02/11/2010 04:59 PM

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."

Suicide Mission

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.

Confronting Nature

When Herzog made his first documentary films and feature films in the 1960s, he was seen as part of the New German Cinema, a movement of auteurs who rebelled against the conservative cinema of the 1950s. But if there is one thing that makes Herzog uncomfortable, it's the idea of being part of a movement.

"I never really felt that I was a part of the New German Cinema," he says. "The only thing we had in common was that we were the first generation after the Nazi atrocities that spoke out independently. I never had an affinity for student revolts. They usually involved upper-class kids who were supposedly speaking for the working class, but who had never worked a single day in a factory."

Herzog didn't make the slightest effort to criticize the German status quo in his films. He shot his movies in such far-flung places as the islands of Crete and Lanzarote, Tanzania and Peru. By the time he had made his first feature film in Germany, the student revolts had ended. He was dismissed as a hopeless romantic, someone who fled into nature to escape civilization.

Indeed, Herzog the director is in his element in nature. The raging rivers on which his characters fought to survive, in films like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) and "Fitzcarraldo," are in a sense longer and wider versions of the creeks he played in as a child. For Herzog, nature is always a force against which he must measure his own strength.

The Destructive Power of Nature

In his magnificent 2004 book "Conquest of the Useless," his journal of the two years he spent making "Fitzcarraldo" in the rainforest, he describes how "stunned" he is by "the incredible power and fury of the rapids." The river has a will of its own, and yet Herzog refuses to bend to it.

There is no such thing as dead nature in Herzog's world. In "Encounters at the End of the World," he listens, spellbound, to the eternal ice, hoping to hear the sound of a calving glacier. Herzog is the only director who would be capable of a remake of James Cameron's 1997 movie "Titanic"(1997) -- from the perspective of the iceberg.

Herzog repeatedly portrays the destructive power of nature, as he does in the new film "Bad Lieutenant." In some scenes, New Orleans looks like a sunken city that has just emerged from the floodwaters. But Herzog doesn't direct the eye of the camera to the supposed achievements of civilization, like computer and mobile phones, but to the alligators and lizards that unexpectedly crop up in the plot.

"My relationship with nature is fundamentally unromantic," Herzog stresses. "I used to argue with Kinski about it. 'It's all so erotic!' Kinski would call out in the middle of the jungle. 'No,' I replied. 'Nature isn't erotic, it's obscene.' And Kinski, as if trying to prove how erotic nature is, put his arms around a tree and started copulating with it."

Uncontrollable Force

In Klaus Kinski, Herzog found the same uncontrollable, elemental force that had always attracted him to the wilderness. He made six films with the actor between 1970 and 1987. In his "Fitzcarraldo" journal, Herzog often switches from his descriptions of the jungle to Kinski's fits of rage. The actor, who was the subject of Herzog's 1999 documentary "My Best Fiend," was "Herzog's great unrequited love," says Thomas Mauch, the cinematographer on "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo."

Kinski berated Herzog as a "dwarf director." During the filming of "Fitzcarraldo," Kinski went into such fits of rage that the indigenous people who were working as extras on the film offered to kill the actor on Herzog's behalf. SPIEGEL reporter Fritz Rumler wrote about the filming at the time that Kinski had "acquired, through shouting, the nickname 'Adolf' in the camp." Nevertheless, Kinski was at his best under Herzog's direction.

"As I stand here before you," Kinski says in one of the most famous scenes from "Fitzcarraldo," "I will bring great opera to the jungle one day! I am in the majority! I am the billions! I am the spectacle in the forest!" These sentences, uttered in a voice of controlled rage that only Kinski was capable of, are Werner Herzog's manifesto.

In his films, Herzog has always sought out protagonists who feel like God's loneliest human beings: the ski jumper Walter Steiner, who stands at the top of the jump and then appears to fly across the world; the blind and deaf Fini Straubinger, who can neither see nor hear her fellow human beings; the art-obsessed Fitzcarraldo, who is determined to bring opera into the wilderness; and the constantly strung-out lieutenant Terence McDonagh, stumbling through the world as if anaesthetized.

If one believes his narratives, Herzog is often alone, and yet he is always in the majority. In the "Fitzcarraldo" diaries, he often points out how lonely he felt. "He was in fact the only person who believed that it is possible to haul a steamship over a mountain," says Mauch.

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."

'Wildly Anarchic'

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


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

Related internet links

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission