Werner Herzog's German Comeback Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury
Part 3: Walking Himself into Intoxication
The only way to truly come close to Herzog is to follow his self-mythologizing as a lonely combatant, fighting, to the point of total exhaustion, for his films and his convictions. In 1974, when film historian Lotte Eisner, one of Herzog's idols, was ill and near death in Paris, the director walked from Munich to the French capital in the middle of the winter.
"It was clear to me that if I did it, Eisner wouldn't die," he says. "It wasn't superstition, however, but something the Catholic Church calls assurance of salvation -- an expression one should treat with great caution. I wasn't surprised that Lotte Eisner had already been released from the hospital when I arrived in Paris."
In 1984, when former German Chancellor Willy Brandt seemed to be distancing himself from the goal of reunification, Herzog walked around Germany, "always carefully following the border, because it was clear now that only poets could provide unity." He walked from southern Bavaria to the Danish border, but then he fell ill and had to abandon the undertaking. Nevertheless, it had been enough: The Berlin Wall came down five years later.
Herzog has a penchant for walking himself into ecstasy. He is not interested in excessive drinking or drug abuse. For him, intoxication is something that takes hard work, even suffering. After "a few kilometers on foot I know that I have taken leave of my senses," Herzog writes in his book "Of Walking in Ice," an account of his trek from Munich to Paris. "That knowledge comes from the soles of my feet."
The world becomes accessible to those who walk, he tells the students who have made the pilgrimage to Thessaloniki to hear him speak. Herzog, who once ate one of his shoes in front of hundreds of people, tells them about the sensation of hunger and exhaustion, and about how one penetrates more deeply in the real world with every step of a trek. He speaks with an extremely authoritative voice that sometimes sounds as if it were coming directly from the Biblical burning bush.
'I Am the Hornet that Stings'
Herzog doesn't believe that a documentary filmmaker has to suppress his subjectivity. "I'm not a fly on the wall that simply observes," he says. "I am the hornet that stings." There is no "yes, but" in his universe, no qualifying, no making allowances for things. "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder," he says in the narration of "Grizzly Man." Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the film, believed that the bears loved him. But then they devoured him.
The truth, says Herzog, doesn't emerge on its own, but through staging, even in documentary films. There is no other filmmaker who violates the boundary between the documentary film and the feature film as consistently as Herzog. This led to a clash of cultures during the shooting of his first Hollywood feature, "Rescue Dawn" (2006), when some members of the team objected to his method.
"Werner hates anything artificial," says Peter Zeitlinger, who has been Herzog's cameraman since the mid-1990s. "That's why he's constantly running away from the sluggish Hollywood system. He ignores the fact that there are hundreds of people on the set. We grab the camera and, with three or four people, shoot somewhere away from the hustle and bustle. Werner never takes the paved road, but always the dirt track."
Herzog requires minimal budgets and very little time for his films. "Werner is the faster director I've ever worked with," says Eva Mendes, who plays the girlfriend of the Nicolas Cage character in "Bad Lieutenant." The film, which is loosely based on Abel Ferrara's dark 1992 thriller "Bad Lieutenant," is a jarring and dirty crime movie that takes every possible detour from the plot.
"The film is full of life and wildly anarchic. There is a very distant echo of a Bavarian soul behind it," says Herzog. "I've never abandoned my culture. I shoot Bavarian films, no matter where I am." What's the difference between a German and a Bavarian film? "It's like the difference between Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Ludwig II of Bavaria," he says, in a reference to the famously eccentric Bavarian monarch who built Neuschwanstein castle.
And now he is traveling to Berlin, the city of Kaiser Wilhelm, where he will have to watch at least 20 films in 10 days, more than he usually watches in an entire year. "Judging films isn't quite kosher. It's the kind of thing you do with prize cattle at an agricultural fair." But Herzog wouldn't be true to form if he simply accepted the rules as they were.
"I'm trying to introduce an unusual voting procedure," he says. "It's similar to the way votes were held during the medieval monastic reforms." Under his plan, each member of the jury will receive one additional vote when making the awards, "to give more weight to one of his or her decisions." In other words, a jury member will be able to make his voice heard, even if he or she is not in the majority.
It's the old Herzog principle: Always in the minority, but still ending up in the majority.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan