Werner Herzog, a superstar of West Germany’s revolutionary Neue Kino movement three decades ago, has kept a low profile in recent years. While his early filmography contains such epoch-making movies as Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), he has produced only a handful of major works in recent years, including the 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, a dreamlike depiction of fiery destruction wrought by the Persian Gulf War and the 1999 portrait My Best Fiend, about the late actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog is returning with a vengeance in 2005, though, unveiling four new features. Listed in order of United States release, they are The White Diamond, about a British scientist testing a flying machine he has invented to explore the canopy of a Guyana rainforest; Wheel of Time, about a half million pilgrims attending a Buddhist ceremony in India’s northern countryside; Grizzly Man, a portrait of an eccentric bear enthusiast who was killed by one of the creatures he loved; and The Wild Blue Yonder, a science-fiction fantasy now in post-production.

Since he’s no longer a household name, some background on Herzog may be helpful. He was born Werner Stipetic in 1942 in Munich, Germany and lived in a mountain town near the Austrian border as a child. There, the rock-solid facts about Herzog’s early life come to an abrupt halt, crashing into the mountain of fibs, fabrications and tall tales that have circulated around, and been encouraged by him throughout his career. Editor and moviemaker Paul Cronin sums this up neatly in Herzog on Herzog, his 2002 interview book: “Most of what you’re heard about Werner Herzog is untrue.”

This said, it appears fairly certain that Herzog did a lot of foot traveling as an adolescent (his famous claim of walking 500 miles from Munich to Paris at age 32 may never, ever be proven one way or the other) and did poorly in school, working as a welder to finance his first short, Herakles, in 1961. He started gaining international attention with his first feature, Signs of Life, in 1968, helping to put the whole Neue Kino crew—including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, among others—on the global moviemaking map.

Blurring the boundaries between real and unreal, external and internal, physical and metaphysical has been central to Herzog’s agenda from the start.

Herzog earned an early cult following with such films as the bizarre 1970 melodrama Even Dwarfs Started Small, the harrowing 1971 documentary Land of Silence and Darkness and the mirage-filled 1971 fever dream Fata Morgana. The movie that made him an art-theater luminary, though, was Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his 1972 classic about a demented 16th century Spanish explorer losing what little sanity he had while leading an expedition down the Amazon River. The title character is played by Kinski, a hugely gifted and famously difficult actor who also stars in such later Herzog productions as Fitzcarraldo, about a man building an opera house on a jungle-bound mountaintop, and Nosferatu the Vampyre, a 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece.

Herzog’s other recurring star is Bruno S., a mentally damaged man who emerged from an institution to become a Herzog protégé, playing the historical hero of The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974), originally called Every Man for Himself and God Against All, and the protagonist of Stroszek (1977),
a disoriented wanderer who appears to share the actor’s own peculiar personality traits.

Other important Herzog films include Heart of Glass, a hallucinatory 1976 drama for which he hypnotized the cast before each day’s shooting, and La Soufrière, a 1977 short about his effort to climb a Guadaloupe volcano expected to erupt at any second. He has also directed productions at major opera houses and has starred in movies by other directors, such as Harmony Korine’s admirable Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Zak Penn’s miscalculated Incident at Loch Ness (2004), which he also co-wrote and produced. However, his most memorable role is that of himself in Les Blank’s classic documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), which chronicles the near-chaos of shooting Fitzcarraldo on location in Peru, where everything from weather to war seemed bent on annihilating the production. Herzog is currently based in both Germany and Los Angeles, where his second wife, Lena, resides.

By conventional labels, three of Herzog’s 2005 releases (The White Diamond, Wheel of Time, Grizzly Man) are documentaries, depicting real-life people and events, while the fourth (The Wild Blue Yonder) is fiction (Brad Dourif plays an alien from outer space). Not many Herzog films fit neatly into these pigeonholes, however, since blurring the boundaries between real and unreal, external and internal, physical and metaphysical has been central to his agenda from the start. This year also brings the DVD debuts of Signs of Life, a story of military madness set against visionary Greek locations, and Land of Silence and Darkness, an attempt to fathom the world of people who are blind and deaf. Both defy categorization, as do the latest Herzog releases.

When I moderated a panel with Herzog and Frederick Wiseman at the Sundance Film Festival last January, I expected fireworks. Wiseman is a “direct cinema” pioneer who does spur-of-the-moment shooting and never uses narration, while Herzog has no problem with narration, happily stages “nonfiction” scenes and says cinéma vérité is “devoid of vérité,” reaching “a merely superficial truth—the truth of accountants.” As things turned out, both moviemakers were as genial as they were communicative, even agreeing on the cinéma vérité question when Wiseman acknowledged disliking the term (if not all its implications) as much as Herzog does.

At one point, I told Herzog that his refusal to draw sharp borders between fiction and nonfiction reminds me of Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that these categories form a sort of Möbius strip, since starting down one road inevitably leads to traveling the other as well. Herzog responded, “Godard said that? It’s well put.” Then he paused and added, “But I don’t trust Godard.”

Like many a Herzog movie, this was a comment both candid and cryptic. I was delighted to probe him further in this interview, our fourth since we first met in 1974. Except for a 1979 conversation about his Nosferatu remake, when he seemed prickly and defensive, I’ve always found him articulate, attentive and as forthcoming as you could expect from an artist whose personal history has aspects as enigmatic as those of his films.

David Sterritt (MM): You’ve been quoted as saying that “humiliation and strain” are essential parts of moviemaking. Is that accurate?

Werner Herzog (WH): You have to take it in the proper context. It sounds at first like [a comment by] someone who is out for something masochistic, but I only said it because I don’t like glamorizing film shooting. There is nothing glamorous or glorious about making a film. It’s hard work, and much of it is a chain of banalities. It’s natural that there are defeats and humiliations along the way if you’re making films seriously, and you shouldn’t be frightened of that. Putting the quote in another context, you hear the complaint—in Germany, in Hollywood, everywhere—that the production companies are stupid, the studios don’t understand what filmmaking is about. But you shouldn’t go into this culture of complaint. Roll up your sleeves, understand what’s coming at you and do it! These are the things I meant when I said that.

MM: I recently saw a newspaper headline that said you are “reinventing” yourself as a documentarian. But you’ve made nonfiction films throughout your career.

WH: Yes. Reinventing is what pop stars like Madonna do… I’m not into that. You have to see this as part of a very big cultural shift throughout the last, say, three decades. Much of the audience has moved away from “art house” movies, which would include films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—and Casablanca even. People have shifted more to the big, Hollywood action movies. It’s a worldwide process.

The basis of operations for the kinds of films I do has become more narrow, because there is not much audience for them anymore and not enough distribution. It has become more difficult to raise the finances for a feature film, and that’s one of the reasons I am doing more documentaries. But they aren’t really documentaries—they’re invented and stylized and staged. I wouldn’t really speak of “documentary” when I speak of Grizzly Man or The White Diamond… Fiction and documentary are not two different things for me; it’s all “movies” for me.

MM: I understand that these are very much “created” works. But if we use the terms “documentary” or “nonfiction” just a moment longer, are you saying this kind of moviemaking is now more practical, in terms of production and distribution, than fictional “art” moviemaking?

Clockwise from above: Herzog on the set of Grizzly Man (2005), a portrait of eccentric bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (below), who was killed by the creatures that he loved.

WH: They’re much less expensive and much easier to make. From the fee I earned for doing Grizzly Man and an award I got at Sundance that was endowed with cash money, I immediately set out and made The Wild Blue Yonder, which is some sort of science-fiction film. I can do those out of my own pocket. For larger features, it’s not so easy. With a film like Grizzly Man, having a real theatrical release through Lions Gate is significant. I’m out for new horizons and new coalitions and new audiences and new ways of producing and distributing films.

MM: Since you don’t believe in documentary “truth,” what are you seeking in Grizzly Man, The White Diamond and other such works?

WH: I have written a manifesto, the Minnesota Declaration, which you can find on my Website [www.wernerherzog.com]. It has humor in it, but there’s a serious point I’m trying to make. In cinema there is something like “factual truth”—with both words in quotes, because you should not confound “facts” and “truth.” There is something deep in [the best] poetry and paintings throughout the ages, and this can [also] be in issues/59/images on the screen. There is a kind of ecstatic truth, an ecstasy of truth, a much deeper stratum. I’ve always been after that kind of illumination and ecstasy. I’m after something that human beings have always been after, for as long as they have articulated their thoughts.

MM: While mounting the camera for your first trip in The White Diamond airship, you jokingly say that “celluloid will save us.” How do you feel about high-tech video these days?

WH: I use it once in a while, but I’m still a man of celluloid. I still believe celluloid has better, deeper issues/59/images.

MM: Is this connected with your goal of reaching an ecstatic truth, not just putting dynamic pictures on the screen?

WH: No. The medium on which you record doesn’t have much to do with that. But shooting on celluloid does give you a different attitude toward your work. You can’t immediately check what you have done, because you have to wait until the lab develops the film. And you don’t have these endless tapes that run for a whole hour, letting you shoot uninterruptedly and think everything is okay if you cover every single bit of action out there. Celluloid forces you to be more focused, more intense, more time-restrained, without the fake security of instantly checking what you’ve got.

MM: I notice that The White Diamond has a screenplay credit, naming Rudolph Herzog [Werner’s son] and Annette Scheurich [a co-producer on the film] as the writers. Yet the movie seems spontaneous rather than scripted.

WH: That’s one of those quirks of credits. There was some early moment of preparing a screenplay, and for legal reasons it had to be perpetuated in the credits. But, of course, some of the film is scripted.

Herzog in Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams (1982).

MM: Your narration is clearly scripted.

WH: Not only the narration, but what you see in the finished film. I’ll give you an example. There is a wonderful shot of one drop of water in extreme close-up, and [refracted] in this drop of water you see the waterfall [near the film’s main location] in the distance. The waterfall is upside down, because of the optical properties of the water drop. That image was shot by one of the cinematographers, who is mostly a wildlife photographer. It looked really like kitsch, and I didn’t like it. And yet I loved it a lot. I thought, if I put this water drop [refracting] this inverted landscape with a waterfall—this whole universe, in a way—if I put it into a scripted context, all of a sudden it could be great. And so I put a whole story around it.

One of the local Rastafarians [Mark Anthony Yhap] is going out foraging for medical herbs. He does that in real life and I filmed him doing it. But in a part that is all scripted, he shows us the water drop—which wasn’t even a water drop, it was glycerin [made into a fake water drop by the cinematographer] because glycerin has better optical qualities and properties than water. And then Mark Anthony looks through it and explains how you can see the waterfall in it. We see him from behind, and my voice off-camera asks him, ‘Mark Anthony, do you see an entire universe in one single drop of water?’ It’s a silly, new-age question, and it’s scripted. And he slowly turns around, and what he says is scripted… He has a kind of imperceptible smirk on his face and he says, “I cannot hear what you say, for the thunder that you are.”

MM: You showed that clip at our Sundance panel and you gave the secret behind it—about the glycerin and so forth. You said the image was kitschy and you hated it, but you were determined to put it in your film. Can you explain why you wanted to include an image that you hated?

WH: I saw something beyond the kitsch—I’m speaking purely about that single close-up of the water drop. I knew that if I put it in the right context, and if I was inventive around it, the kitsch of that image wouldn’t show anymore. In a different context it would take on a greatly different perspective. But you had to create this context, you had to create the right scenes around it. I would use any kind of invention [to accomplish this] and I even faced the fact that I would sound very silly in my question from behind the camera: ‘Do you see a whole universe in one single drop of water?’ In normal life I would never ask a stupid question like that! It’s in the great tradition of Hollywood movies, like Fred Astaire movies. Fred Astaire would have asked that question!

MM: So there is a level of entertainment and a kind of sub-rosa humor in this moment, as well.

WH: Yes, yes. It’s pure storytelling. I think this is storytelling at its best. An image that you should not show in a nature movie suddenly becomes something big, and suddenly you have a great moment of illumination.

MM: Each of your new “documentaries” has a strong interest in the mysterious, which we’re familiar with in your work, and even the mystical. Can you discuss the challenge of putting on film things that cannot be seen—filming things, especially in a work like Wheel of Time, that are invisible because they’re inside people’s heads?

Klaus Kinski stars in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).

WH: Like spirituality. It’s very interesting that you come up with this, because I would like to point out that New Yorker Films is releasing on DVD my first long feature, Signs of Life, and also Land of Silence and Darkness, which I want more than any of my other films to be available for audiences.
It digs into the world of people who are deaf and blind at the same time. It’s probably the deepest film I ever made and it deals exactly with that invisible, inaudible world of us inside, in the deepest solitudes you can ever have…. Just as Wheel of Time shows you the deep spirituality of the world of Buddhism, this film is somehow capable of showing an inner world that is otherwise invisible. That’s what my profession is. I am a director of movies and I can show these things. I can make them visible. At least I try my best, and sometimes I kind of succeed—maybe only halfway or three quarters, but I do succeed once in a while.

MM: Would you call Land of Silence and Darkness your favorite among your films?

“All of my films are my favorites. I’m as bad as mothers who have a couple of children; you cannot ask which one is her favorite.”

WH: No, they are all my favorites. I’m as bad as mothers who have a couple of children; you cannot ask which one is her favorite. I’m the worst of all judges.

MM: Music has an important place in many of your films. The music provides a very interesting dimension in The White Diamond, for instance, sometimes by bringing out an air of mystery that’s already there, and sometimes by operating in counterpoint to the image. How early do you think about the music for your films and what role do you feel music plays in films like these?

WH: That’s a very good question, because in The White Diamond the music was recorded months before I started shooting. I put together a cello player from Holland, five singers from Sardinia who sing ancient, almost prehistoric shepherds’ chants and a Senegalese singer. They had never seen each other or played together before. I recorded all the music… and before I shot the first image, I took the cinematographer aside and told him, ‘Listen to this. It is the rhythm of the film.’ The mood of the issues/59/images—the rhythm of the issues/59/images—had to follow the music. I played it to everyone before the first day of shooting.

A scene from Herzog’s moving documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971).

MM: Do you feel you can continue indefinitely to make movies out of your own ideas and your own heart? Is there a chance that changing realities of the industry might force you in more commercial directions?

WH: I am very commercial already, and I have been all my life! Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek and Kaspar Hauser and Lessons of Darkness and Grizzly Man—this is all very commercial stuff! Of course, sometimes it takes 25 years for it to turn into a film that is commercial—like Nosferatu, a foreign-language film made more than 25 years ago, got released on DVD and video and sold 300,000 units in its first five weeks. For 10 days we even beat Armageddon for number one! Those are the moments when I know I’ve always been a storyteller and I’ve done it all for the audience. Of course I want [the films] to be successful and to stick in your heart, and not die away quickly like a quick consumer good.

MM: Can you tell us about any other new projects?

WH: I am starting a new feature in Thailand, which has a flickering green light at the moment. It’s a survival story. But what I really want to mention is that I published last November a big book of prose, Conquest of the Useless, in German—it isn’t translated into English yet—that is a mixture [of fiction and nonfiction] and is already in its third edition. It has much more substance and intensity than all my films together. It will overshadow everything I’ve done in movies so far. MM