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.

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J.W.: I've just been reading your new book, Conquest of the Useless, which is your diary from the making of Fitzcarraldo. Why do you keep coming back to the incredible difficulty of making that film? You've had difficulties, perhaps not on that scale, but tremendous difficulties, in many of the other films you've made.

W.H.: Well, I ignored the text, I couldn't read it for a long, long time. So 25 years later, I was finally able to even read it and decipher it. I published it because I thought that was the element that was stronger than everything else I have made in my life. It probably will outlive my films, all of them, and it has more direct substance. It's probably the piece of work I will be remembered for.

J.W.: Fitzcarraldo?

W.H.: No, Conquest of the Useless, the book. I'm probably a better writer than filmmaker.

J.W.: Have you kept diaries on other films, is there a body of writing you haven't published.

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W.H.: No, no. In a way, in all the pressure of doing Fitzcarraldo, it was my last resort. In a way, language was my last resort. Not religion, not music, not friendships that would support me, language.

J.W.: It's amazing that you were able to sit down and write with all that was going on. Is it all authentic? I realize that's an accountant's question …

W.H.: No, it's authentic. It just brought me back to myself, brought me back into focus. So that was the value of just doing it, every day.

J.W.: I have to ask you about the animals in these two films. In My Son, My Son the flamingos and the ostriches, and in Bad Lieutenant the lizards, the alligators, the snakes, the iguanas.

W.H.: I love to cast animals in important cameo roles in my films. And for example, in Stroszek, the dancing chicken is an image that will never leave you. If you have ever seen that film, it sticks to you until the rest of your days. It's strange because in Bad Lieutenant, it was not written in the screenplay that there would be these animals, I just put them in en passant, while I was working, and everybody who has seen the film mentions it. Yeah they are wonderful, they are crazed, they are completely, in Bad Lieutenant, completely demented. The flamingos and the ostriches in My Son, My Son are very mysterious; you don't have an answer, and yet they are very present, and they keep bothering you, and I don't' know exactly why is it. I just love it, to do that kind of thing.

J.W.: Your malignant view of nature, your anti-romantic view of nature, always seems to creep in, in some way.

W.H.: Somehow, yes, worldview always creeps into a movie.

J.W.: Do you think it's fair to say that you have a romantic approach to character?

W.H.: No, no, I am a storyteller, and I'm not a romantic storyteller. Watch my last two films and you can tell easily that there's not a romantic attitude about the characters at all.

J.W.: I don't mean romantic in the Hollywood sense. I mean romantic in your concern with the soul under pressure.

W.H.: I wouldn't call it romantic, but of course I care about the inner structure of a human being, his soul. That's what filmmaking and writing is always about.

Interview lightly edited and condensed by Jacob Weisberg.

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