“This Is Not Our Planet Anymore”: Werner Herzog on Why He Makes Movies From “The Quasi-Perspective of an Alien”

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MM: [Laughs] So, I grant you that your films are reaching at far more than environmental concerns. But, in light of the election, there of course have been tons of discussions about how not only the new President-Elect, but politicians in general have posed a threat to the environment. There have been many filmmakers who have sought, even before this election cycle, to make an impact regarding this issue. What would you say to filmmakers who are seeking to make that kind of impact? What should they do more of, or less of, in their work? How can they understand cinema as a tool to affect change?

WH: I don’t want to address filmmakers. I think we should address every one of us. It would be fairly easy, I think, for every one of us, to spend, let’s say, 25 percent less energy than we are spending today. For example, I’m doing this interview with you over the phone, and we are not meeting somewhere in town, and we are not driving. Today I’m driving only 10 percent of what I would drive in an amount of mileage 20 years ago. So I think whatever politics is doing, every single one of us can contribute, and all of a sudden we would have a massive shift in consumption of energy, and consumption of resources. Here in the United States and in Western Europe, something like 40 percent of all food is thrown away. This is outrageous. Imagine the amount of resources that go into every single chicken or any single apple or any single ear of corn, and then it’s being thrown away. Every single one of us can change it. Don’t wait for politics to do something, and don’t grumble in the trenches that the new administration may do some unpleasant things. Forget about what they may do. You have to do something!

Herzog stands in front of an active volcano in his fiery doc feature, Into the Inferno. Image courtesy of Netflix

MM: It’s an important point.

WH: It’s the only point! And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Trump or Clinton or Obama. Environmental care is something you just don’t leave to politics and administrations. Every single one of us—here you have 300 million Americans—and every single one of them could throw much, much less food away, or consume less energy than they did before. Not all of us can do it, but most of us, I think. When I leave a room, I automatically switch a light off. Many of us don’t do it.

MM: So, progress through individual action.

WH: Yeah. Don’t wait for politics. Don’t complain about politics. I gave people that exact same answer under Obama. Don’t wait for anything happening in politics and regulations. Just roll up your sleeves and improve your single, tiny household. And if 300 million households do it, we are in much, much better shape.

MM: Do you consider yourself a political thinker? Should cinema, or any art, for that matter, be political or politicized?

WH: Well, that was a debate in the late ‘60s, and it’s just dusting out of everyone’s ears: “Film has to be political.” The debate is long, long, long buried, thank God. Cinema is cinema.

MM: So in other words, it’s not obligated to be either political or apolitical?

WH: No, it’s not. But sometimes you have cinema that is actually good, interesting and fascinating political cinema. But it’s not the exception. It’s not the real fertile ground for cinema. Just watch a Fred Astaire movie.

MM: What about a Fred Astaire film is cinematic “fertile ground”?

WH: I’m just naming Fred Astaire to sound… a little bit provocative. [Laughs]

MM: [Laughs] You once said, when reflecting on Where the Green Ants Dream, that it’s blatant about having a message, and there’s a rather self-righteous tone: “I wish I’d cut it out of the film, it stinks to high heaven.” Being a film that addresses humans’ relationship to the Earth, would you characterize Salt and Fire as a “message film” in any way?

WH: No, no, no. It’s your obsession. I think that’s coming back to the very beginning. You heard somewhere on the internet that it’s an “eco-thriller,” and you are lost on a raft in the middle of the ocean [laughs].

MM: [Laughs] Do you consciously avoid including anything that would be considered a message, after your experience of having regretted that you included that in Where the Green Ants Dream?

WH: Well, there was one moment in my life where I was a little bit harsh with any of my films. Where the Green Ants Dream, otherwise, is a very beautiful film I think. It just has a tone that I do not like anymore today.

Werner Herzog behind the scenes of Where the Green Ants Dream. Photograph by Paul Cox, courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek and Werkfoto

MM: Can you put your finger on why you had such an adverse reaction to the tone of the film?

WH: Yeah… It’s not that wild, but it’s a little bit seeming of self-righteousness. That bothers me.

MM: Why would self-righteousness bother you? For some, that attitude can inspire, it can be a call to action.

WH: No, no. It’s an awful thing. It’s an awful thing in every single human being, every single political party and every single religion, when they become self-righteous.

MM: So, self-righteousness is not required in order issue a call to action.

WH: No. It’s just an awful attitude. Period.

MM: One last question: Have you seen any films this year that stand out to you as memorable, exemplary, interesting, groundbreaking?

WH: I do not see many films. So far, this year I have only seen two films and they were both lousy.

MM: Care to share what they were?

WH: No, no, of course not. I would not put down any. I would not name the lousy films. MM

Salt and Fire opened in theaters April 7, 2017, courtesy of XLrator Media. Featured image photograph by Robin Holland.

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