Happy 70th Werner!
-Photo by Bill Zelman
Here’s his famous monologue, delivered in Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams (both from 1982) They are both a must see.
Fandor: It’s all here. The voice, of course, the over-articulation that somehow comes off as both sinister and endearing, but also the brutal honesty, the insistence on finding, facing, and then staring down what, on another occasion, he called “a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.” There’s a certain anti-romantic Romanticism in the worldview espoused in that clip, a grandiosity in it that allows for furious forces to forge on in a post-existential universe. The South American jungle is a “land that God, if he exists, has created in anger.”
So which is it? Herzog has always known that there’s a lot mileage to be had in having it both ways. That heroic self-effacement, for example. You hear it in the telling of the tales of saving Joaquin Phoenix from blowing himself to smithereens or of declaring, having been shot during an interview with the BBC, “It is not a significant bullet.” In his 1989 history of New German Cinema, Thomas Elsaesser all but marveled at the ingenuity of one of Herzog’s early moves:
When in 1974 Werner Herzog had completed Kaspar Hauser, he put the cans of film into a rucksack and set off from Munich by foot in the direction of Paris where, three weeks later, he presented himself and his film at the sickbed of Lotte Eisner. For a director vaunting his spontaneity and unselfconsciousness this was a brilliantly calculated inspiration. In a minor key, it was as redolent of cultural and historic resonances as Willy Brandt’s spontaneous genuflection at a memorial to the Warsaw ghetto in 1971 had been an act of political atonement and a gesture of redress for Auschwitz and what it stood for. That the historian of Expressionist cinema, émigré Jew and woman, friend of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, personal assistant to Henri Langlois (founding father of the Cinémathèque and patron saint of the French nouvelle vague), should—on what might easily have been her deathbed—give a young German filmmaker her blessing, by assuring him that his work was once more ‘legitimate German culture,’ could itself be read as a founding myth of origins and identity.
I also really like this quote:
“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise. Because I stylize, I invent, there’s a lot of fantasy in it—not for creating a fraud, but exactly the contrary, to create a deeper form of truth, which is not fact-related. Facts hardly ever give you any truth, and that’s a mistake of cinéma vérité, because they always postulate it as if facts would constitute truth. In that case, my answer is that the phone directory of Manhattan is a book of books. Because it has 4 million entries, and they are all factually correct, but it doesn’t illuminate us. You see, I do things for creating moments that illuminate you as an audience, and the same thing happens with feature films as well.”
Though I love his work with Kinski and his recent documentary work, my favourite would have to be his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness. (Check out a clip here) I hope age doesn’t slow him down, he’s got a tv documentary series called Hate in America coming up, and he’s also playing the baddie in the new Tom Cruise movie Reacher. I’d love to hear his thoughts on scientology. Almost capitalised that word, but stuff em.