Werner Herzog's German Comeback Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury
Werner Herzog is a German cinema legend, and yet he has received little recognition in his home country in recent years. Now the director is finally back in Germany, where he is heading the jury at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. As usual, the maverick filmmaker is doing things his way.
As Werner Herzog looks around the movie theater, he sees hundreds of young people jammed into the rows of seats, sitting on the steps and squatting on the floor in front of the podium where he is standing. More are clustered around the monitors set up outside the theater doors.
The famous German director has come to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, where his audience of film students is hoping for advice on how to make films. He gazes at them from his deep-set eyes, which have something enormously menacing about them.
"You want to become filmmakers?" Herzog asks. "Then you'll have to be ruthless. You'll have to steal and forge documents, because bureaucracy is the worst enemy of film." The students laugh nervously. To them, Herzog must seem like a US Army recruiter, except that he is German, which is much more intimidating.
"But most of all," says Herzog, "get a job. Be a bouncer in a sex club, as far as I'm concerned. You have to acquire talent -- through life." The students look around self-consciously. "Cinema knows no mercy!" Herzog adds. Meanwhile Fred Astaire dances cheerfully on the screen behind him.
'Starving for Images'
Last year Time included Herzog in its list of the 100 most influential people on the planet -- the only German on the list apart from Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Herzog believes our world is 'starving for images.' He tries to feed us," wrote the film critic Roger Ebert in the Time tribute.
Herzog was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for his documentary about Antarctica, "Encounters at the End of the World," and the London Times counts his 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" about American Timothy Treadwell, who lived among grizzly bears, as one of the five best films of the last decade. And now Herzog is even shooting films with Hollywood's biggest stars. In his new film "Bad Lieutenant," which premieres in German theaters on Feb. 25, Nicholas Cage plays a drug-addicted police officer in New Orleans.
No other living German director is so well regarded internationally -- except for in Germany itself. He has somewhat faded into obscurity there, he says, moving his hands like a maestro directing himself. He speaks as if he wants to avoid at all costs making the impression that he harbors any grudges. Perhaps this is because he is now returning to Germany as the president of the jury at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, which begins Thursday. It's supposed to be a nonchalant triumph.
The last time Herzog attended the festival was in 1992, when he presented the film "Lessons of Darkness," which dealt with burning oil wells in Kuwait. "I was shouted down and spat at, and the audience was unanimously against me. I heard outraged accusations that I was applying aesthetics to horror. My only response was that Goya and Hieronymus Bosch did the same thing." Herzog smiles. "That furious disagreement was invigorating."
The Secret Catalogue of Our Dreams
The reason why Herzog is often met with hostility in Germany is the same reason he is celebrated by the rest of the world, namely his Titanic nature. Herzog doesn't make films -- he heaves images up onto the screen. For his film "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), he had a river steamer pulled over a mountain in the Peruvian rainforest and in the process created one of the greatest and most iconographic images in the history of film. "A steamship being dragged over a mountain in the jungle -- it's an image that remains planted in the minds of many people," he says. "Viewers recognize it like a friend they have been longing to see. It was an image that belongs to the fixed, secret catalogue of our dreams, and I was the one who brought it to life and gave it a name."
This seems to be the way Herzog has seen himself from the start: as an obstetrician present during the birth of greatness. He never had any interest in creating something banal or mediocre. To find images no one had seen before him, he went to the hottest deserts, the thickest jungles and the coldest expanses of ice. And he did so with a relentlessness that earned him the reputation in Germany of being more or less insane.
"Insanity?" he asks. "No, I don't move in that danger zone."
But that, of course, isn't true. Herzog is at home in the danger zone. It's where he lives, and he likes living there. In 1976, when he heard about the imminent eruption of the La Soufrière volcano on Guadeloupe, he flew there immediately. "Now that was a suicide mission," says his cameraman, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. "The earth at our feet became hotter and hotter, and yet we went to the edge of the crater and peed inside."
Herzog's daredevilry may have something to do with his origins and his childhood in the southern Bavarian mountains. "I was part of a gang of children from isolated farms in the neighborhood," he recalls. "There were no toys, so we had to make them. There were no games, so we had to invent them. And there were no fathers. They had either been shot dead in the war or, as in the case of my father, had simply disappeared. At the time, we perceived the absence of authority figures as something that was particularly pleasant."
Herzog developed clear ideas about manliness. As a boy, he learned how to shoot, hiked to the point of exhaustion and decided that the cinema was an athletic discipline that required one trait above all else: courage. When Herzog wants to insult someone, he calls him a coward, because a coward would never be ruthless, would never steal or forge documents.