WERNER HERZOG: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Of the Big Three new wavers of German cinema—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders– who “came of age” as it were in the ‘70s, when I was in college and my own stake in the movies was budding into something more learned and substantial than what it was when I first discovered my love for them, Herzog has emerged as the director who most speaks to me now as an adult. I think that’s true at least in part because when his movies do speak to me it never feels like a one-sided conversation. I feel like I’m in there engaging in a push-pull with Herzog’s ability to seduce me (disarm me?) with his simplicity of approach, an ability which rarely seems satisfied to consider subjects from the less-perverse of two perspectives, and his tendency to rhapsodize and harangue and sidestep visual motifs and dialogue from lyrical expression into pontification and back again by a simple authorial command, or perhaps by unconscious movement.
Wenders and Fassbinder must be considered, due to the period in which the three were at their most prolific, to be brothers-in-arms of a sort with Herzog, though even the most reductive core sample would demonstrate that their movies couldn’t be more dissimilar, in structure or temperament. Fassbinder and Wenders, though clearly operating in a realm in which they developed voices which were truly new and inimitably personal, found at least some inspiration in the voices of the past. The archetypes and influences of American literature, and particularly American movies, are shot through films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Kings of the Road, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The American Friend, Veronika Voss and The State of Things– Fassbinder made direct spiritual reference to Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder throughout his career, and Wenders revered Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray so much that he cast them both in his own movies (The American Friend, The State of Things) and even made a film about Ray (Lightning Over Water).
But unlike his enge Freunde, Herzog’s movies rarely reference recognizable signposts of cinema or literature from which to extricate either context, significance or emotional resonance. (Which is different than not being influenced, which you will see in a paragraph or two.) On the contrary, a Herzog movie often feels as if their maker had never even seen another movie before. For better, for worse, but always to great interest, Herzog’s movies, like the pitiless, blackly humorous musings which are an inextricable element of the director’s public persona, seem to leap directly from his subconscious through the camera and onto the screen, without much regard for the expectations an audience might place on pacing, design, even performance.
His movies are often pitched and function at the level of opera, but never self-consciously so, even when the subject is as grandiose and foolish as the one at the heart of Fitzcarraldo. And when he does make conscious connections to a cinema outside his own, he’s as apt to disaster as to transcendence—Herzog drew a mesmerizing line between Murnau and the rich history of German artistic culture with his version of Nosferatu, which was as steeped in German folklore and music (Wagner plays a glorious role on the soundtrack) as it was in the vampiric legend so translated by his great forbearer; but he made his worst movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? when he settled for aping David Lynch, who was an executive producer on the film. At their best, Herzog’s films and their excruciating, infuriating, ecstatic dance between the mysteries of human nature and the intractable, harsh, unforgiving beauty of nature are singular creations. Few movies have the ability to simultaneously chill my soul and make it soar in quite the manner of the opening shot of Aguirre: the Wrath of God; or Jonathan Harker’s walk toward the Carpathian Mountains and his ghastly fate in Nosferatu: Phantom du Nacht; or the stunning, alien visual symphonies conducted from under the ice in The Wild Blue Yonder; or Herzog himself assessing the grandeur and violence of overwhelming landscapes in The White Diamond or La Soufriere. At one point in Nosferatu, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani, so ethereally, hauntingly beautiful here that she seems imported directly from a silent movie herself) implores a resolutely rational, disbelieving Van Helsing, whose role as vampire hunter she subsumes in Herzog’s version, that “faith is the faculty in man which enables us to believe in things we know to be untrue.” What better capsulation of Herzog’s cinema could there be?
Herzog has been on my mind a lot lately as I’m in the process of devouring Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, a series of discussions conducted over several years and multiple sessions with Paul Cronin, masterfully edited into what amounts to a book-length interview with the filmmaker in which Herzog offers his philosophies, his contradictions, his passions, his helplessly Germanic self-aggrandizement, his impatience and his singular, sometimes maddening, always entertaining perspective on his career, his work and his own cultivated public persona. (A version of Cronin’s book first appeared in 2002 as Herzog on Herzog.) The director’s only apology, offered within Cronin’s introduction when recounting the process of convincing Herzog to undertake the project, is for the possibility that the format might make him seem long-winded and narcissistic. Even if this sometimes seems true, it is never to the detriment of the reader—A Guide for the Perplexed is emerging as the most unlikely obsessive page-turner I’ve ever encountered in my long, spotty history of consuming literature on the movies.
This book tops out at 542 pages and I’m only up to page 169, yet so much of what I’m reading so far has been compulsively enjoyable, hardly the dry tome I expected when I first set eyes on it in my local bookstore. It’s so enjoyable, in fact, that this week, in lieu of actual writing, I’ve decided to give you some of my favorite excerpts in the hope of inspiring you to find a copy and read the whole damn thing yourself, or perhaps buy one as a Christmas gift for a movie-mad friend who absolutely needs to read one of the most compelling, exasperating books ever dedicated to a single director—it seems destined to share a special place on my shelf alongside other favorite books on favorite filmmakers like Hitchcock/Truffaut, Joseph McBride’s Hawks on Hawks and Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder. (I hope now also to be able to clear my copy of the seeming hundreds of bookmarks that drop to the floor every time I turn a page.) Behold a few morsels, Herzog on Herzog and whole lot more.
On his first movie experiences:
“I didn’t know cinema existed until I was 11 years old and a traveling projectionist for remote provincial schools showed up with a selection of 16mm films. Although I was stunned that such a thing was possible, I wasn’t particularly taken with the first film I saw, about Eskimos constructing an igloo. It had a ponderous commentary and was extremely boring. Having to do with a lot of snow as a child, I could tell the Eskimos weren’t doing a very good job; they were probably just actors, and bad ones at that. There and then I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment. The second film, about pygmies building a liana bridge across a jungle river in Cameroon, was better. The pygmies worked well together, and I was impressed with their ability to construct such a well-functioning suspension bridge without any real tools. One pygmy swung across the river on a liana like Tarzan and hung from the bridge like a spider. It was a sensational experience for me.”
On the meaning of the term “fata morgana,” the title of one of Herzog’s earliest films, a documentary shot in the Sahara Desert which he describes as “a distant echo of science fiction, with its imagery of the beauty, harmony and horror of a world that is obviously our own, even though it seems like a distant alien planet”:
“(A fata morgana is) an image, one which you can film in the desert. You can’t capture hallucinations—which are only in your own mind—on celluloid, but mirages are something different. A mirage is a mirror reflection of an object that exists and that you can see. It’s similar to you taking a picture of yourself in the bathroom mirror. You aren’t really there in the mirror, but you can still capture the image of yourself on celluloid.”
On obtaining new images, and space travel:
“I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible anymore. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet rather than an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.”
On the influences of art:
“There is a 17th-century Dutch artist I feel close to, a virtual unknown called Hercules Segers. He was one of those clairvoyant and independent figures hundreds of years ahead of his time. Little is known about his life, and only a few of his works have survived. The man was an alcoholic, and considered insane by those around him; he was so poor he printed on anything he could find—including tablecloths and bed sheets—and when he died many of his prints were used for wrapping buttered bread…. His landscapes aren’t landscapes at all; they are states of mind, dream-like visions full of angst, desolation and solitude. Things emanate from deep underground and rocks that aren’t physically there, yet seem present nonetheless… Human figures rarely appear, and when they do they show up like tiny specks, like sleepwalkers. Entire mountaintops—flying in the atmosphere—seem not to comply with gravity. Seger’s images are hearsay of the soul… It’s an outrage that I haven’t met a single art student who has even heard of Segers.”
On the influences of film, good and bad:
“I think about what an extraordinary cultural upheaval would have taken place throughout the world if cinema had been discovered a few hundred years earlier, if Segers, Kliest, Holderlin and Buchner had expressed themselves through film. Of the filmmakers with whom I feel some kinship, Griffith—especially his Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms—Murnau, Bunuel, Kurosawa and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, which isn’t so beholden to his theories of montage, all come to mind. I always saw Griffith as the Shakespeare of cinema, though everything these men did has a touch of greatness. I like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia and Dovzhenko’s Earth, while Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari contains wonderful poetry, and no one who appreciates film can fail to recognize Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room… Then there are the essential films, things like kung fu, the car chases and smashes of Mad Max, a good porno—more watchable than a pretentious, artsy-fartsy film—and the ingeniousness of Russ Meyer, who captured the vilest and basest instincts of our collective dreams on celluloid. “Movie” movies, so to speak. Fred Astaire might have had the most insipid face, but his dancing is the purest in all of cinema… Astaire’s emotions were always wonderfully stylized, and compared to a good kung fu film someone like Jean-Luc Godard is intellectual counterfeit money. Anyone who claims that cinema is “truth 24 times a second” hasn’t an ounce of brain. He isn’t even French, but tries to out-French the French.”
On risk aversion:
“The world is impossibly risk-averse these days, and panics are almost completely out of proportion to reality. Years ago, during the mad-cow crisis, it was obvious to me that more people would die crossing the road getting to the butcher than ever would from eating contaminated meat. These days six-year-old children have five different helmets: one for roller-skating, one for baseball, one for bicycling, one for walking in the garden, one for God knows what. Parents these days even send their children to the sandpit with a helmet. The whole thing is repulsive. I would never trust a man who has had multiple helmets by the age of five. Wall-to-wall protection is devastating because children are conditioned not to be intrepid; they will never grow up to be scientists who jump across boundaries into the unknown. And every time I walk past a hand sanitizer—those bottles attached to walls everywhere across America these days—I want to tear it down. They are an abomination. I never use antibiotics and have taken maybe 10 aspirin in my entire life. Such things will be the death of us all. A civilization that uses pain relief at every turn is doomed; we can’t know what it is to be truly human without experiencing some level of discomfort and physical challenge. When you read in a travel book that the author has taken a snakebite kit on his journey into the jungle, you know the paperback in your hand is fit only for feeding the campfire. Life knows no security. The only certainty is that we all die despite helmets and life-insurance policies. These days people cut their finger or graze their knee and consider it a life experience.”
(Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is available everywhere from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers.)