A new book of interviews with the director will remind lapsed fans why they fell in love with himby Francine Prose / August 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed—Conversations with Paul Cronin (Faber, £30)
In 1978, my husband and I named our older son Bruno—partly after the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz and partly after Bruno S, the actor who played the title role in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). At that time, we and our friends—writers, painters, and filmmakers—saw Herzog as a sort of god. We not only wanted to watch his films, we wanted to be him—or more precisely, to become the sort of artist he was. A visionary, a poet, a fanatic.
We all knew the stories about Herzog that had already become mythic. When an actor was seriously injured during the making of Even Dwarves Started Small (1970), the director vowed that, if the filming continued without any further harm coming to his cast or crew, he would throw himself into a nearby cactus grove; he made good on his vow and ended up bristling painfully with cactus spines. When he heard that his idol and mentor, Lotte Eisner, had suffered a stroke, he walked from Munich to Paris to see her, because he believed that making a pilgrimage on foot was the only way to prevent her from dying; she lived another nine years. He once promised that he would eat his shoe if the director Errol Morris managed to complete the documentary on which he was working. Morris finished the film, and, as promised, Herzog consumed his shoe onstage in Berkeley, California; the event became the subject of a film entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).
How thrilling it all seemed—the vows, the dedication, the sheer intensity—and how much we admired the extent to which that intensity infused his films such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), in which Klaus Kinski played an increasingly mad conquistador travelling through the jungle in search of the lost city of gold, and Fitzcarraldo (1982), in which Kinski played yet another monomaniac, this one determined to transport an opera house to the heart of the Amazon. Equally strange and stylised were his documentaries such as Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), a tender exploration of the world of the deaf and blind, and Fata Morgana (also 1971), a film about the Sahara desert. Herzog’s films focused on outsiders and loners, which was precisely what—at that stage of our lives—we believed that we were.
But over time, while I still admired Herzog’s films, I found myself less likely to rush to see them on the day they were released. Perhaps it had something to do with the story that several indigenous tribesmen, working as extras, had died during the disastrous two and a half year filming of Fitzcarraldo—and the consequent suspicion that Herzog’s monomania was as harsh and uncompromising as that of his invented heroes. Or possibly it was the glacial pace of films such as Heart of Glass (1976), for which he hypnotised his cast, or, later in his career, the disquieting mixture of sensationalism and ponderousness that made the documentary Grizzly Man (2005) something of a trial to watch. I admired Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) a documentary about the pre-historic cave paintings in France, but I was less enthusiastic about Bad Lieutenant (2009), which featured Nicholas Cage chewing the scenery in a manner reminiscent of Klaus Kinski, who had died in 1991.
The good news is that A Guide for the Perplexed—a massive compendium of interviews with Herzog (in conversation with Paul Cronin, a writer on film)—will remind lapsed fans why they so loved his films in the first place. Re-watching Herzog’s work over recent weeks, I’ve discovered that quite a few of them—most notably The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Aguirre—are even more beautiful and magical than I remembered. Though, as it turns out, my friends and I were wrong about what kind of artist Herzog is, or at least what kind of artist he thinks he is. As the new book makes clear, he prefers not to think of himself as an artist at all.
“All I’ve ever wanted to be is a foot soldier of cinema,” says Herzog. “My films aren’t art. In fact I’m ambivalent about the very concept of ‘the artist’… I’m a craftsman, and feel closest to the late medieval artisans who produced their work anonymously… To remain anonymous behind what you have created means the work has a stronger life of its own.”
Part of what makes A Guide for the Perplexed so extraordinary is that Herzog seems to recall, in detail, everything that has ever happened in the course of his dramatic life. He describes being jailed in Cameroon, during the filming of Fata Morgana, because his cameraman had the same name as a mercenary wanted in connection with a failed coup d’etat. Herzog was thrown into a dark, cramped cell with 60 other prisoners, where “whenever anyone used the toilet bucket in the corner, everyone would shout and sing obscene songs, but when I sat on the bucket the whole place went dead silent. I fervently prayed for them to make noise.” And he describes being shot, while giving an interview near his home in the Hollywood Hills, by a man who had been shouting obscenities about another film star giving interviews in public. “It was something on a par with road rage,” explains Herzog.
In particular he appears able to summon up every aspect of the production of his films. For example, he recalls the pre-production period in which everyone involved in the production of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser doubted that Bruno S—who suffered from severe psychological disabilities—would be able to sustain his role in the film. And so, for the first and last time in his career, Herzog shot a screen test—a small amount of footage with Bruno in full costume as the feral young man raised in total isolation, whose entry into civilisation was the subject of the movie. The idea was to convince others that Bruno was capable of taking the lead role. The results were so “stiff and uncomfortable” that Herzog doubted his choice. “But when I looked at the footage I only saw my mistakes, not Bruno’s, and realised exactly how to handle him in the future.”
After the footage was screened for the TV executives financing the project, “there was a nasty silence hanging in the air.” Thirty people—everyone in the room except Herzog’s cameraman, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein—voted against hiring Bruno. According to Herzog, “I’m not in favour of numerical democracy in voting, so I looked at these people against Bruno, then turned to Schmidt-Reitwein and said, ‘We have won the ballot.’”
Would-be screenwriters will take courage (or not) from Herzog’s account of how the script for Aguirre was written on a bus bound for Italy on which he was travelling with an extremely drunk soccer team from Munich: “I was sitting with my typewriter on my lap. In fact, I typed the whole thing almost entirely with my left hand because with my right I was trying to fend off our goalie sprawled on the seat next to me. Eventually he vomited over the typewriter. Some of the pages were beyond repair and I had to throw them out of the window.”
We can find inspiration in his account of how the ideas for his films arrive: “My films come to me very much alive, like dream, without explanation. I never think about what it all means. I think only about telling a story, and however illogical the images, I let them invade me…”
But the book goes beyond the subject of his personal history in cinema to include his views about art and the proper conduct of life. He hates theatre (“The few productions I have seen were an affront to the human spirit… There is more honesty in Wrestlemania’s fakery than in traditional theatre”) and he loves walking: “Walking great distances has never been extreme behaviour to me. It has forever helped me regain my equilibrium, and I would always rather do the existentially important things on foot. If you want to propose marriage to your girlfriend and you live in England and she is in Sicily, do the decent thing and walk down there.”
He is an advocate of stillness and contemplation. “I astonish my wife by being capable of standing and staring through the window for days at a time. I may look catatonic, but not so inside. Wittgenstein talked about looking through the closed window of a house and seeing a man flailing about strangely. You can’t see or hear the violent storms raging outside and don’t realise it’s taking great effort for this man even to stand on his own two feet. There are hidden storms within us all.” He likes the American heartland, and the writing of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor; the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Younger; and the films of (among many others) Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa and DW Griffith.
He explains that the rumours about the deaths of the extras that occurred during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo were untrue and later suggests that the best way to deal with a rumour is to counter it with a more outrageous rumour. Hounded by Italian reporters who were mistakenly convinced that the actress Claudia Cardinale had been run over by a truck on the set, Herzog quashed their questions by informing them that yes, she had not only been run over but subsequently raped by the drunken truck driver. And his account of what actually did occur on the set is particularly fascinating: a political propagandist from France arrived in the Amazon with photographs of heaped skeletons at Auschwitz and attempted to convince Herzog’s local cast and crew that this was how the Germans treated everyone.
The book is so full of marvellous passages that one could go on quoting forever, but I’ll close with one in which Herzog describes his “ideal film school,” an imagined educational institution based on principles that seem very much like those that have guided his life and art:
“You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not… My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films.”
What is remarkable about A Guide for the Perplexed—what makes it the sort of book you want to give to friends—is the access it provides to the furious inner excitement of one of the great artists (whether he likes the term or not) of our time.