Werner Herzog kicks things off by asking me a question: "Did you see the film in 3-D?" Although a "mild skeptic" of the format, he considers it essential to his 28th cinema film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the paleolithic artwork discovered by the archaeologist Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. The Chauvet cave is full of bulging and irregular shapes, and Herzog says that the painters, who had "a quest for depicting movement," "incorporated the drama of these formations into their art"; for example, a bulge in a rock becomes the neck of a charging bison. "There's a three-dimensional drama which was understood and utilized by people 32,000 years ago," he says. Then, shrugging, he adds: "But I'm told that it looks pretty good in 2-D as well."
The French government gave Herzog the unique opportunity of filming, with rigorous restrictions, in the Chauvet cave—"I took it! I took it!" he says, and describes the film as a "big seismic event" for him. He admits that the cave is the film's chief point of interest: "Everybody speaks of having experienced a cave, nobody talks about having seen a movie." He evidently sees this as a good thing.
On the morning of our interview, Herzog, who was born in Germany in 1942, is clean-shaven and wearing a black suit. He talks with such animation about the Chauvet cave that I wish I had enjoyed his film more. In his recent documentaries the central point of interest, whatever the ostensible topic, has been the human subjects, usually dreamers and fantasists or the subjects of fantasy—the Dalai Lama in Wheel of Time; Timothy Treadwell, the bear-lover killed by a bear, in Grizzly Man; Graham Dorrington, the aeronautical engineer trying to fly a dirigible over the Guyanan rain forest in The White Diamond. There are two engaging "experimental archaeologists" in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of whom repeatedly—and ineptly—throws spears, the other of whom plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on an imitation paleolithic pipe. But the striving, stargazing characters who really fascinate Herzog have been dead for 30,000 years. The film contains moments of extraordinary beauty but provides little in the way of human interest or drama.
Although Herzog is courteous throughout our interview, he always makes his feelings clear. In response to questions about his film Fitzcarraldo, which concerns a so-called "conquistador of the useless" who wants to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle and who orchestrates a boat being pulled across a mountain, he says: "You are talking so far in retrospect—that's three decades back." Returning to the present day, I ask him to expand on a question he asks toward the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams ("What constitutes humanness?") and he says: "No—that's a debate I'm not going to enter." I make the mistake of using the word adventure and he says: "You can use this word in my presence only in quotes." I ask him about filmmakers he admires and he says: "I do not watch many films—maybe two or three per year."
Herzog's advice to students at his Rogue Film School—where he teaches how to pick locks and forge shooting permits—is "read, read, read, read, read, read, read—if you do not read, you'll never be a filmmaker," but he isn't interested in talking about books: "I don't want to rattle down 500 titles to you." The only texts he mentions are those included on the Rogue Film School's mandatory reading list, among them The Warren Commission Report, the near-1,000-page document that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The report has often been questioned—Woody Allen said he was going to give up comedy to write "a nonfiction version"—but Herzog says this is "stupid baloney"; other doubters, such as Oliver Stone (whose film JFK proposes a rival narrative), simply haven't read it. Herzog has and calls it "incredibly conclusive" but also "a great crime story."
In his own nonfiction films, Herzog wants to tell stories and he doesn't feel beholden to fact. His approach to documentary is an alternative to cinema vérité, the observational aesthetic that proceeds "as if presenting facts was everything." Just because something is factually true, he argues, "it does not constitute truth per se." Herzog likes to respond to and collaborate with his subjects; if he bends fact—by inventing dialogue, for instance—it is to the ends of "truth." The Manhattan phone directory provides millions of correct entries, he says, "but it doesn't inspire you"; in the film, he says it doesn't tell you what Manhattanites dream. Instead of fact, which is the "accountant's truth," he is after the kind of "ecstatic truth" available to poetry: "These moments are rare but I'm trying to find them, which is why I have had different goals from some of my colleagues."
Rather than being a fly on the wall, Herzog likes to make his presence felt, both as an interviewer and in voice-over commentary. His habit of ruminating on his subjects' situations has been parodied in a YouTube video in which a man with a German accent shares his thoughts on Waldo, the elusive figure in the striped jumper from the Where's Waldo? (or Where's Wally?) children's books: "His naiveté will be his undoing, as it will be for each of us in turn. We search for Waldo but what is Waldo searching for?" (In Herzog's remarkably eloquent but accented English, "w" sounds emerge as "v" sounds.)
Herzog rejects a "clear distinction" between documentaries such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams and fiction films such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans—"they're all movies for me." What he means is that no matter the chosen mode, he is drawn to the kind of mental states and physical quests that separate man from animals; he is no more likely to portray day-to-day Western life in a drama than in a documentary. He does not respond when I ask him about a project of his that seems to validate the fiction/documentary distinction— Rescue Dawn (2006), in which Christian Bale plays the pilot Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997). Is there no difference, in terms of approach or result, between these two films about the same man? If not, then why bother to make the second film? At one point, he tells me that he made "a documentary" about a mountain-climbing expedition on K2 in order to "test the waters" for a feature film he wanted to make on the same subject. He found the waters too choppy and decided to abandon the plan.
This is one of a number of stories that Herzog offers in response to the view that he is "just a blind, stupid daredevil." About people who believe this, he says "it's their problem," but he doesn't concede that it might be his fault. In My Best Fiend, his documentary about his somewhat bumpy relationship with the actor Klaus Kinski, Herzog recalls eating a chocolate bar in Kinski's face at a point when both were exhausted and starving. He also recalls warning Kinski that if he stormed off the set of Fitzcarraldo he would find eight bullets in his back—Herzog would be saving the ninth for himself. This conduct recalls that of the suavely menacing conquistador, with the haunted gaze and robotic strut, from Herzog's chilling film Aguirre—Wrath of God, who specializes in both the oblique threat ("That man is a head taller than me—that may change") and the not-so-oblique threat, as when he says that he will stamp on his enemies until he can paint the walls with them.
Herzog's wild days, to whatever extent they really existed, are long behind him. He is not bothered by mythology— "let it mushroom" —but says that "in the world of cinema, I'm the only one who is clinically sane." He claims to have only embarked on films he knew to be "do-able"—which is why he didn't pursue the K2 film—though he has sometimes had trouble persuading others. By the end of the making of Fitzcarraldo—a trauma portrayed in the documentary Burden of Dreams and in Herzog's book Conquest of the Useless—he was "the last man standing." By way of "proof" that he assesses risk well, he offers the fact that none of his actors has ever been injured. Then, in a slow-motion drawl, he commands: "Check out my sanity! Check out my prudence!"
But prudence can only limit the destruction you might cause; it cannot prevent the destruction visited upon you, and Herzog seems to be a magnet for the chaotic and strange. He doesn't need to pack his bag for the Amazon or Antarctica to encounter human extremity—he doesn't even need to leave Los Angeles. A few years back he happened to be driving behind Joaquin Phoenix when the actor flipped his car on Laurel Canyon; and as is now well-known, he was shot by an air rifle during an outdoor BBC interview.
"I've had a different life—and so what?" he says, and his nonchalance, or indifference, seems genuine. Material and circumstantial factors, gossip and frippery, have no appeal for him, and he is more interested in Icelandic poetry and conquistadors' travelogues than modern novels. He says he wants to "film into the abyss"—to look across the abyss of time, to look into the abyss of the human soul. He yearns to find the essential. As a quest, this is mighty indeed, but then so are his passion, intellect, determination, and skill. His next film will be concerned with inmates on death row.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.