The German director Werner Herzog has released two crime dramas in the past month: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which stars Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, and Eva Mendes; and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which opened last week and stars Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, and Michael Shannon. I met Herzog, who lives in Los Angeles, during a recent visit to New York to promote the films. I asked him about his newfound taste for police procedurals and his continuing interest in insanity.
Jacob Weisberg: As opposed to so many of your films set in exotic places, or in some period in the past, you've made two in close succession set in the American present. Why have you taken this turn?
Werner Herzog: A good story is a good story. It doesn't really matter if it's in Peru, 16th century, or in Germany, 1820s, they're always lively stories I'm after. Of course, I do live in America now; maybe some of that translates into what I'm doing. But I should point out that My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done was actually written a dozen years or so before I actually made it. David Lynch was the one who threw the match and ignited the whole thing, which was dormant.
J.W.: I understand it is based on a true story.
W.H.: It is, yes. My Son, My Son is based on a real murder story which took place, I don't know exactly, some 25, 30 years ago, in San Diego. But it could have happened anywhere in the United States.
J.W.: As opposed to documentaries, which have been a focus of your more recent work, you've returned now to dramatic feature films. Does that represent a change in your interests?
W.H.: The documentaries are not real documentaries. Many of them are feature films in disguise, as I keep saying. And of course I have made quite a few feature films recently, like Invincible, Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, that was all in the last 10 years. However I think I made 15 films in the last 10 years.
J.W.: So that distinction doesn't mean very much to you. And of course there are elements of fiction in your nonfiction films.
W.H.: Sure, of course. I stylize, I invent, I do things the accountants of truth would not do. But I'm a storyteller.
J.W.: It's very apparent in your films, to someone who has seen a lot of them, when there's a moment of fiction that you're using for some sort of dramatic purpose. It's interesting to compare you to Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish writer. There's been a lot of debate about his use of fiction in nonfiction work.
W.H.: And it's a very stupid, a very dull debate, because he's a great storyteller, and what he does—and I am, by the way, doing a very similar thing—he intensifies truth by invention. By dint of declaration he creates something which gives you a much deeper insight into the truth of, let's say, Africa or Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and it's totally legitimate and the debate is very, very silly. Let the accountants be happy with their debate. I'm not going to participate.
J.W.: These two new films—and again it's hard not to see them in combination, because they are coming out in such close succession—both of them have elements of the police procedural, so you might think these were both much more conventional films than they are.
W.H.: I've always made—I claim that I've always made—mainstream movies. Because when you have a real good story to tell, real good actors, it's always mainstream. Sometimes in a way it was secret mainstream. But a film like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, made 40 years ago almost, is mainstream today. It was not at the time. And the police detective stories, the detective side, in both films, isn't that important. And you can never predict what is coming next. Neither in the Bad Lieutenant, nor in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. It is unpredictable, it is not like you see very often in movies nowadays, where you can foretell after five minutes this detective is going to solve the mystery, or this young man will fall in love with this girl, and it actually happens, without any fail. In particular, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, you can never know what's coming next.
J.W.: Both Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son are about madness, which has of course been a theme in your career. What can you say about the madness of these two characters?
W.H.: Well, you should be careful. I think in Nicolas Cage's case, it's completely demented, and it should be as vile and as debased and as hilarious as it can get. In My Son, My Son it is not the clinical insanity that interested me. You see, I met the real murderer once and decided not to do it again, and part of his insanity was, he believed that he would, by sacrificing his own mother, save the planet. And he wanted to be crucified live on national television. So he was totally upset that the trial didn't even happen, and he was declared unfit for standing trial, by reason of insanity. So if I had been into that side, the clinical insanity, it would have been an uninteresting film, it would have been an interesting case for clinical psychiatrists, but not for me as a moviemaker, and not for you as the audience.
J.W.: I'm surprised you left out that messiah complex aspect … the crucifixion sounds like an amazing image going through this character's mind, but you chose not to—
W.H.: There were many other things that I know about him that are even crazier, but I'm not going to speak about it on camera.
J.W.: And why do you say you chose not to? I assume you saw him in an institutionalized setting.
W.H.: Because of the story. I'm into a very scary story, and into something that I think you normally do not see in a horror film. I say it with great caution, horror film, because what I made is not a horror film, but it is a very scary movie, and the fear is always anonymous, always unexplained, always not reducible to, let's say, a statement of insanity.
J.W.: As in your other films, there's violence, but it's not gruesome, we never see gore. Is there a reason you choose very seldom to show that?