By Brigid Grauman
Published: March 16 2007 22:48 | Last updated: March 16 2007 22:48
In the 1970s the German film director Werner Herzog was a counter-culture favourite, a visionary filmmaker whose peers included Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hans Jürgen Syberberg. But Fassbinder is dead now and Syberberg silent while Herzog is still going strong, his films continuing to attract a passionate following.
This was evident at a recent session at the Goethe Institute in Brussels where Herzog was answering questions after a screening. Several in the audience mentioned images that had stayed with them for years – the dancing chickens at the end of Stroszek (1977), the waving wheat in the first shots of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). From Herzog’s responses, this kind of detailed, emotional reaction is what he not only likes but expects.
As a director, he says his quest is for those moments of “ecstatic truth” that have the impact of poetry. “It’s like an illumination, something that remains as an echo inside you,” he explains, using his hands, expressively, more like a Frenchman than a German.
We are in a fashionable Brussels restaurant, a former butcher’s shop that specialises in tripe and offal. Herzog had said he wanted to meet somewhere typically Belgian, so what to choose for a man who professes to live on the edge? Offal seemed appropriately reckless. Like the small Peugeot in which I picked him up from the hotel, the compact restaurant seems small for Herzog, a tall, rangy man with sloping, sad eyes.
He tucks his tattered grey hiking shoes under the table. I had made a point of noticing his footwear earlier because Herzog is known for undertaking extraordinarily long walks. He once went on foot to Paris from Munich to see a dying friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, a journey he later wrote about in Walking on Ice, a short book published in 1974. “The mice, you have no idea how many mice you see when you walk through fields,” he says as he recalls the trek.
Though Herzog has tended to stand apart from his contemporaries, he did once organise a retrospective of Fassbinder’s work. “Fassbinder was always in an entourage of gay men. We would embrace each other rather roughly and stiffly but we were never close.”
When he isn’t travelling, Herzog, who has been married three times and has three children, now lives in Los Angeles. His half-brother Lucki works as his producer. “I’m good with money but my young brother is way better. Were I to become impoverished, it wouldn’t surprise or frighten me. I’ve never cared about possessions.”
He describes himself as a storyteller and a poet, and has directed more than 50 films, including documentaries, common to which is a vision of a world that is slightly skewed, with powerful landscapes peopled by characters who are driven by passion, obsession or their own form of integrity.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) is about a doomed quest for gold in the Amazon by 16th-century Spanish conquistadores led by Klaus Kinski, the actor who shared an often rocky relationship with Herzog during the five films they made together. Herzog’s heroes are creatures of extremes, such as the innocent man let loose in 19th-century Germany in Kaspar Hauser, the fevered visionary who wants to open an opera house deep in a South American jungle in Fitzcarraldo (1982), the isolated, aboriginal tribesmen of Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) or the American animal activist Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005).
Herzog lifts his large, solemn head to explain that he isn’t drawn to excess but that it somehow just happens to find him. He recalls a surrealist moment last year in LA when a sniper shot him while he was being interviewed by the BBC. “The bullet – small calibre, it wasn’t a serious bullet – went through a catalogue that was in my pocket, so I wasn’t seriously hurt,” he says. “Everyone freaked out. I had no problem with it.” He has, he says gently shaking his head, a singular capacity for attracting violent events.
Recently, while filming in Antarctica for a television documentary, a snowmobile flipped over on top of him. “Strong bones,” he says with satisfaction at surviving unscathed. “My attitude has always been that certain events cannot be covered by insurance.”
Herzog’s shoots are, legendarily, attended by mishaps, drama, death and accidents. As he relates with theatrical relish a series of anecdotes about how film crews regularly rebel and the producer of a recent film threatened to vomit because he so loathed the film they had made, Herzog clearly has a taste for histrionics, He does admit, though, that, in reality, most shoots go smoothly and his crews respect him.
The director is supremely sure of his talents, saying he knows that his films will ultimately be recognised for their true worth. “In 400 years, I’ll overtake Terminator,” he says. Rebellious crews who refuse to work? “I just tell them to go and have lunch.”
Herzog’s biography does have a certain mythic dimension. For a start, his real name isn’t Herzog. He was born Werner Stipetic 64 years ago but abandoned his Croatian mother’s name for Herzog, which means duke in German, “like Duke Ellington. My nom de guerre.”
His films constitute his “dream biography”, he says. Over the past 15 months these dreams have involved him working on four movies, among them Rescue Dawn, the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American pilot shot down over Laos in 1966 during the Vietnam war. Dengler later escapes after being held prisoner under horrifying conditions.
Herzog says he’s not interested in politics, the Vietnam war or America’s position in the world. “It’s not a war story, more a Joseph Conrad vision of the test and trial of men,” he says of the film. Dengler, who died in 2001, was also the subject of Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly , and is clearly a man much after Herzog’s heart. Both have strong survival skills and neither grew up with a father: Dengler’s was killed during the second world war while Herzog’s walked out on the family when Herzog was a baby.
The lack of a father figure, says Herzog with a hearty laugh, was, in fact, a blessing. “I thank God on my knees that there was no commander around telling us what to do.” Fatherlessness also has symbolic resonance for an artist born at the end of the war, a child of a “lost generation”, as Herzog puts it. “My big brother and I were men at 13,” he says, “we could have raised families.”
“Dieter combines everything I like most about American people,” says Herzog, polishing off a plate of yellowish tripe. “He represents loyalty, the frontier spirit, perseverance, optimism and self-reliance.” Sipping Beaujolais, Herzog becomes sternly critical of what he feels are German character traits, even though he remains sentimentally attached to his Bavarian roots. He says he felt intense joy when the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 but believes that within eight days the German people had turned from a state of euphoria to “a culture of complaint”.
These complainers, says Herzog, “clamour for the state to assist them”, and are a different breed from his mother. When, for instance, a bomb hit a neighbour’s house in Munich in 1944 and the two-year-old Werner’s cot filled with bricks, rubble and dust , she immediately moved her family to a village in the Bavarian Alps. The family experienced great poverty; Herzog says he loathed every second of school. “I hated everything about it. My hatred was so deep that I understand the Columbine school massacre in Colorado,” he says earnestly.
He grew up fast, working night shifts as a welder to finance his first film in 1961 while still studying at school. He travelled to Africa shortly afterwards, where he ran into trouble with marauding soldiers. For a while he had wanted to be a ski-jumper until a close friend had a terrible accident when the two of them were alone in the mountains. “But while the dream lasted, it was like flying, six seconds airborne when you step outside your humanness. You sense how a frisbee sails.” His 1974 film about the ski-jumping champion Walter Steiner conveys some of that sense of exhilaration.
If he were to identify with any figure from German history, it wouldn’t be a romantic or an expressionist but the maverick 15th-century theologian Martin Luther. I quote a phrase by Montaigne, about wanting to die while tending his garden, which seemed apt for a workaholic like him. He dismisses that gruffly, saying he has a much better quote from Luther. When asked “what would you do if the world were to disappear tomorrow in a cataclysm”? Luther apparently replied, “I would plant a tree.” Optimism? “Absolutely not.” Defiance? “No. It’s just a wonderful answer,” he says.
Herzog has a fondness for dictums which he says are born of lifelong experience. “Those who watch television, lose the world,” he warns, “and those who read, gain it.” The late travel writer Bruce Chatwin, with whom he had “a cautious but very substantial friendship”, quoted with approval Herzog saying, “Tourism is sin, walking is virtue” and made it his own motto at the end of his life. On his deathbed, Chatwin gave Herzog his battered leather rucksack and Herzog now takes it along with him on all his long walks.