Werner Herzog On How He’s Changed Over the Years and How Film Hasn’t

The director says that despite not succumbing to sequels like many others have, "there's something very coherent in [his] filmmaking."
Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass
Werner Herzog teaches a MasterClass
courtesy of MasterClass

It’s not often that one can ask a legendary director like Werner Herzog questions, but Reddit users had exactly that opportunity as the 73-year-old German filmmaker held an AMA earlier this afternoon. In accordance with the launch of his filmmaking MasterClass today, the director behind “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Nosferatu the Vampyre” and Oscar-nominated “Encounters at the End of the World” opened up on topics ranging from what scares him about mankind’s capabilities to how he prepared the curriculum for his MasterClass to how he’s developed as a filmmaker while filmmaking itself has developed over the past 40-plus years. Things began with a rather simple question about what film he’s most proud of, something that Herzog unsurprisingly gave a profound answer to.

READ MORE: Watch: Werner Herzog Rips Three Act Structure Screenwriting, Calls It ‘Brainless’

What film are you most proud of?

Well, you cannot really ask a mother, “Which one of your children are you most proud of.” You love them all, I love all of them, my 72 or so films. And those who are the weakest–some of them are weak and some of them have defects, where they limp–and I defend them more than the others. So, I’m proud of them all.

You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind’s history/capability terrifies you the most?

It’s a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.

And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don’t look after the steering wheel ourselves?

So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that’s how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it’s good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.

Who is the one person who taught you the most about filmmaking?

It’s an odd question for me because, in a way since I’m so self-taught, and since I came into contact with cinema fairly late in my youth, I always had the feeling I was sort of the inventor of cinema itself. It sounds kind of crazy or not right, as if I was not right in my mind, but until today, I couldn’t care less about the rules of anything since I developed it all on my own.

So it’s not really a single person who taught me about cinema. However, of course there are filmmakers, great filmmakers, who didn’t really influence me but encouraged me. Somebody like Luis Buñuel, or somebody like Kurosawa, or somebody like Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker who made the incredible silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, or for example Elia Kazan, films like Viva Zapata!, which is a phenomenal film, and some other stuff.

I cannot say that there was really anybody who taught me most; nobody taught me anything.

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What did you learn in creating the curriculum for your MasterClass?

I did not learn anything! I’m self taught. I’m out there somehow presenting something to aspiring young filmmakers. The curriculum itself was never much on my mind. I just went into the elements of filmmaking like scouting locations, finding a way to deal with crazy actors, understanding to manage finances, and understanding all sorts of things, music, editing. The elements of the curriculum came automatically. It’s obvious the important things in filmmaking and you can find it all in this course in masterclass.com. Otherwise I will teach crazy things, the real life stuff, in my rogue film school that I founded, a different type of teaching. It’s one on one, it’s people whom I physically have in front of me and it goes much wider into guerilla filmmaking. In other words, I will teach you how to pick a safety lock, I will teach you how to forge a shooting a document, allowing you to film and things like that. Masterclass.com has, in a way, the whole tapestry of what is necessary to be a film maker and I did my best never learned, in film school myself, never was assistant, but I felt completely confident to do this. You have to see in the backgrounds. In the last 2 decades more young people has approached me, and I mean thousands, who would like a position in one of my crews, maybe as an intern, or learn from me. I’m trying to give an organized answer to all these many people out there who want to learn from me. It was like a avalanche and now there’s a systematic answer.

With the advent of HD camcorders and DSLRs, do you feel the market is oversaturated, or that there are more talented filmmakers being discovered?

That’s an interesting concept and question. Has photography very subtly improved because we do have 3.5 billion people who use their cell phones and take photos and all sorts of things? I don’t believe that the art of photography has improved much. It’s the same thing as its value in filmmaking. I do not believe that we have found the completely hidden unknowns who all of the sudden, who through a cheap digital cameras, make their movies. They would emerge no matter what, whether they have a cell phone or a video camera.

However, I must say, we have seen some good surprises, and sometimes you see them on YouTube of all places. But not really that it has advanced the art of filmmaking much.

READ MORE: Harmony Korine Reveals How He Pranked Werner Herzog In New Video — Watch

If it is possible to put into words, I would like to ask you how you feel your fundamental philosophy towards creating a moving picture has changed from when you started, to your more recent creations?

Well, I started very early. In fact when I was a teenager–and you have to understand that I had no background in cinema–in other words I saw my first film when I was 11, when a traveling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse in the mountains in Bavaria. I didn’t even know that cinema existed until I was 11, so I didn’t see many films, and I started very early to make my own films. It’s an odd thing.

Of course I grew up with my own films. As a teenager, as a young kid, I made my first film when I was 19. By the way, I made my first phone call when I was 17. Nobody can believe it nowadays. And when you’re 19, and now at my age, I have worked in the profession half a century now, of course you grow up and you change, and you still…I must say, I don’t recognize my voice. I do still recognize my worldview. Very basic things have never really changed. A certain combative attitude helped too; my type of film projects have never changed.

But of course when you see my most recent films, you would instantly see that it’s a film by Werner Herzog. You could tell. But I have not trodden the same path all through my life. I have not made Aguirre 2, 3, 4, or 5, or Fitzcarraldo 6, 7, 8, or 12. And yet, there’s something very coherent in my filmmaking.

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