Werner Herzog, the Wrath of God and Great Films Galore
Werner Herzog, the Wrath of God and Great Films Galore
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because great film doesn't grow on trees. It springs from the head of a colossus.
By Eugene S. Robinson
If your job involved carrying a gun so that you could shoot a co-worker who had threatened to kill you, you might heed the cry of other career callings. But filmmaker Werner Herzog — head down, gun un-brandished — just got the movie made without having to shoot the volatile Klaus Kinski. And so, just another day in the office for the genius of German cinema, who made time in a schedule of scrambling after his next movie to stop in to The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
When the Bombs Fell
Carlos Watson: You don’t come from a family of filmmakers and storytellers?
Werner Herzog: No. I grew up in a very remote mountain village, right after the war. I was born in 1942. The war was still on, and my mother fled with my older brother to the mountains because Munich was carpet-bombed. And she found me in my cradle with about a foot of glass shards and bricks and debris on me, but I was completely unhurt. So, of course, a mother gets frightened. She fled into the mountains where it was safe. And I grew up.
We had no running water. We had to go with a bucket to the well and bring in water. We barely had electricity. We didn’t have enough to eat. I made my first phone call when I was 17. It’s unbelievable for anyone who is growing up today. It’s inconceivable. And yet I developed something in me, and stories come to me with great vehemence. I see a film, an entire film in front of me as if I were sitting in a projection room and I saw a movie. And that’s why I can write the screenplay very quickly. I just listen to what they are doing. I just see where they’re moving, what they’re saying.
Watson: Why do you think that is? Was there a teacher who brought that to you?
Herzog: No, I was never in film school. I’m completely self-taught. I never liked school. I did some university, but it was some sort of a side event because I was working while I was already in school. I was in high school. I knew I was going to make films. And I was thrown out of everywhere because my puberty was late. At age 15, I was still a child, and I presented a project to producers and they looked beyond me when I was taken in by the secretary. As if the father had come into town with his child, but there was only a child. They slapped their thighs, and they laughed. They said, “Ah, but the kindergarten is trying to make films nowadays.” Before I even had introduced myself, I turned around and walked out.
And I thought, “You idiots, you don’t know I have a very good project, which you liked, but you hadn’t seen me yet physically.” So I knew I had to be my own producer, and then what do you do? You have to earn money. So, while I was in high school, I was working the night shift as a welder in a steel factory and earning money. During day I was in school. It was a difficult kind of school, because we were taught with a classical bias, meaning I’m educated in Latin and ancient Greek and was reading the classics in its original language. At the same time I’m doing a welder’s job at night and making movies, my first movies. But there was a vehemence that I cannot explain.
Watson: Do you think that vehemence was anger? What stimulated that vehemence?
Herzog: I’m overwhelmed with stories. You see, while I am sitting here, I cannot venture out with a camera. So what do I do? I do write. I wrote a book. I wrote a novel. I’m writing the second now. And while I’m sitting here, I have four or five feature films that I should do, I should start, but it’s OK. I can live with it. I can cope with it.
Making the Movies Into Films
Watson: Werner, what is the most difficult filming situation you’ve ever been in?
Herzog: Oh, don’t ask me. I have been only in difficult ones. Just imagine you are shooting a feature film with a demented leading character who is throwing tantrums every moment, destroying the set complete, like someone with rabies. … Anyway, I have seen it all.
Watson: You must have developed some good tricks over the years. What’s your most — I call them MacGyver tricks — what’s your most brilliant MacGyver trick that fixed a situation?
Herzog: Well, sometimes doing work with difficult actors, for example, and I think Klaus Kinski, with whom I have worked, was the wildest. And I mean paranoid, throwing tantrums … incredible. I do believe the young Marlon Brando was only kindergarten in comparison to him. So sometimes I would provoke the actor, and he would scream and yell at me for two hours. I mean, nonstop until he had crust in his mouth, literally. I’m not exaggerating. And then when he had screamed himself empty, I said, let’s shoot now, because I wanted him to speak almost to the camera, but with incredible threats. And when the threat is very low-key, and it was really low-key, it’s even more dangerous. So sometimes you’d have to trick an actor into a performance. I mean, a crazy actor. I prefer the more professional ones, but sometimes you do what is necessary.
Watson: Who is the best actor you’ve ever been around?
Herzog: I cannot say the best because I’ve worked with the best of the best. Christian Bale, Nicolas Cage, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Isabelle Adjani — you could just name them. Just the finest. But the deepest of all, the one who moved you to your core was a man, the unknown soldier of cinema. I did two feature films with him, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and another film, Stroszek.
In the titles, he’s only called Bruno S. S Dot, because he didn’t want to reveal his name. He had a catastrophic childhood. His mother was a prostitute, wanted to get rid of the child, and beat him so savagely that when he was 3 1/2, he lost speech. And she got rid of him into a home of retarded and insane children, where he didn’t belong. He was smart.
After 24 years of being locked away in institutions, he was literally kicked out. And he was the most incredible, incredible character that I’ve ever worked with. Difficult, but he had a depth and a tragedy, an aura of tragedy that you have never seen on a screen ever before or after. I have to make a distinction. For example, when you look at Timothy Treadwell, I made the documentary Grizzly Man. He had this kind of multifacets of crazy and wisdom, and, how shall I say it, fear and fearlessness and contradicting qualities in him, just unbelievable. So you cannot really say who was your best, the most impressive one, who has the most presence on the screen, who has the most intensity coming from a screen, who touches your heart deeper than anyone else.
Parading Into Paris
Watson: Werner, who have been your best advisers, your best counselors, your rabbis, your consiglieri over the years?
Herzog: Well, I had a great mentor, Lottie Eisner. She lived in France and she had to flee Germany, being Jewish. She fled on the very day Hitler took power because there were newspaper articles yelling against her, “If heads are going to roll, her head is going to roll first.” So she fled to France and she became one of the founding members of the cinema there and she was a great scholar and writer about movies. I deeply admired her, and she immediately noticed my very first films and wrote to Fritz Lang, who lived in Hollywood at the time, that German film is possible again and there’s a young man only 24, and he made a film you must see.
So when I heard she was dying —she had a massive stroke — I feverishly checked the next flight connections, train connections. And then I said to myself, “I’m not going to fly or drive … I will come on foot. I will come on foot because I will not allow her to die.”
So I walked almost 1,000 kilometers in the beginning of winter, in snow storms, on the straightest line to Paris, and she was out of the hospital. She was alive. She actually lived another eight years until she was something like 88. When she summoned me again, Lottie summoned me again. And she said, “You must come … this time by train.”
And she said, “I’m 88 years old now. I am almost blind. My joy of reading and watching movies is gone. I’m almost paralyzed. I can only walk with crutches.” And she said something biblical, “I am saturated of life.” And Noah, at age 820, saturated of life, died. And she said, “But I cannot die because I must not now die, because there’s still a spell upon me that I’m not allowed to die.” And I said to her, “Lottie, you know what? The spell is lifted.” I said it very casually and … I smiled. Eight days later, she died. So it was so the right time. It was good, it was the right time. A well-spent life.
Watson: Tell me if you would, Werner, about your mother. Do you mind?
Herzog: My mother was a very courageous woman, very principled. My father was absent and I never had a real relationship to him. I give you one example: My older brother and I had a motorcycle. I was just 18 or 19, and we had, on a weekly basis, little accidents, all with slight bodily injuries, some dislocated shoulders, abrasions and so on. And my mother, who was a heavy smoker all her life, she sits us down at dinner and she takes two puffs of her cigarette and extinguishes it. And she said, “Boys, I think your motorcycle is a bad idea. I do not want to bury one of you one day. And it’s a bad idea and so is smoking. And you know what? It was my last cigarette.” And she never, ever touched a cigarette in her life. So we sold our motorcycle within a week.
Watson: You know, as I hear you talk about Lottie, talk about your mother … I’m heartened to see your relationship with strong, courageous women. It seems that that has been a part of your life. Am I reading into that correctly?
Herzog: Yes, it is correct, although I have been with very, very strong, good-principled, ingenious men as well. But, yes. Well, I keep thinking about a world where there were no women and only men. It would be absolutely and totally unbearable. Absolutely. It would be unlivable.