Saturday, May 28, 2011

Werner Herzog on Himself and his films

C S Venkiteswaran

We met Werner Herzog at his hotel just after the Session ‘In Conversation with Herzog’ at the Festival venue. During the event, as the conversation was progressing, there was a commotion outside the theatre. The audience outside were impatient to get into the hall to watch the next movie. So, we started apologizing for the mix up at the theatre.

Herzog: No, I didn’t know there was a show at that time. And people outside actually wanted to see film, and there I was, talking about films! It is a good sign that people really want to see movies. They mean business here!

Q. Your films have been widely shown and appreciated here, and there are many booklets written upon you. It is also one of the reason why you are conferred the Life Time Achievement Award here. Let me begin the interview by recounting a scene from your film Land of Silence and Darkness where a blind man is trying to ‘look at’ or understand a ‘tree’ by feeling it with his hands. His hands feel through the trunk of the tree stretching as far as he can, and then the camera tilts up the huge long trunk of the tree and the foliage etc. This scene I think in a way captures what you have been trying to convey through your films too. All your films are a kind of journey into the unknown, the limits of human perception and endurance etc.. whether it be Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser or Nosferatu..

Herzog: He is actually blind and deaf. Land of Silence and Darkness, I believe, is my deepest film, though it is one of my early films. And it is one of the most defining moments in the film. Suddenly one realizes that it was not a moment that was ordinary; one senses that it is something momentous. Maybe for another filmmaker it could be something very ordinary where a blind man walks from the bench and touches a tree. For me, all of a sudden the context of the entire film changes with an incredible amount of death and tragedy. It is related to the entire context of the film.

Q.You were one among the group of filmmakers along with Alexander Kluge, Fassbinder, Wim Winders etc who brought in a new sensibility to German cinema and defined German cinema to the world in the following decades. In the post-war context, it was almost like starting from the scatch..

Herzog: Actually, I didn’t start with a ‘group of filmmakers’. In a way, we were all on our own. In fact I was almost on my own and separated from the rest. But of course, there was an understanding between us and an amazing solidarity..

Q: did you have manifesto or something like that?

Herzog Yes, there was one, but one in which I didn’t sign it.. But there was a strong solidarity between us to create our own distribution system, to create a film subsidy law which was proposed and pushed through polemics.. In fact, we had to create our own cinema and industry, especially distribution system.. So, we all formed our own production companies, we were our own producers. Fassbinder, Schlondorff all had their own production companies.

Q: What was it like to make film after the Hitler era?

Herzog: For us, it was obvious that continuity was disrupted. Such a thing has not happened to filmmakers in India, United Kingdom or elsewhere. They all restarted immediately after the war, whereas for Germans there was a gap of 25 years. So we were a generation without fathers. We didn’t relate to any fathers, we could only relate to our grandfathers, for instance, to someone like Murnau. It was not a coincidence that I made a remake of his Nosferatu. For me, it is the greatest of all German films, that silent film. So ours was a strange situation where we had to bridge a gap in our film culture which was not related to our fathers but only to our grandfathers. From the beginning till now, there is a distant echo of those films in me.

And we had to invent cinema all over again. In fact I had not seen films till I was about 11; cinema was nonexistent for me in childhood. So, it was like rediscovering it

Then the second important thing was that we had to show to the world that there was a legitimate German cinema and a film culture that did not side with barbarism. And it was difficult to find acceptance. For at least two decades, my films were not accepted; there was some sort of aversion to ‘German’ films in places like America. It took 20 years until we got accepted in America.

Q: You had said that among your contemporaries, you were more close to Fassbinder than others..

Herzog: Yes. We liked each other a lot. And we had a lot of similarities: both of us were very productive, both of us were Bavarians, both of us grew up without the presence of a father. There was something Bavarian about us. One can describe it with a metaphor. The last Bavarian king Ludwig II, who was mad, was famous for building castles. He was insane but built fantastic castles; he spent all the money of the state in building incredible castles and millions of tourists now visit them. At that time the Prussian emperors in Berlin spent all their money waging wars. So, that is the Prussian side and this is the Bavarian side. The Bavarians were always baroque in their approach to literature, music, and filmmaking. In a way, Fassbinder was similar to me, in the spirit of just going and doing it, in spite of all the obstacles.. Much of our communication was non-verbal, we had deep understanding of each other’s films though personally we were very different.

Q: That you relate more with grandfathers than fathers is an interesting observation. There is an absence of the immediate present and surroundings in many of your films. They are more about pursuing certain dreams and breaching the limits of human endurance, imagination and capability, the protagonists often do not achieve their ends. For Fitzcarraldo, as he recounts that story about the explorer who saw Niagra falls for the first time, what is important is that you tried and made the journey, rather than reaching.Somebody said that your films are metaphysical while being very materialistic..

Herzog> I don’t know about metaphysics, nor do I think about such things while I make films.

Q Your characters seem to be set in certain elemental or fundamental or I would say ‘pre-ideological’ situations in such a way that more than psychological issues, what your films seem to pursue are very elemental ethical questions about the crossing territories: between the human and the non-human, possible and impossible, dream and reality etc. You have never bothered about psychology or psychological realism in your narratives

Herzog: I never liked psychology. It is one of the major mistakes of 20th century. Of course it started by the end of 19th century, but it is basically a 20th century phenomena. It was the monumental mistake of the 20th century: to dig too deep into the human mind, which I think you should not. Human beings have to have dark, unexplained corners. It is like living in a house where every single corner is lit with neon lights. Then it becomes uninhabitable. Likewise, human beings become uninhabitable if they are explained, scrutinized and analysed too deeply. It is not healthy. And this is only one of the huge mistakes of the 20th century, there are many other mistakes. Because of all that, I think 20th century in its entirety was a big mistake. My films are living proofs of that

Q. Most of your protagonists are in a way ‘overmen’ or larger than life figures, who defy all logic and pragmatism to pursue their dreams. Take Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre for instance, they do not or do not need to belong to any place or culture in that sense..

Herzog: I don’t want to dig too deep into my characters. I have always avoided it.

Q: Another feature unique to you as a filmmaker is the kind of position that you take towards ‘intellectualism’ in cinema. You are known for your contempt for filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Godard who according to you “try so hard to pass on a heavy idea to the audience.. Someone like Jean-luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film… Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind”.

Herzog: It is not contempt. I would say it is something that does not belong to cinema, nor does it belong to music either. You can’t intellectualise music; it just comes out of you and that is it. It is inexplicable and you can share it with everyone in this planet. Cinema has similar qualities, it is close to music. When we walk into a movie theatre, we open all our senses. It is different from reading literature.

Q You have done a lot of documentaries in different parts of the world. It is almost as if there are no boundaries between fiction and documentary in your films.. Take for instance a film like Lessons of Darkness about the ravaged oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait, is almost like a film made from the perspective of an alien observer, the film is an exploration of the

Herzog: That film pretends to be a science fiction film. In the 60 minute film there is not a single shot where you can recognize it is our planet earth. There is no shot where you can say, yes, this is our planet. So, it is a science fiction film. I was accused about why I didn’t condemn Iraqi aggression etc. I said, for an entire year, the media has done that. But I am after something bigger. For me, it has to be for the remembrance of the human race, for it was not a political crime, but a crime against human race. It was bigger than politics. It was so big and so strange, it was science fiction for me. So I declared it to be so.

Q. Among others, one of the famous episodes associated with you is your eating your shoe when one of your young friends Errol Morris managed to make his first film. It is an incident that could inspire young filmmakers all over the world. Now with digital technology, imagemaking has become easier, or affordable. Has it really made filmmaking any easier? Or, has it created a situation where you don’t have to eat your other shoe?

Herzog That is about a certain attitude towards life. I would say any grown up man should have certain basic experiences in life. You should at least one pair of shoes, when you are a young man, you should know what it means to be in prison, you should know what it means to be hungry, to be in complete solitude, to be in a situation where your life is in danger. I don’t see this in other filmmakers. There are filmmakers who have not been shot at, who have not shot a film above a volcano that is about to burst.. I lead a different life

Q True, there is something very physical about your films and filmmaking. You have said you write your scripts and do your editing in a very short span of time. For instance you wrote the script for Aguirre in three and a half days, that too in a feverish pace, where you could see everything..

Herzog: Yes, I wrote it in two and half days. That too most of it in a bus traveling with a group of drunken football players. I even wrote one or two pages during the intervals while I was playing football matches.

Q where does your films originate? Is it an incident, an image, or a character?

Herzog; I do not really know. I only know that it is my activity and my destiny. When I was young, at the age of 14 or 15, I knew this was what I wanted to do. The decision was always there; the question was can I shoulder this duty? And I knew I was going to lead a complicated life, a difficult life. And it was clear for me that there was not much to decide but only to accept. I tried to keep abreast of all the projects that came at me. Like other filmmakers, I don’t check which is in the bestseller list and who will write a screenplay out of that for me and then transform it into a film. I never worked liked that. So it was never a career for me, where you are entering a career and pursuing certain goals etc Instead, I have been pursued by the films. It is a strange thing because, I never felt I had a career, I only have my life. And I leave some tracks in the sand..

Q. Do you think the age of cinema as a euro-centric phenomenon is over? Even in Europe, if you look at films from France and Germany, most of the films are made by or about diasporic communities and elsewhere, a lot of small countries in Asia and Africa have entered the scene? How do you look at this shift?


I only welcome all those fellow filmmakers from all the small countries, filmmaker from a village in Burkina Faso who comes barefoot from there and makes his first film. Cinema is such a wonderful tool because it connects us and it is not like anyone should dominate it whether it be Europe or Hollywood. We need cinema from Kerala, Burkina Faso, Korea, Taiwan..

Q What are you working on now?

Herzog: I have already finished two films this year and am doing a film on the death row. It is about inmates in jails in Texas, Florida in US who are in the death row. It is a very very dark and grim film, and one that is very difficult to make. Because we have so many restrictions, but I have managed to shoot part of it already, I get only 50 minutes with one inmate, and I have to obtain a lot of permits and undergo a number of security checks before I could shoot. And after all that, all of a sudden I am before someone who is facing execution. Of course, I am not an advocate of capital punishment..

Q: How do you speak English so well?

Herzog It is all self-taught, everything is self-taught: moviemaking, English, you just name it.

Q: Finally, how do you find this festival? You are in this film festival for the first time?

Herzog It is really astonishing. I haven’t seen any other festival with this kind of attendance. People really want to see films here. Another thing is the amount of films that are being shown; you have films from all over the world. It is a formidable achievement. The real astonishing thing is the cultural connection of the festival; I have never seen a festival that opens with such dances and poems that connect with the local culture. I was all of a sudden transformed into a different world. The festival has a very strong rooting.. and that is Kerala for me..


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