Werner Herzog in Conversation

Geoffrey O’Brien with Werner Herzog

Vol. 22, No. 1, 1997



I met Werner Herzog in late October 1996 in Washington, D.C., where he was rehearsing a production of Carlos Comes’ 1870 opera Il Guarany, starring Placido Domingo and scheduled to open at the Kennedy Center a week later. The opera (which Herzog directed previously in Bonn) is something of a curiosity: Based on a popular Brazilian novel by Jose de Alencar, it was turned by his compatriot Carlos Comes into an Italian opera which enjoyed tremendous success before dropping completely out of the repertoire in the early twentieth century.

With its bizarre plot, an impenetrable tangle of conspiracies and abductions pitting European colonists against two different tribes of Indians, and its gaudy settings, ranging from castle vaults to a clearing in the jungle, Il Guarany clearly has some resonance for the director of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde. Delighting in the multiple absurdities of the libretto, he was determined to play it absolutely straight in order to extract the somewhat demented grandeur at the heart of the enterprise.

Characteristically, Herzog was in the middle of any number of projects in addition to the opera: a film about a German-born pilot who was shot down in Laos in 1966, another film about the conquest of Mexico told from the Aztec point of view. While in Washington, I got an opportunity to watch on tape Herzog’s recent documentary Bells from the Deep, filmed in Russia. Subtitled “Faith and Superstition in Russia,” it makes no judgments and provides little in the way of background information as it presents a series of scenes ranging from deep-voiced throat-singers chanting by a river in Siberia to a self-proclaimed Jesus ministering to his faithful followers, from a rather terrifying exorcist talking about fire and death to a haunting image of people staring through thin ice, supposedly to catch a glimpse of the legendary lost city of Kitezh. Bells from the Deep belongs recognizably to the same genre as other Herzog documentaries such as Herdsmen of the Sun (1988) and Lessons of Darkness (1992), films structured like poems, and that allow themselves tremendous freedom in the use they make of the “real.” As Herzog notes in our discussion, cinema verite is far from his goal.

Herzog had agreed to talk about the relation between poetry and film, with the proviso that academic discussions are not in his line; abstract definitions interest him far less than story and image. We ended up agreeing that, if we cannot usefully define the essence of poetry or filmmaking, we can come up with names, with examples.

It remains to be noted that Herzog’s recent work—unconventional in genre, subject matter, and running time—has fared poorly in the hands of American distributors. His extraordinary film on the aftermath of the Gulf War, Lessons of Darkness, needs to be much more widely seen, while others have not been released at all in the U.S.

If Herzog is one of the filmmakers who really merit the adjective “poetic,” it is not in the sense in which the word (as he notes in the course of this interview) is conventionally used by film publicists and critics. The pivotal images and situations in his films are not interpolated symbols or decorative frills; they have, rather, the bareness and often the harshness of the most ancient poetry. In the freedom with which, in his ostensibly documentary films, he juxtaposes separate realities (including those he has invented), he confirms his kinship with those visionary poets he most admires.


G.O. I’ve just seen a recent movie of yours, Bells from the Deep, about faith and superstition in contemporary Russia. It’s a wonderful example of what you do that’s so different from most filmmakers today: to present without explaining, without commentary. Wallace Stevens said that poetry tries to explain the inexplicable, and in a way that’s the feeling I got from your film: It gives us the world without an explanation.

W.H. It’s a very difficult task, obviously, to depict the soul of the whole country on film, but it was what I had to do in this film. How do you show the Russian soul in 5 5 minutes? I felt that it could be done, and that there were a couple of elements that had to be focused upon, and that one of these was the very major question of “truth.” Cinema verite can only capture the surface of truth; and yet in filmmaking there is a deeper stratum of truth that I have tried all my working life to reach. This deep inner truth inherent in cinema can sometimes be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically, and mathematically correct. In other words, I start to invent. Through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, I become more truthful than the little bureaucrats.

G.O. This is very close to what I think of as the truth of poetry. Take Chaucer, for example, in whose work you have story, song, scientific and religious information, history—

W.H. Let’s not forget great characters.

G.O. And it’s all part of the same thing, which is poetry. It’s not a question of fiction or non-fiction, documentary or imaginary.

W.H. Chaucer is a very good example because he was a great filmmaker, in my opinion. He has qualities which are needed to make a movie. And then many good film makers have written poetry—Bertolucci, for example.

G.O. Pasolini—

W.H. Yes, Pasolini as well.

G.O. Your own book, Of Walking in Ice, strikes me as in effect a poem.

W.H. Well, we shouldn’t get too deep into definitions. It’s a prose text but has qualities of poetry, like Lenz by Georg Buchner. Lenz is only thirty pages long, but has such a condensed reality and such a condensed beauty in it; it’s what poetry is all about.

G.O. He raises language to the highest pitch of intensity and compression. In your book, the overwhelming sense I had was of forward movement through space, of such intensity that the whole world is carried along by a person walking.

W.H. Yes. There was an intensity of purpose behind it because my friend Lotte Eisner, who was eighty years old, was dying. She was very important for the New German Cinema because she gave us legitimacy; she was essential for the blossoming of this tiny flower of New German Cinema in the late sixties. Whereas in America culture immediately resumed after the war, in German culture, especially in cinema, there was a gap, a void of twenty-five years, because German culture had sided with the Nazis very quickly. The really good filmmakers were chased out or put into concentration camps; they were disposed of, and there was only the Third Reich propaganda sort of movie-making. Therefore we were orphans, with only the grandfathers to rely upon: Murnau, Pabst, Fritz Lang, and the generation of Expressionists.

Lotte Eisner was particularly important to me, because she encouraged me and somehow kept me moving. It was like a Chaucerian pilgrimage, a rebellion against the inevitability of her death. I walked against it, knowing that if I walked on foot from Munich to Paris in the snowstorms, rain, and slush, she would be alive. She wouldn’t have a chance to die: I could not permit it. She had to live because I walked. So it was almost like an incantation.

Of course, when you travel on foot with this straightness and intensity, mostly it isn’t a matter of covering actual ground; it’s always a question of inner landscape. I want to underline that, because Bells from the Deep is largely about inner landscape, as is Of Walking in Ice, which I consider better than any of my films. Much of what you see when you read Buchner’s Lenz, or Kleist, or Hölderlin, is the innermost landscapes of human beings, and that is why they will outlive everything else.

G.O. What struck me in Bells from the Deep is that the outer landscape—the ice, the lake, the river—is inextricably bound up with the inner one; the same is true of all your films.

W.H. Space is very important to me. In the United States, you often hear a film described as “poetic,” and what is meant is only the camera work, which normally has the quality of TV commercials.

G.O. You mean slow motion or hazy light…

W.H. The crane flying majestically towards its nest…

G.O. Yes, that’s what they call poetic in the advertising business.

W.H. But many people who see films, including professional film critics, take that for poetic filmmaking, and it isn’t. There are many other things: the question of truth, of inner landscapes, of rhythm, of space. What sort of space can you create?

G.O. In your films I often get a sense of space being presented in a raw or almost brutal way, exactly without the poetic touches you’re talking about.

W.H. I have never tried consciously to create style. The crudeness comes as naturally to me as breathing or writing; it doesn’t constitute a quality per se. I sometimes “operate” or “direct” a landscape as I do animals or people. There are others, like Kurosawa in Rashomon, who use space in a geometrical and well-balanced way; there are no clearer strictures and balances than in his pictures. Through this completely different approach, he achieves the enormous depth of poetry.

G.O. We keep coming back to this emphasis on space, which I think is crucial for poetry also. You mentioned Chaucer as a potential filmmaker; I think of all the great poets as having some of those qualities. Certainly in Virgil or Homer we experience the creation of complex environments through language, with the voice of the poet navigating them. This is one place where film has taken over what was the function of poetry in ancient societies.

W.H. Yes, I think the same way. Why poetry isn’t in the forefront of things right now is almost inexplicable; of course, the evolution in our tools has probably caused certain shifts. But I must say that although I believe Chaucer, Virgil, Homer, and so on would have been great filmmakers, those are not my favorite poets. I love to read them, but I prefer Hölderlin’s poetry, which fathoms the outermost borders of our language. From him, I get the sensation of the Hubble telescope probing the very depths of the universe.

Another German poet, whom nobody knows, is Quirin Kuhlmann, a very strange Baroque poet, in constant religious ecstasies, totally, totally mad, and who took everything very literally. Around 1680, when alchemists were still searching for the philosopher’s stone, Kuhlmann was digging in the ground for it with a spade. Like Hölderlin, he was a great voyager on foot. Hölderlin walked from Nurtingen to Bordeaux (600 km!), and went insane. (He was already on the brink of insanity.) Kuhlmann crisscrossed Europe on foot, preaching; he wanted to engender a new David, who would establish a new kingdom. He met two hysterical women, a mother and a daughter, and set out on his last crusade with them. He travelled on foot to Venice, where the women abandoned him to some sailors. He swam after their ship as it sailed away and almost drowned before they picked him up. He made it to Constantinople, where he tried to convert the Sultan and was arrested. Ultimately, he was burned, along with his books, at the stake in Moscow, after having incited a religious riot, which was misunderstood as political.

Kuhlmann’s writing is really extraordinary, because it goes into unspeakable ecstasies of language, to the outer limit of what the German language is. I truly like these people—Rimbaud would be another who fathom and explore the depths of our poetic senses and our language.

G.O. Have you ever read the journal of the English poet John Clare? He was a nineteenth-century poet of peasant origin who wrote incredibly ecstatic nature poetry. He was more or less self-educated and extremely poor, but was briefly discovered by some literati in London, who made a great fuss over him for a year or so, and then abandoned him. He went mad and was confined to an asylum in Essex, but ran away from it and walked a hundred miles or so to Northhamptonshire looking for a woman who no longer existed, to whom he thought he was married. You should read it—it’s an extraordinary document.

W.H. I don’t know him. Of course, there was Francois Villon, constantly traveling on foot, en vaguant, like a vagabond

G.O. In earlier periods, that was how poets gathered material and disseminated their work: by going from one place to another. It’s so much a part of poetry, that physical rhythm of breathing and walking.

W.H. Yes, I think that some of the very best poets have been people on foot.

G.O. Whereas now most of us are working on computer terminals, which to some degree is creating a very abstract poetry—I don’t want to say mechanical, but a poetry that is highly conscious of machines, in a rather nightmarish way.

W.H. We aren’t made to sit at a computer or travel by airplane; destiny intended something different for us. We’ve been estranged from the essential, which is traveling on foot. While it would be ridiculous to advocate traveling on foot in our time, I would rather do the existentially essential things in my life that way. It was this love of traveling on foot that made me an instant friend with Bruce Chatwin, for example. I still carry his leather rucksack that he used all his life; when he was dying he gave it to me and said, “You are the one who has to carry it on.” I carry it with great honor, knowing it is much more than just a tool to transport little necessities.

One of the things I did on foot, or tried to do, was in the mid 80’s, when Germany was still divided and nobody much believed in reunification. I had a strong, clear vision of the historical inevitability of reunification, and of the people’s need for it, although many politicians, including Willy Brandt, had declared publicly that the book on German reunification was closed. I felt that only the poets could hold the country together, could keep it unified. So I started to travel on foot all around my own country, following the sinuous border demarcations through the mountains of Austria, then along Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, then back to the village where I grew up, which was right on the border. I never completed the journey because after more than a thousand miles I fell ill and had to be hospitalized for a week. The idea that an artist can hold the country together by traveling around it on foot sounds very odd, yet three or four years later, all of a sudden and against all expectations, Germany was reunited, so…

G.O. As you were speaking I couldn’t help thinking of several American poets. Of Wait Whitman, obviously, and of the contemporary poet Gary Snyder, whose new book I’m reading. It’s called Mountains and Rivers Without End, and evolves very much out of that type of experience—walking around America on foot over a period of many years.

I want to talk a little more about space. My overwhelming impression when I first saw Aguirre (the first film of yours I saw) in the early 70’s, was that the world had come into the theater. Suddenly, you’re not watching a movie—you’re actually being transported to these extraordinary places. I’ve had that experience over and over watching your films.

W.H. Yes, I think I’m pretty good at doing that, although how and why I have no idea. In Hollywood and on TV, a scenic landscape is always some sort of a backdrop, like a beautiful postcard. In my case it’s always something different. The Peruvian jungle in Aguirre isn’t a backdrop—it’s an inner landscape, like a fever dream. It has a human quality of madness, confusion, voracity, hallucinations, malaria, and the yellow fever that sweats it out.

G.O. Do you not, then, see yourself as a documentary filmmaker in the usual sense?

W.H. Even though strictly speaking I make documentaries, no, I don’t see myself as a documentary filmmaker. It’s something different, because I stylize my documentaries highly; I fabricate, I stage. In my last “documentary,” Death for Five Voices—on Gesualdo, a mad Italian late sixteenth-century composer who happened to be a murderer as well—every single shot was written, rehearsed, and shot a number of times. Yet for anyone who sees it, it looks like a straightforward documentary. Or for example in my film Lessons of Darkness, the very first thing you see on the screen is a quote: “The collapse of the universe will occur like creation, in grandiose splendor.”—Blaise Pascal. I concocted it. When people would ask me where I found that quote, I’d say, “I don’t have the book anymore; it’s not from the Pensées, but from one of his other works.”

The audience steps into the film at a very high level, and I never allow it to go below that; I step into the building at the 34th floor. One of the first images in the film is of a vast, wonderful, outer-space landscape. The commentary says: “Wide mountain ranges, the valleys enshrouded in mist.” What I actually filmed were little heaps of dust and soil created by the tires of trucks; the mountain ranges weren’t more than one foot high. It’s an invented landscape, yet it builds something beyond these little accountants’ truths. It immerses you in the cosmic.

When I first saw those burning oil fields in Kuwait, I instantly knew that I was being called to duty. This was something of momentous significance, which had to be recorded for the memory of mankind. It sounds—how shall I say it?—very pathetic. But I felt a deep sense of duty. This was an event which only the poet, not the TV documentary filmmaker, could preserve for our memories.

G.O. I had a similar response seeing Bells from the Deep: the sense of being privileged to participate in scenes I need to know about. I felt overwhelmingly that for you to make visible this kind of hidden reality in a film is really to open up another world. It is, as you said, outer and inner at the same time.

W.H. It’s probably the first film I ever made with real balance. Lessons of Darkness, in contrast, was thrown a little off balance by the fact that I got to film only two people who had lost their speech, and they are outweighed by the flames and firefighters. I was planning to shoot more such people, like the mother who was forced to witness the torture and murder of her two grown-up sons and lost her speech over it, and who nevertheless struggles to explain to the camera what happened. I had four more such people lined up, but was not allowed to continue shooting, and was expelled from Kuwait. If I had gotten to film those four people, the film probably would have been a little better balanced; the two people alone are a bit isolated. Yet I have to accept it as it is; the film has its life, even though I would like to see it better balanced.

G.O. What’s so astonishing about Lessons of Darkness, which the Pascal “quote” encapsulates, is that it’s so beautiful and absolutely horrific at the same instant.

W.H. Many others have done it before. Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, for example, with its beautifully blossoming atomic explosions at the end, is the most painful film I’ve ever seen. I was furiously attacked in Germany over Lessons of Darkness. There was a howl of disgust and rage, and the press turned completely against me over it, blaming me for aestheticizing the horror. I stood there and said, “Idiots, Dante did the same thing in the Inferno, and Goya, and Hieronymus Bosch, and Kubrick. So what.”

G.O. I was struck especially by the moment when you say on the soundtrack that “everything that looks like water is oil,” and by the gorgeous fluidity of your images.

W.H. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the clouds in the sky, trying to look like water. When you look at the surface of pitch-black oil, it looks like a serene lake reflecting the blue sky and the clouds. It’s very, very strange.

G.O. That brings us back to ancient poetry, which aestheticizes everything, including death and horror.

Certainly the Iliad is nothing but a poem of blood and force. Are there other filmmakers with whom you feel some kind of kinship in this regard?

W.H. Thank God, there are many out there, and thank God there are many in film history. The greatest of all for me, the Shakespeare of cinema, is David Wark Griffith, and I mean all his films-everything he did has a touch of greatness. Or Murnau, or Pudovkin—Storm Over Asia, what a great film that is! And Freaks by Tod Browning. The oddest thing about Freaks is that I suspect Browning didn’t even realize what a masterpiece he had created; he thought it was some sort of a horror movie, and wrote an endless prologue apologizing for it. Or Kurosawa—my God, there are so many of them… Or Abbas Kiarostami, a great Iranian poet in moviemaking. Of course, not even intelligent Americans look at Iran, because Venetian blinds have rattled down on it. Yet Iran is such a wonderful country, with 5,000 years of high culture in poetry. When you take a taxi from the airport, a 50-minute ride to downtown Teheran, the taxi driver will recite Omar Khayyam, Firdusi, and Hafiz to you, by heart. It’s a complicated country, with a regime that barely tolerates filmmakers, and yet it is, in my opinion, the most important film country in the world right now, together, of course, with China. Period.

G.O. Watching the film today, I couldn’t help thinking about Russian filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Paradjanov.

W.H. I don’t know much about Tarkovsky and have never seen a film by Paradjanov. Tarkovsky has made very beautiful films, but is too much the darling of French intellectuals; I suspect he worked a little bit towards that.

Let me make an addendum to my list of films: No one who makes films seriously can pass by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or any of his other films. It’s not possible.

G.O. Yes, I agree with you about Dreyer. Years ago I saw a traffic safety short he made for the Danish government in the 1940’s, the most amazing thing. It’s called They Caught the Ferry, is five minutes long, and is about a couple in a car. They’re speeding, going faster and faster to get the ferry, and another car is keeping pace with them. Finally, they smash into the other car, and the driver turns out to be Death. The last shot is of the coffin being carried out to the ferry that they were racing to meet.

W.H. Yes!

G.O. That’s it. It was only a traffic safety short, but it’s one of the most beautiful short films I’ve ever seen.

W.H. I would like to mention a few more German poets: Johann Christian Gunther, one of the truly great ones, who died very young; and then some of the Baroque poets like Gryphius, Spee, and Angelus Silesius. They were very deep-plowing men. I also love Osip Mandelstam and Robert Walser. The Chinese poet Li Ho I think extraordinary. He goes boldly for the limits of our fantasies.

 G.O. His poems have an uncanny sense of the terror of unseen beings. One I remember was translated as “Don’t Go out of the Door.”

W.H. There are demons out there… In English, no writer can pass by Joseph Conrad—he is the poet’s poet. If you seriously want to write in the English language, there’s a poet in the landscape who cannot be avoided, and that’s Conrad. How do you feel about Conrad?

G.O. I prefer the early Conrad to the later, those early stories steeped in a Malayan setting, where he creates a jungle in language.

W.H. Or Hemingway’s first forty-nine stories—who for heaven’s sake can walk past them?

G.O. What was the film that first excited you about movies?

W.H. To answer that, I first have to step back a little bit into my childhood. I grew up in a very remote mountain valley in Bavaria. My mother fled with her boys to the mountains, because the house next to ours in Munich was hit directly by a bomb, and ours was half-destroyed; we just made it out alive. So until I was twelve I didn’t even know movies existed. I had never seen a telephone, let alone TV. I had barely seen a car, and never an orange or banana. I didn’t know what the word “banana” meant until I was twelve.

The first time I saw cinema was at the age of eleven or twelve in school: two documentaries which didn’t impress me very much. One was about Eskimos building an igloo, and tried to suggest that Eskimos all lived in igloos; I could tell, as a country boy, that they weren’t building it well, that they were struggling with it. The second was about pygmies building a liana bridge across a river in the Cameroons. Then, when I went to Munich and started to see films, it was mostly ones about Tarzan, Doctor Fu Manchu, and Zorro. For quite a while, I went along with my friend, who was absolutely convinced that everything he saw on film was real, that Zorro, surrounded by eight bad guys, flinging himself into the air, and swinging around with two pistols, could shoot them all. He demonstrated to me how Zorro did it. For a while it looked quite convincing.

But when I was thirteen or so I saw a film which was very decisive for me: one of those Doctor Fu Manchu films. In a gun battle between the bad guys (Doctor Fu Manchu and his henchmen) and the good ones, a bad guy got shot from a rock, somersaulted in mid-air, and fell to his death. It was something like a 60-foot fall, and he did a strange kick in mid-air, which fascinated me. Three minutes later, there was another gun battle at a different place and with different people, and all of a sudden I realized I was seeing the same shot again—they had just recycled it and thought they would get away with it. None of my friends realized, but I did, because I saw this stuntman doing the same strange little kick in the air. All of a sudden, I knew how film was being narrated, how it was put together. This was the most decisive moment for me in cinema; I started to look at it with different eyes. I understood how and why a camera was being moved, how film was edited.

G.O. That’s very hard to understand; I think I saw a hundred movies as a child before I had the slightest idea about that.

W.H. I can’t learn from great films, because they mystify me and leave me in awe, having no idea how it was possible, for God’s sake, to make such a great film. It’s only from the bad films that I’ve learned, never the good ones. The sins are easy to name, and the ten commandments: “Thou shalt not… “It’s easy to find the negative definition. But what constitutes poetry, depth, vision, and illumination in a great film I cannot name, I do not know. It’s like what William Butler Yeats called “a spume that plays upon the ghostly paradigm of things.” In just one phrase, he tells us what it’s all about.



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