The Wrath of Werner Herzog

Despite the years he has spent on location in the Peruvian Amazon, on the Sahara, and in Australia, the United States, and Burma, there is little about Werner Herzog that is not distinctly German.

From the lightning and jet-lag in his eyes to the low rumbling talk of ‘searching for adequate images’ to the distaste for logic and the laws of physics that sits on him like a nimbus, Herzog distills everything that is both larger-than-life and vaguely disturbing about German culture generally and German film in particular.

There is, to begin, his reputation for rudeness and megalomania that seems to compel portraits of him as either a prophet of some dimly understood new world or an on-set Ahab who routinely wrestles with jungles, ships, death, war, aboriginal peoples, moody crews and bad weather to get his stories on film. He puts off probing questions by claiming that he is only a storyteller, a simple storyteller. But asked to write an introduction to a film he will leap from a reference to Don Giovanni to Phillippe de Commynes (“his memoirs are essential to me”) in a heartbeat.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

His main characters are often taken to be autobiographical sketches. So he is Kaspar Hauser, the young man who came out of mountain poverty who remembers, in his cautiously articulate German English, “until I was 12 I never saw a film–and then it was Tarzan.” Or he is Aguirre, the obsessive visionary: “I see planets that don’t exist and landscapes that have only been dreamed,” he has said.

Yet standing before a crowded museum theater in Seattle, where he has been flown in to preside over an abbreviated retrospective of his career, Herzog has more the look of a lonely hunter than the wrath of God. Late on Saturday night when he rises to introduce his slow-moving, daylit version of the Dracula story, Nosferatu, the Vampire, Herzog looks weary; his hair uncombed and trousers rumpled, he starts with some reverential words about F.W. Murnau’s shadowy 1922 original. “Moonau,” he says, “I consider to be the greatest German director, and Nosferatu the greatest German film. More than anyone else Murnau saw the catastrophes”—he hits the two “t”s in the word hard—”that would come only 10 years later.”

Along with G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang and a handful of other directors, Murnau played a large role in the imagination of a generation of postwar German directors who had been either literally or symbolically orphaned by the decade of Nazism. The jump across generations made Murnau and others as much figures of nostalgia and loss for directors like Volker Schlondorff, Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter and Margarithe Von Trotta: “we het no fathers, only grandfathers,” Herzog explains mournfully before asking his audience to enjoy this film about the living being pursued by the undead.

During the Expressionist period in the 1920s, German filmmakers stuck to a familiar national tendency to turn their backs on reality (one lost war, for example). Instead they took refuge in memories of a glorious past. But recurring images in the decade’s films include ghosts, misty landscapes, phantoms and fantasies, all of which suggest something dreadful. Filmmakers claimed the same territory that German philosophers and poets did, seeking a vehicle to climb to a somewhere else. Yet even in this company Herzog is exceptional, compelling sober film scholars to venture into a terrain where references to German history and philosophy run into the director’s occult ambitions. Timothy Corrigan has written that Herzog aims “to integrate within mass entertainment a radical evolution of cinematic vision. . . to make commercial audiences radical seers.”

The day following the screening of Nosferatu I am sitting in a hotel lobby when I see him step from an elevator. He immediately strides vigorously toward me. A man in a hurry, he shakes my hand while eyeing a corner where we can talk for a few minutes. While I arrange my tape-recorder he rubs his hands and says bluntly, “Okay, let’s get this going.” He sits down in an armchair and takes a breath.

Despite his reputation as a beast with his hindquarters in heaven, as the demon conquistador of the dreamlife, I was caught off-guard by this. In the long and animated question period following Nosferatu, Herzog showed surprising interest in talking, possibly because he considered Seattle to be one place on the globe that understood his work early on. (Another is Brazil.) He entertained the audience at length with stories of Klaus Kinski and pestilence. “Kinski had screaming, hysterical tantrums,” he said, clearly relishing his memories, “Every gray hair I haf I call ‘Kinski.’ . . . My crew called him pestilence, but I told them, ‘don’t you think he has a magnificent presence?’ When the film is over [the tantrums] do not matter. . . .”

Because he could afford no more extras he put his crew into many background scenes. He explained how the rats that spill off the Count’s ship were penned in just out of camera range and individually painted gray (“I was bitten quite a few times. But it was no big deal,” he said). Listening, I remembered other location stories, the war breaking
out just as he arrived in northern Africa to shoot some dream sequences for Kaspar Hauser; the willful brutalization of everyone around him making Fitzcarraldo; the hypnotization of his Heart of Glass cast.

Les Blank documented the bizarre making
of Fitzcarraldo in his film, Burden of Dreams

Herzog’s presence seems to inspire outlandish and somewhat dark speculations and rumors. But the one about hypnosis is repeated often and has the most crepuscular overtones. The best known and most influential silent German film is the 1919 silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It explores mesmerism, murder, the insanity of institutions (the story is narrated, it turns out, by a mental patient). Hypnosis plays a prominent role in Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse too, which follows the career of a power-crazed criminal. Devoted as he says he was to his “grandfathers,” did Herzog unconsciously explore one of the irrational threads he said so many of the filmmakers of the 1920s had felt around them?

Now in the hotel he looks a foggily impatient, a little like a man who has just tramped through the woods to be
here, irritated at being asked to start making sense of things out of earshot of nature. I start by asking him about the humor in Nosferatu. “Yes,” he says cautiously. “My films all have a lot of humor. Not that I plan it, but I know there is always going to be humor in it.”

A small tyranny of silence unaccountably settles into the corners of his answer. Asked how difficult Kinski was on Nosferatu he becomes briefly more interested, but brings out each word slowly. “Well, Nosferatu was easier than others because he needed so much preparation for stepping in front of the camera, four hours make-up. Fangs, ears. He somehow worked himself more into it. He was more contained. It was like a harness. You see, if he threw a tantrum and beat the ground with his fists, the make-up would be ruined and he would be another four hours. [In preparing Kinski] I managed to domesticate him, to make his real qualities productive for the screen. In Murnau’s film the vampire is without a soul, he is like an insect, a crab. My vampire plays against his appendages–his long claws and pointed fangs. He is so suffering, so human, so desperately longing for love that you don’t see the claws and fangs any more.”

Hypnotizing a Heart of Glass castmember.

I think aloud about the vampire motif and what he had said last night about his country’s historical “catastrophes.” In a sense, I suggest, Nosferatu approaches the Nazi question from the back door. Why not confront the past head on as other German directors have, as Fassbinder did in The Marriage of Maria BraunHerzog’s eyes sizzle, bore into me. “Well [that film] is set at the ent of the war. . .what is the connection with the Nazi past in that film?” The
words are simple, but his question has real heat. I begin to say that Maria Braun deals with the ramifications of the war.

But he cuts me off. “It’s a luff story, it’s a story of solitude, and it’s a story of God knows what. . . . No, I find it short-sighted that you say that the film is coping with a Nazi past. This film in particular does not dig into the Nazi
past.”
Herzog has hardly raised his voice, but the big room is an inferno. But a story of solitude? I remind him that he claimed the previous night that his generation of filmmakers felt abandoned by their fathers, and shift the conversation to his own upbringing. “I grew up without the presence of a father,” he offers, relaxing a little. “Not that he was killed in the war. My parents, like many, got divorced after the war. Fassbinder also grew up without the presence of a father, also from a divorce. So many of us grew up without a father—culturally, too. Because many of our fathers’ generation had emigrated to Hollywood or to other countries, or had participated in the Nazi barbarism, which was also cultural barbarism. So our grandfathers were our only connection to our culture.”

The answer sounds like the official one I suspect he’s given more than once. I wonder if he is bored with an interviewer pressing him to reveal one more time his films’ clear preoccupation with naive, childlike ways of seeing
the world and with regarding people in positions of power as insane. His major films of the 70s—still the ones that come to mind for many filmgoers—often begin with a figure emerging from incarceration (Stroszek) or from an unimaginable darkness (Kaspar Hauser), or entering madness (Aguirre), or into a land of demons (Nosferatu), or into a straitjacket of discipline which mounts to dementia (Woyzeck). The description of Kinski in Nosferatu as in a “harness” created by his make-up leaves one with the image of the evolving psycho-drama between the monster
actor and the belligerent director, how it must have reached a rococco height in the film about vampirism. The byzantine layers of childhood anger are enough to induce vertigo.

Herzog’s recurring theme of childhood prompts speculation about his own, whose poverty and remoteness imply a kind of darkness or sentence at least partially analogous to Kaspar Hauser’s. Most of his dramatic films are fables of one kind or another, some like Heart of Glass more like adult folktales. But if fables usually have simple messages, Herzog’s rarely do. Moving slowly, his films draw portraits of people at the limits of their being. Kaspar Hauser, based on the story of a 17-year-old boy who appeared in Nuremburg in the early part of the 19th century knowing only the phrase, “I want to be a noble rider like my father was before me,” is arguably Herzog’s finest film. Beginning with the opening, searching shots of a blank sky, unspeaking river, blowing trees, and a rowboat
shot documentary style, Kaspar Hauser (along with Heart of Glass) comes closest to capturing Herzog’s abiding feeling that all stories are stories of solitude.

Bruno S. in a scene from Kaspar Hauser.

Like the aboriginal in Where the Green Ants Dream who was the last surviving member of his tribe, Herzog can sound like a man at the end of his particular species speaking in a language no one can understand. Heart of Glass, a film shot through with silence, layered hill fog, a fireball sun, and desolate, saturated blues, is a fable of a
pre-industrial village whose chief glass blower dies without leaving a recipe for ruby glass. The villagers react as though they have been cut off from God. In Stroszek, Bruno S.’s Stroszek delivers a heart-breaking speech to his girlfriend Eva about feeling left out.
On the last night of the festival, following a screening of his last epic-scale film with Klaus Kinski, the unreleased Cobra Verde, Herzog is clearly unhappy. The film, he says, makes him “uncomfortable.” Alan Greenberg, who co-wrote the screenplay, is in the audience and speaks up for the film’s large canvas, but Herzog will not hear him. And he is right. The film is rambling and unsteady and seems unable to integrate its dramatic and its documentary impulses. Herzog speaks to his own laziness, how he comes to the set unprepared, but ready for the fortuitous “accidents” which he says make the film—accidents and time. “I’m a firm believer that you can never establish the rhythm of a film in the editing room. I believe all the rhythm is in the shooting, in the way you use the camera. A director is only a lion-tamer of the wild accidents and coincidences that come along.”

There is a heaviness to his answers until someone asks him about spirituality. As he speaks, the auditorium becomes still: “Everyone can name films or music or paintings—things that give you a sense of sudden illumination. Let’s say stories by Joseph Conrad. A writer reaches out and makes an experience better. Once in a while I come across a director who has grown up and lives thousands of miles from me, like Abbas Kiarostami [the Iranian director of Through the Olive Trees] and it touches me. Through these images I am connected and something is illuminated. And I know then that I am not alone.” MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.