Above all, Werner Herzog is a storyteller.
The renowned filmmaker who has been at the forefront of New German Cinema, who has won cinema’s most-prestigious prizes and whose works have been viewed, discussed and dissected by film lovers around the world, was in Salt Lake City recently as the Sterling McMurrin Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Utah.
Herzog, who bears a vague resemblance to Shine’s Geoffrey Rush, regaled local audiences with the stories behind the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo; his legendary battles with actor Klaus Kinski; how he hypnotized actors before shooting Heart of Glass to achieve a trancelike performance; and how he stumbled upon the valley of 10,000 windmills in Crete that inspired his first film, Signs of Life, a tale about a German soldier who goes insane when he stumbles upon the bizarre landscape.
A filmmaker who maintains total control of a project, from writing, directing and producing to handling thousands of extras without an assistant, Herzog grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria. He didn’t see his first film until he was age 12, when a traveling movie company passed through his village with two documentariesone about Eskimos, the other about Pygmies. After watching Zorro, Tarzan and other films, he became convinced he could do better films. At 14, he started writing screenplays and at 23 he produced his first film.
His first film to break through with audiences was the 1972 Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about a mad and power-hungry Spanish conquistador who leads his men through the Peruvian jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado. The film had its genesis when Herzog was leafing through a children’s book in a friend’s library. He read with fascination 11 lines about an adventurer named Aguirre who took his men into the jungle and disappeared without a trace.
That same night, on the bus with his soccer team, he began writing the screenplay on a little typewriter on his lap. Two and a half days later, he finished it. Such efficiency, according to Herzog, is customary. I have never written longer than 10 days, he said. I only write when the film has already come to me in my mind. His shooting style is as economical as his writing. He shot Aguirre, a film of grand scale, on location in five weeks, shooting scenes only once. I don’t shoot that much when I work on film, he explained. I shoot what I need on the screen, and I see it clearly in my mind.
His budgets are as streamlined as the creative process. I’m my own producer so I’ve always had to live on low budgets or no budgets, he said. He produced Aguirre for an incredibly low $375,000 and claimed he could have put the $200 million blockbuster, Titanic, on screen for $40 million.
Aguirre, which first brought him public attention, was his first film with the notorious Kinski. Their enmity was so profound that Herzog claimed he once threatened to firebomb Kinski’s house. Kinski’s autobiography showers page after page of invective against the director, which seems merely to amuse Herzog. People like Brando are just kindergarten compared with Kinski, he said. He is totally mad and unpredictable. It’s very hard to domesticate this wild man. I almost shot him it got so bad. There are rumors I directed him behind the camera with a gun. This is not true. He threatened to leave the set and I explained very calmly that I did have a rifle. He would reach the bend of the river, but with eight bullets. You can see there is something raging in this man. I owe him a lot. We owe each other a lot. We liked each other, we hated each other and we respected each other. It’s not easy to explain our relationship. It sounds like a paradox. The only thing that counts is what we see on screen.
Kinski wasn’t the only difficulty Herzog encountered during filming. The crew, living on rafts floating down the Amazon, almost starved to death; after three and a half weeks of shooting, he learned the negatives had disappeared; and he was bitten by the 450 monkeys he brought aboard the sinking raft for the film’s powerful final scene.
Greater ordeals were in store with the making of the formidable Fitzcarraldo, about a man so obsessed with bringing opera to the backwaters of the Amazon that he pulls a 340-ton ship over the mountains. The film was plagued with disasters of all sorts including two plane crashes, a border war between Peru and Ecuador, and two crew members shot with arrows, necessitating kitchen-table surgery.
The film, which took three years of preparation and nine months of shooting, featured 5,000 extras, required building a jungle camp, and had a crew of only 14 or 16, which Herzog claimed to be his largest crew yet. Jason Robards, originally cast in the title role, became so ill he was flown out of the jungle and forbidden by doctors to return. The volatile Kinski was recruited to replace him. The Indians were scared of this mad man. At the end of shooting one day, one came up to me and said, ’Shall we shoot him for you?’ They said they weren’t afraid of this screaming mad man, they were afraid of me because I was so silent.
His experiences making the film prompted the exasperated Herzog to say in a documentary, Burden of Dreams, I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum.
Linking all his films, he said, is the desire to understand the human condition, to look deep inside the unexplained mysteries of our existence and ask who we are. A deep glimpse inside of our heart is important. At the same time I try to articulate new images. We are surrounded by worn out images. We need to develop a language of images adequate to our civilization. It sounds a little high, but it’s practical to me.
He has been praised for his powerful visual images such as those in Every Man For Himself and God Against All/The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, which was inspired by the mysterious 1820 case of a young man found abandoned in Germany who had been raised his entire life in a dark dungeon. The anonymous man so fascinated Herzog that he wanted to explore how as human beings we accept and explore the world.
As in great poetry, Herzog is convinced we can find deep, inherent truth in film, whether it be narrative storytelling or documentarytwo formats he does not see as that different. It has to do with the basic questions surrounding all art: What is truth? I believe you can discover a very deep truth by fabricating, inventing. My films find deeper truth in trying to be inventive. He admitted fabricating things in his own documentaries, stressing that all documentaries are staged and directed. There’s no such thing as cinema vérité. Every single angle is a manipulation. It’s always an infringement on the event happening in front of the camera.
A storyteller with many truths yet to explore, Herzog is working on several new projects including a feature about the conquest of Mexico, and two documentaries in Peruone on my nemesis Kinski, and one about a woman in a plane crash.