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!)