Jacob Weisberg talks to Werner Herzog about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son,My Son, What…

Interviews with a point.
Dec. 16 2009 2:37 PM

"I Do Things the Accountants of Truth Would Not Do"

Werner Herzog discusses his two new films.

(Continued from Page 1)

W.H.: You don't see any violence at all in My Son, My Son. You don't see the murder. I personally as an audience don't want to see violence, in particular when it is violence against the defenseless. I don't want to see violence against children, I do not want to see violence against women, I do not want to see the rape of a woman on camera, on the screen, I just don't want it, so it translates into the way I make movies; you don't see it.

J.W.: Let me ask you about Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant. I've never been clear on whether Nicolas Cage is a good actor or a bad actor—

W.H.: How can you ask that?

J.W.: There were parts, there were pieces, where he was like the hunchback of Notre Dame doing a Richard Nixon impression. It's so over the top, that he seems to have an ironic relationship with the part, or you have an ironic relationship with his playing the part.

W.H.: No, I think his acting is absolutely formidable. Nothing is over the top. The situation is over the top. You see actors over the top, the famous face twisters, who are not really actors. He is not a face twister; there is always something extraordinary bursting out of him.

J.W.: So, there's no irony in the treatment of that.

W.H.: Oh sure, it's hilarious. I don't even know what irony exactly is, but I think it's always hilarious, and when you look at Michael Shannon, there's also something, in a way, although they're unrelated in their way of acting, you can immediately tell from five miles away, there's a formidable actor at work. You see it with Nicolas Cage, you see it with Michael Shannon.

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J.W.: In My Son, My Son, there's a play within a play, and a director with a German accent is directing Michael Shannon, who, as he becomes more and more unhinged, can't do the part and has to be thrown out of the play, but at the same time this director retains this affection for him. It's hard not to read some of you into that story.

W.H.: I would caution it's not such a straightforward sort of relationship between me and actors. You are alluding to probably a crazy guy like Klaus Kinski. No, it's something different. The film is based on the staging of the Oresteia, where the leading actor has to murder his mother. That the director in this film has a German accent is simply because Udo Kier is a German, and I like him, I love him as an actor, and I asked him to do the part. But it could have been a Russian accent, or it could have been whatever accent, it doesn't really matter that much. In a way, you are right; I love to work with actors, and I love them beyond the flaws that some of them have. The personal flaws. The flaws that do not translate on the screen.

J.W.: I've seen you quoted as saying that you'd rather die than see an analyst. Can you elaborate?

W.H.: I think it's a mistake of the 20th century. You could not live in a house that was illuminated to every last single corner. And human beings become uninhabitable when they are scrutinized and illuminated into their last little dark abysses. Just leave people as they are and don't touch it. I think psychoanalysis is one of the great mistakes of the 20th century. It's one of the reasons why I would dismiss the 20th century as a mistake. I think the 20th century in its entirety was a mistake. Psychoanalysis is just a small brick in my argument, that I could build up.

J.W.: Filmmaking developed in the 20th century.

W.H.: Yes, yes, some good sides as well. No doubt.

J.W.: But I'm interested in what you say about psychoanalysis. Is the concern that self-understanding would make one less of an artist, or make people less interesting in general?

W.H.: I think people become uninhabitable, as I say, and less interesting. There has to be something mysterious. Just think about being with a woman who had not, no mystery left at all. If everything was explained about a woman, it wouldn't fascinate me anymore. If I could be explained like an encyclopedia, it would be awful.

J.W.: I was just looking at the prospectus for your Rogue Film School. You say, "Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your boundaries, and inner growth." Are you having a hard time with the population in L.A.?

W.H.: It's with the population in general, with the pseudo-babble of New Age. So I'm just making a provocative point.

J.W.: Has this happened so far, this unconventional film school, where you don't learn the techniques of filmmaking but you learn to think?

W.H.: No, I'm in the middle of it. Actually, I have stopped. The deadline of application was passed a fortnight ago, almost a fortnight ago. I have invited people now, out of a huge amount of applications, and the first long weekend seminar is going to happen early in January

J.W.: And you're going to teach them lock picking. Can you say what lock picking means to you?

W.H.: Well, I put it out in the description of the film school, which makes a point: I'm not going to teach you the technical side of filmmaking. You should rather be ready to forge your own shooting permit. If in some country like Peru, where I shot Fitzcarraldo, I was not allowed to move anywhere, because it was a military dictatorship at the time, and I came up with a four-page, wonderfully, elaborately written shooting permit, even signed by the president of the republic.

J.W.: Did that do you much good in the jungle?

W.H.: It did me very good in the jungle. The colonel who had actually ordered a soldier to open fire at our ship because we wouldn't' stop, he saw this and saluted and said, "Pass." But don't ask me who wrote the signature of the president. Just take a look at me and take a guess. So it was all forgery. And you should be ready to do things like that. When there's a military dictatorship not allowing you to shoot, take things into your own hands.

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