|zakka.dk / euroscreenwriters/ interviews with european directors / werner herzog   /|
- Interviews with European Film Directors
- Interviews with Famous Screenwriters
- Articles for the Working Screenwriter
- Research Links
- Directing & Writing Quotes for Inspiration
- The World Famous 5 Minute Film School
:COP15 media service for journalists
:stock photos of copenhagen
: Copenhagen Cycle Chic Blog
: The Slow Bicycle Movement
The Enigma of Werner H
Born in war-time Germany, he wrote a prize-winning screenplay at the age of 15 and made his first film at 20. Now one of cinema's most controversial and iconoclastic directors, he is also credited with leading a renaissance in European film. John O'Mahony reports
It's a fine, clear California day on Santa Monica pier. Body-beautiful rollerbladers swerve along the runways as women in bikinis stride by briskly on their way to sample the best view of the Pacific in Los Angeles. It seems an unlikely spot to meet Werner Herzog, European cinema's most vociferous prophet of Teutonic gloom: "I've never really been out here before," he says, in halting, clipped tones. "I just thought it would be so much better than the average dull interview location."
Soon, however, the full melancholic potential of the pier in its off-season glory begins to shine through. Along the boardwalk, from the soulless Playland arcade, comes the sound of a manic, laughing voice grating against the nerves. And right in the centre of the pier is the rollercoaster, its candy-coloured cars huddled at the bottom of a precipitous loop. All that is missing is Herzog's "dancing chicken", the image that ends his downbeat classic Stroszek, the story of a German innocent's failure in capitalist America.
Described by Janet Maslin, the New York Times critic, as the "consummate poet of doom," Herzog is one of cinema's most crusading directors. Along with Wim Wenders and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he has led German film-making out of the post-war doldrums and into a period of rebirth. This has been mirrored by a personal quest for a "cinema of illiterates", that has led him to explore subjects such as collective insanity (in Heart Of Glass) and the rise of Nazism (in his new film Invincible, which opens this week) and taken him to the depths of the Peruvian jungle, (for films such as Aguirre, The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo) and the Sahara desert (for Fata Morgana).
"At a time when everything is fake and virtual and digital, he brought back the idea that cinema is to record basic human experience," says his fellow film director and friend, Volker Schlondorff.
"He takes away all the make-believe and fabrication to get back to the real thing, back to when directors first had a movie camera and they set it up to shoot a ski-jumper taking off or a lion that eats an antelope. Werner allows us just to see the world."
As a consequence of this compulsive drive for authenticity, Herzog is one of the world's most controversial film-makers, with a reputation that is perched precariously on a mountain of mythology, fabrications and sensational truth. He refers to these distortions of biography as his "doppelgangers", media projections that roam the globe independently.
They include the story of how, during the making of Signs Of Life (1968) on the Greek island of Kos, the 24-year-old is said to have fallen foul of the military and threatened to shoot and kill anyone who tried to halt filming. For Heart Of Glass (1976), Herzog supposedly put the entire cast under hypnosis. For his documentary La Soufriere (1977), he took his film crew up the side of a volcano that was threatening to erupt. And during the shooting of Aguirre in the Peruvian jungle, he is reputed to have directed the late Klaus Kinski, his lead actor in five films, at gunpoint from behind the camera.
Many attribute all of this to Herzog's willingness to go to extremes to realise his vision: "He always wants to do the impossible," says Claudia Cardinale, who played the lead female role in Fitzcarraldo (1982). "During the shoot, all the specialists who came from Hollywood told him that he couldn't do it. But he resisted them. It was that enthusiasm that drew me to him."
Others have criticised Herzog for being monomaniacal and exploitative. After the filming of Heart Of Glass, co-writer Herbert Achternbusch wondered whether Herzog "might possibly nail his actors to trees in his next film".
In his outspoken biography, Kinski goes even further in rubbishing Herzog's delusions: "He doesn't care about anyone or anything except his wretched career as a so-called film-maker. Driven by a pathological addiction to sensationalism, he creates the most senseless difficulties and dangers, risking other people's safety and even their lives - just so he can eventually say that he, Herzog, has beaten seemingly unbeatable odds."
Wandering around Santa Monica pier, or sitting in the Pacific Park cafe in front of a cup of weak coffee, the real Werner Herzog seems to resemble none of his mythical doppelgangers. Often, he comes across as preternaturally gentle and vulnerable; even when he smiles, his eyes look tormented.
"He has got much milder as he got older," says his first wife, Martje, a homeopath. "The time we spent together was the 'fighting years'."
However, it would be a mistake to label Herzog in any way reticent or shy: "He might seem like that when you first meet him, but he is actually the opposite," says his brother, Tilbert.
"He is extremely self-confident and convinced of himself. For example, he will openly declare that he writes the best prose since Kleist. If you know him for a longer time, you realise the more reserved side is a certain mask that he puts on, not voluntarily but more without knowing it himself."
In many respects, Herzog is closer to his turbulent "nemesis", Kinski, than outward appearances, or the ferocity of the onslaught in Kinski's autobiography, would suggest: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep," Kinski fumes.
"His speech is clumsy, with a toad-like indolence, long-winded, pedantic, choppy... I've never met anybody so dull, humourless, uptight, inhibited, mindless, depressing, boring and swaggering..."
Herzog explains away this tirade by saying that the two had cooked up the offending passages together: "Kinski came to me and said that he had to write bad things about me, that is what his filthy readers wanted. I even supported him in finding even viler and fouler and baser expletives. I would come to his place with the dictionary and thesaurus and together we would take the page of invective and make it more colourful."
Understandably, much of Herzog's conversation is taken up with such refutations: "A rumour cannot be eliminated by truth," he says provocatively, "you can only kill it by an even wilder rumour."
On his personal life, he is particularly evasive. He talks about his children - Rudolph, a 29-year-old magician and film-maker, his 21-year-old daughter, Hanna, who studied linguistics, and his youngest son, Simon, who is 12 - but refuses to divulge much about their different mothers: "It is very complex. But I have good relations with all the women I have been with."
Of his current wife, Lena, a Russian photographer less than half his age with whom he lives in a tidy cottage overlooking Los Angeles, he says: "Lena's age is unknown, but she is younger than me, though she looks much younger than she actually is."
With this combination of obfuscation and bravado, Herzog has undoubtedly been a major contributor to his own mythology: "I would prefer it if there was total anonymity," he says, "but I find it all right that many things appear in utter distortions, with which I can identify, but which do not exist independently. It's fine by me that there are some doppelgangers out there."
Werner Herzog was born in Munich on September 5 1942, the second son of Dietrich Herzog and Elizabeth Stipetic, biology graduates who met at university in Vienna. Dietrich was immediately conscripted into the German army. The couple split up and Dietrich remarried on his return. It was left to Werner's mother, Elizabeth, whose maiden name he would bear into his 20s, to bring up their two sons. When a bomb destroyed their house, they moved to the Bavarian village of Sachrang, on the Austrian border. Then, when Werner was about seven or eight, they moved briefly to the town of WÀstenrot in WÀrttemberg, to live with their father's second family, before finally settling in Munich three years later.
In material terms, the family's situation was extremely difficult: "We had very little money," says Tilbert. "In the village, we had only one room and it was bitterly cold in winter. Often when we woke up in the morning the duvet would be frozen stiff."
In temperament, Werner seems to have been unruly and introverted: "He was quite solitary," Tilbert recalls, "and he had a violent temper. When he was three he tried to throw a stone at me and ran after me but the stone dropped out of his hand and fell on his bare toes. He was quite wild."
In his youth, Herzog was exposed to surprisingly little cinema other than popular B-movie fodder such as Zorro, Tarzan and Fu Manchu. However, when he was 13, the family moved to Berlin. One of the other tenants in the boarding house they lived in was a capricious, self-obsessed young actor named Klaus Kinski.
"The owner of this place picked up starving artists from the street and she came up with Kinski one day," Herzog recalls. "We lived in the same large flat for close to three months and, of course, from day one he terrorised everyone." At one point, Kinski locked himself in the bathroom for two days. Herzog says: "He smashed everything, to the point where you could sift it all through a tennis racket."
Herzog's desire to become a film director seems to have formed, at about the age of 14, during a fervently religious period when he also briefly converted to Catholicism: "It was a very intensive couple of weeks when everything became clear to me," he says. Tilbert was alerted to his brother's ambitions only when, aged 15, Werner decided to enter a script-writing competition: "He sat down and wrote the script in five days and said, 'I will win this prize'.
"I didn't like him saying that because it was his first attempt. But three weeks later the phone rang. It was the jury saying he had won."
By this time, Werner was travelling widely, sometimes on foot, to destinations such as Albania, Kos and North Africa. In 1962, using the money he earned working night shifts as an industrial welder, Herzog managed to make his first feature, Herakles, a documentary-style short, in which shots of body-builders are intercut with footage of a crash at the Le Mans 24-hour car race. He also made a never-released short called Spiel Im Sand and won the Carl Meyer award for the screenplay of Signs Of Life. However, attempts to get anything more substantial off the ground ended in frustration: "I was still very young and my puberty was late," says Herzog, "so I looked like a child when I had to meet film executives. It was really very humiliating."
Instead, in 1963, he accepted a Fulbright grant to study literature and theatre at the University of Pittsburg. On the Atlantic crossing he met Martje Grohmann, on a Fulbright to study literature in Wisconsin: "One day Werner came to our table and talked about one of his dreams that he had the night before," she remembers. "It was so visual, so visionary I would say that it impressed me very much. He came more often and I thought, my God, he has the quality of a biblical prophet or something." After a courtship conducted mostly on deck playing shuffle-board, they fell in love and married in 1967.
Herzog lasted just three days at the University of Pittsburg, causing him to lose both his grant and visa. Instead, he applied for a job making films for the space agency Nasa, which has since been mythologised into a stint working as an intelligence agent, the very first of the Herzog dÀppelgangers. "I never started," he says, "because there were security checks and it was found out very quickly that I was not supposed to be in the country. So, I was summoned to emigration."
Facing deportation back to Germany, he fled to Mexico where he worked at the charreada, the Mexican equivalent of rodeo. This period has since mutated into reports that he was a gun-runner. "It has a grain of truth," Herzog admits. "I stole a special commuter pass which allowed me to get across the border without being checked. Some wealthy rancher asked me to take across a pistol made of pure silver and bullets of silver. Now it has transformed me into a gun-runner."
Herzog returned to the US and then to Germany in 1965. With a camera which he is reputed to have purloined from a Munich film school, he managed to make another short film entitled The Unprecedented Defence Of The Fortress Deutschkreutz, in which four youths defend a fortress against an invisible enemy. Then, in 1966, Herzog finally managed to raise the budget to make his first feature Signs Of Life, the story of a recuperating soldier who is put in charge of a munitions dump on a Greek island, a plot loosely adapted from a novella by Achim von Arnim.
Shot on Kos, the film marked the beginning of Herzog's legendary on-set difficulties, as the Greek military threatened to veto a vital scene, and Herzog in turn is said to have warned that he would shoot anyone who dared try: "I'm sure it has all been embellished by rumour," he says. "The military would not have been so intimidated by a very young man who looked like a high-school kid."
The film won a Silver Bear at the 1968 Berlin film festival for best first film and was hailed by the influential film critic Lotte Eisner as having "a romantic spirit inspired by German silents".
The film also received a DM300,000 government film award which helped fund his next projects, including Fata Morgana, a trek through the Sahara in search of mirages, and a wildly offbeat feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small, the story of an anarchist uprising in a criminal institution for small people. This picture caused uproar when shown at the 1970 New York film festival, with Herzog accused of fascism for what was perceived as a satire on the 1968 student uprisings, and of exploiting his actors: "They were performing in some sort of a 'tiny town' amusement park," he counters. "For the first time they got some real, decent work and enjoyed it tremendously."
By now, Herzog was already feverishly immersed in his next project, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, the film that would eventually mark his international breakthrough. The script, which follows the 16th-century conquistador Lope de Aguirre's mutinous and ultimately suicidal expedition down the Amazon river, called for a full-scale location shoot in the Peruvian jungle, complete with a fleet of rafts and a cast of 270 native Indians. Herzog decided to offer the lead role of the maniacal, malformed Aguirre to his old acquaintance Klaus Kinski: "Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang," Herzog remembers. "It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realised that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre."
By this time Kinski was a movie and theatre star, though he had also earned himself a reputation for being viciously difficult, having once almost smashed a co-star's skull with a sword. Almost from the first day of shooting, the tantrums began: "Travelling all the way to the jungle is the worst kind of agony," wrote Kinski, "penned up in old-fashioned trains, wrecks of trucks and cage-like buses, we eat and camp out like pigs."
Herzog, who insisted that the actors live in huts and brave the Amazonian rapids, bore the brunt of Kinski's ire: "I'm hoping that he'll attack me. Then I'll shove him into a side branch of the river, where the still waters teem with murderous piranhas, and I'll watch them shred him."
When Kinski threatened to leave, Herzog came close to fulfilling this wish: "I told him I would do him in if he left the set now," says Herzog, "that I had a gun with nine bullets, eight of which I would use on him, leaving the final one for myself. He understood that it was not a joke."
For the last 10 days of shooting, Herzog claims, Kinski was quite docile. However, the film was given a low merit classification by the German film board and struggled to get a release. Undaunted, Herzog proceeded to his next project, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, the true story of a young man who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, unable to speak or walk. For the lead, Herzog chose Bruno S, a disturbed individual who had been brutalised as a child by his prostitute mother, losing the power of speech as a result, and had spent 23 of his 40-odd years in mental institution. When the film was released in 1974 it was hailed as a "stunning fable", though Herzog was again accused of exploitation, in particular for allowing Bruno to return afterwards to his squalid life.
For his next film, Heart Of Glass (1976), which centred on an isolated town in Lower Bavaria whose inhabitants struggle to regain the lost secret of their traditional ruby-coloured glass, Herzog insisted that all cast members be hypnotised, with many of the lines conjured up merely by the power of suggestion: "In the story, the village community kind of sleepwalk into a catastrophe," he says. "I kept thinking about how I might produce a somnambulistic, collective trance and that is when I came up with the idea of hypnosis."
The result is the most demand- ing of Herzog's movies. It also opened him up to accusations of dilettantism, charges to some degree backed up by Josef Bierbichler, who played the lead role of the clairvoyant, Hias: "I think that most of them only pretended to be hypnotised, so they could take part," he says.
"Only one of them seemed really to be in a trance in one of the preceding hypnosis exercises: an older man was sitting at the back of the room and fell asleep. Everybody else was waving their hands wildly, some even threatened self-mutilation. As all the actors, whether hypnotised or only pretending to be, were doing these strangely uniform movements, it did, however, give a sense of the collective insanity which had struck the villagers."
Keen to work again with Bruno S, Herzog fused his own experiences in the US with fragments of Bruno's shattered biography to create Stroszek, released in 1977. The uneven story of a Berlin street musician who chases the elusive American dream all the way to Wisconsin, Herzog regards it as one of his finest movies. During the shoot, though, the crew didn't share his enthusiasm: "They would get up from the breakfast table very reluctantly with nasty remarks and say that only because I was paying them were they willing to continue this shit," he recalls.
"The cinematographer didn't even want to turn the camera when I wanted to have the close-ups of the dancing chicken, which turned out to be one of my inspired moments."
By this time, however, Herzog's reputation had begun to grow. Aguirre was belatedly picked up by arthouse cinemas in Paris, where it ran for two and a half years.Kaspar Hauser won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 1975 and had gained a cult following in America, particularly in LA. This led to backing from 20th Century-Fox for Nosferatu, a reinterpretation of FW Murau's 1922 vampire classic that led Lotte Eisner to exclaim: "The film is not being remade, it is being reborn." However, the substantial box office takings in the US can be put down less to the rejuvenation of the Germanic film tradition than to its wonderfully gothic indulgences and Kinski's radiant intensity as the vampire.
Shot back to back with Nosferatu, with Kinski again in the title role, was the far more modest adaptation of Buchner's stage play, Woyzeck. During this shooting a relationship developed between Herzog and his leading actor, Eva Mattes, which had perhaps originated when she played the female lead in Stroszek. When Mattes fell pregnant with Herzog's second child, Hanna, it created enormous tensions with Martje, though she seems to have remained philosophical: "Men who are in any way outstanding as artists or politicians, or whatever, have a sexual appeal because of their power," she says. "They always have affairs of that kind. I think it was good that he stood by her and he paid for the upkeep of the child. The children understand each other and are on a good footing and they are glad that they exist." The marriage to Martje survived for another decade before ending in divorce in 1987.
The success of Nosferatu paved the way for what is arguably Herzog's finest film, Fitzcarraldo. Shot once more in the Peruvian jungle, the movie has also been the source of the director's most disfigured and destructive dÀppelgangers: Herzog the imperialist, who pays scant regard to the natives or their culture; Herzog the delusional romantic, who places the success of his film above all else; Herzog the dictatorial "Pharaoh", as Pauline Kael put it, who "risked other people's lives and put his co-workers through misery".
The plot centres around an Irish rubber baron called Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who dreamed of bringing opera to the jungle and planned to fund it with a scheme that included hauling a 340-ton steamboat over a mountain, which Herzog intended to recreate in its full, budget-breaking actuality. The production appears to have been blighted from the beginning, as Herzog's camp, appropriately named Pelicula O Muerte (Film or Death) was burned down by the indigenous Indians, because of some dispute. Herzog moved deeper into the jungle, but after completing 40% of the film, the lead male actor, the late Jason Robards, dropped out. The official reason was always amoebic dysentery, though Claudia Cardinale, who played the brothel-keeper Molly, says: "He was very fragile, and, in fact, after a little time he just went out of his mind. One day, he went up to the top of a tree and he didn't want to come down."
When shooting recommenced, the difficulties continued, as a canoe capsized, drowning one of the Indians, and a plane crashed, causing serious injuries. Finally, Kinski threw such Herculean tantrums that one of the Indian chiefs offered to have him killed: "Once again our lives are constantly put at risk," Kinski ranted, "because of Herzog's total ignorance, narrow-mindedness, arrogance and inconsideration."
After four years, in 1982, the film was finally released, though its reception was tinged by the controversy. Herzog was to work with Kinski only once more, on Cobra Verde in 1986, but by the end of shooting the actor seemed a spent force: "He burned away like a comet," says Herzog. "Afterwards he was ashes." By the time of Kinski's death in 1991 Herzog had vowed never to work with him again, though now his opinion has mellowed: "He was like a tornado," he says. "When you watch a tornado laying waste to a village you don't ask what kind of problem does the tornado have. It is a force of nature. It is the village that has the problem."
The past decade has seen Herzog move away from features and towards opera productions and documentary films such as Lessons Of Darkness, an apocalyptic vision of hell gleaned from the burning oilfields of Kuwait in the wake of the Gulf war, and Little Dieter Needs To Fly, about a fighter pilot captured in Laos. However, it would appear that his new film, Invincible, about a Jewish strong man co-opted into a Nazi vaudeville act, does signal a return, with plans currently in the pipeline to remake Little Dieter as a full-blown feature.
But no matter which path Herzog chooses, it is certain that he will be a contentious yet welcome presence in European cinema: "I don't have an awareness of myself or my work beyond my physical existence," he concludes. "I am a hard-working man and that's that. I've never had an affinity with romantic culture. There is no romanticism in me. Posterity can kiss my ass."