[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: In the introduction to Herzog On Herzog, a book of interviews conducted with German director Werner Herzog, the interviewer Paul Cronin writes about the curious weaving of mythology, exaggeration and legend surrounding his subject: the "astonishing" variety of "false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films." It's true; there are few directors who have gathered such an outlandish body of stories and wild myths around themselves. It's not at all clear, however, why this is so, because there are few directors less in need of such legends than Herzog. In his case, the truth is strange enough, big enough, that there is no need to print the legend. So while Herzog may not have, as the story goes, directed the notoriously psychotic Klaus Kinski at gunpoint, he did threaten to shoot the actor if he tried to leave the set, and cheerfully admits that he once plotted to blow up Kinski's house. He also made a potentially fatal trip to an island where a live volcano was on the verge of exploding, just to make a film (La Soufriére) about the nearly deserted and dangerous locale. This is a man who has had an entire steamship hauled up the side of a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rain forest (for Fitzcarraldo, of course). This is a man who was shot, on camera, in the middle of a BBC interview, and barely flinched. This is a man who made his first films with stolen cameras and stock, who has been jailed in several African countries, who cooked and ate his own shoe to satisfy a bet with the young documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Obviously, there is no need for exaggeration here, no need for legends. The unvarnished reality of Werner Herzog is already the stuff of myth, and it's this outsized persona, this raw physicality, that runs like raging rapids through his prolific, sprawling filmography. His films are not the work of a daredevil or a madman, as is sometimes said, but they indubitably reflect his unique sensibility, his skewed way of looking at the world. He is drawn, again and again, to similar kinds of stories, to similar kinds of heroes, whether he finds them in the real world or creates them entirely in his fertile imagination. Indeed, there are few directors who have transitioned so fluidly back and forth between fiction features and documentaries: the two forms as essentially the same for Herzog, who never creates fiction wholly devoid of fact or a documentary wholly devoid of fiction. The Herzogian hero might be based on a historical figure, or might be wholly imaginary, or might be a real person subtly guided and shaped by Herzog's aesthetic, but it's fairly certain that he (it is almost always a "he") will be at odds with the world, driven by mysterious and powerful inner motivations, possessed by strange ideas, and living outside of ordinary human society.
Herzog's world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity's place is precarious at best. His films are thus characterized by instability, by extreme emotions and actions, by desperation and suffering. There are few filmmakers who have nourished such a consistent oeuvre while tackling such a broad range of subjects and styles. Whatever Herzog's subject, whatever the story he's telling, it's his sensibility that's always at the center. During the course of this conversation, we'll be exploring that sensibility in some depth, but for now I'll just ask you: what do you see as the salient characteristics of Herzog's cinema?
Jason Bellamy: I'm tempted to answer that question by saying, "What you said," because you have started off this conversation with a thorough and succinct appraisal of Herzog the man, the myth and the moviemaker. Indeed, Herzog is drawn to extremes, to oddities and, in some respects, to chaos. He is fascinated by dreams and death, sometimes appearing unable to talk at length about any subject without using those words. He is captivated by people who live on the edge of human capacity—those who dare to control their lives in uncontrollable situations. He romanticizes nature and regards with awe (and sometimes just contempt) humans who challenge it (even though he's been known to challenge nature himself). These themes are present in almost all of Herzog's films, and yet to some degree the characteristics I just mentioned are irrelevant. Accidental. Because, as you suggested, the most dominant characteristic of Herzog's cinema is Herzog himself.
There's no way we get through this discussion without mentioning Roger Ebert, who absolutely adores Herzog, and whom Herzog admires in return. (Encounters at the End of the World is dedicated to Ebert.) So let me go no further without quoting this recent summation of Herzog from Ebert's blog: "Every one of his films is in some sense autobiographical: It is about what consumed him at that moment. The form of the film might be fiction, might be fact, might be a hybrid. The material dictates the form, and often his presence in the film dictates the material: It would not exist if he were not there."
That last part really nails it. More than almost any other filmmaker, Herzog is a slave to nothing except his own obsessions. Someone could watch one Herzog documentary or maybe two of his fictional films and remain unaware of the director's overwhelming control over his pictures, of the way his subjects reflect his personality and interests. But to spend any more time in the Herzog oeuvre is to realize just how consistently his films act as windows to his soul, mirrors of his psyche. To get Herzog on Herzog, we don't need a collection of interviews by Paul Cronin. For better or worse, we need only a Herzog film.
EH: That Ebert quote is interesting, because it gets at what, precisely, makes Herzog's films autobiographical: his level of engagement with the filmmaking process itself. I want to qualify the assertion that Herzog's films are actually about himself, because in the most literal sense they aren't; his only true autobiographical films are Portrait Werner Herzog and My Best Fiend, his film about his relationship with Klaus Kinski. He doesn't seem to have the kind of analytical mind that is driven towards introspection, and in interviews he pointedly avoids discussing the meanings of his own work, preferring to talk about the circumstances of their creation. He's also a natural (and very entertaining) storyteller, and even when he's dealing with factual material he's always concerned with crafting whatever's in front of him into a narrative. The films become autobiographical mainly because Herzog pours himself into his work with such physicality and dedication. Herzog views filmmaking as a craft rather than an art, and he considers his work a physical process rather than an intellectual or cerebral activity. In the Cronin book, he says:
"Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree because cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs... I have often said that I like to carry prints of my films. They weigh 45 pounds when tied together with a rope. It is not altogether pleasant to carry such bulky objects, but I love to pick them out of a car and take them into the projection room. What a relief to first feel the weight and then let the heaviness drop away; it is the final stage of the very physical act of filmmaking... I will continue to make films only as long as I am physically whole. I would rather lose an eye than a leg. Truly, if I were to lose a leg tomorrow, I would stop filmmaking."
As Herzog would have it, then, his films are an expression not of his mind and sensibility, but of his body. He speaks elsewhere of guiding his cinematographers, maintaining close bodily contact with them so that each shot is an expression of two bodies directing the camera's eye. The most obvious example of Herzog's physicality is Fitzcarraldo, in which the titular protagonist (played by Kinski) is an opera buff who decides to push a steamship up a mountain between two Amazonian tributaries as part of an elaborate moneymaking scheme to fund a jungle opera house. In filming this spectacle, Herzog refused to resort to any special effects and really did haul a boat up a mountain by assembling a system of pulleys and hiring native extras to do the work. In other words, Fitzcarraldo was not autobiographical until Herzog started to make it, at which point his identification with his protagonist placed him in the same position as the drama that appears onscreen. As he made the film, he lived it. This, and not any straightforward autobiographical impulse, is at the heart of Herzog's undeniable presence in his films.
JB: True. Sort of. I agree that his initial intent isn't autobiographical, but Herzog so fervently obeys his instincts—rather than commercial or critical trends—that his projects have a tendency to become very autobiographical very quickly. No, they aren't "about" him, but the vast majority of Herzog's films come to us through him, and that's pretty much the same thing.
As for the physicality of his filmmaking, Herzog strikes me as the director version of Daniel Day-Lewis, a Method actor who immerses himself into a role until he truly becomes his character, sometimes continuing to behave as that character even when the cameras aren't rolling. On this point, I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I respect Herzog's willingness to give himself over to his endeavor—whether that's making a film, walking around Germany's perimeter or eating a shoe. On the other hand, I think his filmmaker-as-athlete romanticism is a load of crap. Just like Day-Lewis' off-camera antics are ultimately immaterial to his captured performance, Herzog's methods are equally irrelevant. At least, they should be. Oh, sure, Herzog finds comfort in immersion, and so on that level his process is significant. But when anyone analyzes Herzog's films, they should analyze the finished product itself, not the degree of difficulty that went into their creation, especially when that difficulty is self-imposed.
Herzog perplexes me. He has real-world modesty, and he's genuinely interested in his subjects (factual or otherwise), and yet he's drawn to his own spotlight like a moth to the flame. For all his strong-jawed confidence, it's as if he's too insecure to let his filmmaking speak for itself. There are exceptions to this, of course; there are instances when Herzog's films and characters don't fit the molds we've described to this point. But even considering Herzog's undeniable skill as a storyteller, and even considering his (mostly) warm-hearted fascination with the odd and the overlooked among us, I sometimes find myself wondering: If Herzog's films weren't by Herzog, would he still enjoy them? In other words, if he encountered one of his films as an emotional outsider, would it resonate with him? When he edits one of his films, does he see the product itself, or is the product just a scrapbook of memories appealing to his nostalgia for the process that created them? What do you think?
EH: I think that's all fairly off-base, actually. I'm particularly puzzled that you're hung up on the fact that "the vast majority of Herzog's films come to us through him." Well, yes, but isn't that true of every director who has a personal sensibility, who isn't just a mainstream hack pumping out product? Maybe it was a mistake to introduce this conversation with so much talk about the myths and tall tales surrounding Herzog, although they're admittedly hard to avoid when talking about him. Herzog's persona can be a distraction from his films, which is partly his own fault just for being himself, and partly the fault of sensationalist journalists who can't resist a good story—I can't resist it either, obviously.
At the same time, I don't think it's fair to say that Herzog doesn't let his films speak for themselves. His films are impossible to ignore no matter how much excess baggage piles up around them in the form of wild making-of stories. There's a certain inherent sensationalism in his life, in the things he's done, but I don't think he's self-aggrandizing by any means, and I don't think the things he says and does are anything other than a genuine expression of his worldview. In this sense, his public persona is an extension of his films, which emerge from that same worldview. You could take pretty much any random Herzog quote from an interview and imagine it inserted into one of his films intact. That's just the way he talks, the way he thinks about the world. There's such consistency between his films and his life outside them that I can only conclude this is the real Herzog, and you can either take it or leave it.
Personally, I have nothing but respect for Herzog as a filmmaker. I don't love every film he's made (though I've seen most of them), and I have certain reservations (which I'm sure we'll get into later) about specific strains within his oeuvre. But overall I'd rank him among the few greatest living filmmakers, and his work consistently impresses me with its originality, its emotional depth, and its all-enveloping compassion for the weird wonders, both human and otherwise, of our shared world. The circumstances of production, as interesting as they often are in their own right, are immaterial to the sheer ingenuity and beauty of the films themselves. That's why I don't agree that Herzog's films are only about himself, or only about the nostalgia he feels for the process of filmmaking. Herzog makes films not about himself, but about his perception of the world. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one; the former is solipsism, the latter art.
Herzog has a very specific, and unique, way of looking at the world. One can read a quote by him in isolation and instantly know who said it. But he applies this worldview to a broad range of subjects, and he approaches each film with a humanist perspective, even when—as in Grizzly Man—he's somewhat critical of his subject. I always get the sense that, as much as Herzog uses his characters and stories to express his own ideas, he also respects their separate experiences, allows their voices and their perspectives into his films, and attempts to convey alien perspectives. If he approaches each film as a new opportunity to explore his signature concerns, he is also undoubtedly open to whatever else he may find in the process. He frequently talks about the happy accidents of filmmaking, and in this sense his process is important to the finished product, because it's this openness and generosity, this willingness to incorporate the world around him into his films, that makes his work so vital and potent.
JB: I agree with you that Herzog is hardly alone in bringing his personality or outlook to his projects. Indeed, innumerable filmmaking legends do this, and there's nothing wrong with it. That's why a Spielberg film feels like a Spielberg film, a Tarantino film feels like a Tarantino film, a Malick film feels like a Malick film, and on and on. If I were criticizing Herzog for having a passion for his story and telling that story from his heart, that would be unfair and ridiculous. (I'm reminded of Matt Zoller Seitz's "Friendship Theory of Movies," which effectively argues that we should appreciate directors for what they are and quit obsessively criticizing them for everything they aren't.) But I don't think I'm doing that. What I'm suggesting is that Herzog, more than most filmmakers, has a need to put his hands on everything—to touch it, smell it, shake it. And for me, all those resulting fingerprints can be distracting. Sometimes I wish he'd simply observe. Even more often, I wish he'd shut up and let me observe. (More on this later, I'm sure.)
In the same way that great actors can convey emotion from within and great screenwriters can convey a character's thoughts without voice-over narration, great filmmakers can express themselves through their films without actually expressing themselves within their films. No question, Herzog can do this, too. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an example of a film in which Herzog is essentially hands-off. But then there's a film like Bells From the Deep in which Herzog finds it necessary to narrate the translated dialogue, rather than using subtitles, in order to remind us that he's there, in order to ensure that his subjects' thoughts sound to us like they do in his own head. Is this some crime against cinema or a raging ego out of control? Absolutely not. But I hope you'd admit that there's a hell of a lot of ground between the omnipotence of Herzog and being "just a mainstream hack pumping out product."
The only thing I want to make clear as we move forward is that my opinion of Herzog is shaped by his filmmaking voice (spoken or not), not his off-camera myths. Sure, I've heard some of the stories, but I've never been fascinated by them. Even the most notorious rumors about Herzog don't pique my interest. That said, I do think there are those who romanticize his films in part because they admire his full immersion into his process, as if his degree of commitment makes his art more legitimate. I don't buy that. Not with Herzog, not with anyone; not with filmmaking, not with anything. (To use a personal example, if I slave away on a troublesome review for three hours, that doesn't make it better, richer or more heartfelt than something Ebert cranks out without pausing in 30 minutes.) So, yeah, when Herzog says he'd stop making films if he lost a leg but not an eye, I call bullshit. But I don't consider that when I'm watching his films, I really don't. I believe his on-film persona, whether you find it engaging or annoying, is entirely genuine. I just think there's often too much Herzog in many of Herzog's films, though I recognize how absurd that criticism seems at face value.
EH: I understand what you're getting at here. It's just that you're complaining about some of the things that I appreciate the most about Herzog's cinema. I love that tendency of his to get involved in the film, to insert his own perspective, often (in his documentaries, anyway) through the omnipresence of his distinctive voiceover. Watching something like Bells From the Deep is a bit like sitting down to watch a film with Herzog himself sitting next to you, providing a running commentary with his melodious voice, pointing out the things he's interested in. It's true that he has never been and never will be a conventional documentary filmmaker. He's rarely interested in simply setting up a camera and observing things, though he does have films that largely do just that: Ballad of the Little Soldier, Jag Mandir, Wheel of Time, Huie's Sermon, God and the Burdened, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun. There are films where he is content simply to watch, to document: most frequently these are straight "ethnographic" films made in Africa, India and South America. (For what it's worth, I think these are mostly lesser works; I want more Herzog in my Herzog films!)
Most of the time, however, he's too restless, too engaged by his material and eager to get across his own point of view on what he's seeing. I don't see this as a failing. Bells From the Deep is a particularly good example of a movie with Herzog's "fingerprints" all over the place. I couldn't swear to it, but I'm not even convinced that his voiceover is actually translating the people onscreen at all times. There are a few scenes where I get the impression that Herzog is speaking over them in order to tell his own stories rather than translating even loosely. Maybe I'm wrong, but if not it certainly wouldn't be the only invention in the film. On the surface this film might be mistaken for an objective account of Russian spirituality and mysticism, but actually Herzog exaggerates and twists things, and at one point hired a pair of drunks from a nearby village to pose as penitents looking for the city beneath the ice. He makes no secret of such devices, and even within the framework of the film his artifice breaks down completely when a little old lady who is apparently worshipping a tree stump turns to the camera and says, according to Herzog's voiceover translation, "Now I'll crawl around some more, OK?" It becomes obvious here that he's putting us on, that he's telling this woman what to do, and that this is probably not genuine religious worship. Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices is even more playful and liberal in its treatment of factual material, often verging into outright fictions.
I understand why these intrusions and inventions annoy some people, especially when they're presented with this deadpan, mock-serious objectivity. The mingling of fiction and documentary creates an uncomfortable middle ground that can be difficult to navigate. But I don't think Herzog does it because of his ego, and I don't think he wants to fool anyone, either, mainly because it is always so obvious to me that the "facts" of his films should not be taken at face value. So I admit I'm puzzled by the IMDb reviews that take Bells From the Deep utterly seriously. One commenter calls it "completely neutral" and says that Herzog "shows the people as they are and lets them speak for themselves," which is pretty much exactly the opposite of what he's doing here. Herzog gives his audience credit—maybe too much credit—by assuming that they'll be able to untangle his interweaving of fact and fiction for themselves.
JB: I guess I'm obliged to say that he gives his audience too much credit in that case, because I'm a skeptical observer who knows enough to be particularly skeptical of Herzog, and yet it never occurred to me that the guys sliding around on the ice were the town drunks. (Not that I'm surprised.) As for the woman who seeks permission to crawl around on the ground, I took that moment to be an indictment of her faith—less a sign that she was operating under orders from Herzog than that she realized that when she behaved the fool, Herzog and his camera were interested.
I haven't seen as many Herzog films as you have, but I've seen enough to feel comfortable noting that his "handsy" nature has increased with age. Whether this reveals an increase in confidence, determination, impatience, laziness or something else, is up for debate. Herzog's 1971 documentary about a deaf-blind woman (and all her deaf-blind friends), Land of Silence and Darkness, is a terrific example of a time Herzog resigned himself to the background to beneficial results. On a few occasions in that film, Herzog provides some factual (or so I presume) commentary as context, but he never editorializes. Instead, he just observes, and for me the result is far more powerful.
Late in that film there's a moment when Herzog's subject, Fini Straubinger, visits with a 22-year-old who was deaf-blind from birth and has never outgrown infancy: he can't walk, chew his food, dress himself or communicate in any way. The contrast between these two deaf-blind people is mind-blowing. If at the beginning of the film you might have been distracted by Straubinger's limitations—she receives communication by having someone tap code into her open hand—her visit with the 22-year-old is enough to make us forget that she's handicapped; it's as if she goes from being Helen Keller to being Anne Sullivan. This transformation of audience perception is extraordinary, and one of the reasons it's so successful is because Herzog leaves us to the silence. Adding voice-over to that unforgettable encounter would be like having a magician explain his illusion as he's performing his trick. Yet I have no doubt that if Herzog made the film today, he'd babble away. Thus, it's only fair to wonder how many times Herzog has spoiled the silence by speaking when we should listen. In those moments, Herzog doesn't trust his audience enough.
EH: You're right that Herzog's intervention in his documentaries has increased over time. But it's funny that you use Land of Silence and Darkness as your example, since Herzog himself cites it as the moment, early in his career, when he realized that he didn't necessarily have to remain entirely true to the facts in order to be truthful to his subject in a larger sense: he could convey the "ecstatic truth" rather than "the accountant's truth," as he likes to say. There are moments scattered throughout the film in which Herzog resorted to invention and fiction: notably, the quote about World War III that opens the film was written by him, not Fini, and the speech she gives about ski-flying was also clearly Herzog's words (he'd later explore that particular obsession further in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner). More generally, so many of the incidents in the film (besides Fini's visits to her friends) are obviously not part of her normal routine, but must have been special trips planned by Herzog in order to capture his subject experiencing different things. He takes her up for her first trip in an airplane, to a petting zoo, to a greenhouse, almost as though experimenting, exposing her to new tactile sensations. So although the film is deceptively straightforward in many ways, especially compared to Herzog's later documentaries, it can hardly be said that Herzog simply sits back and passively observes what happens in front of him.
That said, your larger point still stands. Herzog realized around the time of Land of Silence and Darkness that he enjoyed (and could get away with) playing with the fact and fiction, and he has been doing it more and more ever since. At the same time, he's never really abandoned the more restrained aesthetic that you rightly praise in that devastating scene between Fini and Vladimir Kokol, the 22-year-old deaf-blind man. Even as recently as a few years ago he's made quiet, simple films like Wheel of Time that are largely observational. Fact and fiction have always coexisted in Herzog's work, but the relative proportions fluctuate between projects. Films like Gesualdo and Bells From the Deep are at one extreme of a continuum in Herzog's career between straight documentary and fiction, along with some of his strange sci-fi collages like Lessons of Darkness or The Wild Blue Yonder.
It's also true that even in his more hands-on movies, Herzog hasn't really abandoned the more observational style you seem to prefer. There's a lengthy sequence in Bells From the Deep where Herzog observes Yuri Tarassov, a "sorcerer" and "exorcist" who first appears in a creepy closeup with candles casting an orange glow on his taut, skeletal face. As Tarassov stalks around a stage, approaching women who seem to be going into fits of demonic possession, screaming and crying, Herzog remains entirely silent, never intruding, never making his own feelings known. At the end of the scene, there's an interesting, enigmatic moment where, as Tarassov concludes an exorcism, Herzog pulls in for a closeup and captures a strange expression on the sorcerer's face, which might be religious ecstasy or might be a con man rolling his eyes. The whole scene is deliberately ambiguous and presented without commentary. It's not as powerful as the scene from Land of Silence and Darkness—but then, what is?—but it proves that Herzog still knows when he can intrude and when to step back, when to shut up and just let his images speak for themselves. Bells From the Deep is a film where it's easy, in retrospect, to overestimate just how much Herzog speaks, and to forget all the times when he steps back and just watches something (like the long and wonderful opening shots of those throat singers by the riverside).
JB: That's all very well said, and I don't disagree. And yet there's a pattern to his selective silence that isn't so flattering. If there's one thing that can get Herzog to shut up, it's a freak show: the exorcist in Bells From the Deep, the dramatically mad Klaus Kinski in Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, the spiritual Herzog twin Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs To Fly, or the lip-trumpeting Kokol in Land of Silence and Darkness. I could go on, but you get the point. In those cases, Herzog realizes that he can't possibly embellish the image itself with his own words—unless he resorts to writing his subjects' words for them, which he sometimes does—and so he lets his camera ogle.
I used to read this ogling as genuine fascination. I used to interpret Herzog's silence as respect. But recent documentaries have me questioning the whole lot. In his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog allows several of his interviewees to speak just long enough to establish their wackiness before he cuts them off with voiceover, often ridiculing them in the process. ("Her story goes on forever," he says with disdain as one of his interviewees recounts her around-the-world exploits. "Your stories do, too," I thought.) In the same film, Herzog digs up dated footage of a man trying to enter the Guinness Book of World Records in a number of less than dignified ways and compares him to anyone who might be misguided enough to believe that adventuring in Antarctica still provides genuine adventure. Such instances make me wonder whether ecstatic truth is just an artsy name for reality TV. In the otherwise terrific Lessons of Darkness, Herzog laughably suggests that the workers seen reigniting an oil fire are "consumed by madness," asking if "life without fire has become unbearable for them." That narration somehow ignores that Herzog himself is fueled by that madness. When there are fires of perversity, Herzog observes. When there aren't, he starts a fire.
EH: See, I think Herzog is respectful of and fascinated by his subjects. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog sees these people as kindred spirits, people like him who have traveled the world and done unusual things simply because they wanted to. When he says about that one woman, "her story goes on forever," I don't read it as contempt—she'd just been chronicling a long list of terrible things that had happened to her, and Herzog's voiceover underlines the fact that she'd suffered a great deal. He feels sympathy for her, especially since he'd suffered similar trials and mishaps during his own travels in Africa. Herzog mocks the faux-adventurism of breaking world records for Guinness, but he does it not to say that his interviewees are equally "misguided," but to contrast their genuine adventures, their genuine pursuit of their own internal drives, against the (from Herzog's perspective) silly and meaningless breaking of records.
Herzog seeks out interesting and unique people, but he never treats them like exhibits in a freak show, mainly because he tends to recognize himself in people like this. So he admires the way they forge their own place within the harsh extremes of nature, and he admires their engagement with highly specialized and eccentric fields of study, like the researcher who gets giddily excited about ice, or the physicist who views neutrinos in spiritual terms, or the penguin observer who, in the company of birds, seems to have lost his taste for human social interaction. Herzog doesn't trot out these people to make fun of them. He doesn't share their obsessions, and maybe he thinks some of them are a bit silly, but he certainly respects the fact that they have these obsessions and that they've doggedly pursued them no matter what the cost. He even manages to find a penguin analog for his fictional heroes like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, a penguin who detours off from the accepted migration patterns of his species and waddles off towards the mountains on a doomed but iconoclastic quest. Herzog admires anyone who distinguishes themselves as an individual, even if they do so through folly or self-endangerment.
As for Lessons of Darkness, that's one of Herzog's least conventional documentaries, so much so that it almost ceases to be a documentary at all. It falls within a certain small class of films within his oeuvre, a class shared with Fata Morgana and The Wild Blue Yonder, where he crafts documentary footage into a loose science fiction narrative rather than treating it as realistic imagery. In this case, he acts as though he is part of an expedition that has just stumbled onto an alien planet for the first time and is attempting to interpret the sights he sees and the people he encounters. He pretends that the burning oil fields of Kuwait represent the entirety of a wasted planet.
This is clearly a case where approaching the film too literally will only be damaging to the experience. I mean, obviously there's a good reason for what the workers do when they reignite those fires, and anyone watching it will know that the workers are not "mad." But in the context of the sci-fi story Herzog is telling, it's another example of just how strange and inexplicable the things we do as a species might be to an outside observer unaware of the reasons behind our actions. Herzog got a lot of flak for this film because he didn't couch it in specific political terms about Saddam Hussein and the first Gulf War, but it's actually much broader than any single conflict. The narration tries to step back from the specificity of these images, to view them from an outside perspective as evidence of a planet on the verge of destroying itself, of a species at war with nature.
JB: It's funny: I think Lessons of Darkness is one of Herzog's purest documentaries because the "sci-fi story" is so insignificant, and the narration so scarce, that I find it easy to ignore altogether. What we're left with are these breathtaking images that are rarely what Herzog claims them to be, but that are awe-inspiring just the same. We see oil fires spitting majestically toward the heavens; oil lakes crisscrossed by white-sand roads; workers extinguishing an oil fire with a dynamite-powered explosion; men toiling away in an oil storm; oil lakes bubbling at the surface as if pelted by hail. Oh, sure, even at 50 minutes, Herzog overstays his welcome in a few places, as he is prone to do, but the raw power of his cinematography makes this one of his greatest pictures, in my opinion.
See, what you must understand is that one of the reasons that I grow so frustrated by Herzog's uncontrollable tongue is because I admire his visual sensibilities. For example, his 1968 dramatic film Signs of Life, about a man who goes insane due to idleness (a Herzogian theme in every sense), has that fantastic scene in which the crazed Stroszek (Peter Brogle) ignites fireworks from the fortress. It begins with two German officers talking to one another, and when they move to the window at the sound of the first explosions, the camera tracks past them and looks through another window at the fireworks blasting toward the sky and out over the water, as Stavros Xarhakos' score gently underlines the vision's beauty. This all unfolds in black-and-white, remember, and yet I can't think of a more striking use of fireworks in cinema.
Then there's a film like Aguirre, which begins with the magnificent image of Pizarro's soldiers marching single-file through the mountains of Peru, carrying a cannon and sedan-chairs and dragging llamas behind them, all while "dressed for a court pageant," as Ebert puts it in his Great Movies essay. The film ends with the haunting image of Aguirre stomping about on his raft, alone except for dozens of chattering monkeys. In between we are treated to shots of Aguirre sneering beneath his helmet, drifting about with that lopsided stagger that Johnny Depp brought out of mothballs for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In these instances, what the camera tells us is infinitely more interesting and more memorable than anything the characters or Herzog says, which is a compliment in one sense and an insult in another.
EH: I can't really separate Herzog's visual sensibility from his narrative sense in the same way, but I agree with you about Signs of Life and Aguirre. These are stunning films, and Signs of Life is doubly stunning for being a debut feature. Herzog had previously made a few tentative shorts and then wandered the globe for a few years, and he had no formal knowledge of film whatsoever. And yet Signs of Life is so assured, so perfectly paced and conceived. The film moves with the slow, lazy rhythms of life in an empty fort on the Greek isle of Crete, as Stroszek, his wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and two other soldiers sit around with nothing to do. They finish their work within a few days and then simply lounge around in the dry heat, bored and disaffected. Herzog documents everything with a patient eye: the dinners put together with simple ingredients, the turtles they find and name, the ingenious homemade trap for cockroaches.
Despite the poetic realism of Herzog's imagery, there is also a subtle surreal streak running through the film, a sensibility that uncovers the bizarre and hallucinatory qualities in the prosaic. There's that great moment where Stroszek, in the midst of a routine patrol, suddenly stumbles across a field full of windmills strewn across the landscape, humming in the wind. Herzog finds these incredible images that look fake, and yet are undeniably real as well.
Once Stroszek loses his grip on his sanity, chasing his wife and compatriots out of the fort at gunpoint, the film pulls back: he is never seen up close again, only from a distance, and he only speaks once more, delivering a crazed speech from atop the fort's wall. From that point on, Herzog films him from afar, so that Stroszek is a speck darting around the fort's central courtyard, scurrying across the wasted terrain. Herzog gives his hero a respectful isolation, allowing him to enact his mad rebellion in privacy. Only the effects, abstracted from Stroszek's actions, are present in the film. The two lovely fireworks displays, one during the day and the second at night, are the most visible remainders of Stroszek in the film's last act, as he makes fireworks from the shells in the fort's ammo depot, transforming weaponry into an aesthetic expression. It's through this intermediary that he expresses his rage and frustration: at the town, at his superiors in the army, at his wife and friends.
It's interesting that despite the World War II setting, everything in this film is personal and introspective. Herzog is perhaps the most apolitical of directors, and this film more or less proves it: it's hard to imagine another director, let alone a German director, who could make a film about German soldiers during WWII and not make it about Nazism or the Holocaust in the least. These are, technically speaking, Nazi soldiers, but they're just ordinary guys on the fringes of the war, in a place that seems preternaturally calm and untouched by the war's devastation. Stroszek's insanity is not a political statement, it's an expression of existential anguish.
JB: If I wanted to be a dick about it, I'd say, "Of course Herzog tells his WWII story apolitically; he's German." But that wouldn't be fair, because, as you noted, it's not as if Signs of Life marks the only occasion in which Herzog is drawn to the existential over the political. Indeed, this is yet another sign of how personal Herzog's films can be. He's interested in precisely what he's interested in and nothing more. Herzog doesn't strike me as an intentional maverick so much as an accidental nonconformist. It's as if he's blissfully unaware of The Norm. To use another example from Signs of Life, how many directors would allow Stroszek to fade into the background precisely at the point when he becomes most interesting? Not many. And yet I don't get the feeling that Herzog had a grand plan to sequester the crazed Stroszek or to work against the grain. Instead, I think Herzog, who willingly admits that he largely makes up his films as he goes along, shot according to his whims, probably never realizing until the editing process that Stroszek is without a final ranting closeup. Heck, maybe Herzog was oblivious even then; there's no arguing that he marches to his own drumbeat.
That said, Herzog's drumbeat doesn't always move me. Ebert says that Herzog's films "vibrate," but I'm rarely so overpowered. This is curious to me because Herzog has an eye for nature that reminds me of Terrence Malick, whose films I adore. So how is it that Malick makes me vibrate while Herzog often leaves me listless? I'm not entirely sure. Part of it has to do with Herzog's penchant for talking over his cinematography, which we've discussed. Another factor might be that Herzog is so interested in the general human condition that he often ignores (overlooks?) the personal emotions of his central characters, which for me can be an obstacle. And then there's Herzog's aforementioned habit of holding a shot beyond its usefulness. I never tired of the fireworks displays of Signs of Life, but I could have done with less of watching the waves licking the shoreline, for example. In his documentaries, Herzog's favorite gimmick is to hold the camera on his subject long after they've finished talking, regarding them like zoo animals on display. Sometimes this is effective. Other times, as I suggested earlier, I wonder if these images represent something deeper to Herzog that never comes through to his audience.
To this point, you've talked a lot about Herzog's strengths. I'm curious to know what you think his weaknesses are, and to learn whether you think his films possess enough emotion to be considered attempts at "ecstatic" truth. In short, do Herzog's films move you, or do they merely interest you? Or is that the same thing?
EH: As is probably more than obvious by now, I love Herzog's films, so it should come as no surprise that I find them moving. Maybe I'm just attuned to Herzog's personal vision, because as we've both noted, he does tend to follow his own inner drumbeat with little concern for things that don't fall into his areas of interest. I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm so willing to enter Herzog's world again and again, but I'm frequently moved and rarely bored by his films (other than some of his recent fiction features, at least, as I'm sure we'll get to later).
That said, I do have reservations about his work. For one thing, the lack of political engagement, which I consider a strength in films like Lessons of Darkness or Signs of Life, can bother me when a particular moment demands a more political perspective on his subject. It doesn't happen often, but there are times in Encounters at the End of the World, when some of his interviewees are talking about environmental protection and things like that, where Herzog's objectivity and refusal to go into it further irritates me a little. I mean, he's making a film that's partly about the splendor of nature, and yet he more or less ignores the environmental implications of melting ice caps and climate change even when the people he meets explicitly bring these subjects into the film. That's an outgrowth of a certain pessimistic, apocalyptic strain in his thinking: if the world's on the brink of ending anyway, why bother re-arranging the deck chairs? Of course, he has also made a handful of what might be called "message films," movies like Ballad of the Little Soldier and Where the Green Ants Dream, that advocate for a specific political idea, so maybe like everything else it's just a question of what interests him personally from film to film.
Herzog's penchant for reshaping reality also brings up problematic questions, questions that are not always easy to answer. There are some uncomfortable moments in his documentaries, moments where I'm not sure whether what Herzog's doing crosses the boundaries of good taste or not. One of these is the sequence in Little Dieter Needs To Fly where Herzog reenacts Dieter's captivity by hiring a handful of Laotians to act as guards with machine guns, then tying Dieter's hands behind his back and marching him through the jungle. As the march starts, Dieter looks up at the camera, his brow furrowed, and says quietly, "This is a little too close to home." It's an effective scene, but it certainly raises questions about the ethics of Herzog's interactions with his subjects. There are similar scenes in Wings of Hope, a kind of sister film to Dieter's story, about a young woman's survival in the South American jungle after a plane crash that killed her whole family. Just as he had with Dieter, Herzog brings this woman back to the scene of the accident and has her confront her fears and memories; on the flight there, he even has her sit in the same seat she was in when she crashed. You mentioned reality TV earlier, but to me this kind of stuff brings to mind one of those "investigative journalist" shows where the interviewer is always trying to get the subject to confess some deep, dark secret.
But I'm conflicted about these devices, because, for one thing, by all appearances Dieter is going along with these recreations willingly, and indeed he remained close friends with Herzog until he died in 2001. Moreover, Herzog's methods really do get at something deeper, something that perhaps wouldn't be as affecting if not for his manipulations. That film's climax is a meditative, melancholy shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge into Thailand that he and his fellow escapee Duane were trying to reach but never did. As he sits cross-legged beneath this bridge, the water and the gray sky looming above him, describing Duane's death, there is a subtle and deeply moving sadness to the image that, one senses, Herzog was able to get at because he and Dieter were both so fully immersed in this place, in the jungle, in the very locations where Dieter and Duane spent the hard days of their escape. A scene like this is to me the essence of Herzog's "ecstatic truth," and at times like that my reservations about his politics and his ethics simply melt away.
JB: Well, here's the problem with ecstatic truth: That shot of Dieter sitting beneath the bridge? I don't trust it. I don't trust it because Dieter and Herzog sit there long enough for the sun to set, which would have seemed forced in any documentary and certainly seems calculated with Herzog behind the camera. I don't trust it because earlier there's a scene in which Dieter stands in front of a tank of jellyfish and compares their lethal beauty to his image of death—a poetic image that in fact was whispered into his ear by Herzog. I don't trust it because Dieter's "habit" of opening and closing doors numerous times, to ensure that they are unlocked and he is free, also strikes me as a Herzogian flourish.
I don't need an "accountant's truth" from any film. Nevertheless we can't overlook that realism is part of the documentary genre's allure, even for Herzog. Little Dieter Needs To Fly is essentially a long interview with the subject that enthralls not just because the story is interesting but because the story is presumed to be true (or at least mostly true). What is sacrificed in artistry (Dieter talking into the camera) is made up for with legitimacy (we believe the things he's saying). I've always felt it hypocritical that Herzog wants us to overlook or otherwise accept his embellishments when the very reason for those embellishments is to deceive the audience. As a director, it's one thing to take Fini Straubinger out of her daily routine to show her in interesting situations. It's something else to artificially enhance your subject's character because they aren't quite as interesting, or poetic, or expressive as you want them to be. Entering into a Herzog documentary is like beginning a relationship with a serial cheater: the naïve get taken advantage of without even knowing it; the savvy go on such heightened alert that they never get comfortable.
The ecstatic truth debate isn't the limit of Herzog's hypocrisy, of course. For example, his initial premise for Encounters is that it won't be another movie about penguins—obviously taking a shot at the stunning March of the Penguins, which is apparently guilty of being uplifting. Of course, Herzog throws this rule right out the window as soon as he finds a penguin willing to go on a death march. Sure enough, his footage of a penguin randomly diverging from the colony and heading inland toward certain doom makes for arguably the most memorable moment in the entire film. So, to recap, crazy penguins that satisfy Herzog's world outlook are okay. Meanwhile, penguins that further the survival of their species against seemingly impossible odds are, what? Too typical?
My biggest ethical beef with Herzog, though, is tied to that shameful moment in Grizzly Man when he sits across from Timothy Treadwell's ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak, and listens to the tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, being mauled to death by a grizzly bear. Listening to the audio through headphones, Herzog grimaces. He moans. He conveys to the audience the tape's horrifying gruesomeness, clearly attempting to stir Palovak's emotions in the process. Then he warns Palovak, "You must never listen to this... You should destroy it." Huh? In this disquieting scene, Herzog suggests he's above satisfying the audience's morbid curiosity, even while he stokes it. He suggests himself above snuff-tape exploitation, and yet he succumbs to it. He suggests that he's looking out for Palovak's peace of mind, and yet he attempts to rattle her with his display. These are Michael Moore tactics, and as far as ethics are concerned, Herzog lost a great deal of my respect in that scene.
EH: I'm sometimes bothered by Herzog's distortions and exaggerations myself, but you're simplifying what he's doing with many of his "ecstatic truth" moments. The examples you cite from Little Dieter especially strike me as aesthetically effective and ethically unproblematic. Both the scene in front of the jellyfish tank and the shots of Dieter closing and opening his front door are Herzogian inventions, but they are inventions based on things that Dieter himself said. In the case of the jellyfish scene, Dieter's description of the floating, hypnotic, distanced feeling of being near death is genuine; this is really what he felt. It was Herzog's idea to link this description with a visual equivalent, to express Dieter's experience in visual terms. Isn't that what a good filmmaker does? He took a monologue, which no matter how affecting would have been a mere talking-head shot in any other movie, and found a way to visualize his subject's words. That doesn't strike me as dishonest in the least; it's just smart filmmaking. The same goes for the stuff with the doors. Did Dieter normally open and close his doors several times when entering his house? No, of course not. But he did express his fascination with the simple act of being able to open a door, and he did talk about it as being a symbol of freedom. So Herzog devised a way to memorably capture that sensation of freedom in the film.
In scenes like this, I don't agree that Herzog is out to deceive the audience, mainly because he's so forthright about all his distortions in interviews and even at times right in the framework of the film. He genuinely doesn't seem to care if people know that his films are not entirely factual. He's not trying to pull one over on you, and it's a big mistake to approach his films with the mindset of trying to separate fact from fiction, determined not to be "fooled." He's out to create an aesthetic experience, and he probably wouldn't agree with your proposed tradeoff between aesthetics and legitimacy. Or, more likely, he'd see the loss of legitimacy from bending the truth as a fair price to pay for the increased expressiveness he gains by being able to place his subject in front of a jellyfish tank or pass off the town drunks as religious pilgrims. And as a viewer, I honestly don't care if that scene under the bridge is manipulated and carefully timed. So what? You say you don't trust it, but what's to trust or distrust? Every filmmaker worth the title thinks about the aesthetics of their images, and if Herzog set this shot up to create a visual atmosphere enveloping Dieter, why should that make you distrust it? It's still a beautiful shot, and the combination of the setting and the context with Dieter's story enhances the impact of what he's saying. To me, it's a perfect example of how the artificiality of Herzog's vision can cut so much deeper than unmediated reality.
That said, I'm forced to agree with you about that scene with the audio tape in Grizzly Man. As much as I like that film in general, it also has some of the most wince-inducing scenes in Herzog's entire oeuvre, scenes where he pretty much tramples on the line of good taste. Herzog listening to the tape on camera and then telling Treadwell's ex to destroy it comes across as a self-righteous and self-congratulatory gesture. In trying to prove his own nobility and refusal to exploit tragedy, he winds up being nearly as manipulative and exploitative as if he had just played the tape. I'm also bothered by the inclusion of that weird and morbid coroner who recites, with exaggerated theatricality, the circumstances of Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths. I don't know if that's a Herzogian invention or just one of those times when he stumbled across a character who's off-kilter in his own right, but either way it's an unsettling sequence that exploits two tragic deaths for some cheap laughs. Herzog is generally so sympathetic to his characters and subjects—even in that same film he often seems to share a posthumous feeling of kinship with Treadwell—that moments like this stick out even more egregiously.
JB: What's so unsettling about the coroner is that with his crazed appearance and speech patterns, along with his ghastly descriptions of death, he strikes me as Herzog's wet dream. Underneath it all, I think Herzog is a caring soul, but he doesn't have it in him to pass up such bizarre spectacles. Bringing us back to something I said earlier, it's scenes like that one that make me question Herzog's motivations across the board. I don't detect smutty exploitation watching Land of Silence and Darkness alone, and yet maybe it's nothing more than a ticket to the freak show. In Grizzly Man, Herzog says that he believes the common character of the universe isn't "harmony but chaos, hostility and murder." This is a grim outlook, to say the least. So why should I expect that guy to deliver what the synopsis on my Netflix rental of Silence and Darkness calls "a wonderful testament to the triumphant nature of the human spirit." Does that sound like Herzog to you? Maybe Fini Straubinger, like the coroner in Grizzly Man or numerous characters in Bells From the Deep, is nothing more than a source of oddity porn.
As for the ecstatic truth debate, perhaps I'm hindered by my own journalistic experiences, because I've performed interviews before. I've danced the dance of trying to coax my subject out of his/her protective shell, trying to find the character inside, searching for that quote that isn't spit out of the cliché machine. It's a challenge, an art form in and of itself. And when it works, quotes fall from the subject's mouth like coins from a slot machine. It's a rush. When it doesn't happen, you walk away feeling like you didn't do your job. And yet in those latter instances, as much as you would love to alter a quote, or dream up an anecdote, you can't. It wouldn't be right, not just because it's against some idealized journalistic code, but also because once you cross that line, the story stops reflecting the subject and starts to reflect the interviewer.
Having said that, it's only right that I mention that In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, and that I'm a fan of the "creative nonfiction" genre of literature in general. Your previous comments essentially argue that Herzog is no less factual than Truman Capote, and that may be true. On that note, perhaps the audience is at fault for expecting truth from a Herzog documentary in the first place, the same way the audience might be misguided to expect definitive meaning from a David Lynch film, to recall one of our previous conversations. But your defense of Herzog's methods ignores that Herzog could have conveyed symbolism in the jellyfish scene simply by staging the interview in front of the jellyfish tank, or by cutting away to B-roll footage. He didn't need Dieter to actually say the words "This is what death looks like to me." Likewise, the door gimmick is misleading, suggesting not a fascination with freedom but a heartbreaking trauma that has manifested itself as an obsessive-compulsive tick. Is Dieter silently suffering? Is that the truth, ecstatic or otherwise? I don't know. And, frankly, how can I know, considering that Herzog's methods bring the validity of everything into question?
To say that the effect of Dieter's story is the effect of Dieter's story, period, regardless of whether or not it's "real," ignores that without the illusion of accountant's truth, Herzog's ecstatic truth is neutered. Sure, Herzog is forthright in interviews about his fabrications, but when you're making up quotes and ascribing them to your subjects, there's no debating that you're deliberately deceiving the viewer. (It's not as if Herzog is shy about injecting his own thoughts into his documentaries as narration.) Thus, "Ecstatic Truth" is code for "Things Herzog Wishes Were Accountant's Truth, But Aren't." Again, I have no problem with a blurring of the lines; in instances in which Herzog does the writer's equivalent of rephrasing a subject's comments for clarity or narrative flow, I don't feel deceived. But there's a reason that the talking-head format of Little Dieter is more thrilling than the dramatization of the same thing in Rescue Dawn: reality has inherent weight. Herzog's admission in interviews that he plays with truth is the equivalent of a priest's concession that the Bible isn't meant to be read literally: It's no accident that these disclaimers aren't provided within the stories themselves, because to do so would be to negate their emotional power.
EH: You ask if "a wonderful testament to the triumphant nature of the human spirit" sounds like Herzog to me. Disregarding the generic, sentimental Hallmark phrasing of it, yes, it does sound like him. Herzog's view of the world is undeniably bleak. There's a famous speech from Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, in which Herzog rants at great length on the horrors of the natural world, calling nature "vile and base." And yet, despite his fascination with mortality and suffering, it's equally clear that he admires those who—like him, arguably—fight back against nature, struggle against the harsh and ugly world they've been given. Herzog's horrific view of nature and life only makes his heroes' victories more "triumphant," makes their struggles even braver. Whatever you think of Herzog's twisting of the truth, it's clear (to me, anyway), that he has great respect for Fini Straubinger and Walter Steiner in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner and even Timothy Treadwell, despite the moments in Grizzly Man when we agree his intrusions are in poor taste.
Threading through our discussion so far is an unspoken question: whether or not Herzog really needs to distort the truth so much in order to achieve the effects he does, or if he could express the same sentiments in more straightforward, less deceptive ways. Oddly enough, it's one of his recent fiction features that proves the point to me. If Little Dieter Needs To Fly is a personal essay about Dieter Dengler, Rescue Dawn is the text book version of the same story—the "accountant's truth," if you will. Rescue Dawn shares most of the same details, hits most of the same narrative beats, but the emphasis is entirely different. Little Dieter is framed retroactively, as a reminiscence, and therefore it is about the effect of Dieter's POW experiences on the man he is now. It's about his experience of death and pain and suffering, his understanding of the comforts and pleasures of life in relation to those times when he was deprived of those comforts, not only in Laos but in Germany as a little boy (like having to eat wallpaper, a potent detail left out of the fictionalized remake). Rescue Dawn, in comparison, is all in-the-moment, about the schematics of the escape plan and the survival of the escapees in the jungle.
What's lost in the translation is largely Dieter as a character. In Christian Bale's portrayal, Dieter's German heritage disappears along with his accent. There's no deeper engagement with Dieter's past, with his character, with his personality. Dieter was a fascinating figure in the original documentary; here he's just a generic guy who has some really horrible stuff happen to him, who undergoes torture and imprisonment and manages to escape. It's still a compelling and harrowing story, but it loses its specificity, loses the charm and joy of Dieter that made the original documentary so moving and complex. You see that as confirmation that reality has "inherent weight," but for me it's just further evidence that Herzog has become disengaged from the form of the straight fiction feature. If there's a continuum between fiction and documentary, Herzog has lost interest in the two ends of the line; for some time now, he's done his best work somewhere in the center. The director once best known for his Klaus Kinski features hasn't made a truly compelling fictional film, in my opinion, since 1984's Where the Green Ants Dream (and many people don't even like that film and would place the cutoff ea