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  • Werner Herzog interview

    Werner Herzog interview: ‘You have to behave like a criminal to make a film’

    Telling stories: Werner Herzog CREDIT: GETTY
    Daily Telegraph
    13 SEPTEMBER 2019 • 7:00AM

    Visionary director Werner Herzog talks to Chris Harvey about his latest work – and ticks him off for not knowing the Bible better

    “Do we care today that Caravaggio was a murderer?” says Werner Herzog. “I don’t think we do.” The great German director is chewing over the question of whether it matters if an artist is even a moderately decent human being. We’ve been talking about Klaus Kinski, the foul-tempered, violent actor whose immersive intensity Herzog employed for 15 years in classic films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

    At one point during the making of that film, Herzog took out a gun and threatened to shoot Kinski in the head if he left the set.

    “You wouldn’t want to be friends with a man like Kinski,” he tells me, but… “In the long run, I believe what counts more than anything is how good was the film, how good was his performance, does it have substance enough to stand the test of time?”

    So where does that leave us with characters like Woody Allen (accused of child sexual abuse, which he denies) and Harvey Weinstein (accused of rape, sexual assault and harassment, which he also denies)? “Well, sure, you do have difficulties accepting Allen’s movies with the same ease that you accepted them 20 years ago. Ultimately, we do not know exactly what happened, how much truth there is in what he was blamed for. The probability is high that he’s an unpleasant – to say the least – character.”

    Weinstein he puts in a different category. “Well, he’s a film producer, he’s a businessman,” he says. “It’s high time that something was triggered. It’s huge, it’s much more than Weinstein. It’s a cultural shift and when I look at women in the profession of filmmaking, it’s a wonderful step for them and there’s nobody, nobody, in the industry who would dare to do something like Weinstein [did]. It’s a huge, huge achievement.”
    Herzog on the set of Even Dwarfs Started Small in 1970

    He talks slowly and deliberately in the voice he uses in his documentaries. Being in a room with Herzog is, it has to be said, mildly unnerving. As he fixes his pale blue, slightly hooded eyes on you, and you feel the force of the intelligence behind them, it is impossible not to notice that you are in the presence of a powerful alpha male with little interest in niceties. “Read the Bible, stupid,” he tells me when I admit that I have no knowledge of Moses being wanted as a youth for manslaughter. “I’m not an artist,” he growls, when I refer to him as such. What is he, then? “A soldier,” he replies.

    Herzog was born in Munich in the middle of the Second World War and has been making films since he was 19, from dramas such as Fitzcarraldo (1982), for which he had his crew and extras pull a steamship over a muddy hill 2,300 miles upstream in the jungle of Peru, to documentaries such as Grizzly Man (2005), about wild bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, was killed and partially eaten by a bear in Alaska. The image of Herzog in that film hearing a recording of the attack and telling a friend of Treadwell’s never to listen to it is a lingering nightmare.

    Now 77, he is releasing three films this year alone, as well as acting in the forthcoming Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian. There is the just-released low-budget drama Family Romance, LLC, about a man hired to impersonate the missing father of a 12-year-old Japanese girl, which Herzog shot on location in Japan with non-professional actors, as well as Meeting Gorbachev, out in November, which documents a series of interviews Herzog conducted with the last leader of the Soviet Union. The third is Nomad, the film he has made for the BBC about his friend, Bruce Chatwin, the influential travel writer who died of Aids in 1989.
    Author Bruce Chatwin, 1984, the subject of Nomad, Herzog’s 2019 film for the BBC

    “We were kindred spirits,” he says in the film. They met in Australia, where the Englishman was researching a book that would become his much-admired/much-criticised work about indigenous Australian culture the Songlines. Chatwin flew to meet the filmmaker/soldier in Melbourne. “I said, ‘How do I recognise you?’” recalls Herzog. “He said, ‘I look like a schoolboy, and I’m blond, and I wear a leather rucksack’.”

    From the moment they met, “it was storytelling, for the first 48 hours, almost non-stop. I hardly had any chance to squeeze one of my own stories into it…” They shared a world view and fundamental ideas about nomadism, as well as a belief that facts can be modified to be “more truthful” than reality. Chatwin admitted there were “lies” in his book In Patagonia and wrote that the illness that would eventually kill him was caused by eating a 2,000-year-old egg in China, when in fact he had Aids. Herzog holds up Michelangelo’s Pietà – “the tormented face of a 33-year-old man whose mother is 17” – as witness that imagination can be more powerful than historical truth.

    Years later, when Chatwin was already very ill, Herzog invited him to come to Ghana, where he was shooting Cobra Verde (1987), an adaptation of the writer’s own 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. (Herzog had hastened to buy the film rights after hearing that David Bowie wanted them. Did he ever meet Bowie? “No, and I don’t know his music either. I know very little about him. Is he still alive?” No. “Ah.”)

    Later still, Herzog visited Chatwin before he lapsed into a coma, and showed him his film of Wodaabe tribesmen, Herdsmen of the Sun (1989). He has kept his friend’s rucksack and travels with it in Nomad. “I didn’t want to make a biographical film,” he notes. “It’s not a good soil from which movies grow.” Instead, he set out to create an “erratic quest” mirroring Chatwin’s fascination with “wild characters, strange dreamers, big ideas about the nature of human existence”, tracing a journey about the globe from Patagonia to the Outback. We’re in Sheffield, where Chatwin was born, and it is being screened for the first time.

    The next day, Herzog gives a talk in which he reveals a tender side, when an audience member asks him about his attitude towards love. He’s been married to his fourth wife, Russian-born photographer Lena Herzog, for 20 years, and the secret is maintenance, he says – continually asking himself, “Do I get on her nerves? Do I pay attention? Do I keep silent at the right moment?” He has three grown-up children from earlier relationships and keeps in touch via Skype, he tells me, a concession to the internet, which he says is mainly useful for shallow knowledge.

    Last edited by Maurice; 13th September 2019, 06:14 PM.

  • #2
    Telegraph interview (continued)

    The man who stole a camera from the Munich film school to shoot Aguirre also tells the audience that filmmakers today don’t have enough “criminal energy”. He discusses his readiness to forge a signature on a release form (“You have to bypass, cheat, bamboozle bureaucracy”), and shares tactics to avoid arrest when you don’t have permission to film (“Go towards where the enemy is thickest”). Classic Werner.

    Bizarre stories cling to the Herzog legend, such as the one in which he cooked and ate his own shoes – immortalised in Les Blank’s 1980 documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe – with some help from California chef Alice Waters, after promising to do so if director Errol Morris ever managed to finish a film. He seems genuinely annoyed when I mention having seen it online. “Oh, it should never have been watched by you, because I always had an understanding with Les Blank that this was only to be shown to very close friends in private screenings.”

    In another, at the end of filming Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), he threw himself into a field of cactuses. He reportedly still has one of the spines embedded in his knee. “I made a film with a midget cast, and we had many incidents, where one of the midgets caught fire by setting light to flower pots with gasoline, one was run over by a car that was circling empty in a yard…” Herzog promised the cast he would jump into the cactus field if they finished filming without further injury.
    Herzog with Klaus Kinski in the 1999 documentary My Best Fiend

    He stops me when I wonder if he gets less eccentric with age. “You’re using the word eccentric, which is diametrically different from how I see the situation. I’m the centre and the rest of the world is eccentric. I make sense.”

    Does he share Chatwin’s view that the human race is close to the end of its time on Earth? “Sure, of course. If the internet stops abruptly, we will have a situation like the one we saw in Manhattan when Hurricane Sandy stopped all electricity south of 32nd Street… in two days, it was a completely different world. You couldn’t make a financial transaction, there was no water running. If that happens on a large scale, it will practically extinguish the human race. You are immediately thrown back into a hunter-gatherer existence. In Central Park, for eight million people there are only 60 squirrels, so that’s a problem.”

    I wonder how he relates to his own mortality. “I was totally convinced I would not make it to 18, then when I did, it was 25,” he says. “It doesn’t worry me a bit.”

    Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin is on BBC Two on Saturday Sept 21 at 9.45pm