Conversation: Werner Herzog

BY Arts Desk  June 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

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In the early 1980s in the Peruvian jungle, Werner Herzog was making a film about an opera fanatic who would do anything to bring music to his remote city: Fitzcarraldo and his small crew face deadly river rapids, indigenous tribes with spears and the impossible task of hauling a steamship over a mountain.

The fantastic drama of the film was not far off from the reality of the film production itself — there was, perhaps, more drama on the set than on the screen. There were two plane crashes, a border war, the recasting of the title role, the violently volatile temper of leading man Klaus Kinski, script rewrites when Mick Jagger dropped out of his role, and getting the actual full-sized steamship over the actual mountain. Herzog kept a journal during that time, telling Art Beat, “my last resort in all this turmoil was language.”

Both stories have (qualified) happy endings: Fitzcarraldo lives to realize some version of his dream; Herzog’s film is actually completed and wins the Outstanding Director Prize at Cannes. But the traumatic experience left the director unable and unwilling to go back and re-read his own words for more than 20 years. He finally revisited them a few years ago at his wife’s urging, publishing them first in German in 2004. His account has now been translated into English and goes on sale today in the U.S. as ‘Conquest of the Useless.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now to discuss his new book, “Conquest of the Useless,” a collection of his journals written during the making of the 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo,” and to answer some of our viewers’ questions, is director Werner Herzog. Welcome to you.

WERNER HERZOG: Thank you to having me.

MR. BROWN: Now, you wrote in the preface to this book that for many years, you could not make yourself go back and read the journals that you kept during the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.” Why do you think that was? And what happened when you finally went back and took a look?

MR. HERZOG: Well, it was really terrifying for me to even think about what I had written down. And I knew that there was something very hard to absorb for myself. And second, there was a technical reason. At that time, I sub-miniaturized my handwriting to microscopic size. And I could only read it with the help of some sort of special glasses; the same type that dentists sometimes would use, or jewelers would use.

But I only could manage to read a few pages and then I dropped it. And about three years ago, my wife somehow persuaded me to go into it. And all of a sudden, it fell in place very easily.

MR. BROWN: Oh, really? Well, I want to focus on the first part of your answer, though, because you said it was horrifying to think about. Is that because of the experience that – you know, so many of us saw that movie and saw what you must have gone through.

MR. HERZOG: Yeah, so much turmoil. So much trials and tribulations. In a way it was painful to go back into it. And I thought, yes, in these diaries, I bury it. And maybe my grandchildren will eventually pick it up and have a look at it. But it’s actually, it is 28 years ago now, or 27 years ago now, that I wrote this.

MR. BROWN: When you went back and looked at it, does it all seem — 28 years later — does it all seem crazy?

MR. HERZOG: No, no. Completely no. It’s completely alive as if it were yesterday. Of course, what is quite evident for me is that my last resort in all this turmoil was language. So it’s — but the crux of the book, in a way, certain people try to read into it, you know, the making of the film. It hardly affects us in the text. It is prose, it’s poetry. And in a way, it’s language that was my last anchor.

MR. BROWN: But explain that to me. What were you – what was it anchoring you from? What did the journals allow you to do?

MR. HERZOG: Not easy to explain, but you have to see a situation where everything that could happen, happened. We had two plane crashes. I ran into a border war between a ruined Ecuador camp that I had built for 1,100 people, mostly extras – native Indian extras of the area – was attacked and burned to the ground.

And I shot half the film, and Jason Robards fell ill and had to return to the United States and his doctors wouldn’t allow him to return to the jungle.

And Mick Jagger, I had to release from his contract because he had to go on this world tour with the Rolling Stones, so I had to start all over again. And all sorts of catastrophes – personal, technical catastrophes – everything in the book you can imagine.

MR. BROWN: Mm-hmm. You know there’s an entry early in the book that really struck me – it’s when you’re describing meeting with the Hollywood studio people. And you say that, for them, as you put it, “the unquestioned assumption is that a plastic model ship will be pulled over a ridge in a studio.”

And so you explain to them, that again, this is a quote, “your unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism, but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera.” That’s quite a remarkable – what does that last part mean – about the stylization as opposed to the realism?

MR. HERZOG: When you see the film – and I hate to revert to the film, but I have to right now – when you look at the ship moving over the mountain, and dozens of winches, primitive winches turned around by native Indians in the pulleys system and all this – when you see the ship going up the mountain, it does not look real anymore. It actually looks like a jungle fever dream – something completely stylized; something out of the fantasies of grand opera.

And the film, of course, has to do with the quest of grand opera in the jungle. So it’s not for the sake of realism. The film is the proof of it.

MR. BROWN: I want to move to some of the questions we got from our viewers, looking at this film and the book. This is from Tony Gronner in Evanston, Illinois, who says: “Please ask Mr. Herzog which he considers more dangerous and, perhaps, insane: The filming and actually moving the boat up the mountain or casting Klaus Kinski?”

(Laughter.)

MR. HERZOG: It’s a funny question. Klaus – both of them are kind of – well, first of all, I have to say, people always believe that I am kind of borderline insane. My answer to that is, no, I’m clinically sane. I actually make a lot of sense. I’m very organized. I’m very aware of risks and I made Klaus to fix the films. And never one single actor ever ever got hurt in any of my films. But, sure, to move a real ship over a real mountain is something which – at least it has no precedent in technical history.

Casting Klaus Kinski, well, he was a substitute for Jason Robards. And I think he is much more than a substitute when we look back at the film now. But he was so volatile and so crazed and so hysterical that every single day, working with him was horrifying. But I had the stamina and the perseverance to domesticate the beast.

MR. BROWN: (Chuckles.) You had worked with him in –

MR. HERZOG: Yeah, five films all in all.

MR. BROWN: Yes. I mean, a number of people wrote about him because he’s such a compelling figure. George V. says: “What attracted you to Klaus Kinski? His work has ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. But the latter was the case with your films.”

MR. HERZOG: It is true, yes, he made – I think there are some counts that he made 205 films. Most of these films he has only in spaghetti Westerns, and so, he has one-and-a-half or two minutes appearances maximum, which meant one day of shooting – nobody could tolerate him any longer.

But I was the one who saw there was something extraordinary in Kinski – a presence, intensity onscreen that has no equal. There are very, very few of that intensity of presence. Among them, I would — one comes to mind would be the young Marlon Brando of “On the Waterfront,” for example. You don’t have people like him anymore.

And so I said to myself, so what? I can take everything that he’s tossing at me – I will deal with it and I will make a fine movie.

MR. BROWN: Mm-hmm. You know, there’s an interesting question here that goes to what you were talking about earlier about the vision of the boat moving over the mountain. “Where do you believe the vision and determination comes from that allows you to create your films? The scenes from ‘Nosferatu’ in the village square of such gorgeous desolation with the people doing the dance of death with the rats, has been perfectly connected to the musical score. Is this type of thing seen in layers of your mind as a fluid idea, as I suspect a lot of ‘Fitzcarraldo’ was, or a fully realized mental image?”

In other words, how do you see all this – envision it first – and then make it happen?

MR. HERZOG: Yes, and that’s why it’s so easy to me to write a screenplay. I see an entire film in front of my mind and it’s like copying. So I’ve never written longer than six, seven, eight days writing a screenplay.

MR. BROWN: Really?

MR. HERZOG: I see an entire film and, in a way, it’s not that I have ever invited myself nor have I planned a career – I have not had a career.

It was all like home invasion – like the burglar at night who comes into your home and they are there and how do you get them out? (Chuckles.) I see things very, very clearly before I even start to write or produce a film.

MR. BROWN: So you never thought in terms of career?

MR. HERZOG: No. I’ve never planned anything. I haven’t had any career at all.

MR. BROWN: (Chuckles.) It’s interesting because –

MR. HERZOG: I only have a life.

MR. BROWN: That’s a good answer. Here’s one from Christopher in Chicago: “In nearly all of your movies the landscape motivates and shapes the drama…” – and of course this does go to “Fitzcarraldo” certainly – “What techniques do you use to implicate the landscape?”

So when you’re thinking or visioning what you’re trying to do, what role does the particular landscape play? And of course we see that in many of your recent documentaries as well.

MR. HERZOG: In a way— it may sound presumptuous, but in a way I know how to direct landscapes.

MR. BROWN: What does that mean? (Chuckles.)

MR. HERZOG: Yeah. We would need much more time than we have here. But I stylize and I in a way I direct landscapes as if they were part of our human soul. In a way all these landscapes – like let’s say the jungle in “Fitzcarraldo” – is not just a depiction of a backdrop, of a scenic backdrop. It is always as if it were a human quality, a human essence. The jungle in “Fitzcarraldo” is like a fever dreams. It’s like fantasies, it’s like nightmares and fever dreams of a jungle instead of a jungle, of a realistic jungle.

MR. BROWN: You know, I just mentioned the documentaries. Here’s one from James Dowell. There are a number of people who wanted to talk about the documentaries. From James Dowell: “As a documentarian myself I admire your work in that vein as well as your fiction films. Is there any distinction between the truth presented by the two forms?”

MR. HERZOG: Again, a very deep question which would require a much longer answer.

MR. BROWN: See, we have deep viewers on this program.

MR. HERZOG: Yes, I believe— let me try to give you a stenogram on that. I do not make so much of a distinction between fiction films and films like a documentary. They have something in common and that is a quest for a deeper truth, some truth that is beyond the surface of the images. And I’ve labeled it an ecstasy of truth, an ecstatic truth. And this quest, this search is common to all my films.

MR. BROWN: There’s another question about documentary from Anita Lichman: “When making a documentary such as ‘Grizzly Man,’ what kind of personal relationships do you develop with the subjects? I am specifically curious about your relationship with Timothy Treadwell.”

MR. HERZOG: (Chuckles.) Well, with Timothy Treadwell I couldn’t develop a personal relationship because—

MR. BROWN: Exactly.

MR. HERZOG: —when I got into his story he was already 10 months dead.

MR. BROWN: Right.

MR. HERZOG: He was attacked and eaten by a grizzly bear together with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. So the only reference I had was the footage that he shot and that was about 100 hours of video and of course all the testimonies of his friends and relatives.

MR. BROWN: But what is it about him? I think this goes to the question of what attracts you to certain characters, whether it’s a Fitzcarraldo or a Timothy Treadwell. What is it that attracts you to a given person?

MR. HERZOG: That instantly struck me. I knew there was something very, very big about his story. And it had to do with his very complex character and it had to do with our relationship towards wild nature, which somehow we have lost because of all of the Walt Disney movies and all the romanticizing sentimentalities about wild nature.

In that respect I knew there was something very, very big and far beyond Timothy Treadwell in it. But it came to me, again, like a home invasion. I was at the office of a producer and he had been very, very friendly with me, helping me with another project. And when I left I was definitely not searching for a story. I was searching for my car keys that I had misplaced on the very messy table in front of us.

And, looking at the table, he thought that I was looking at something specifically and pushes an article across the table and says, read this. We are planning to do a very interesting sort of film. So I took it and normally I don’t read these things and somehow I read it and, 10 minutes later, I was back in the office and I somehow said, I will direct this film. (Chuckles.)

MR. BROWN: Really? That’s how, that fast?

MR. HERZOG: When I get back, I have to do this. So it – again, it was not planned, but the instant recognition there was something very, very significant, something really big.

MR. BROWN: You keep talking about these home invasions. I hope, I assume your wife is okay with the way you live your life?

MR. HERZOG: (Chuckles.) She is, yes, actually.

MR. BROWN: As a married man, I keep wondering about her.

MR. HERZOG: No, I have to maintain that I’m a fluffy husband.

(Laughter.)

MR. BROWN: What is it about these unwelcome natural landscapes? There is a question from Sid in Washington, D.C. “Your documentaries of late have considered man’s intrusion into often unwelcoming natural circumstances. Why does this theme fascinate you? What is the next stage of its evolution?”

MR. HERZOG: Next stage? I cannot really predict. But, of course, I have always been somehow alarmed by what we have done to nature, how we have intruded. And it’s not only nature; it has also to do with cultures, how we are invading cultures as tourists. And I believe – I can give you a dictum which sometimes I repeat – tourism is sin and travelling on foot is virtue. Somehow we are not encountering foreign cultures and dying-out cultures in the right manner.

MR. BROWN: Here is another one on documentaries from Leyton: “I’m interested in the extent to which your documentaries emerge from the source materials and the extent to which that process is controlled. It always seems to me that the stories and characters in your documentaries, and really a lot of documentaries I see, are so fully completed, much more so than in any of my real-life experiences.”

Kind of an interesting idea of how much control do you have, how do you kind of complete a story in real life when real life is often so messy?

MR. HERZOG: Well, I’m a filmmaker. You see, I’ve always been in opposition to so-called cinema verite who are postulating that the documentary filmmaker should be like a fly on the wall. I say, no, you shouldn’t be a fly on the wall; be the hornet that moves in and that stings. Just charge and take charge of a situation, stylize it, create something, fantasize about it. So my documentaries are part of what I do as a storyteller. And because of that, feature films are not that far away from my documentaries and vice versa.

MR. BROWN: Here’s another one just on that very subject because I think this really interests people a lot. This is from Sherpa Doug: “Where is Werner on the screen when you’re behind the camera? Obviously we see the images you select for us. How else do you impose yourself in the frame? How do you conjure yourself through directing to the extent that you do from the actors in front of the camera?”

MR. HERZOG: I think that’s something you find in filmmaking. When you look at a movie, let’s say made by Bunuel – I don’t want to compare myself now with a great master like him but his presence is always being felt. You sense him. And in some of my documentaries – many in recent years – I have done the voice-over myself. I write the commentary. I do my voice-over. You hear my voice. Sometimes I even show up in person, although I try to be very unobtrusive like in Timothy Treadwell, you see me once from behind when I listen to the tape, which was recorded while he was eaten by the bear. His girlfriend actually had switched on the camera and dropped it and hadn’t removed the lens cap yet so there’s an audio portion is still intact of six minutes.

MR. BROWN: I remember that very well because then you end up telling her that she shouldn’t listen to this and she should destroy it.

MR. HERZOG: Yes. And I have to say – in the shock of the first moment to listen to this incredible, incredibly violent and brutal tape, I had the feeling she should destroy it and not have it sitting around herself, right next to the-. She actually was much wiser than my advice. She didn’t destroy it, but put it away in a bank vault – in a safe deposit in a bank vault.

MR. BROWN: You know, I was wondering about that very thing. If you had the chance to play that for us, or if the video existed – because it almost did – would you have wanted to show it to us?

MR. HERZOG: Well, I had to address it because production company and distributor and the TV network all knew it existed and it was known in public that this tape existed. So they all said, you have to incorporate it in your film and I said, no, let me listen to it first and then I will take a decision. And the moment I had listened to it, I said, only over my dead body this tape will be played in this film.

MR. BROWN: Because ?

MR. HERZOG: Because there is such a thing like a right, a right of privacy of your own death. There’s such a thing as the dignity of your own individual death. And this is the reason why, for example, amateur videos during the attacks on the World Trade Center where, I think, almost 200 people jumped out of the burning building from the 106th floor and fell and crashed on the cement right in front of video cameras that were rolling. Nothing of that footage was ever shown in public, and I think it’s absolutely right. You just do not do this. There is an unspoken right that you have, and that’s the privacy and the dignity of your own death.

MR. BROWN: Well, I was just thinking, as a filmmaker, you – whether it is fiction or documentary – you have to make that kind of decision all the time, right, about how much of the story to tell and where are the lines of privacy?

MR. HERZOG: Yeah, in this case, it’s a very, very obvious choice that I had, and I would not have done the film if they had tried to force me to put it in the film. And they all understood.

MR. BROWN: All right. I just have a couple more questions here to share with you. A number of people asked about influences – some as other filmmakers, but here’s one from Robyn in Houston, Texas: “In looking at many of your very considered shots, I wonder how much, if at all, German Romanticism has meant to you, namely Caspar David Friedrich’s use of the contemplative stance in so many of his paintings?” So there’s questions like that and there’s obviously questions about your own influences from other filmmakers.

MR. HERZOG: Well, let me start with the simpler, easier part of it – other filmmakers. You know, I grew up in great isolation in the mountains of Bavaria and I had no idea that cinema even existed until I was 11 years old, when a traveling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse and showed films. And later, I hardly saw any films – today, and during decades, I have not seen more than two or three films per year. So there are no real influences; I had to invent cinema for myself.

And then, Caspar David Friedrich here is a very fascinating painter. And he is interesting because he never tried to depict the realism of a landscape; he always spoke of inner landscapes. And in a way, I’m doing similar things, although I’m completely remote from German Romanticism, per se. “Grizzly Man” is a very good example. I have nothing – really no affinity for Romanticism; I’m much closer to, let’s say, a thousand years back, the poetry of the Edda, Icelandic sagas – very stark sort of literature – and so influence – it’s very hard to speak about influences in that respect.

MR. BROWN: This is from Miguel in Austin, Texas. This goes back to where we were starting: “Werner Herzog has been shot at, eaten a shoe, traveled to the furthest corners of the world on difficult film shoots; is there anything he wouldn’t submit himself to?”

MR. HERZOG: Well, if it comes to wrestling a real good movie away, I’ve said that I would descend to hell and wrestle it from the claws of the devil himself.

MR. BROWN: (Chuckles.) Oh, only that, huh?

MR. HERZOG: Otherwise, I’d rather prefer to shoot under regular circumstances and work professionally. Sometimes the kind of stories have forced me to, indeed, move a ship over a mountain or go to Antarctica, being shot at when I crossed a border river into Nicaragua on a clandestine mission with a commando unit of insurgents. So I was seriously shot at – even during a BBC interview, I was shot – very, very slightly wounded, only. But it’s okay – that’s life. I don’t complain.

MR. BROWN: Well, I saved this one for last, because it sounds like it comes from a young man thinking about his own future. It’s from Owen Martell: “I would like to know what Mr. Herzog thinks he would do if he were once more in his early 20s with a camera, little money, a knack for walking and a hunger for film, dreams, landscapes – what he would do if he were that person now, and what the reasons would be for any differences between these hypothetical decisions and the choices he made in the early 1960s. I ask as someone currently making similar decisions for myself.”

MR. HERZOG: Yes, that’s an interesting question, but when I look at myself, I’ve never stopped from the kind of spirit of exploring and daring from the earliest days I made films. I’ve done exactly the same thing recently with my very last films. It’s exactly the same spirit. Nothing has really changed in my approach. Of course, subjects have changed and I have grown older and so, but in spirit, it’s always the same. And my answer to this young man Owen is, who seems to be in his early 20s, is just go out and do it. Just do it and don’t be afraid to go after your own vision. Don’t lose it – don’t ever lose it out of sight.

MR. BROWN: Well, that’s great advice to end on. Before I let you go, would you mind reading something for us from the new book?

MR. HERZOG: It’s funny, because I don’t even have it in a copy myself; I can only refer to excerpts that are printed in the Paris Review of Books. (Chuckles.) I can read from the prologue, because it’s here – just one second. And it gives a little bit an idea of how it happens – how films originate. I read from the prologue: “A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery— and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”

MR. BROWN: Werner Herzog’s new book is called, “Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo.” Mr. Herzog, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

MR. HERZOG: Thank you, too, and I salute all those unknowns who have sent in questions.

MR. BROWN: Well, thank you for doing that, and let me thank everybody who wrote in letters as well. Take care.

MR. HERZOG: Thank you.

(END)