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Werner Herzog

[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.

Werner Herzog

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.

Werner Herzog

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.

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