MM: There’s a sense of hellish otherworldliness that comes through by adopting that perspective, but at the same time, those images have their own political contexts. It’s very hard, sometimes, for audiences to break free of those contexts.

WH: But the film never mentions Kuwait. Never mentions the Iraqi army. Never mentions anything that pertains [to the Gulf War]. It declares, “This footage that you are seeing is a science-fiction film—something not our planet anymore. Period,” because what you see, and what happened there, was much bigger than a political crime. It was a crime against creation. And that’s much bigger and much more lasting. You may remember, at the time of the first Iraq War, when Kuwait was burning, every single day, on CNN or on the evening news, you saw these five or 10-second clips of the fires. Every single day. Nothing of that has lasted. It’s very ephemeral, what you had seen on TV. And I thought I had to do something that was much more lasting. It was for our collective memory. It was for much, much longer time. And I do so by endowing it with these images, with a strange perspective: “This cannot be our planet anymore.”

MM: Another thing you’ve said about such images is that they must be “adequate”—that their adequacy is what’s essential for human survival.

WH: I speak of adequate images—images that are adequate to our status in evolution and our civilization.

MM: There are many “adequate images” of disaster in your films that depict what you’ve called “embarrassed, violated or mutilated landscapes.” What does such landscape imagery say about our natural world?

WH: I think we should speak about cinema, not about the real world. In cinema, in our imagery that we are creating daily, or that we are absorbing daily, let’s say, on television, or in magazines, around the internet, on YouTube… It is a perpetuation of imagery that we have had for a long time, and there is nothing renewing in there. There’s nothing vigorous in there. There’s nothing really lively there. That’s, in a way, a dangerous situation. Language and imagery have to keep abreast with what is going on in the “real world.” In Lessons of Darkness, Salt and Fire and much earlier in Fata Morgana, you do see images that you have never seen before. This is one of the reasons why I’d love to be on Mars, but with a camera. And of course, with a camera I wouldn’t make a documentary. I would send poetry back.

In Lessons of Darkness, Herzog’s camera observes the boiling oil fields of Kuwait. Image courtesy of Werner Herzog Film

MM: It’s funny you mention poetry… The dialogue in Salt and Fire does have a sense of the poetic about it. You said once that you believe the poetry you write will have even more longevity than your cinematic art. What are your thoughts on the tension between poetry and cinema?

WH: Well, it’s always interwoven. When you see films by, say, Abbas Kiarostami, the great Iranian filmmaker who passed away this summer, he always has the sensation to be present in poetry, which is a cinematic poetry. In quite a few of my films, you sense this kind of link, but completely apart of that, the prose texts that I have written, like Conquest of the Useless, or Off Walking in Ice, probably will live longer than my films. I do not have a very clear argument about it. I think films, by their nature do not have such a long life as books can have. But again, it’s just what my instincts tell me. It’s a gut feeling.

MM: You formed a relationship with Lawrence Krauss over time. Krauss has been an active champion of public understanding of science, and he ended up having a pretty significant role in Salt and Fire. Did his intellectualism and activism in the public sphere inform your casting of him in a film like this? 

WH: Well, his activism in the public sphere is much more an anti-religion role. When we would drive to and from our location, which would take an hour or so, he would sit in his wheelchair [laughs] in our van and tell us about new findings in cosmology, which was always wonderful. But why does he appear in my film? I met him actually 10 years ago at Sundance Film Festival when I had Grizzly Man playing there. We immediately had a very fine rapport, and Krauss somehow mentioned, really very casually, “Oh, I would love to be in one of your films,” and I said, “Yes, you will be in one of my films, because you look very much like a villain! I have to cast you as a villain, if ever anything.” And that was prophetic [laughs], in a way, because almost 10 years later I cast him as a villain. He has a look and the speech of somebody who could be a good villain.

Lawrence Krauss as the wheelchair-bound villain Krauss in Salt and Fire. Photograph by Lena Herzog

MM: There’s something off-kilter about his presence.

WH: Yeah. It’s the same with, for example, I’d love to have Mike Tyson in one of my films. Actually Tyson and I met and we immediately liked each other. There has to be the right project. You see, these things are staying dormant, maybe forever. Maybe a project is coming along where Krauss would fit as a villain, or Mike Tyson would fit in as a scientist. Actually, I’ve had very, very fascinating discourse with Mike Tyson about the Roman republic. And he has been in the public appearance at the New York Public Library in the discourse. High, high-caliber intellectual discourse. Via phone, I asked a question—first, to the audience, all intellectuals, very erudite, very accomplished scholars: “Who has ever heard of Pepin the Short?” Nobody, in 650 people in the audience would know who was Pepin the Short. But Mike Tyson, very eloquently, speaks about the father of Charles the Great, Pepin the Short. So, sometimes these roles, as we somehow would like to see a man like Krauss as a scientist and someone in cosmology—no, he’s a villain in my film. And Mike Tyson would be great as somebody to have a discourse on camera about the Roman republic.

MM: [Laughs] That’d be quite the trip. Besides his unique set of knowledge, what is it about Mike Tyson’s presence that you gravitated toward?

WH: There’s a very strange cross-section of tragedy and raw power in the man. In prison, of course, he started to read voraciously and study voraciously. It’s interesting, fascinating, to think what could have been, if, let’s say, he had grown up differently, in a different environment. He’s such a curious and intelligent man.

MM: There’s a tenderness to him, too.

WH: Also, yes. Yes. He must have been a very sweet kid, who, angered by the circumstances of his life, was arrested 40 times before he was 11 years old—something like that, maybe I’m exaggerating now. You just have to imagine that.

MM: How did we get to Mike Tyson [laughs]?

WH: …Sorry that I’ve departed so far from the core of our discourse [laughs].

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