Film

Werner Herzog: "Everything I have done is wonderful"

German giant of film-making Werner Herzog reflects on youthful ambition and his 'controversial' directorial reputation

Credit: APA-PictureDesk GmbH/REX/Shutterstock

At 16 it was obvious that I would make films but, of course, I failed to get anything off the ground. I realised I had to become my own producer or I’d never make a film. So I started working the night shift as a welder in a small steel factory. That’s how I made money to fund my first film. But of course during the day I was in school so that was not too much sleep in those two-and-a-half years.

I was in high school, a classical school. So we had nine years studying Latin, six years Ancient Greek, some English at the end. I hated it all. Everything. The idea of gaining knowledge did appeal but I never trusted textbooks and I never trusted teachers. I’m completely self-taught. Including cinema. I’ve never read a book on film-making.

Klaus Kinski stars in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982)

When I was a child I didn’t even know cinema existed. I grew up in the remotest mountain valley in the Bavarian alps. I saw my first film when I was 11 but it was not really satisfying. A travelling projectionist came by our one classroom schoolhouse and showed two films. They were both lousy. One was about Eskimos building an igloo, all paid extras who didn’t know how to handle snow and ice. I could tell because I’d grown up in snow.

I excluded myself from music when I was young because I was harassed by a music teacher. I disconnected myself from music for four years. And then there was a void, and I felt a hunger to fill the void. But you can never fill it. It’s the same with books. You read a wonderful book and you believe the pile of unread books will somehow be smaller now. But on the contrary, the unread books pile becomes larger and larger after every great book you read.

I never saw a great film when I was young. I saw some mediocre pictures like Tarzan and Zorro, the cheap 1950s version. But it was clear to me that I was some kind of a poet and I would use that quality to make films that would be different. I always had the feeling that I was the inventor of cinema. But I also wrote poetry and I have written prose – Conquest of the Useless, Of Walking in Ice – which I think will surv-ive all of my films. Because of the substance and calib-re of the prose. There is no one who writes prose like me these days. I write better than all the others. But I always recognised that making films was my destiny.

I’m not a traveller or an adventurer. I’ve just done the slalom of life and I’ve done it well.

I was not a neurotic boy. Not then and not now. I was just as stupid as anyone else at that age. But I do not want to remember the teenage me. I wouldn’t want to meet him, for God’s sake. I don’t like to go circ-ling around my own navel, I’ve never done that. I feel uncomfortable looking at myself. I do not like to look at my own face in the mirror. I do not like self-scrutiny.

I was not ambitious as a boy but I had stories and ideas coming at me with great vehemence. So I had to deal with that. I’ve never had any career. Career would mean planning the next steps and building something. I’ve never done that. I was always very curious about the world because the world I grew up in was very limited and I wanted to know what was beyond the mountains and the valley.

I’m curious about landscapes we don’t usually see, like North Korea [for documentary Into the Inferno]. I’ve been to many places because of the projects I’ve done. I just made a film about volcanoes [Salt and Fire] and I went to see salt flats in Bolivia, which are just not from our planet. They’re like science fiction. A completely different landscape. But I’m not a traveller or an adventurer. I’ve just done the slalom of life and I’ve done it well.

I do not like any notion of adventure. The concept expired at least a century ago. It’s obsolete to speak about adventure. You can go down to your travel agent and book a trip for an adventure trip to visit cannibals in New Guinea. It has become as obscene as that. When I’m making a film and there are certain obvious risks, I assess the risks for the sakes of the people who work with me. And I’m good at that. It’s rumoured that I’m reckless and adventurous and it’s not like that.

I’ve always been very, very prudent. There are these myths that I jeopardise the lives of the people who work with me, that I push people over the brink. But statistics are on my side. In the 70 films I’ve made, not a single actor has been hurt. Not one.

To see my son discover the mountains on the moon – that was a fine moment.

Everything I have done is wonderful. No, I am not being sarcastic. I truly love all my films. They couldn’t have been better. Sometimes the ones that have a limp or a stutter I love even more. You cannot ask a mother, which of your seven children do you love most?

I have had to explain things about film-making because I have faced a huge onslaught, a gigantic avalanche, of young people who want to ask me things. I try to give a systematic answer. I run my Rogue Film School. It’s the antithesis of what you see happening worldwide in film schools. It’s a guerrilla-style, a way of life rather than a list of practical advice. You won’t learn any practical things in my school, with two exceptions: lock-picking and forging documents. It has been life-changing for almost all of my students. I tell them to form secret rogue cells everywhere. They gang up and they make very good stuff. They win awards at festivals. One of them outdid me recently by making it to the Academy Award shortlist. You see, I never make it to the shortlist. They surpass me, which I find absolutely perfect.

Of course I have got older and I have moved but the essence of my films has not changed. I would not do Aguirre… 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. But all my films come from the same family. If you woke in the middle of the night and turned on the TV, you would know within 120 seconds if it was one of my films. The first thing you would recognise is they are better than the others. No, I say that frivolously; it’s a provocation.

When my older son was five, I had a real good telescope. One night there was a full moon. We looked at the moon together and you could distinguish the mountain ridges and crater rims. To see him discover the mountains on the moon – that was a fine moment. That is where movies come from. Always the sense of awe. That is the birthplace of cinema. Showing your little son the mountains on the moon – that is something I do in all my films.

Werner Herzog’s new film Salt and Fire screened at Glasgow Film Festival in February, and is released later this year. glasgowfilm.org

Main image: APA-PictureDesk GmbH/REX/Shutterstock

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