Q&A With Werner Herzog

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    Every Man For Himself Werner Herzog is no simple filmmaker. He doesn't live in the Hollywood hills, angling for casting deals with Juliette Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio. He's struggled from the very beginning, shooting renegade masterpieces in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous terrain on Earth, with some of the most unforgiving and dangerous actors. He's an adventurer, a true Romantic, maybe more than a little mad, but infused with a quiet wisdom. And though, at 57, his hair graying, his trademark mustache gone, he may not be ready to drag any more ships over any more mountains anytime soon, he's busier than he's ever been, and still making remarkable pictures. Last week he was in town briefly for the American premiere at Film Forum of My Best Fiend, his new documentary about his sometimes affectionate, more often savage and hostile, relationship with the great Klaus Kinski. Next week, a newly remastered edition of Fitzcarraldo will be released on video and DVD, the first in a series of remastered Herzog films to be released by Anchor Bay Entertainment over the next year.

    We spoke with him last Monday, Nov. 1, at the offices of New Yorker Films, his American distributor.

    Jim Knipfel: It seemed to me that My Best Fiend almost came out of nowhere. I heard you had a new film premiering at Cannes, and I'd been hearing about some things you'd been working on recently?but I wasn't expecting it to be this Kinski documentary. Where did it come from? And why did you wait so long after Kinski's death (in 1991) to make it?

    I think it was always dormant in me. But thanks God I didn't make it earlier. I couldn't have made it earlier?it needed the mysterious quality of time to change perspectives. What I mean is, nowadays, I look back at all these unbelievably bizarre moments with humor and with warmth. And of course we had a relationship of mutual trust and friendship and respect. At the same time, both of us plotted to murder each other. (laughs) Of course that per se is kind of funny when I look back on it today. At the time I was dead serious. And I came an inch close to doing it.

    Godfrey Cheshire: The incident in Aguirre?that story (where Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski if he walked off the movie) has been told different ways at different times. I think some people have even questioned?

    From my side, never different. I've always been consistent. And you see, it's not a story?there have been too many people around to witness it. Including one guy who was in the film, Justo Gonzales, who was there when it happened. There were just too many people. Kinski was just embarrassed, and changed it around in his autobiography [the highly controversial All I Need Is Love], making him look somehow better.

    Of course his autobiography is largely fictitious. He describes, for example, his childhood in such dire poverty that he had to fight with the rats over the last breadcrumbs on the ground. And that he had to wash corpses in the morgue, and that he did robberies and thieveries and I don't know what else. The fact is, the he grew up in a wealthy pharmacist's household. His brothers really got angry and went public with that?because not only had he described this kind of poverty, but he also described an incestuous relationship with his own mother. I mean, on and on and on.

    But it's your choice, whatever you like to believe. For me, it's different, because I was not just a witness, I was an active part in this one.

    JK: Actually, in My Best Fiend you dispel some of the stories that have been told over the years, but you also tell new stories, which I've never heard before.

    There's hundreds more that I've not told. (laughs)

    JK: When it came to casting the role of Aguirre, had you ever considered anybody else?


    GC: Is the same true of all the films you cast him in?

    No, when I did Fitzcarraldo, I considered him right away, but I dismissed the possibility, because I knew that it was going to be difficult, and that it would take a long time. It was beyond my imagination that Kinski would hold out that long and that he could carry a film that long, and under such circumstances.

    GC: Do you suppose he resented you because of owing so much of his fame to you?

    No... Yes and no. He couldn't stand it that he would owe anything to anybody. But it was mutual. I owe him as much as he owes me. And we pushed each other into a territory where others have not been before. But at the same time, this terrain was a dangerous one. And when I say "dangerous," I mean life-threatening. Literally life-threatening. And when I say "life-threatening," I say it without any irony or joke in my voice. It was life-threatening. At least at the time. Now I see it with humor. But there were things that were very much for real and I think all of this?and I always understood it was far beyond our two persons. There was something paradigmatic about the creative process. A struggle for shaping a film. And a clash that was inevitable every single day with him to give him a form onscreen, and shape him for the screen, and contain his insane energies for the screen. And not outside the screen.

    JK: When we see, in My Best Fiend, the early scenes you had shot with Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo?comparing the scene in the bell tower with Robards and Kinski doing the same thing?it struck me that Kinski was the only one who could really play that role.

    No, Robards would've been a very different Fitzcarraldo. Probably with more humor and even more warmth than Kinski has. But the comparison in the film makes no comment about it. It's obvious that the intensity and the madness inside of Kinski is something unique. And no Hollywood star or any actor in the world ever had this kind of presence and intensity.

    GC: Yet that madness is the image we have of Kinski. I think that one of the most interesting parts of Fiend was the talk with the actress Eva Mattes. She says he was the most professional person she'd ever worked with.

    And I make that point, as well, together with Beat Presser, the photographer. We speak about the climate of relentless professionalism.

    GC: She also describes him as warm.

    I do the same as well. You see us joking and laughing together, and I show him with a butterfly over and over at the end. So I do the same thing. But without her, nobody would have believed me! (laughs) Without Claudia Cardinale, nobody would have believed me. It would be very easy to find hundreds of people who would immediately denounce him as the ultimate asshole, the ultimate pestilence, the ultimate monster. It was hard to find two people who would speak well of him. And I found those two. And people believe now, some of the audiences believe that he was particularly good and kind with women. Not so?he was a monster. He was the definitive and ultimate and final monster.

    JK: You can see that in his book. Regardless?

    ?How much is fictitious? Yeah, but that's fine. See, the interesting thing about this autobiography is that the difference between real life and fictitious trajectories and imaginary biography that he describes makes it interesting. Otherwise it's unreadable, and otherwise it's not a very intelligent book.

    GC: Were there any incidents that you didn't include in the movie that you could relate to us?

    No, many of the incidents?there are such good stories still to narrate, I could do 10 hours of film. But I always had the feeling I should not include the private stuff. I don't want to make a family album. And then, of course, the film never tried to be encyclopedic, to be a biography of Kinski. It's neither a film on me or on Kinski?it's a film on our relationship. And therefore, for example, stories of him and his daughters are of no concern for this film. But they will be narrated one day, and they will make a horror movie.

    JK: What I had heard, before My Best Fiend appeared, was that you were working on a film called Mexico, with a screenplay by John Milius.

    No, not true. I wrote the screenplay, and he made some modification of it, some sort of rewrite. But not very extensive. And it was a project that, at the moment, can't be financed, because it's too extensive to recreate the capital city of Mexico and so many costumes and extras. If you're not completely within the strictures of the entertainment industry, you can't make a film that would cost that much. You can't wrestle a happy end away from a tragedy that occurred to the Aztecs and their culture, for example.

    But I'm working on four feature film projects. Strangely enough, I don't know why I'm going back to feature films. I did some 10 or 12 nonfiction films in the past eight years or so, which not too many people have seen. But some of them have been seen, like Lessons of Darkness or Little Dieter Needs to Fly. There's very good other stuff, like Bells from the Deep, or Herdsmen of the Sun, or Death for Five Voices, or The Eccentric Private Theater of the Maharajah of Udaipur, or The Transformation of the World into Music, and on and on. So I made a lot.

    GC: This is amazing that we haven't seen some of these in New York.

    That's okay. The media normally do not focus that much on nonfiction films. But that's okay. Now this year I've already made three films?I'm already two films beyond My Best Fiend. I made another film this year which is called Wings of Hope, on a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle in which I was almost involved. And Kinski as well, because we were taken off the plane in the very, very last moment. And it crashed, and 92 people perished in the jungle, and only one girl at that time survived, and I found her. I mean, she's a 44-year-old woman nowadays, and I made this film with her. And I did another film, which is called the Lord and the Laden, and I've staged two operas this year. I'm speaking all of this here?three films, two operas staged, I acted in Julien Donkey-Boy, I'm preparing a feature film, and in five days I have to show up in Milan, Italy, for doing yet another opera?the big gala opening of the new millennium season.

    JK: Music's always been a big part of your films. How did you end up doing operas?

    That's why I've been dragged into staging operas. I've never volunteered. I've always been dragged by my feet, struggling against it. (laughs) Let's say at least at the beginning. Meanwhile, I don't struggle against it. I love to work and breathe and live with music for a limited amount of time. It's better than any vacations on a beach for me. Other people go to Hawaii, I do an opera. The funny thing is, I even get paid for it.

    But doing opera means you have to transform an entire world into music. That's the exciting thing about it. And I've always had a very deep sense for music, and I think I use music better than many others in my movies. There are very few in the world of cinema who know how to do it well, and I'm one of those.

    JK: I heard about an interview that you did a couple of years ago, talking about the opera, in which you compared Puccini and Elvis.

    No, I didn't do that. (laughs) No. I think I was asked what sort of music I liked. Of course, there is some very early music, and contemporary music as well by great composers like Arvo Pärt. I'm one of those who actually likes Elvis. Maybe I said something like that. I always liked Elvis.

    GC: Have you had trouble getting feature films off the ground in the last several years?

    Yes, it is becoming more difficult.

    GC: Why is that?

    Because in Germany, there was a trend toward comedies. Almost the entire output of movies was comedies. And audiences wanted to see them?they were very successful films. Nobody outside of Germany ever laughed about these films, and so they were never shown outside of Germany. (laughs) So it's very strange.

    The press has been extremely hostile against me in these last 10 years. But they were always hostile. I was really put down very badly for Aguirre. And for Kaspar Hauser, for example, I had the worst imaginable reviews. Fitzcarraldo was criminalized in the press for years. And it went on and on. But the last 10 years has been a particularly hostile climate for me in my own country.

    It's hard for you to believe it, probably, but for example, the world premiere of Lessons of Darkness at the Berlin Film Festival, 1500 people yelled and hollered at me and threatened me, there was not one hand of applause. It was physically threatening to me... Well, I stepped up on the podium and showed myself. And when there was finally silence, I told them, "You are all wrong." Of course, the screaming and shouting started even wilder!

    GC: In terms of financing, your reputation is certainly not going to?

    In Germany, no, no. Forget about Germany.

    GC: But outside of Germany. With your reputation, why can't you get financing from France or the United States?

    There is a feature film that I'm preparing, and the first ones who were fascinated by the story are going to pick it up for a while, Fine Line. There will be an English coproducer and a German coproducer, and some local film subsidy. But interestingly enough, the project was turned down by the nationwide film subsidy board [in Germany]. They've turned down everything for 10 years now, and now this project was turned down by them again.

    Let me add one thing?it all sounds negative. But I'm not in the culture of complaint. In Germany, there is this culture of complaint. It's very strange. After the reunification, there was jubilation for exactly a week. Then it somehow shifted over into this strange culture of complaint.

    It will change, but this is one of the reasons why I don't live in Germany right now. I don't like this political climate.

    GC: It's been about 10 years since the reunification. What has that meant for the German soul?

    I can speak only of... Well, there was a jubilation beyond description, but only for a very short time. And for me, it was important, because I was very angered by Willy Brandt, whom I liked a lot as a politician, who declared back in 1984 that the book on German reunification was closed.

    GC: That it could never happen?

    Yeah, somehow. And I had the feeling that it was only the poets who could keep the country together. And it was an irrevocable necessity, an historical necessity, like the reunification of Ireland. It will occur one day, and we shouldn't count in centuries or decades. Who cares? It will happen. There is an irrevocable cultural and historical necessity for it.

    I had the feeling it was only the poets who could hold it together, and I traveled on foot, following the border of Germany, with its all-sinuous line, and I walked along the border of Austria and then Switzerland and then France and then Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and I wanted to walk around Germany, always following the border, just to hold it together.

    I actually never completed this voyage because I became ill and had to go to the hospital for a week. But I walked at least 1200 miles or so.

    JK: When was this?

    This was I believe in 1985 or so, 1986. And only three years later, all of a sudden, the Wall is down. It was an indescribable sensation for me?the sensation of something undescribably big has happened for my country and for my culture. It's still reverberating inside my heart.

    At the same time, it has created a lot of difficulties for Germany, which were foreseeable. Strangely enough, this was the last big task for Germany before it disappears into the abyss of history. You see, after the war, there were two major historical tasks remaining. One was rebuilding the country, and that meant not only rebuilding the ruins, and having new cities. It also meant rebuilding its legitimacy. Rebuilding itself as a civilized nation again, which is still a struggle after 50 years. Half a century, and Germany is still not completely there. (laughs)

    And I will not keep still until I have the feeling my country is back in the bosom of the real civilized nations. It has made a lot of progress, we should not overlook it. It is one of the most stable democracies in this world right now. And basically it's on the right route. But rebuilding the country and reunification, so what else is there now? It will disappear. It will disappear into the abyss of history.

    GC: What do you mean by that?

    Somehow, major powers in the world?like Holland has disappeared in the abyss of history. Portugal has disappeared in the abyss of history, just to speak of some European countries.

    GC: That thought has never occurred to me, since Germany has been so powerful in recent centuries. The thought of it declining is the last thing I could imagine.

    Oh no, it's not declining, it's disappearing. Its borders have become very soft. You can go from Germany into France?even as an American?and no one would ever stop you, because there are no borders anymore, no border control anymore.

    And of course the attempt to have a fusion of European countries?economically, culturally?hopefully it will never happen. I still like to be a Bavarian filmmaker and not a European filmmaker. (laughs)

    JK: I'd heard you were living in San Francisco now.

    There's a complexity of reasons. One was I did not want to live in my country anymore. At least right now. I could have gone to countries that I like, like Algeria or Brazil or Iceland or Ireland or the United States. Those are the options that are the closest.

    I also wanted to be in an environment where you had a certain amount of courage for doing films. A climate of looking out for new horizons, which is why I'm in the United States. And the major reason, of course, is private. Personal, private reasons. And that's the choice for San Francisco.

    GC: Looking back, it's really amazing the number of great films that came out of Germany in the 70s?what they called "The New German Cinema." Do you feel like there was a collective energy there, or did it just happen to be that those people were working in the same place at the same time?

    It was a little bit more than that. I would caution against believing that this was a "school" of cinema, a "movement" of cinema. We had no common style, we had no common theme. Not like in neorealism in Italy, for example, where it was a lot more homogenous. And I'm careful about energy?to speak about "collective energy," but I understand what you mean. Yes, I think there was a feeling of a destiny that we had to fulfill, because we were the first generation after the war, growing up, becoming 20, 25, starting to articulate ourselves. And we had to almost invent cinema for ourselves, because there were no teachers, no masters, no fathers.

    GC: As you said in the talk about Lotte Eisner, "There were no fathers, there were no grandfathers."

    So we had to be very inventive. And we almost, all of us, became our own producers, we founded our own distribution companies, and so on. We founded our own festival. We concocted some sort of a film subsidy law. We concocted a collaboration between, at that time, tv and cinema. We had to be real pioneers, even though cinema had existed many decades in Germany.

    GC: And it wasn't appreciated in Germany as much as it was in some other places.

    Well, I didn't need that much affirmation, personally. I knew what I was doing would be the right thing, and I gave everything that I could give. But affirmation, of course, meant, a countable amount of audiences, and made it possible for me to continue producing. And it's almost a miracle that I've produced more than 40 films up to today. I've never counted, but I think there must be over 40 films by now. And I had a privilege that hardly anybody in the industry has, that he, she or it has made all the films he wanted to do.

    JK: And you've done them independently.

    Yeah. It has a high price, but at the same time, it's very rewarding, and I thank God on my knees that I had the perseverance to continue.

    JK: Looking back on those 40-plus films, which strike you as your proudest moments?and which, if any, would you consider disappointments?

    There were two disappointments. One was Cobra Verde. I explained in the film that something foreign was brought into the film that was not agreeable for me, but whatever. And there's another film, Scream of Stone, a feature film where I did not produce and where I did not write the screenplay. The screenplay really needed improvements and I was not allowed to do that. Then after I shot the film, the film was taken away from me and butchered in editing. And so it's not completely my film, so I have this feeling of alienation, somehow. But I think that happens to almost everyone who works in the film industry in the country, almost with every film they make. (laughs)

    No, I like all my films the way I like my children. And those who have a stammer or a squint-eye or a limp, I love and protect and love even more. And all of them have some sort of a defect. (laughs) No, I actually like my films.

    JK: So do I.

    Yeah? Well that makes already two! (laughs)

    JK: In your "Minnesota Declaration"?given your critique of cinema verite, and what you call "the account's truth"?how do you react to this whole Dogma business?especially since you were in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, which is considered to be a Dogma film?

    Well let me put it this way?the blows I deal against cinema verite is only part of this Declaration. More important is that I postulate a deeper truth that you find, for example, in great music, or in poetry. You instantly sense that there is a deep, inherent truth in it, and you can't even name it. That's what I call "ecstatic truth." And it applies not only to documentaries, it applies to feature films as well. I mean, you look at Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Kaspar Hauser?it has this kind of, at least a search or a plowing deeper for, what I call ecstatic truth that is possible in cinema.

    Of course, the Declaration goes into wild trajectories over farting glaciers and Mother Nature and the Universe?so it's fun to read. It's a wild statement against, of course, the new-age esoterics and Mother Nature freaks, all these things.

    JK: You wrote that in the middle of the night.

    Yeah, I was just sleepless. It was funny, because I was doing an opera in Sicily, totally jet-lagged. I really suffer badly from jet lag. It takes me a week before I know where I am and who I am and why. I kept waking up and I turned on tv and I saw this stupid documentary on Italian tv?as stupid as all documentaries, as well as the ones you see in America. And then I had this feeling of disgust and dissatisfaction. Then hours later, I was still tossing around, and I finally turned on the light and switched on the tv again, and there was this hardcore porno. All of a sudden I had the feeling, "My God, this is coming closer to truth!" Closer than these phonies in this documentary I had seen two or three hours before.

    I'm still tossing around after that at 4 in the morning or so, and I just got up and typed it down quickly in 10 or 15 minutes.

    But I knew somehow that it was summing up things that had been in me for years, but I was in the right mood to write it.

    JK: What was it like for you to work for another director?especially such a youngster?

    Oh, I like this man?he is a major talent. I like to see films like this emerging, with a totally different approach to imagery, to storytelling, to acting, to almost everything. And I just saw the film less than a week ago for the first time. I had no opportunity before that. I saw Double Jeopardy in the theater, and the next day I saw Julien Donkey-Boy. And what a sigh of relief that was! What a phony sort of film and acting Double Jeopardy is, and then finally a real film out there. Thanks God there are bold young people who are totally undeterred by what the demands of the industry are. They just do their thing. And I like the kid, because I see myself as young as that and doing my films at the same age.

    GC: Throughout the history of cinema, until fairly recently, there has been a strong countervision to Hollywood in Europe. Various European countries and cultures. Whereas Europe seems to have acquiesced in recent years.

    No, it's not an observation that I would agree upon. Because you've had, here in America, the experimental cinema in the 50s and 60s, the New American Cinema, which was very interesting, and very close to what Harmony Korine is doing nowadays. When you look at Stan Brakhage's experimental films from the early 60s or so, he uses imagery exactly like in Gummo.

    GC: But why is Europe so acquiescent these days?

    It keeps shifting. You never know. I have no answer to this. Why is it that the best films are made in two countries that are neither the United States nor Europe nor Africa, but it is Iran and it is China? Why is it? We have no real answer.

    GC: Do you think Europe will come back at a certain point? Certain countries?

    Oh sure. And I think there are some single, certain figures out there who will keep doing good films, regardless what the climate in the country is. For example, in Iran right now, the climate is not very favorable for independent films, as more than 60 percent of the films are Islamic propaganda. And a group of independent filmmakers is just tolerated. Abbas Kiarostami is standing out, and no matter what sort of political climate there is, he will make good films, one after another.

    GC: And Mohsen Makhmalbaf as well.

    Oh, there are a couple of very, very interesting ones. So we shouldn't worry about it. And including America, this year, what fine films were released just recently. American Beauty, which I liked a lot. A very, very fine film. Harmony's film. Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. So it's a very good vintage, and there's very good stuff out there.

    My Best Fiend runs through Nov. 16 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110.