If you gaze into Werner Herzog talking about Werner Herzog for long enough, does Werner Herzog gaze back into you? I pondered that question in late June as the 71-year-old director sat across from me at a conference table in the Santa Monica offices of Shout! Factory, the production house behind the newly released Herzog: The Collection, a Blu-ray retrospective featuring 16 of his early art-house films, including the masterpieces Stroszek (1977) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1979), hits like Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and self-reflective meta-documentaries like My Best Fiend (1999) and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Leading up to the interview, I had immersed myself in so many Herzog movies, so many documentaries, and so many mini-featurettes—and then re-watched the films to hear Herzog’s commentary tracks—that by the time I was in his presence asking him questions and listening to him respond in his famously clinical, Über-Bavarian interpretation of English, I actually felt reality wobble for a second.
Somehow I pulled it together and asked him about a few profoundly Herzogian topics, such as the nature of reality and, of course—[shift into the Herzog voice inside your head]—looking into the abyss. He also reflected on his 57-film career, all the way up to his recent return to the Moroccan desert to direct his first female protagonist, Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, in the forthcoming Queen of the Desert.
[Putting digital recording device on table.]
So, this is for online. Does that mean audio or written?
Written. It’s a Vulture Transcript. I did one with Mel Brooks.
It’s funny. Because Mel Brooks, a long time ago we connected in a way that nobody expected. We were really friends.
At the end of the ’70s. I would walk into his offices unannounced. He would be with three or four attorneys having a discussion and I would just nod to him and sit down at the same table and disappear ten minutes later. [Giggles.] And there was a strange moment. I told Mel, “Mel, you know what, I have seen an extraordinary film. Something you must see. You must see. It’s only at midnight screenings at the Nuart Theatre.* And it’s a film by—I don’t know his name, I think it’s Lynch. And he made a film Eraserhead and you must see the film.” And Mel keeps grinning and grinning and lets me talk about the movie and he says, “Yes, his name is really David Lynch, do you like to meet him?” I said, “In principle, yes.” He says, “Come with me,” and two doors down the corridor is David Lynch in pre-production on The Elephant Man! Which Mel Brooks produced! And the bastard sits there and lets me talk and talk and talk and grins and chuckles. And I had no idea [and kept thinking], Why does he chuckle all the time when I talk about the film? But that was how I love Mel Brooks.
I wanted to talk about athletics. Have you been watching the World Cup?
Some of it, yes.
Do you root for the German National Team?
No, but I root for Costa Rica.
The Ticos! Why?
Yes. Because we haven’t had an underdog like this. They are the quintessential underdog. They keep winning and winning and winning. Now, they may have come to the end of the line, but bravo! C’mon, that’s the beauty of soccer. All of the sudden there comes a team, we have never heard any of the names, and they run their lungs out of their bodies. And they fight. They are wonderful.
The stamina of soccer seems like it would impress you.
Yes, but I love the beauty of the game.
In Herzog on Herzog you talk about how you were a low-level club player in Germany.
You said you were slower than many of your teammates but had good vision. You knew where your body was in space.
I could read the game better than, at least, my teammates. I like players who can read the game. Sometimes they are unobtrusive, but in my case I was visible because I was our goal scorer in the short time I played for them. I was good in goal-scoring because I could read and sense what was coming, and be at the right spot then, all of the sudden.
Did you know how to dive?
No, that’s an awful disgrace. It’s a disgrace. And it shouldn’t be [allowed]. And all of them should learn from American football. And moreso, all of them should learn from rugby. What a manly, decent sport that is. There is a great kind of honor to rugby. I really love rugby for that.
They’re less protected than in American football.
Yes, and [I love] the kind of dignified way they deal with one another. Even though sometimes they sort things out in a brief fistfight. The ref lets them sort it out very quickly and then be decent again.
You seem to be drawn to people with physical ability, and you’ve said that filmmaking is athletics over aesthetics.
But … but … but you should not narrow it down just to that. Because I have done an entire feature film with a midget cast, Even Dwarves Started Small. Bruno S., who was not athletic, he had a catastrophic childhood and adolescence and was locked away and stigmatized and institutionalized. Or Land of Silence and Darkness, probably my deepest film I’ve ever made, nothing as deep as that, and the protagonist in the film is deaf and blind at the same time.
Bruno S. had an intense relationship to the physical world. He loved inanimate objects.
He would collect things from the garbage and reinstall them to their life or even a superior life. For example, he collected broken ventilators. He had about 20 or so. And one day, he came to me and he said, “Werner I have one running now, and you know what…” He painted every single blade of the ventilator with a different basic color—blue, yellow, red—and spun it. And all of the sudden it was white, they look like white blades when they spin fast. And he said, “Werner, can you help me to write this as a scientific paper and submit it to the academy of sciences?” And I said, “Bruno, this has been discovered centuries ago, but you are as great as the greatest inventors because you did it out of nowhere. You did it out of not knowing physics or mathematics. You discovered it on your own and you deserve to be named in the textbook of physics. But we cannot submit it to the academy of sciences.” What I mean is, he connected to the physical world, even to the leftovers of the physical world and transformed them into something sublime. An old piano that was broken and still out of tune, and he would teach himself to play the piano that way. Just heartbreakingly wonderful.
A lot of the films in this collection were made while you were a very young man. Do you think your physical presence, the way you move, and your coordination helped people trust in your authority?
No, because then every athlete would be a trustworthy person.
Does being in the presence of great athletes give you any sense of awe or admiration?
Only in the presence of Muhammad Ali. I would have his complete and utter confidence. Number one, [he was one of] the greatest of all rappers ever. And what a disgrace that he’s silenced, that he cannot speak. And [he was] a man with a moral compass. They put him in jail. They took his title away. He did not go to war. You see, I’ve never been in his vicinity, but I feel being next to a man like this would give me a complete feeling of security.
How did you feel when you were hanging around the Prince of Homburg?
Well, he was a dangerous man with a huge amount of criminal energy. And he was the right one to play a pimp, a dangerous pimp. So it was a good choice. But I think my actors or my crew do not respect me because I have been athletic before in my life. It’s something much, much deeper. It’s experience in life, it’s how you see the world, and it’s how you can transform everyone on the set into what is the very best in him or her. And I can do that. That’s what I get paid for. Insight. Things that I see. And others do not see.
You were 28 and you had a group of people in the jungle looking to you for leadership.
You speak of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. People think it was my first film.
It was your sixth? Seventh?
No, my eleventh. It does not matter. You have to have it in you. It’s not so much that I’ve been physical or that I had already quite an amount of experience in life. I think it’s the depth of a vision. And to see somebody who has a very, very clear vision and guides you along, that translates into confidence. You see, after the second day of shooting, everybody could tell, “This is gonna be big.” Kaspar Hauser was like that. Or Aguirre. Or now Queen of the Desert. Most of our crew were Moroccans. They see it. A day into shooting, everybody knew this was gonna be big.
I’ve been to Iquitos and have done ayahuasca there. Have you been under psychedelic drugs?
Is it because you like to be in control?
No, it’s not a question of control. I simply don’t like the culture of drugs. I never liked the hippies for it. I think it was a mistake to be all the time stoned and on weed. It didn’t look right and it doesn’t look right today either and the damage drugs have done to civilizations are too enormous. And besides, I don’t need any drug to step out of myself. I don’t want them and I do not need them. And you may not believe this, big-eyed as you sit here now, but I’ve not even taken a puff of weed in my life.
When was the first time you refused a joint?
Oh, I do not refuse it. I just pass the joint on to the next and let them do it. It’s their business. I don’t want to do it. Actually, I was completely stoned once with the composer Florian Fricke in Popol Vuh. I was at his home and he had pancakes and marmalade. And I smeared the marmalade and he started chuckling and chuckling. And I ate it and it tasted very well and I wanted another one and took another good amount of the marmalade and the marmalade had weed in it. He didn’t even tell me. I was so stoned that it took me an hour to find my home in Munich. I circled the block for a full hour until finding my place. So I have had the experience.
Was it terrifying?
No, it wasn’t terrifying. It was just weird. Because I have a good sense of orientation.
The perspective with some of these older films seems to be rooted in the psychology associated with the traumatized generation of post-war Germany.
No, no, no, no, no. Number one, when you look at my films they don’t look like post–World War II German movies. And there is no psychology. It’s more like King Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria who built dream castles. And everybody immediately believes childhood in postwar Germany was traumatic. My peers who lived in the city grew up in ruins and they had the greatest time in their lives. They all had the most wonderful childhoods. And I, growing up in the countryside, very remotely, I had the greatest childhood you can ever find.
Is it true you were a ski jumper?
Yes, well, that was an aspiration that was stopped very quickly, but we had complete freedom because there was no fathers around to tell us what to do and how to do things. And we had weapons, and we handled explosives. [Smiles.]
That’s a sunnier interpretation of your childhood than what I’ve heard from you before.
No, it’s not sunny. It’s not an interpretation. It was wonderful. It was great.
On the commentary track to Nosferatu, though, you talked about how the movie was an homage to your grandfather’s generation, because you are from a fatherless generation.
Thanks, god. Thanks, god. What a blessing! What a blessing that there was not a Nazi as a father around telling me what to do and how to conquer Russia! And how to be a racist! Thanks, god! I thank god on my knees everyday.
That you didn’t have a father?
And it’s not an exaggeration. There was nothing traumatic about growing up for kids in post-war Germany. Of course it was traumatic for those who were a little bit older who had to flee, who were refugees and fled from the Polish border and were on tracks, and the left and right rape of women, and burnt-out villages and bombs coming down and things like that. A friend of mine who is a painter was in a bunker when the bombs hit his town of Hamburg. Almost everyone perished. And he was there 48 hours in this basement, flooded, and his aunt held him above water level for 48 hours, until they were rescued. The water was almost up to the chin of his aunt, and she held him above water level. So yes, when it comes to that, that is traumatic. And no wonder he became an artist!
You’ve said, “Tourism is a sin, but travelling on foot is a virtue,” and your ability to go to other places and to immerse yourself in the world of other people is impressive. You seem very comfortable in places where a tall German guy might stick out.
Well, the world belongs to those who travel on foot.
So you don’t feel like an intruder or an interloper?
No, because, you see, mass tourism has done so much damage to culture. It’s horrifying. And it’s only part of more catastrophic events. For example, the spread of global culture is somehow diminishing existing languages. There’s still about 6,000 languages. Ninety-five percent of all spoken languages will be extinct 50 years from now. And that’s really catastrophic. What about the last Spanish-speaking person dying, and no more Don Quixote and no more great dramas and no more flamenco and no more great poetry? Just imagine that. Spanish will not die out that quickly, but marginal languages and cultures are dying left and right at catastrophic speed.
Cobra Verde, which came out in ’87, expanded my knowledge of the global slave trade. But there’s such a white guilt complex over tourism, and such anxiety about exploring places beyond our territory, don’t you think?
I don’t feel guilt. I only see the destructive elements in it. When I say tourism is sin and traveling on foot is virtue, it’s condensed into a dictum. It’s much more complex than that, but let’s face it, for me, my experience, the world reveals itself to those that travel on foot. You understand the world in a much deeper level. And it does good to anyone who makes film.
I can’t even imagine how many conversations you’ve spent discussing “What is real?” But I want to do it, because there’s an obsession today with verisimilitude.
I have to be careful, I’ve been cornered about this, for a book like Herzog on Herzog, or now, A Guide for the Perplexed. Yes, there is a question about what constitutes the real world and what constitutes deeper meaning behind that. What constitutes facts and what constitutes truth. Those are huge, huge questions out there that have engaged my working life from day one on, more or less. And still I don’t have an answer. But I’m en route.
You don’t seem to be interested in re-creating our daily lives, but instead in presenting something you’ve called “the ecstatic truth.” You want to present something recognizable in an unrecognizable way.
Well, recognizable on a much deeper level, where you recognize yourself all of a sudden. I’m trying to find these rare moments where you feel completely illuminated. Facts never illuminate you. The phone directory of Manhattan doesn’t illuminate you, although it has factually correct entries, millions of them. But these rare moments of illumination that you find when you read a great poem, you instantly know. You instantly feel this spark of illumination. You are almost stepping outside of yourself and you see something sublime. And it can be something very average, some small thing that everybody overlooks. For example, in Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell filmed himself. He’s in the Starsky and Hutch mode and reenacts them and does something and he jumps and runs away and the camera is rolling. Twenty seconds later he returns as Starsky and Hutch and switches the camera off. And in these 20 seconds there is only reed grass wafting in the wind. And all of a sudden I notice something very big out there. An image that wanted its own existence. That’s so powerful and so strange and so illuminating that I had to show it in the film. And everybody overlooked it and I have to point it out. It’s something very, very strange and it can be the most insignificant, which all of a sudden acquires something deep and almost illuminating of your existence. You’re deep inside into the nature of things, into the abysses of the human soul.
You believe so much in trying to uncover what life means at various coordinates around the globe, and you seem to have a deep love for these places and their people. But at the same time you brought Klaus Kinski to these places! A maniac. This seems like a contradiction.
No, no, no. That was the right place for him. [Laughs.] The jungle is a place of fever dreams. You just bring him there and make him productive.
But firing a Winchester into the natives' tents? You must have been confident in your ability to corral him. Or maybe you needed the challenge from him?
No, it was much more. Number one, there was a great story out there. Number two, he was the perfect person to play the part. And then of course you have to deal with his craziness. And he didn’t shoot into a tent, but into a very flimsily built hut, the walls were made out of bamboo. And there were 30 or 40 extras crammed in there and singing and chanting and playing cards. And he feels disturbed by the joy of others! And fires three shots from his Winchester through the wall and shoots the finger away from one of the guys.
Yeah! Terrible behavior!
Yeah, but let’s thank providence on our knees that he didn’t kill anyone.
Do you feel responsible for that extra’s finger?
No, I do not feel responsible. Because I couldn’t foresee that he would open fire. He was afraid of jaguars and whatever, and I said, “Okay, you have your rifle and you feel safe in the jungle.” But that he would shoot at extras? That was not expected. I did the right thing five minutes later. I confiscated the rifle and I still have it.
You’ve had Nicolas Cage, Christian Bale, and James Franco, but has anybody in the last 10 years come close to the eccentric actors that the ’70s and ’80s provided you?
Not really. But every single one of them is taken seriously by me. And I pay a lot of attention. And I always have one clear goal: He or she has to be better than ever before afterward in their lives. I want them to be. Nicolas Cage, for example. Nicole Kidman now. I should have made films about women all my life.
Do you think you’ll make more films about women?
[Laughs.] Sometimes I think, in particular now having done Queen of the Desert … I keep marveling at how good I am with a female star of my story.
You’ve had great female characters, but they were never in the center. Why?
I don’t know. I could have done it. It's a coincidence of my stories. Aguirre could not be played by a woman. A conquistador. It’s about the follies of men.
You had a 40-year-old play a 17-year-old. You’ve thought in counterintuitive ways...
No, no, no, I know what I’m doing.
On the commentary track to Stroszek, you talk about the places where the American dream meets the American nightmare—Disneyland, Wall Street, Las Vegas, San Quentin, and, oddly, Plainfield, Wisconsin. Can you explain?
There are threads coming from all directions and sometimes they build knots. [It’s like] when you look at a map in the airline brochure in front of you and you see the pattern of their flights, and all of the sudden they have a hub in Atlanta and they have another hub in Salt Lake City, and all the lines converge there as if there were knots. There are certain places [like that] in probably each country; in the United States, I feel these focal points, these knots, where everything seems to converge, including the nightmares. Like San Quentin. One of the knots would be Wall Street—not that I’m saying Wall Street is evil. Or Plainfield, Wisconsin, where out of 480 inhabitants five became mass murderers within a few years, including the worst of all, Ed Gein.
Can you feel the energy being transmitted from these places?
You can sense it. Go to Wall Street. At the time I visited Wall Street, it was not a visitor’s gallery behind bulletproof glass. It was open. You heard the shouting from down there. You could even shout down to them—which I didn’t do. Yes, there’s something of great intensity there. Or the intensity of Las Vegas. A cheap, collective dream to strike it rich without working. And I’m one of the few reading and thinking people who loves Las Vegas for the vulgarity and omnipresence of the dream. The collective dream. There’s something enormous about it. Let me say one thing: Las Vegas and cinema have similar roots. The country fair. The magician at the country fair. The vulgarity of the country fair.
The circus! Yes. And everybody complains about the circus of Cannes Film Festival. Yes, it is a circus, and I like it.
A lot of great artists are drawn to the circus.
No, I’m careful. Not that I’m a great fan. But I see this in a way constitutes one of the roots of my profession.
How do you feel about clowns?
I don’t like them so much, but I have a different type of humor. And in almost every single one of my films there’s humor. Including Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Quite often you see people laughing, and it’s wonderful.
I ask because Childrens Hospital the Adult Swim show in which Rob Corddry plays a surgeon who is also a clown—did a My Best Fiend parody called My Friend Falcon. Have you seen that?
No. It’s probably easy to make fun of me. My accent, number one.
That’s the thing about this collection: Your voice has a wisdom to it, so your commentary tracks are the best. You get to watch these masterpieces along with your commentary track. It’s a two for one.
I did these voice-overs only because audiences love it. They want it and they expect it, and I do not want to withhold it from them. Because I work for an audience. That’s what I do.
Correction, Aug. 4, 2014: This article originally misstated the name of the Nuart Theatre as the New Art Theatre.