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Interview: Werner Herzog On ‘Herzog: The Collection’

Interview: Werner Herzog On 'Herzog: The Collection'

The new box set “Herzog: the Collection,” released by Shout Factory, collects 16 of Herzog’s films, presented on Blu-ray for the first time, from his 1970 debut “Even Dwarves Started Small” to 1999’s “My Best Fiend.” Herzog has 57 films to his name, of course—and counting—but these early works pulse with energy and strangeness, charm and power, gigantic ideals somehow being borne out of small budgets and limited resources by seemingly limitless passion and sheer force of will.

Meeting Herzog to talk about the collection, the 71-year old director is in a back room at Shout Factory, in a less-than-starry part of Los Angeles, where industrial parks contain secret creations and creators; with his reading glasses at hand, Herzog is passing the time between interviews autographing a number of the box sets or special orders.

Talking with Herzog about his early work can’t help connect to his later work, his current work and his future work; Herzog has little time for rear-view mirrors, but at the same time knows that this set represents a powerful collection of his works: “When you look at the box set, it looks like a brick. Like a piece of rock; I can stand on this piece of rock …”

There’s a great quote from George Orwell—by age 50, every man has the face he deserves. So I’m wondering if, by age 71, every director has the box set he deserves.

How do you look at this… totem… with your face on it?
I look at it with a certain amount of suspicion, because I don’t like to do too much self-reflection. So I find it suspicious… and I’m not into the business of ever seeing an analyst; that would be the last thing. But let’s face it: It’s only 16 films, but it’s some of the best I’ve ever done; I’d love to see 65, 70 of them out now.

Obviously, you’re not someone who lingers or is too dedicated to the past, but you did have a chance to look at these and re-contextualize them.
I would never watch it on video, my own stuff—so I’m not sitting at home, watching my own films. However, I do look back sometimes when there’s a retrospective and there’s a completely new audience in a completely new country, for example—I want to know what the Brazilians, say, find so extraordinary about “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser“; it’s mysterious. I thought—Brazilians, they are wonderful, they are tactile, when they talk to you they would hold your wrist or grab you around the shoulder, and it would be sweaty and physical contact and all of the sudden there’s a very quiet, deep-plowing film, “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser”—and Brazilians go wild for it. Brazilian taxi drivers talk to me about this film. They recognize me because they have seen my photo, and I’m the one who has done “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”

So what is it that makes that specific film so resonant to Brazilians?
It’s mysterious, but I try to understand. For example, a film like “Heart of Glass“—very Bavarian, fairly slow moving; all the actors playing under hypnosis—but so deep under hypnosis that they open their eyes without waking up. And this is a film where Scandinavians go bonkers… they only want to talk about that film with me.

I have several questions about “Heart of Glass”—specifically, where the idea of hypnotizing almost all of the cast came from. When did that “Aha!” moment happen?
Well, it sounds like a circus gimmick when you look at the surface of it… know it: it is not. There’s a story out there, about a village community that lapses into collective insanity, or into collective sleepwalking, or a collective trance—walking into a disaster that was clearly described and foreseen and yet they walk into it. And I thought “How do I stylize this kind of somnambulistic climate among the people there?” and all of a sudden, I thought “Why shouldn’t they act under real trance?” And so I started to test: Could you act in a trance? Could you remember dialogue? Or would you learn dialogue under hypnosis, in fact, under hypnosis, much easier to memorize than not being under hypnosis?

All the hypnotized actors look like they’ve been drenched in the cold waters of the collective unconsciousness, dripping with not-quite knowing.
A strange observation—and it’s true—but however, you should not forget that under hypnosis, you are not unconscious. Under hypnosis, you’re like in a tunnel—but basically aware, still somehow, aware of the world. Under hypnosis there is no—I never did it, I was suspected of doing it to get better control of actors — I don’t need that. I control even a wild beast like Klaus Kinski, a borderline mad, wild, paranoid madman—and I can control him and do good stuff with him. Under hypnosis, you would for example, lie; that’s why it was never used in fact-finding criminal cases. Under hypnosis, the hard core of your character, of your existence, is still untouchable. If I ask you “Grab the knife that’s right here on the table and murder your wife,” you would say ‘No.” under hypnosis. You would say “No.” So murder under hypnosis, it’s a myth. A myth of literature.

But again, you get this great effect where it’s like looking at these people through a clouded glass.
They look through the world like looking though an aquarium. It’s like they’re in an aquarium. Very, very strange. But the film has other illusions; when I look at the film, it is a film that has no precedents; it’s so strange, it’s so created by itself and out of itself, as if I were the inventor of cinema. That’s a film more unique than any of my other films; it’s strange, because I always felt like the inventor of cinema (for that film)…

You mention that in your youth you didn’t even use a telephone until age 17… you did not have what you would call a media-rich childhood; it sounds like you didn’t have a lot of movies, a lot of music. Was it mostly books?
Not even books that much. My mother would read to my siblings and me and to children from the neighborhood—we grew up in rural Bavaria, very remotely, and at night all the neighbor peasants, girls and boys, would congregate in our kitchen, and my mother would read, for example, “Winnie the Pooh“—which arrived in one of these care packages; long live The Marshall Plan.

Having a copy of “Winnie the Pooh” dropped in.
Dropped in, yes; it still fills me with utmost delight—and it still fills me with gratitude about America. You see, there are moments where America has been at its very best, and The Marshall Plan… I just bow my head in reverence.

There’s a shot in “Heart of Glass” where you say on the commentary it took 11 days to get that river of fog, that gorgeous shot.

There’s another shot in “Fitzcarrldo”—where Kinski throws a wad of cash to a huge fish, who eats it—that, on the commentary, you note took 11 days of 3 a.m. wake-ups to get.
Both times, 11 days? Maybe it’s correct. It was a long time; it must come from somewhere, from shooting schedules… Whatever time it takes to get something extraordinary, I will take the time.

But is that something that’s still part of your work now?

Would you still wake up at 3 in the morning for 11 days trying to get (a shot)?
Yes. As long as it does not involve a very expensive, big crew and it does not involve the time of a movie star that would cost you a fortune every single day of shooting—then I wouldn’t do it. For example, the river of fog in the valley (in “Heart of Glass”) was shot only with a camera and one person sitting next to it and exposing a frames each 10 seconds …

…and also adjusting the aperture, to deal with changes in the light…
Yes. Because at that time, you didn’t have anything automatic as you would have today; even, I think, or your cell phone, you can do time-lapse. (Laughs) I have to say, long live the digital age…

At one point on the “Fitzcarraldo” commentary, you mention you had a scene with 5,000 extras, no assistants, and no megaphone. How do you pull off that? How do you corral that many humans?
That’s exactly correct—”corral.” As if I were the shepherd dog. A collie, like in Scotland. Man, are they fast, and are they diligent. It’s physical. It’s physical, running, and I see in the corner of these thousands of people, they are just joking around, and I would instantly run over there and tell them “We are filming in 20 seconds—pay attention, please pay attention. And I would, since I didn’t have any megaphones or anything, no assistant, I would tell everyone “I’m behind the camera, and I will take off my t-shirt and wave it wildly in the air, and that means we are filming now; please, that’s where you’re out there forever, and we will see you; we see every single one of you.” And the way you talk to them, and talk to groups, and then it’s actually corralling, like the dog that keeps watch over a flock of sheep.

I’m just imagining all the running around.
Yes, actually, there are photos (reaches for box set, flips through it)—I don’t know if there’s any photos in there—where I am with Amazonians, sprinting around 800 Amazonians. But here (holds page open to production still for “Nosferatu“), I am with 10,000 rats. You see me running and trying to not step on any one of them…

Which is tougher to get to hit his mark? A rat, or Klaus Kinski?

I’m joking, but …
No, no, no; it’s a good comparison…

During the film I was thinking that you’re getting such incredible stuff out of Kinski—is it like a temperamental antique pipe organ, or some other unique thing where you deal with the difficulties as part of its splendor?
Well, you deal with it—you have to—when you’re the director. But it’s not just Klaus Kinski; I think in all my films, the actors are at their best—and it includes Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant“; I believe he is better than even in the part that won him an Academy Award; now, Nicole Kidman in “Queen of the Desert“—wait for that one. Wait for that one. I make an ominous prediction: How good she is.

Skipping ahead to “Queen of the Desert,” I was interested because that has a much larger of quote-unquote “stars” in it than your films do normally; does that change anything?
No, because nobody is treated like a star in my movies; I have them in the film because they are the best for the part. In fact, all of them are at the top of their abilities—and they know it. Somehow, they know it. And somehow, I really take care of actors. I’m not explaining too much, but they feel safe, they feel guided, they feel a kind of dynamic that I can create. They know I can get the best of the best out of them. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m paid for.

At one point in “Fitzcarraldo,” Klaus Kinski’s character has a throw-away line where he notes “Respectability made me bankrupt; I’m better off there, down by the river.” And I’m wondering where you are between respectability and the river at this point in your life?
(Laughs.) I’ve never left the river.

You never left the river?
No, I’ve always been right in life itself, doing my battles and soldiering on; I don’t really care much about respectability. I was invited to get, for example, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, and I refused.

Because? Because you could be shooting?
No… I’m not the man for this kind of respectability. (Laughs) It doesn’t fit me! Do you think “Dr. Herzog” would be fitting for me? No, it wouldn’t!

I think, considering some of the other people who have gotten honorary degrees in the past, you might be classing it up a little bit, quite frankly…
No, no, no; I’m not the guy who’s made for it. My argument is that I’m so much against academia, let’s say, in filmmaking, in film schools, that I had to found my own Rogue Film School, which is really an absolute contrast to what is happening in film schools worldwide. In particular when it comes to film studies and film theory, it’s just a destructive force out there that tries to stifle the small flames of poetry in cinema.

In the box set notes, regarding one of your films, you say “I shot ‘Woyzeck’ in just eighteen days and edited the film—an entire feature film—completing the final cut in only four days. That’s how films should be made…”
Not always, but… I’m someone who has earned his own money, for doing my first films, and I’ve earned it the hard way as welder doing the night shift in a steel factory when I was still in high school. I know the value of money; and when it comes to, let’s say in Germany, and film subsidies, it is the taxpayer’s money the welder on the night shift has earned, or the butcher’s apprentice, or the taxi driver, so you better know the value of money. I try to bring films in under-budget even, which I have succeeded in doing that. And I’m trying to persuade my students in the Rogue Film School: You have to become self-reliant as far as it can get, be careful with money. Try to limit the amount of days of shooting, because that makes a film expensive. Don’t end up months and months and months in post-production. I see so many young filmmakers, they pride themselves—”Oh I shot three and a half years of my film, I have 800 hours of footage…”—that’s when my heart starts to sink: They didn’t know what they were doing. And they brag that they have been editing for a year and a half—if you’re out in the wilderness of the profession itself, no one would allow you to edit for one and a half years, because it’s so costly. And for a film like—it’s an extreme example—”Into the Abyss,” about a death row case, a complex crime, two perpetrators—one of them executed eight days after I spoke with him—three murder victims, five crime scenes… and a very complex story. I filmed under 10 hours of footage, and I edited the film in a week.

Is that just because …
I knew what I was doing. The thinking before…

There’s a discussion of how typing is not writing; writing is the editing process, the cutting, as opposed to just typing. So you know what you want and get it.
Yes, but: you still have to keep open to surprises; you cannot plan everything. In “Into the Abyss,”—and I keep speaking about it because there’s not a single person in the film I knew more than 60 minutes in my life—no preparation, no life after, no meetings after or before; in front of the camera I would meet the people and get the best out of them. One example where it doesn’t fit, one pregnant woman—who was pregnant from one of the perpetrators—asked me to meet her over lunch, because she was suspicious — who was I, what was my plan? So I met her for an hour and a half for lunch, before I was shooting. That’s the only exception.

That movie has that incredible moment where you just start talking to a gentleman about a squirrel…
…and that’s what you can’t learn in film school. He’s the chaplain in the death chamber, present as the last man present with a prisoner who’s dying. And he comes rushing to my set, and I identify him—we spoke briefly on the phone—and I say, “I’m Werner Herzog, is it okay that we put you in front of these concrete crosses of buried inmates who were not claimed by families?” He says “Yeah, yeah, yeah, quick, quick…”—the first thing he says is “Quick, quick.” Tapping his wrist watch, because he had to; what I didn’t know was that he had to be in the death chamber in 40 minutes, and I had 20 minutes with him.

And he starts to talk in front of the camera like a phony TV preacher—how beautiful God’s creation is, and that everybody will be redeemed, and everybody will find the mercy of God in paradise—I disagree with that, but anyway—and he speaks about being at the golf course, and squirrels, and a horse looking at him and he would see deer and switch off his cellphone. And I interrupt him; from behind the camera, I’m asking “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” And all of a sudden, he’s hit by lightning, and he unravels, and he becomes very human and very deep—and this is something you will never learn in film school; you do not. You cannot learn it in film school; you can only learn it out at the raging river out there in life; you have to find the heart of men; what is going to break them open? And I’m asking a question no one would ever, ever, ever ask—no journalist, no filmmaker would ever ask “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.”

It’s always curious to me when someone makes an artwork, a film, it’s theirs, one vision executed collaboratively—but then you put it out into the world, and you have no more control over it, and people do with it as they will. Are you somebody who thinks about where his art goes once other people have it?
It’s too complex for me; I don’t know who’s going to see it. I only see that it somehow touches a chord, and you can tell; the first hundred of these box sets were sold in less than 10 minutes. So somehow I’m touching a chord, and where it actually is going, I don’t know. I don’t know what kids under 10 make of my films today, who grew up with cell phones, and I made my first phone call when I was 17. So they have a different background in life. How are the Brazilians going to see a film like my film about the fires in Kuwait, “Lessons of Darkness“? You never know, and it’s always a surprise. When you look at the box set, it looks like a brick. Like a piece of rock; I can stand on this piece of rock…

That’s the great thing about physical media: You can pick it up, it has mass, you drop it, it makes a noise…
I prefer it much to, let’s say, the cloud, the internet where you download and it’s… I like that it’s still palpable.

You did commentary for these 16 films; they are on Blu-ray for the first time; many of them feature extensive restorations, like the fact “Fitzcarraldo” is now in stereo… but I have to wonder, does re-visiting make you re-assess them, or think of different choices? Are you plagued by the thought of “Oh, this could have used a different lens, a different angle…”
No, no, no…

…Or do you see them and go “Got it.”
No, no; it’s not just “got it.” I feel totally at ease with the children; I’m father of three children, and the way they are, I accept them and I’m proud of them and I love them—and it’s the same thing with my movies. I just love them. And all of them have their defects; one has a stutter, one has a limp—and you just feel more protective and proud: “That’s the one! Look at that one! That kid stutters, but look at his writing! What a wonderful writer he is! What a wonderful athlete”—or whatever. So I feel totally comfortable with the tiny mistakes here and there. I would never want to touch them again.

You’ve had such an effect on cinema, but you also pop up in the strangest places in pop culture—as a Russian mobster who cut his fingers off…
As an actor? (Laughs) As The Zek? (In “Jack Reacher.”)

As an actor, yes, or appearing as an actor in a film about poker (“The Grand”)—do you do those things just because they’re fun?
No, it’s more than “Fun.” It’s a deep love of cinema. Everything that has to do with cinema—writing, directing, editing, creating music, even running my own Film School, acting—I love it all. And of course, I’m cautious; I wouldn’t do, I would be offered, let’s say, (a part as) a wise old judge in a movie, (but) I like to be the most frightening of villains. And I’m good at that, and I’m frightening. And I’m even paid handsomely for being as frightening as it gets.

That’s really the dream, isn’t it?
It can’t get any better.

James Rocchi writes about film and pop culture for The L.A. Times, Film.com, About.com and other outlets.

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