Werner Herzog: interview
Werner Herzog has forged a prolific, uncategorisable career spanning fiction and documentary. His association with remarkable leading man Klaus Kinski in the likes of ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ remains a career highlight, yet recent docs, including ‘Grizzly Man’ and his latest release ‘Encounters at the End of the World’, show his powers still undiminished
'We were recording the score for "Grizzly Man" and my friend Henry Kaiser, the musician who’s also a diver, was playing on a laptop some of the material he’d shot under the ice in Antarctica. I saw this stuff through the control room window and stopped everything, because I thought these were the most beautiful images I’d seen in years. He allowed me to use some of his material in a science-fiction film "The Wild Blue Yonder", and it also started the process which brought me to the South Pole. I wanted to go under the ice with him, but I was denied. You can’t have amateurs diving in there and causing all sorts of rescue actions. The resources in Antarctica just can’t cope with that.'
When did the National Science Foundation get involved?
'Henry told me they had an artists and writers programme, so I made this crazy application, suggesting that I was really interested in derangement among penguins, and they invited me. So that’s when I found myself flying down there with the most minimal crew possible, just the two of us, the cameraman and myself as sound recordist and director. You couldn’t pre-plan anything. We were just tossed down there and had to come back six weeks later with a movie. Kind of scary, but I knew I had to live with it.'
The temperatures and the conditions presumably bring all sorts of practical difficulties?
'People seem to think we’re still in the time of Shackleton or something. No, Antarctica today is easy. They have an ATM, there are abominations like yoga and aerobics classes. But of course, up on Mt Erebus it’s over 12,000 feet so that’s pretty cold. What did happen though was that on the second or third day we were doing some training on snowmobiles, the instructor asked me to make quite a tight turn, and this 800lb vehicle tumbled down and went all over the top of me. I had chest pains and an almost unusably swollen hand for the next few weeks.'
Somehow though, the sort of trials you’ve experienced shooting a number of your projects, find their way into the fibre of the film even if we don’t necessarily see them on screen.
'Yes, it gives it a soul, though on "Encounters" there was also a sequence which we couldn’t fit into the final edit because it became too long, where we shot some scientists on a trip who were hit by a blizzard so powerful that their snowmobiles, all 800lbs of them, actually took off. They were airborne and flew for miles. So these conditions are definitely not a joke.'
Most people nowadays associate Antarctica with all the news stories about global warming, and while that’s certainly present in the film, it’s not completely an eco-manifesto, is it?
'Lets face it, global warming is just one of the possibilities of our demise, but there are many other scenarios which are quite evident. It’s quite obvious to everyone down there in Antarctica that our presence on the planet isn’t really sustainable. I didn’t need to make a film about global warming, it’s the everyday credo on every TV show. This is my Antarctica.'
Something that’s been a strong theme in your work, right back to ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ is the notion of nature’s indifference to mankind’s puny efforts at mastering it. Presumably, that really comes into focus when you’re surrounded by the incredibly imposing landscapes of Antarctica?
'It really does. The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man. Period. And of course you see the same attitude to wild nature in "Grizzly Man". It’s not benign, it’s not a Disneyfied, childish world out there. The common denominator of the universe, as I said in that film, is "chaos, hostility and murder". People will go on about how beautiful the sun is, but you try landing on it and you’re in the midst of thousands of degrees of temperature and constant nuclear explosions. And that’s just a tiny dot in a vast indifferent universe.'
At the same time though, when we see the amazing images in ‘Encounters’ shot under the Antarctic ice, and we hear the Orthodox choral music accompanying them, one definitely feels a sense of wonder. Is this reconcilable with the nature that’s ‘chaos, hostility and murder’, as you say?
'I think it is. When you see that almost sci-fi world and you hear the music, there is a sacrality about it, an awe in the presence of something sacred. You can’t really compare that to the sort of nature documentaries coming out of British television, but they’re definitely the best of the best. When Attenborough reports on these wild creatures, there’s an enthusiasm and awe there which is really appealing to me.'
What is it about the combination of, broadly, ‘classical’ music and images which has this effect on us – is it something in the music which bleeds over into the images?
'It’s best not to verbalise these things, but I know I’m very good at music. The music in "Encounters" is the best possible combination. And the music makes certain things visible and palpable in the images. You can’t really speak about it. Just look and listen, and you know it. I know how to do these things. It’s my profession.'
A profession which literally takes you to the ends of the earth…
'It’s a burning curiosity in me. A desire to find images which have not been worn out yet. These images require a specific grammar of narration. "Encounters" is narrated in a way unlike any of my other films, since they have a more coherent story, but here it’s just amazement and wonder, plus the incredible warmth I feel for those extraordinary people down there. Apparently I’m the only filmmaker so far to have made professional films on all the continents, including Antarctica, but please don’t tell the "Guinness Book of Records" because if I show up there, I’ll have to stop filmmaking.'
I imagine your office has a map of the world on the wall with an awful lot of pins on it…
'You’re wrong, it’s not like that, but I do love maps. Really detailed maps of specific areas. I have a great map of the Tibesti Mountains in the southern Sahara or Northern Chad. It’s a dream of mine to go there, but it’s such a volatile area, you have to be prudent. Better to keep out.'
You have though, shot ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ with Nicolas Cage, which sounds like a dangerous encounter in its own way.
'Yes, and I enjoyed it immensely. The film’s finished, but I’ve done two more since. One very small one in Ethiopia, and another feature called "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?", which isn’t really a horror film, but it’s quite a dark movie based on a real murder case in San Diego. We have just a few days left editing, then in June I move on to another feature. And there’s another four or five lined up. I try to be methodical.'
Nicolas Cage though is probably the biggest Hollywood name you’ve worked with.
'Well, I’ve made films with Christian Bale, Isabelle Adjani, Claudia Cardinale, Tim Roth. You just name it. I took Nicolas Cage where he’s never been. Nobody’s seen it yet. We’re looking at an autumn release and possibly Venice, but we don’t now yet.'
I terms of directorial careers, you’re unusual…
'…In that I haven’t had a career?'
In that unlike many film-makers who peak early, or essentially keep making the same film over and over again, you’ve continued to do work at this point in your life which is as strong as the films you made in the ’70s, say. What’s the secret of this longevity?
'I do other sorts of things. I act in other people’s movies. I direct operas. I write books. By the way, my book "Conquest of the Useless" will be published in English translation in the US. I mention it because this book will in all probability live longer that my films. It’s based on diaries that I was writing for many years, but you’ll have to wait and see. In terms of directorial careers, Buñuel would be an interesting example, he made surrealist films in the ’20s and ’30s, then he moved to Mexico and even dubbed films in Mexico, then he went to France and shot films in French, yet they’re all recognisably Buñuel films even though they’re really diverse. My last couple of films have been in English, but they’re still Bavarian films. When you look at "Encounters", do you think a Prussian could have made that film? Absolutely not. Or a Frenchman? No, they did the penguin film. I’m not done yet – and I mean that as a threat!'
'Encounters at the End of the World' opens on April 24.
Author: Trevor Johnston
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