre, drifting down the river on a handmade raft, covered in monkeys is pretty much the final word on megalomania in my book. There is nothing quite like seeing one of Herzog’s dramas, from Aguirre to classics like Fitzcarraldo and his creepy remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu; the images in his films hover in the rarified area between unreal and absolutely true.

Herzog and Kinski on the set of Cobra Verde (photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Late in 2005, David Shapiro, a friend and festival sponsor interested in bringing Herzog to our film festival, approached me about the possibility. He had done the hard work of getting Werner interested in attending our festival, but there was some uncertainty as to how to best celebrate his work. Having been primarily focused on Herzog’s documentaries (his Wheel of Time, The White Diamond, and Grizzly Man all received a theatrical release in 2005), I proposed a fairly comprehensive retrospective of his non-fiction films. Unlike his fiction movies, Herzog’s documentaries straddle the line between reality and fiction, composed of unbelievable real-life images and stories re-contextualized into the epic scope of cinema. There are stories of hubris (Echoes From a Somber Empire) and heroism (Little Dieter Needs To Fly), works that feel like science fiction (Fata Morgana, The Wild Blue Yonder) and movies that explore hidden worlds that exist almost in spite of us (La Soufriére, Land of Silence and Darkness). In all, I proposed to compile fourteen of Herzog’s documentaries into a ten-day program called Man Against Nature: The Non-Fiction Films of Werner Herzog.

I received a phone call not too long after telling me that Werner appreciated what I had proposed, and that he would be able to join us for the film festival. I was thrilled, but at the same time I knew that assembling the films would be a lot of work. Calls from Seattle to New York City to Munich, countless e-mails and negotiations; standard film programming stuff. This was the first time I was programming a retrospective, so that in and of itself was pretty exciting. I always love attending these collections of films, not only because of the amazing opportunity to immerse oneself in the work of a single artist, but also because I recognize a retrospective as a creative, scholarly act on behalf of the programmer. As much as I love a good film, focused programming that presents an argument about an artist and his/her work is just as exciting to me. It is easy to throw together a ‘Greatest Hits’ package of someone’s best-known films, but much more gratifying and meaningful to experience a thoughtful program. I certainly received a lot of questions from the uninitiated: where were Herzog’s classic fiction films in this retrospective? Why simply the focus on documentaries? As the movies began to unspool, it became abundantly clear to most people that Herzog’s documentaries represent a singular vision about the world, about man’s place in it, and about Werner’s own approach to capturing unique images. I consider the documentary retrospective to be the best film programming I have ever done (if I do say so myself, thankyouverymuch).

Ultimately, the hard work paid off; the films assembled, Herzog arrived at the festival right on time. I was off greeting another filmmaker at a private reception when I received a phone call; having just arrived, Werner was sitting down to dinner, would I care to join him? There are very few questions one faces in life that require absolutely no reflection, and this was one of them; I jumped in my car with my colleague in tow and drove as fast I could to the restaurant. I scrambled to the table and was shocked to be offered a seat next to Werner himself. Long time readers will understand that I am not often lost for words, but when presented with the opportunity to talk to one of the great living film directors, I almost instantaneously found myself short on things to say. There is a dilemma that we all face in that crucial moment when we meet those we have only admired from afar; how does one talk about life and the world around us without deferring to the source of our admiration? My strategy was simple; talk about the movies. Clearly, something we have in common.

I had read many interviews with Werner that were difficult and somewhat surly as he answered banal questions with funny, honest, and often curt answers. Would he be the same in person? It didn’t take much time to find out. Werner was a warm, generous person, animated and full of life. As the wine began to flow and the conversation rolled, Werner and I discussed his recent film The Wild Blue Yonder with some wonderfully detailed insight into the process of creating the film, including which lines of dialogue were scripted (most) and how he came to uncover the film’s gorgeous footage of American astronauts floating in space aboard the Space Shuttle (sitting in a Southern California warehouse, never before seen by human eyes). Herzog instantly put me at ease, and when the conversation turned to an obscure ethnographic film that one in my party had seen and which Herzog admired deeply (Jean Rouch’s 1955 documentary Les Maîtres fous; I haven’t seen it either, but oh, how I will be tracking it down…), things began to heat up. Herzog defended the film’s questionable politics by defending the images themselves, telling us to look at the images and to put our judgments in the trash. My colleague responded by defending her position that Rouch himself had questioned the film’s meaning and impact, and in the wake of this moment, a quiet fell between us as we all thought of how the impasse might be broken. As I nibbled at the remnants of my salad, Werner told us a tale from his own days as a film programmer. He had just finished co-programming the Viennale, and had included a retrospective of Rouch’s films. Werner had invited Jean Rouch to attend the final screening for ‘An Evening with Jean Rouch’, where Werner and Rouch were to talk about Rouch’s career after a screening of Les Maîtres fous in the enormous Gartenbrau. As they walked on stage, Werner told us that he looked into the audience and saw less than 40 people. He vowed to leave Austria, and soon did. I understood him immediately, and I think all film programmers know this feeling of dread, outrage, and frustration quite intimately. Of course, now the pressure was on! Would Herzog have the same experience in Sarasota? Would I walk him into his Evening With… screening of Little Dieter Needs To Fly only to face indifference?

A younger Herzog enjoys a more famous dinner: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

Suddenly, dinner arrived, and with it more wine. Herzog took a copious slice from his steak, a generous drink from his wine glass, and began telling us more stories about his life that are best reserved for Werner himself to tell; the stories of the three times he had been shot at (once as a rambunctious teenager who, attempting to shoot a duck, was mistaken for a serial killer, once in the middle of a civil war, and recently by an air rifle during an interview for the BBC). From there, on to his recent travels to Siberia and the Russian passion for deep living and the enjoyment of a roasted goose by the fire. On to his capture and mistaken identity at the hands of rebels in the CAR while working on Echoes From a Somber Empire. We even got Werner’s thoughts on Godard (I won’t spill the beans). As we approached the end of the evening, Werner told me how much he appreciated what I had done with his documentaries in the program and how pleased he was to be at our festival. Before I could respond with anything more than a simple ‘Thank you’, our group was departing and we both had many hands to shake in thanks. I saw Herzog several times during the week (Thankfully, the screening and conversation were a sell-out and regarded by all in attendance as the highlight of the film festival. Whew!), and he was an amazing person to host and honor at the festival, but no moment will ever transcend the conversation we shared that night. I treasure those words and the knowledge that I had done well by someone who has given me more than I could possibly measure. That is, in my mind, the very definition of contentment.

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