Profile: Werner Herzog (from 2001)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in late 2001]

In August and September 2001, London’s National Film Theatre turns its gaze on the German director Werner Herzog. Hailed as a visionary, denounced as a crazed megalomaniac, described even as a Cassandra, Herzog established himself as a major figure within New German Cinema in the early 1970s. Always a man of will and insight, myth-making and image-making, Herzog’s varied work has been an inspiration to many, and anathema to others. In deference to his obsessions – walking, journeys and quests, physical exertion and accomplishment, the French discovery of the New German Cinema, among others – I took the Eurostar to Paris, to meet a surrogate Harmony Korine, and walked round Paris with only a small, raw potato and a bottle of Benylin for sustenance.

The NFT press release accompanying the retrospective calls Herzog a shaman. In an industry of occasional conjurations, Herzog does indeed seem one of the most liminal – he himself has identified his generation as one without fathers. To ask how much of his obscurantism and perceived eccentricity is illusionism is to ask the wrong question, except in thinly forensic biography. The effect he perpetrates is one of wonder and mystery, of awe and obsession. His self-mythologising (in, say, My Best Fiend – Herzog’s version of his relationship with his most fruitful but most antagonistic collaborator, Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski), alongside the more readily-corroborable elements of his biography (Burden of Dreams – Les Blank’s documentary on the making of 1982’s notorious Fitzcarraldo) leads to a portrait akin to that he played in American director Harmony Korine’s flawed but inspirational julien donkey-boy. Herzog plays the father of a family held together by a grim gravity, the “anchor of dysfunction”, as Herzog himself described the character. The extremity of his behaviour (wearing a gas mask, drinking cough medicine, making one of his sons dress up as his dead wife and dancing with him), the injunctions to his wrestler son to be “a winner”, seem to be on one level Korine’s condensing of Herzog’s public character.

Across his career, Herzog has pursued what he calls the Ecstatic Truth, a personal reading of Schiller’s delineation of the Sublime, and has approached this in different ways, in the last few years turning away from feature-films to, almost exclusively, documentaries. This Ecstatic Truth seems to be arrived at more by privation, exertion and will than by “dérèglement de tous les sens”, and less by a Parisian flânerie than by an almost picaresque will-to-walk. The legendary hardships endured by the cast and crew on both Fitzcarraldo (an epic, heroic retelling of an Irish would-be tycoon’s attempt to bring opera to a remote South American village) and on Aguirre, Wrath of God (taking on Pizzaro’s search for El Dorado and the conquering of the New World) at the insistence of Herzog, who had the reputation for being an on-set Ahab, are regarded as the limit of the exigencies one can impose on a production. Herzog, who worked two jobs, by night in a steelworks, in order to finance his first film, and didn’t see his first film (Tarzan) till the age of 12, seems to be without physical or moral fear, and demanded the same from his crew and cast. Brushing off monkey- and rat-bites, threatening Kinski with death, taunting him with chocolate, scaring the tribes appearing in Fitzcarraldo because in the face of Kinski’s ravings Herzog remained silent, hypnotising the entire cast of Hearts of Glass daily, he appears to have been one of the last of the Cinemohicans, though now his peaks and troughs seem behind him.

His story about walking to France to see the moribund Lotte Eisner, the film critic and historian who saw, in Herzog, a successor to Murnau, was disputed even by Eisner, who claimed to have met him off the train, but that hasn’t stopped Herzog from repeating it and using it as an exemplum to young directors in search of advice – don’t go to film school, just get walking. He seems to reject, however, a solipsistic walking, a Rousseau-esque rêverie, and the celebration of a dandyistic explosion of the self on the outside world, à la Baudelaire. The river in Aguirre, the steamboat being dragged across the mountain in Fitzcarraldo, the castle in Nosferatu, the ruby-glass in Hearts of Glass, in his recent BBC-sponsored collaboration with John Taverner, his protagonists appear wilfully constrained, not aimless, but trajectoried. He once walked the entire perimeter of Germany. And while his films have their dark and wild humour, Herzog himself claims that their literalism (e.g. the Amazon tribe member who, when told that the Bible contains the word of God, holds it to his ear and says he can’t hear anything) stems from his own tendency to take everything literally, and his consequent failure to understand irony. Indeed, placing his actors and crew in the actual conditions depicted in the film blurs further the distinctions between his documentary and fiction work – and that he insisted on dragging the whole steamboat across a mountain where the original Fitzcarraldo (local pronunciation of Fitzgerald) had actually split the boat into eight parts, and that crew members were bitten and shot with arrows during Aguirre, is taken as evidence of his faith in the reality of acts, and by some, as his contempt for humanity. On one level, his fiction functions as documentaries of the mystery of its own coming-into-being. His documentary work offers a converse reflexivity in Herzog’s naked admission that he influences events in front of the camera.

At the risk of making him sound like the German Ken Russell, Herzog’s heroes occupy or rule altered states, perhaps a corollary of his oft-quoted claim that he doesn’t dream. As his heroes travel away from conventional society to the borders even of insanity, through both physical and interior landscapes, it is the transcendence of that convention that Herzog seeks to chart out. This lived dream, heightened reality, and “voodoo of location” are key in Herzog’s difference from the directors with who he was initially bracketed: Wenders and Fassbinder, in particular. Fassbinder’s work is manifestly different in sensibility, less epic (though perhaps no less brutal), more grounded. Wenders’ road movies betray increasingly little humanity – especially the unconscionable alterna-lite pap he has come out with more recently. With Herzog, on the other hand, even his interpretation of Nosferatu, with Kinski in the title role, seemed to defy the tics and spasms of Expressionism with a determined and grim realism that unsettles deeply. His position is too clear, his vision too substantial and specific to allow untempered lyricism. Perhaps his overpowering sense of place and physical reality commits him to attempting to undo his own work, dematerialising and displacing.

Herzog has stated that aesthetics is never a primary concern, whether when shooting or when editing, which seems a strange thing to say about such visually influential works – although that said, the contrast between the occasional brutality of the acts portrayed on screen, and the ethic and aesthetic he espouses is stark. He has also said that the rhythm of the film is always established in the shooting, not in the editing suite. Thinking on Herzog, there is a sensation in the most Ecstatically Truthful moments of his key works – FitzcarraldoAguirreThe Enigma of Kaspar HauserLessons in Darkness – that he is accessing (whether manifest or manifested) truths distant from a rational humanist Europe. When he states that all his films are Bavarian, perhaps that is what he means. That sensation also holds within its folds a suspension of time, an ecstasy of time, most strikingly perhaps at the end of Aguirre, wakelessly circling the raft – when Herzog is perhaps bringing in one of his favourite exempla, of Hannibal’s utterance “I know the destiny of Carthage” – foreseeing fall and oblivion, a sudden collapse of time.

At the root of all this does seem to lie his relationship with language, with the Word, a central concern in most of his films, but overwhelmingly so in the film that brought him to international attention: Every man for himself, and God against all / The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, one of the most interpreted and re-interpreted stories in the German canon. The story of an enfant sauvage, who turns up one day in a town square with a letter, but speaking no words other than one phrase in German, and the town’s attempts to socialise and civilise him. Touching on parallel themes to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, and using another deeply unconventional actor in Bruno S, a lifelong mental patient, Kaspar Hauser likewise leaves little doubt of where Herzog wants us to locate his sympathies – “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming around you? That screaming that men call silence?” his epigraph to the film. Herzog only spoke Bavarian until he went to school where he had to learn Hochdeutsch. In Lessons of Darkness, his post-Gulf War documentary on the devastation of Kuwait, Herzog encounters two people who have lost the power of speech. Another extension into his own life occurs when Herzog loses a bet with documentarist Errol Morris, that Morris will not complete his first film: should you complete the film, says Herzog, I will eat my shoe. Herzog keeps his word when Morris delivers, and Les Blank documents the preparation (by boiling) and consumption of the footwear in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Without question a gifted filmmaker, but clearly a difficult, wilfully contrary and (some would say) crank figure, Herzog has outraged and inspired in equal measure, but at least he provokes a reaction. Prepare to feel – something, anything, but prepare to feel.

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