Mar 13, 2012

INTERVIEW: Werner Herzog

“Do not got too far,” says Werner Herzog on the phone when I ask for directions to his house. “If you end up in Coldwater Canyon you will have gone too far.”

“I have a GPS”

“The GPS will not help you.”

Trust Werner Herzog to make a visit to his home sound as fraught with peril as a Werner Herzog film. The first surprise is that he even has a home. Asked to nominate a point on the map most likely to contain the itinerant German filmmaker, most fans of his films might say something like “halfway up the Amazon, dodging spears.” Or “an Igloo.” In fact, his house is located on a small, steep, winding road off Laurel Canyon, in the wildest and most jungle-like part of the Hollywood Hills, wreathed in foliage, fragrant with honeysuckle, home only to the most reclusive species of rock-star and raccoon. “That figures,” says a friend familiar with his work when I tell them where I am going.

Herzog is often to be found trekking in the trails off Mulholland Drive, where crystal clear creeks snake through the undergrowth, unseen from the road, although his taste for walking everywhere on foot raises eyebrows in downtown Beverley Hills or Bel Air, where you don’t go to the grocery store unless borne aloft by a Humvee. “I have been asked by police. ‘What are you doing?’” he says. “’Just walking.’ They will ask a few questions then drive ahead of me just a few hundred yards I had to pass hem, just to let me know they are watching me.”

He seems to relish the vague air of dispreputability this lends him. The only auteur of world cinema who might conceivably be picked up for vagrancy, he spends little time at home. “I am always somewhere else,” he explains. “I live on the sets of my films.” Indeed, his living room looks more like the living room of an explorer than a film director, filled with artefacts and archeological curios from his shoots. Propped up against the mantlepiece are a set of spears from the long-lost Amondauas tribe of Brazil, documented in his short film, Ten Thousand Years Older. On the coffee table, a book about Ancient Greek hieroglyphs for a lecture he is giving at the New York Public library. Curled up in front of the bookshelves is a long-haired and contented-looking black-and-white cat.

“I never really planned to have a cat but my wife rescued that one from a coyote,” says Herzog casually while fixing me a cup of coffee in the kitchen. “The coyote almost ate him.”

It is traditional among Herzog’s interviewers to note the disconnect between the man and the filmmaking legend — you come expecting cinema’s answer to the wild man of Borneo, who threatened to have actor Klaus Kinski shot and who once hypnotized his entire cast to shoot a movie — and you get a tall, gentle presence, now 69, with soft, pillowy bags beneath eyes which nevertheless retain a kindly sparkle. He one of those soft German accents you might expect to hear on a Viennese psychiatrist. After the Paris premiere of Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey Boy, in which Herzog played a tyrannical, abusive father, his third wife Lena got frantic calls from a Parisien friend of hers, asking‘is this man really your husband? We are only one flight away, we can give you shelter.’” Herzog, chortles with laughter at the memory. “Which means I was convincing. My wife firmly believes that I am a fluffy husband.”

‘Fluffy’ might be pushing it. Beneath the soothing bedside manner lurks mordancy, and both cloak an unusual bluntness, which he used to great effect while interviewing prisoners on Death Row for his new documentary Into The Abyss. It is no coincidence that he took up smoking again while editing the film which he calls “the most intense of all my films so far.” Meeting with one prisoner, Michael Kelly, a buck-toothed 29-year-old eight days away from being executed for a triple homicide, Herzog wore a suit to the interview, “out of respect” but told him, “It does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.” For a few seconds, Kelly was too stunned to respond.

“I knew the film might be over after 120 seconds,” recalls Herzog, “You have to take that risk. But he really liked it and it turned towards me because he saw I was a straight shooter. Everyone is phony on Death Row — the attorneys, the family, they are always phony — and they see from miles away if someone is talking straight to them.” More than just an indictment of capital punishment, Into the Abyss explores a despoiled Texan landscape of trailer parks, guns and bar-room sociopathy, the interviews warmed by small, unexpected inlets of sympathy from Herzog, and buoyed by his gift for oddball questions. Very few interviewers, it’s safe to say, would think to interrupt a Disneyesque tribute to God’s Creation from a prison chaplain with the question, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” Still less, move the man to tears.

“I knew I had to break him open,” explains Herzog. “And it does. You see a journalist wouldn’t have that in his or her arsenal. You have to know the heart of men. More than anything I’m trying to look very deep into our human condition, into the deep recesses of our soul. I’m curious about us, about myself, on the other side of this bulletproof glass. This is why quite often I would ask them: how would you conduct your life if you could step back to 1969 or 1977 when your crime spree started, and it’s very fascinating: in all cases its no family values, how they raise their children.”

As the old Nietzsche maxim has it: stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you. Into the Abyss could easily be title of any of Herzog’s films, with their air of cracked prophecy and moonstruck divination, their penchant for probing inaccessible landscapes and equally inaccessible souls. Herzog himself is largely absent the urge to examine the pathologies that tug him halfway across the globe. “I don’t really question myself about how or when or why,” he says of his films. “I don’t want to look at myself with too much intensity. There’s no such thing as career planning. It just comes at me. There is noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night, something is stirring and I surprise five burglars and I have to deal with them. Uninvited guests. These are the subjects of my movies, and they are coming at me swinging.”

Nonetheless, it is hard to resist the temptation to trace his comfort levels around levels of danger that would fry the nerves of the average person, back to Herzog’s experience growing up amid the rubble of post-war Germany. The day after Herzog was born in Munich in 1942, an allied bomb destroyed the house next door to the family home; they fled to a remote mountain village in Bavaria, where the young Herzog never saw any films, television, or telephones; to this day, he refuses to carry a cell phone. “We were only forced to be self-reliant very quickly,” he says. “We were forced to invent our own toys and our own games. We had to invent. And of course I was not completely settled in this village in the mountains because my family — my mother and my brother — were refugees. We were in a way outsiders.”

“My earliest memories as a child is my mother wakes me my older brother abruptly and carries us up the slope behind the house and says ‘boys, you have to see this because the city of Rosenheim is burning and Rosenheim is 35 km away but the entire horizon out there was yellow and orange and pulsing. And we knew the world out there was burning. The cities were burning. So growing up you know there was something out there. The biggest of all questions which is still haunting me is this: how is it possible that such a civilized nation as Germany with such great poetry and composers and philosopher and writers and painters, within a very few years turns into sheer barbarism. How is it possible? I still do not have a real answer. I only know the alarm signs out there. It can happen easily and it may happen to others, maybe not as radically as it happened to Germany but my sensory organs are very, very alert.”

Certainly that flight — from ruined city to arborial idyll — prefigures the journey of many of his films, all of them fraught with the suspicion that civilization is a thin mask, easily cracked to reveal the snarl of savagery beneath. They also harbor an unfakeable horse-whisperer sympathy for the marginalized, dispossessed and spiritually orphaned, from young Kaspar Hauser, released into the community after the forced isolation of his childhood in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, to Timothy Treadwell the crackpot environmentalist seeking communion with bears in Grizzly Man, to Dieter Dengler, the German pilot whose remarkable survival story in Vietnam Herzog traces back to his experience growing up as a child in bombed-out Berlin in first Little Dieter Needs to Fly and then again Rescue Dawn. Clearly the story means something to him: he shot it twice. How much Dengler’s story was smuggled autobiography?

“Only partially,” he answers. “We were both very hungry as children and we both grew up fatherless. In his case his father perished in Stalingrad. My father simply did not return from the war, until finally [my parents] divorced. So there was no father around.” Herzog’s abandonment by his father, who left the family when he was still a young child, is by far the most striking trauma of his childhood, although he doesn’t see it that way. “It was anarchy in the best sense of the word,” he wrote in Herzog in Herzog. “There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch.”

Herzog’s Oedipal wound matched Germany’s own. To watch the five films Herzog made with Klaus Kinski — Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1978), Nozferatu The Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde (1987) — is to be driven to the inescapable conclusion, reached by so many Germans of that generation, that the man in charge is out to lunch. His films occupy a fatherless universe of fervid spoliation and energetic chaos, populated by petty tyrants and false prophets, and plagued with the lingering suspicion that not only have the lunatics taken over the asylum, but the even more radical suggestion that we might all be better off that way.

“I qualify as a survivor,” says Herzog of his collaboration with Kinski, caught in all his full-throttle dementia in the 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend. “Neither was he mad or am I mad. I am clinically sane, although sometimes people who were with us believed that I was the dangerous one and he was just the barking dog. Because I was so quiet. That happened on Fitzcarraldo, when Kinski would throw his tantrums, all the native Indians, the warriors hunters — they proposed to kill him and I mean seriously. It isn’t a joke. In their culture, it is all very softly spoken never a loud word, they touch your hand very, very softly they would only whisper, they would huddle and whisper and then fall silent. One of the chiefs said to me, ‘they are not frightened of the madman who was yelling.’ They were frightened of me because I was so silent.”

Post-Kinski, Herzog’s films give the impression of an imagination in recovery, getting its puff back. He shot several operas, but didn’t direct a feature film for a decade, and while he has since returned to the fray — most recently a feverish remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant starring Nicolas Cage — it is with his documentaries, most notably 2005’s Grizzly Man, that he has scored his greatest successes. Herzog’s reputation as the patron saint of the dispossessed has, meanwhile, made him a hero to a younger generation of filmmakers, who sign up for tuition at his Rogue Film School, which shuns the impartation of technical prowess for ephiphanal truths (“Follow your vision. Form secretive Rogue Cells everywhere. At the same time, be not afraid of solitude.) Occasionally, he even gets a call from Hollywood.

“I don’t participate in red carpet events, parties and such, but I somehow have a very pleasant relationship with the industry. They do not need me and I do not need them either, so that makes a very good platform of contact,” says Herzog, clad in a fleece from his recent role in the forthcoming thriller One Shot. Someone despicable? “Of course. That’s what I’m good at. Apparently the production company, and the director Chris McQuarrie and the actor…. what’s his name….. the leading man who did Mission Impossible…. Tom Cruise! Yes Tom Cruise believes I am a very dangerous man.”

I read it all the time — that I am some sort of maverick filmmaker. No. I am not a maverick. All the rest of Hollywood or the film industry worldwide — these are the mavericks. I am dead centre. Everyone else is eccentric. I occupy the centre, the centre of our time, the centre of our cultural climate, the centre of vision, the centre of storytelling in every single aspect, I know I am dead centre. When you look at the academy awards last night you know that this is rather eccentric. And then you look at me.”

"You may have a point,” I say, not sure whether the gleam of megalomania in what Herzog has just said is genuine, exaggerated for camp effect, or simply the honest truth of the way he sees it.

“Not 'may'. Do Have,” he insists. “ In capital letters. I DO HAVE a point.”

— my interview with Werner Herzog for The Daily Telegraph. Since we're on the topic, my top ten Herzog films are as follows:—

1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
2. In The Land Of Silence and Darkness
3. Aguirre The Wrath Of God
4. Grizzly Man
5. Woyzeck
6. Fitzcarraldo
7. Little Dieter Needs To Fly
8. My Best Fiend
9. Nosferatu The Vampyre
10. Encounters at the End of the World