Werner Herzog does not choose which films to make – they choose him. ‘They come after me and I have no other choice but to do them,’ says the famed German director. The proof is in his impressive filmography, which spans over 40 years, and includes recent works such as The Wild Blue Yonder, Grizzly Man and The White Diamond. If fact, Herzog has made four feature-length films in the last 14 months. ‘Once I finish a film, all of a sudden there are five more lined up. It’s like if you invite two guests for dinner and 50 crowd in – how do you get them out? I keep on pushing my films out the window and the door and through the basement entrance.’
But don’t make the mistake of calling works like Grizzly Man or The White Diamond – Herzog’s most recent non-fictions works – documentaries. He eschews such genre definitions, simply stating, ‘I make movies and I try my best. I think audiences don’t care about categories – they just want to see a good movie.’
That being said, Herzog isn’t embarrassed to admit the premise of a movie he watched last year: it was about college kids in Cancun on spring break. ‘The only point of the film was who was going to get laid first. And I kind of liked it,’ he says with a laugh. ‘It had such an easy approach to its subjects. I hate pretentious films. But that film was so straightforward. There are certain forms of films out that normally aren’t pretentious: Kung Fu films, Fred Astaire films, porno – there’s no pretension in them.’
There’s certainly a lack of pretentiousness in Herzog’s portrayal of the human condition. ‘With [Grizzly Man's protagonist Timothy] Treadwell, or Aguirre, The Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, we are somehow exploring our innermost human conditions through them,’ he says. After all, Grizzly Man is a film about human nature, not wildlife, and Herzog makes you cringe as he brings his character’s demons to the surface.
One thing Herzog struggles for is what he calls ‘absolute truth.’ ‘What I feel quite often is that there is an absence of searching for some deeper stratum of truth. When you look at the so-called cinema verité, it is ultimately the answer of the ’60s regarding our realities. But things have become dramatically different within the last 15 or 20 years – we have gotten an enormous explosion of instruments that somehow challenge reality.’ He rhymes off a list of such tools: the Internet, reality TV, Photoshop, digital effects. ‘It’s probably not so important what constitutes facts and what constitutes reality. What is much more important is ‘Where is the truth in all of this?”
How to convey that truth – and a message – has recently changed in at least part of the film industry. ‘You can see with the kinds of stories that were at this year’s Oscars, like Brokeback Mountain, like Capote, that real storytelling all of a sudden counts more than just pure special effects.’
With a look as mesmerizing as special effects, the astronaut footage Herzog used in the sci-fi, doc-style The Wild Blue Yonder struck him with its sense of poetry. When he discovered the footage (which was shot by astronauts in 1989 during a shuttle mission) in the NASA archive in Pasadena, it was immediately part of a great fiction story for him.
In another unconventional choice, Herzog created the music for Wild Blue – music funded by broadcaster France 2 – first, then organized the images according to the rhythm afterwards.
The film was completed after Grizzly Man, the unflinching story of Treadwell and his mission to save his ferocious friends. Grizzly Man‘s unfathomably quick turnaround is testament to Herzog’s ease with storytelling. During the editing process in September 2004, Creative Differences president Erik Nelson asked if Herzog could complete the film in time for Sundance in January 2005. ‘I said ‘Yes, I think I can do that,” says Herzog. ‘But, he said, ‘There is a problem: the deadline for their selection jury is approaching’ and I said ‘How many weeks do I have?’ and he said ‘Well, it’s actually 10 days’ and I said ‘It’s not a problem, let me try.” Nine days later, the film was edited and had a complete commentary.
With Grizzly Man, there’s always the elephant in the corner: the audio footage of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard’s deaths. ‘Of course everybody – Lionsgate, Discovery, Erik Nelson – they all wanted to have it addressed because the world out there knew there was a tape,’ says Herzog. ‘But the moment I listened to it, it was instantly clear, number one: I’m not going to make a snuff movie, and number two: you have to respect the dignity and the privacy of an individual’s death.’ Jewel Palovak, a close friend of Treadwell’s and his co-author on Among Grizzlies, wouldn’t have allowed the footage to be used either. ‘So of course that was accepted by everyone,’ says Herzog.
His deep voice and heavy German accent stand out among other narrators, but it only adds to the Herzog experience. ‘I like to be the narrator of my own films because they are very personal,’ Herzog muses. ‘But even though my accent is very clearly not English, I don’t care because I make myself understood and I wouldn’t like to hand it over to a polished actor that doesn’t even know what he is saying, but says it in a technically beautiful way.
‘It gives the film real character. I’m one of those who, for example, doesn’t worry that some of my teeth are crooked and that I have to straighten them.’ His comment reminds him of a statement Marilyn Monroe once made. ‘She was asked ‘Miss Monroe, from which men do women have to stay away from by all means? Which men are the pits, the worst, that you have to flee instantly?’ Without missing a beat she said ‘Those with perfect, straight teeth.’ And I compare my commentaries to that – they have an accent, they are not perfectly straight, but they have character.’
In addition to his directing, writing and non-traditional narrating, Herzog has also been known to flex his shooting muscles. ‘I love the camera. There’s a film where I outed myself as one of the cinematographers,’ he says, taking a few seconds to remember which one. ‘Ah, yeah – The Wheel of Time. It was actually Peter Zeitlinger, an Austrian and very, very fine cinematographer. But the part shot in Tibet I shot by myself – and I think it is the best stuff in the movie.’ There’s only a slight pause before he laughs heartily. ‘I’m sorry, but I enjoy making statements like that one. I know I shouldn’t in public.’
Herzog has been known to do the unexpected, though. In 1999, he played a dysfunctional father with a penchant for cold medicine and demoralizing his children in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy. ‘My wife will get alarmed calls from her friends saying ‘What are you married to? We can give you shelter.’ So my performance was effective, in other words.’
The character he played was obsessed with the notion of winning and strength, and the people Herzog uses in his own films are also often fixated on something, whether it be protecting bears or floating through the sky. Is Herzog himself obsessed with anything? After a long pause, he posits, ‘I have no obsessions. People always think I’m obsessive, but I think I’m not. I make a lot of sense the way I am.’ Thankfully for audiences, the same can’t always be said of the characters in his films.