In this episode of “The Portal” podcast, Eric interviews legendary film-maker and director, Werner Herzog about his life in outlaw film-making before a live audience.
[00:00:03] Eric Weinstein: Hello. You’ve found The Portal. I’m your host Eric Weinstein, and this will be our second interview episode to be released. I think we have something really remarkable for you today because we have a human being who’s led a life that even though he makes movies that are fictional, I would say that his actual nonfiction life is more interesting than any movie he’s ever made. This is a person who has been shot on camera. A person who has stolen, who has forged and who’s taught other filmmakers to steal and to forge. The person I’m talking about is Werner Herzog. Now, I first became aware of Werner Herzog when I was 16 and just entering the University of Pennsylvania, and a friend of mine said, you’ve got to see this movie. Fitzcarraldo I said, what is Fitzcarraldo? He says, if nothing else, it’s a story about a man so possessed by an idée fixe that he drags a boat over a mountain in the jungle, in order to somehow build an opera house. And the whole thing sounded incredibly mad. And in fact, what was so interesting about this film was that the director actually had to do in real life what the crazy fictional character did inside of the storyline. This led me to a fascination with a today’s interview subject Werner Herzog. This is a man who has lived so richly and so profoundly that I actually started to get a different idea about what he was doing as a film maker. The idea that I could not shake was, is that Werner Herzog needed to live so deeply and so profoundly that he had to make movies simply to justify what it meant to be Werner Herzog. Now, I’ve often asked myself this question, what is it the great generals do between wars? It’s hard to imagine, let’s say a Patton or a MacArthur in normal times, do they just sit around and open dry cleaners? Do they write essays for their local newspaper. What does a Winston Churchill do if there is no World War II to win? In such a situation I think it’s very hard to come up with an answer, but I think that the best answer that I have is, is that these people would make movies. The following interview was recorded in front of a live audience. We joined the conversation in progress. May I just ask, first of all, before I try any theories of the kindness, do you see any clear organizing principle that unifies your output that is sort of subtle and non-obvious to your audience?
[00:02:36] Werner Herzog: Yes, I do believe so. People are quite often puzzled about the range of the subjects that have attracted me. There’s a world champion ski flyer from Switzerland, and there is a paleolithic cave, and there’s a man who moves a ship over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle, and there’s a film on the internet, and there’s a film, you just name it. And it looks perplexing at first sight. But I do understand, although I don’t like to look back at my films too often, I do understand that there’s some sort of an architecture of concepts. And that’s… You would immediately understand there is a common worldview. Very much is about a worldview and you could probably spot it very, very quickly, if you walked into a room and a TV was playing and there was a film within and you didn’t see any credits, probably within two minutes you would understand, this must have been my film. People see it, they understand it, how they do it. I don’t know. And how I do create this common world view, I don’t know either, but it doesn’t really matter.
[00:04:07] EW: Now, one of the things that I’ve been very struck by, which is what we all get wrong about Werner Herzog and because many of the stories that come out of these films and these undertakings involve tremendous seeming danger, physical risks, chaos, madness is all the things that are usually associated. I was trying to figure out what it was that those stories might cover up as if sort of cheap icing on a very rich cake. And one of the things that I saw, was what, and correct me if I’m wrong, it seems like you have tremendous concern for the people that you bring out onto these crazy projects for their safety and wellbeing. Am I getting that wrong?
[00:04:53] WH: No, we shouldn’t waste any time of what some people get wrong about me. Doesn’t really matter, let them be wrong. But, one of the things that comes up quite often, seems to be an identification of the creator of a story, a creator of a character, namely me, with the qualities that the creator automatically has to have. In other words if I do a film, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God about a demented crazed a conquistador, 1560s in the Peruvian Amazon, people quite often are misled to point out Herzog must have these qualities obsessive in demented and borderline paranoia. And so no day they are, I understand them, but they are not my qualities. They are inventions.
[00:05:54] EW: But you picked an actor in Klaus Kinski who might, I mean, I would venture to say, did have some of those qualities, is that wrong? And then you actually have the…
[00:06:03] WH: No, of course he had it. A part of being an actor who was really under the grace of creation to make things that we have not seen before or after on a screen. So, but otherwise, he was the mildest I could express would be, he was the ultimate pestilence, but he was also destructive. He would destroy a set. He would, when we had a, we actually had two plane crashes on Fitzcarraldo, small aircraft, and we didn’t know what had happened. We had a very sketchy shortwave radio connection with Iquitos about 1,100 kilometers away and garbled messages would come in. “Plane is down.” And we desperately tried, was it nearby? Could we send out a search party or what, who was on board, what had happened? And we had it happen in our camp, sometimes on days where we would start in the afternoon and shoot into the night. Breakfast would be served from hut to hut to hut, and so the last hut would have cold coffee. This morning, by coincident Kinski was the last hut, and I heard it from, from 150 yards away, screaming out. I mean the complete, not just a tantrum. It was just an outburst of rage, because his coffee was lukewarm and he stormed at the place where we were checking on the radio and trying to figure out, and he kept screaming and screaming. I could not calm him down. I could not get him away. I tried to tell him, there’s a plane down. You have to keep quiet. We must listen to what has happened. It wouldn’t help at all. He would scream and he would scream. He could scream a glass into he could shatter a glass, a wine glass. He, it really, I mean it, I do not exaggerate. And so the only way I could after an hour and a half when he had already froth, hardened froth at his mouth. I went to my hut and I had a little piece of Swiss chocolate left, which people would murder for such a treasure in our camp, and I stepped in front of him and ate this chocolate, and that silenced him. There was, there was something which was stunning.
[00:08:46] EW: And you knew, you intuited that this would have that effect?
[00:08:49] WH: I should have had the intuition after five minutes, it took over an hour. So, but, problem is that quite often, qualities of the characters in my films have been super imposed on my own character, or, for example, I’ve acted in some Hollywood films and some independent films, check Reacher, for example. And I’m playing the real, real dangerous badass bad guy. And I’m very, very dangerous and I had to, and I’m unarmed, and I have no fingers left, and I am blind on one eye. And yet I had to spread terror from the screen, and I did it so well. I did it so well that my reviews were much better than the reviews for Tom Cruise. No, it’s true, I am not exaggerating. I was good, but it’s not that I can say this kind of vile, dangerous character is really in me.
[00:09:59] EW: Really?
[00:10:00] WH: And it became very easy, I did it unprepared, you see, and I have learned that when we teach Fitzcarraldo in the first round of shooting, there was Mick Jagger as a sidekick of the leading character, and Jagger spent some six weeks with us in the jungle. We shot half the film had to stop because the leading character became ill. We had to send him to the States and the doctors wouldn’t allow him to return to the jungle, so I knew I had to start all over again and on Jaggers contract, there was not time enough left for doing the whole film all over. I shot the film actually one and a half times. And, what is strange about, this recasting and restarting the whole thing, I knew if I did not find an actor quickly, in such a case, I had no alternative but playing the part myself. Because I would have been credible and I would have been good, not as good as let’s say, Mick Jagger and Jason Robards or Kinski and I learned one thing from, from Mick Jagger, which astonished me. He took me once a backstage when they were recording, and I was there and he was arguing with somebody about some totally trivial things. Completely and utterly trivial things, and also an on my set, he was arguing about the mineral water or about the per diem or something. And I said to him “Mick, the camera is rolling.” And he looked at me and he sees we are already doing it. And he steps three steps in front of the camera, and within three steps he becomes a demon. From a trivial, trivial little bickering, mediocre kind of character, his steps in front and he is a demon. And in that, in a way, I learned that from him. And, I didn’t prepare myself. I, when I stepped in front of the camera, I knew there was only one thing, be calm and be frightening and I can do it. Yeah. And I would accept it only because I knew I could do it.
[00:12:33] EW: So you’re really not the ultimate bad-ass, because…
[00:12:38] WH: I can’t… Maybe I am, but unbeknownst to me.
[00:12:42] EW: Well, okay. It feels to me like I was just watching a video of you being interviewed by the BBC and improbably you’re shot in the abdomen while being interviewed. And you seem to be somewhat irritated that the interviewer is treating this as a big deal, and like, otherwise, how would I know that you wear Paisley underwear? I mean you take your pants down-
[00:13:08] WH: Yeah, they wanted to see it.
[00:13:12] EW: -you’re bleeding, and you’re treating it like, why is every… It’s not that big of a bullet. That was your attitude.
[00:13:16] WH: No, actually I said something more beautiful. I said, this is an insignificant bullet.
[00:13:21] EW: Yeah, that’s true.
[00:13:22] WH: So, and I knew it had not perforated everything. It went through my, jacket in the catalog in the pocket and everything, but didn’t perforate into my intestines. So that was insignificant, but they immediately hit the ground, the camera fled and I had the feeling, “Stay, let’s finish at least the sentence.”
[00:13:48] EW: Cause it was great video. I mean…
[00:13:51] WH: For them it was great video, it…
[00:13:52] EW: No, it would’ve been, but what I’m trying to suggest, sir, is that you are the unreliable narrator. You are actually….
[00:13:59] WH: No, no, no. I made sense. No, no, no. I am the one who makes sense. I am the one who puts order into a chaotic situation.
[00:14:07] EW: That’s what you did. But when I’m, well, what I’m saying is, is that when your autonomic nervous system is triggered. It barely registers. You’ve been shot in the abdomen.
[00:14:16] WH: It registered, it hurt. It hurt a year because when I was laughing hard, it was still hurting. Yes, but there’s a sense of duty…
[00:14:26] EW: Which I very much appreciate, but that’s very unusual. These are real…
[00:14:30] WH: Yes, but it’s part of being a good soldier of cinema that I tried to be, a sense of duty, a sense of, you have to be reliable. You have to hold an outpost that others have given up. It’s loyalty,, and it’s loyalty to the entire crew that was there. However, they argued that we should call the police right away. And they said, let’s not do it because do you want to spend the next six hours in a police station to file charges and do you want to see helicopter circling there, and do you want to see a SWAT team in 10 minutes flat?
[00:15:11] EW: Right.
[00:15:11] WH: Do you want to see that? My answer is no, but it’s okay, let’s move out of the danger zone. Because the man with a rifle was still somewhere hiding on a terrace, and hiding now inside the building. Get out of there, but let’s continue. Let’s continue this all your team has come from the UK and you have to return tomorrow. Let’s get over with it. So it’s a sense of duty.
[00:15:41] EW: I appreciate that very much, but I mean, what you’re talking about is the highest levels of discipline and military style leadership. I mean, this goes far beyond…
[00:15:52] WH: Yes, but you should be careful about confusing it with military discipline where there’s some sort of blind adherence to given orders. I do think, I do think what I’m doing, and I do not ask anyone to do blindly something in front of the camera, but there is a safety margin. Whenever things are difficult in then, let’s say borderline dangerous, I would always do it myself first for the actor. I would go through the rapids with a small raft to see, does a rafter survive these three consecutive rapids.
[00:16:36] EW: Right.
[00:16:36] WH: Or a very simple thing, Christian Bale in a Rescue Dawn, he plays a chairman board and a Navy pilot who is shot down, 40 minutes in his first mission overVietnam or Laos, he actually was the only American POW who managed to escape from Viet Cong captivity, an incredible story. And Christian Bale who plays a part of him and they’re starving to death, almost starving to death, and they get some food that is infested by hundreds and hundreds of wriggling maggots. And we used maggots that native people would eat, but they would roast them, not alive and still wriggling. So, and I said to Christian, that was what Dieter Dengler, the real character, told me they had to do, there are nutrients that lot of nutrients in these maggots. I ate it. And I said to Christian, you know what? Give me the plate and give me a spoon. I’m going to eat a few spoonfuls, which I did. And he said, oh, come on, stop it. Stop it. I, let’s roll the camera. I’m going to get over it quickly. So he did. And that was one of the very, very few, moments of controversy between the two of us because I told him and he didn’t hear it. Apparently I told him, Christian, you know what, you stop eating when you really have, when you had it. And he keeps eating, eating, eating until the plate is empty. And then I say, cut. And he said, why didn’t you say cut before? Why? What happened? And I said, Chris, you are the one who should have cut, set cuts. But he didn’t hear it. And he was kind of miffed, but those, those moments say they do happen, and the unexpected on a set. That’s movies.
[00:18:50] EW: Yeah, right. I guess those moments do happen. So, it does strike me though that…
[00:18:58] WH: I tested it first, you see, I would always test it first.
[00:19:03] EW: It seems like that’s, you know, the Israelis have a theory of leadership, which is called follow me, where they take the highest value person on the team that the general or the Colonel, and he goes into danger first because the morale of the troops is so much heightened when you see a leader saying, I will actually take that kind of a risk. That seems to be a part of how you get fanatical loyalty.
[00:19:26] WH: It’s a very long tradition. Alexander the Great, for example, always on foot with his soldiers. He would not ride on his horse. He would be on foot thousands of miles. He would be the first to climb the ramparts on a ladder. He would be the one who when they were thirsty and almost dying from thirst. One soldier collected a helmet full of water, bit by bit, drop by drop and when the thirst was at its worst, this footman comes and steps in front of Alexander and
[00:20:05] says: “I saved this for you, drink this.” And Alexander looks at it in, spills it away, and he says too much for one, too little for all and marches on. So that’s leadership. Well, Hannibal who crossed the Alps on elephants, he would sleep with his soldiers at the outpost wrapped in his coat. And he would lose an eye crossing an ice cold river south of the Alps, and he would do things that, nobody else in his army would ever do.
[00:20:47] EW: Do you feel that this aspect of leadership, of putting oneself in the greatest situations of risk and harm is…
[00:20:57] WH: No. You avoid harm if possible.
[00:20:59] EW: Well, of course, but…
[00:20:59] WH: You eliminate harm before it even appears. You see, you have to be prudent, and in any kind of business, including the business of warfare, you have to evaluate a situation and you have to try to avoid the danger for anyone. The leader and the troop, you better stay out of it. And you use all sorts of military tricked trickery, deceit, you use ambushes. You use the so called cowardly things. And before you really put anyone into very grave danger. Eliminate whatever you can. Sometimes you can’t eliminate everything but cheat…
[00:21:53] EW: Of course, of course, and lie…
[00:21:56] WH: Lie and trick. I liked, by the way, it comes to main Jesse Ventura, who used to be a bodyguard of the rolling stones, by the way, and he used to be a a studio wrestler, who played the bad guy, by the way, in the ring. Completely stylized. And he became governor of Minnesota. And I always liked him for his down to earth approach. And he said once about his time in the ring as a wrestler. It’s just one of these WrestleMania people. And he said win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat. So I really like him for that.
[00:22:45] EW: Yeah. So this is one of the things that I found most enduring about your approach is that you teach film in this completely different fashion. It’s, let’s be honest, you’re an outlaw before you’re a film maker and you say to your students, you have to be prepared to steal, to forge, to pick locks, to do whatever it takes.
[00:23:09] WH: Forge documents, but still, you see, I wouldn’t say steal. I have stolen once in a while, but more expropriation than stealing, than theft, like my first camera was expropriated from an institution, but do anything that’s outside of the legal norms. As long as it as it does not hurt anyone. And foraging, a shooting permit in a country that has a military dictatorship is something fine and you should do it. You for forage, forage you must.
[00:23:47] EW: Yeah.
[00:23:51] WH: So you have to do it sometimes.
[00:23:52] EW: Definitely try this at home. All right, so you break into countries on a student visa that might severely punish you if they found out that you were filming. You did this in China.
[00:24:07] WH: No, not, well, yes, I did in China filming in the Western most part, near Kashgar, where there was an extremely high military and police presence, and I was filming with Michael Shannon, but we had no shooting permit, no working permit. We just went out to a local market. A very traditional market of weak word tribesmen a cattle market. And there was the real obvious thing was that we had a contraption built on the body of Michael Shannon, a tripod that held a camera in front of his face. So when he walks into a crowd, everybody who walks by would inevitably turn around and look after him. I wanted this effect. Everybody staring at him once he’s moving through a crowd and he said to me, I’m going to do it as long as you’re around next to me, because if I get arrested, you should be arrested as well. And I said, fine, let’s do it. And because it was so brazen, it was so brazen that nobody actually stopped us. There was a lot of police, and when you have one or two police people, then it’s dangerous because they would arrest you or they would stop you at least in check you out. But if you have 17, 18, 20 of them. There’s a strange psychological reflex. Everybody thinks the other one will stop you and you walk straight through the middle whether, and I keep saying where the enemy comes it at its thickest, walk straight through there and I look into some sort of a vague distance as if I had spotted a friend 50 yards away, and I’d walk with this gaze upon them, and while I pass, I may say something in my variant dialect, I say “Hast du einen Hartig gesehen?”, have you seen my friend Hartig? And they step aside and I’m out. So you have to understand the heart of men, and you have to understand the, the way police would react, and what would they do? It’s so brazen that nobody of the Hun Chinese police would ever suspect we were working without any permits at all.
[00:26:49] EW: Yeah. Now in our time, there’s this mania for truth and authenticity, and for acknowledging that it is always the group and never the individual that matters. Th the so-called great man theory of history is certainly at its cultural low. And yet here you are talking to us about the need to deceive, to break the law, and to affirm the violent act of creation in a very strong leadership context in which you’re taking on all of this additional risk just to in part inspire and protect your people even. You seem to be a man completely out of time with the current era and it seems to suit you fine, is that wrong?
[00:27:39] WH: Not really, there are few of us, but I wish there were more. But of course, what we are doing in filmmaking is not always based on boardroom decision. The way we shape the dialogue today in the Hollywood industry is determined by boardroom decisions. And that’s why movie-making has become so stale and so uninteresting and so predictable. So if you do the most the wildest of the stories and that’s always what counts. You see, I do not step outside the boundaries of legality. It has to do with a caliber of your quest, with the depth of your story, with the vision that you are pursuing. If that has real, real depth and you know, it as enduring depth, then you have the task and the duty to do the things that are necessary. As long, as I said, as you do not damage or hurt anyone.
[00:28:49] EW: You are taking a fair amount of responsibility. We had Jim Watson come to this office and he’s the co-discoverer of the three dimensional structure of DNA, of Watson and…
[00:29:00] WH: Oh yeah..
[00:29:02] EW: Yeah. But he said something which was, you know, I found very disturbing, but also very sensible. He said, you’re given about five opportunities to really level up in your life. This was how he saw it. And he said, you have to take each one of those, even though sometimes each of them comes with an opportunity where somebody may be put at risk or hurt. And I was curious. You have a very strong relationship with risk where you’re both putting people at risk and trying to make sure you put them at risk as little as possible. If both of those are true, do you believe that, let’s say Watson was correct, that you have to take these opportunities even if they do put others at risk, or do you really have a no harm?
[00:29:46] WH: Well, I think it’s more than five opportunities, these things I’ve seen a hundred times, these moments, and risk-taking per se, has no great value. It depends on what you’re doing and what kind of purpose it serves. And it’s not a quality, per se, to take risks. I try to avoid risks, and you see, my proof that I have been prudent circumspect, and well-organized is that in over 70 films, not a single one of my actors ever was hurt. Not one. I was hurt sometimes. Sometimes it has happened that some very close collaborator physically next to me, like a cinematographer with a 20 kilo, a handheld camera at that time heavy, flies through the air on the deck of a ship that bangs into a rock. And we were flying some 10 meters, and he bangs with his hand on the deck, and the camera split his hand apart. So yes, it happens in, he didn’t mind, by the way.
[00:31:08] EW: Well, he volunteered. Am I right that he…
[00:31:10] WH: Of course he did, every single one..
[00:31:12] EW: You said, who’s coming with me? Nobody has to.
[00:31:15] WH: Yeah, sure. And actually in this case, when we went with cameras through the rapids, that and we had shot the sequence with cameras on the, there’s no real shores, but in the rocks on either sides of these rapids. I was even pushed by some collaborators. We should have a camera on board. I said, really? Yes, of course. I see that, but we do not know what’s going to happen. It may sink. What happens then? The ship probably is not going to sink because we established it with a lot of very, very solid air chambers in there. It’s probably wouldn’t have sunk even under the worst case scenarios.
[00:32:06] EW: Let me ask you a very, very difficult question then. Assume that you were trying to make Fitzcarraldo, in which you drag this steamer over a mountain and it’s not the year 1982, but it’s some year, maybe around now, maybe a few years in the future where it’s possible to do this completely with computer generated imagery so that you could do it in CGI. Now my question would be this. Would, if it produced the same visual effect as you did in Fitzcarraldo, would it be worth doing if it could be done cheaply and safely?
[00:32:42] WH: No, it doesn’t it doesn’t create the same effect. And even the five year old, six year old viewers know it, this was a digital effect and you will always know it. I don’t think that digital effects will ever create some sort of an equal experience, maybe to some degree visually. But, you see, moving a ship over a mountain means you’re exposing yourself to things that are unthinkable and unexpected. You incorporate, in your approach, the totally unknown and the totally unknown invades you and the unexpected and the unthinkable invades you every hour, and your create something, an authenticity of story. Not only visual effect, you create an authenticity of event that is unparalleled. And it’s unparalleled by anyone who is sitting on a computer and creates a steam belt moving up on a hill. It does not, and it will not do so in the future.
[00:34:01] EW: You’re quite confident of that.
[00:34:04] WH: Because the experience of a thing rooted in reality cannot be replaced. It can be substituted. It can be somehow paralleled in a way by an artificial world, by digital effects. Until today, I would still insist I should, if it’s me who does it, I should move the ship. In one piece, 360 tons.
[00:34:39] EW: Right.
[00:34:40] WH: And let the others do their stuff and it will be inferior to mine.
[00:34:45] EW: Well, this is just it. I mean, you mentioned professional wrestling and Jesse Ventura and, you know, there is a theory amongst our group that maybe professional wrestling is a lot more real than anyone really wants to believe, that it’s commonly thought to be fake. One interpretation of your works sir, is that you are making many more documentaries than you claim to be because in fact, in something like Fitzcarraldo, it’s a fictional story about a man moving a ship over a mountain made by a real man who moved a real ship over a real mountain. And I remember when it came out in 1982, I was in college, we were electrified by this concept that if it had been done in CGI and we had known that it had been in CGI, we would not have been that interested in the story. But it was the fact that there was an insane man moving a ship over a mountain in reality…
[00:35:39] WH: Clinically sane man towing a ship over a mountain.
[00:35:42] EW: Sorry, I don’t want to… You want to cast to the aspersions, but functionally, sir, it is a crazy quest. And you spoke about it in terms…
[00:35:52] WH: No, no, it’s not a crazy quest.
[00:35:53] EW: Did you speak of it in those terms at the time?
[00:35:55] WH: No, no, no. It’s not a crazy quest, it was doable. And I do the doable, you see, you do not go out and try to, let’s say, go to Mars and spend there half a year on Mars in covering… in getting footage. You will fail. It’s not going to work. And we will see the technological utopia is coming to an end in our very century, like we saw social utopias coming to an inevitable end in the last century. Communism paradise on earth. Nazism, a master race, dominating the planet and on. So we will see… So do the doable. Do the doable, and I knew it was doable because I had figured out how to move a very, very heavy object in one piece on top of a hill for example.
[00:36:55] EW: Trying to figure out the how the ancients moved…
[00:36:57] WH: Yes, neolithic people.
[00:36:59] EW: Say more about how you solved that, you saw that as a puzzle.
[00:37:03] WH: I was searching a coastline of Brittany for a completely different movie and I ended up at night when it was already dark at Carnac. It’s 4,000 menhirs, these slabs of stone erected in parallel lines. Hill, uphill, downhill, uphill, down. It’s, it’s stunning. In what I saw in the headlights was stunning. And I slept in the car, and next morning I see there’s a little kiosk. They sold brochures, and in the brochure, it’s written that this couldn’t have been done by neolithic people, they didn’t have any technology. Yes, they had a rope and things like this. It could have been only alien astronauts, and I thought, bullshit, I can let… I will not move from this place until I as a niolithic person could do it. So what I would do is, let’s assume I have the rock already, 300-400 tons. I would need disciplined men to build a ramp, but maybe one kilometer ramp, which has hardly any inclination, which is almost flat. At the end. It would end up in a 10 meter high hill and I would take a crater hole into the Hill and then I would move. Then I would move the stone on oak trunks, on hardened oak trunks, and it’s very easy to move it, either with the turnstiles and ropes, or pushing it in a way with levers. And at the end it would drop into the crater hole and then you would have it erect with a heavier part up, and then you would remove the hill until, let’s say, it was sticking only into two meters of grounded, harden the ground, so you would have it erected. And I kept puzzling about one, a menhir, the heaviest ever, 1100 tons heavy, near the coastal place Locmariaquer, not too far from Carnac. And this stone, this slab, was broken into four pieces. In the major, the biggest of all pieces, at least 600-700 tons heavy, was aligned in one direction, and a little bit further out, the rest of the fragmentation was perfectly aligned in one line. So why does this happen, if that stone falls and breaks, it will align the fragments, but it didn’t. So I think what has happened is that they moved the stone, dropped it into a hole, and it broke. It broke at the rim, and the smaller fragments aligned, and thousands of years later due to erosion, some of these menhirs, fall over, topple over, and it toppled over in a different, in the wrong direction. So an accident, a neolithic accident, which must have happened, spoke to my as if it was proof of my way, how I would do it. And that’s how I moved the ship over the mountain.
[00:40:35] EW: Wow.
[00:40:36] WH: So, and I knew it was doable. If it was doable for neolithic people 7,000 years ago, I can do the same thing as well. I have no doubt whatsoever. And in an ideal case, you would, according to primitive laws of physics, you could have one single child pulling it over the mountain. Let’s say you introduced a pulley system of 10,000 fold returns. You pull on a string five miles until the ship moves 50 yards, and the child could pull it over a mountain. So you have to think you have to think, the bold ideas, but also those that are outside the common trend. It can only have been the alien astronauts that I showed you because I’m very proud of it. You should try to get hold of it because it’s very interesting. It’s called the Vanishing Area Paradox. I keep it in my agenda all the time, and it was published in the Scientific American. And it’s very strange, you have a configuration of elements of pieces, and when you rearrange the configuration of these, all of a sudden there’s an empty space of something that has filled out the entire space without a millimeter in between. And I kept thinking about it because it defies all my experience with reality. So within my reality, it is unthinkable, it is impossible. So, and I kept thinking about it and I was misled. The whole thing is a hoax. It turns out it’s a hoax, it’s fraudulent, and it gives it a certain veracity because it was posed this Vanishing Area Paradox. The question is posed in the scientific American, you do not believe that they are cheating you, and they cheat you. And what is happening is when you look at it very precisely, the area where all of a sudden in the middle there is an empty space, has been artificially made slightly larger by giving slight, slight more angles in the straight lines, and summing up creates a little empty space.
[00:43:22] EW: Yeah.
[00:43:23] WH: And I solved it myself because I thought, I cannot solve it because it defies my sense of reality, and the sense of reality of everyone around me. Something is wrong. What could be wrong. What could be wrong. And I started to check, and one of the questions I asked myself, could it be that this is a hoax, that this is a fraud, and if it’s a fraud, how do they cheat you? How do they cheat your senses? Senses of observation in this case.
[00:44:06] EW: Well, that touches on something that fascinated me. There’s a quote of yours where apparently you are facing a booing audience. Booing at you and you had the sense to say to them, you are all wrong.
[00:44:19] WH: Sure, and they were all wrong.
[00:44:21] EW: They were all wrong.
[00:44:22] WH: Yes.
[00:44:22] EW: What is it in you that has the courage to stand up to seemingly, I don’t know, arbitrary levels of negativity to problems that other people think are insoluble, where they have to invoke ancient aliens. There’s something so disagreeable about your personality that you’re capable of shepherding an idea through that much negativity. What trait is that?
[00:44:51] WH: Well, it was a specific case when I was filming the fires in Kuwait in the first Gulf war when Saddam Hussein’s retreating armies set every single oil well on fire. And I filmed it in a way that it looks as if it was shot on a, like a science fiction film. It cannot be our planet. And yet we know it must have been filmed on our planet. And, so it’s highly aesthetic, highly stylized, and in the immediate outcry was a steady sizing of the horror. But it wasn’t really horror, it was not horror for any human being. Nobody got burnt. Of course, it was a crime against creation itself, obscuring the sky for a wide, wide area, and something that should not happen. Not only a crime against the human race, it was a crime against creation. And this screaming, and people actually spat at me when I walked through the central island. That somehow reinforced my resolve, and I stepped up and I said Dante in his Inferno has done exactly the same. Hieronymus Bosch has done exactly the same in his hellish visions and Goya in his Los desatres de la guerra has done the same thing. And then in the end, I said, and you are all wrong. So do we have to burn the book, the divine comedy now, do we have to? Of course we don’t. So indeed, there’s an amount of certainty in me that and it’s not really anything that I can say was bold. It was totally natural to say that.
[00:46:58] EW: Yeah. I mean to me, it sort of strikes me as, we need people to inspire us by showing us that it’s not only possible, that it’s necessary to stand up to large numbers of people inside of a crowd. Now, one of the things that…
[00:47:13] WH: I could have, it was literally the entire crowd…
[00:47:16] EW: The entire crowd.
[00:47:18] WH: Well, that’s how I perceived walking down the central aisle, there probably was an amount of well-wishers and there must have been also some applause, but it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that some very credible reviewers like Amos Vogel, who wrote for The Village Voice, describes the scene. He described it. So it’s not a figment of my fantasy.
[00:47:50] EW: You know that there’s this very strange story with the reviewer, Joe Morgenstern. When he first saw Bonnie and Clyde, he gave it a terrible review because the violence was so disturbing and it was set to uptempo, happy music. And he said, well, this is an abomination. And then strangely, a week or two later, he said, I have to review this film again. I was totally wrong. The film is a masterpiece because it took a while to just understand that that wasn’t an error, but it was actually a brilliant artistic choice. Do you find that?
[00:48:21] WH: You do not find it nowadays anymore.
[00:48:23] EW: No one will listen to….
[00:48:24] WH: It must have been 40 years ago that somebody had the nerve and the guts and the caliber to declare himself wrong and taking a new fresh look at it. So, you hardly see it at all.
[00:48:40] EW: So let me ask, I would love to ask you one final question before opening it up to the audience. You’ve spoken quite a lot for a filmmaker about the importance of reading and the written word, and you’ve written obviously beautifully, and so many of your thoughts in this Guide for the Perplexed. And you have previously spoken about how television was turning us into idiots and dumbing us down, and that reading would be the key quality that determined who would inherit power in the future world. What do you see in the 21st century as having changed in this equation, with television having gotten much better, and the internet having seemingly gotten us into a state where we weren’t even able to get there with the idiot box, as it was?
[00:49:31] WH: Well, television hasn’t gotten that much better in some segments. Yes, in these long, limited, many season big stories that all of a sudden you can narrate large, large, expansive forms like War and Peace. So all of a sudden, we can create Dostoevsky on a TV screen, on Netflix screens or whatever. Of course the situation has become more precarious with the advent of the internet. But of course they are forces that have started way, way before the internet. We cannot blame it all, for example, people who would read, the numbers have declined considerably since 50 years or so. And today in universities, even in humanities or even in classics department where they should read ancient Greek and Latin, they do not read anymore and they have a hard time, and I’ve witnessed it. I’ve witnessed it in person. They are not even capable of writing three coherent signs and expressing one coherent, brief argument, and that’s alarming. That’s alarming, and that’s why I tell young, aspiring filmmakers, yes, watch films and do whatever you need to learn in technical terms. But read, read, read, read, read, read. If you’re don’t read, you will be a filmmaker, but mediocre at best. If you really want to become somebody of significance, and everyone who is around at this time of significance is reading, they’re all reading, everyone. And you are not, and it’s not only for filmmaking, it’s probably in your profession, the same thing. You cannot lose yourself in algorithms, and in a software questions, and in articulating of things, without conceptually being up to a very high standard of evolution, of not only technology, but civilization per se. We have a very, very deep task. And reading, in my opinion, is the thing that is absolutely needed. And what I keep saying sometimes, but nobody will understand it, but I say it anyway, traveling on foot and irrespective of the distance, and I’ve done very long distance traveling on foot, gives you an insight into the world itself. And I can say it only in a dictum, and I’ve repeated it before. The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot. Nothing else does with such clarity and such transparency, nothing, nothing. And yet nobody travels on foot. It doesn’t matter. Stay where you are, but I just say it as a sign of hope. If you really want to understand the real world, and also conceptually where we are standing as human beings at this very moment in history, travel on foot and read.
[00:53:11] EW: Fantastic advice. Let’s see if we can, anybody can follow it and I would love to open it up to questions. What questions do we have for Werner Herzog?
[00:53:22] Audience: If there was one book or two books you would wish for this generation to read, what would it be?
[00:53:29] WH: Oh, it’s I don’t want to give you one or two books, because then you would sit down and you would read them and you’d think, yeah, you have done it. So, you should not read two books, but 2000 books. But I give you, for those who are into creative things, and including, I would say, including even creative forms of mathematics. It’s a book written by an obscure British writer published in 1967 and it’s called The Peregrine, about watching, it’s diaries, watching peregrine falcons at a time when the falcons were almost extinct. J. A. Baker, I think we know, only after a few decades, we even know what J and A stands for. I even don’t know what his first name’s were and middle name. And it has pros that we have not seen since since Joseph Conrad. And it has precision of observing a small segment of the real world, with a precision and also with an emphasis and a passion, that is unprecedented in literature. So in whatever you are doing, whether you are musician, a filmmaker, into mathematics or into computers. This kind of very, very deep, relentless passion for what you are doing. Very specific. And it’s a great, wonderful book. What else? Well, there are many, but I have a list of mandatory books for my rogue film school, and some guerilla-style antithesis to film schools, and there’s five or six books. What comes to mind is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain, the original title is much, much longer. He was a foot man of Cortez, and when he was old, he wrote from his, apparently some diaries and reminiscences. He writes down an incredible story, incredibly rich in details and insight into the, into the heart of men. Anything else? Read the Russians, read Hölderlin and Kleist, the Germans, Büchner, also a German. Read Hemingway, read Joseph Conrad, the short stories in particular. So but don’t believe that this would make you into a different person. It’s, it’s the permanence of reading, the insistence of reading.
[00:56:36] Audience: Is it more fulfilling to you to…
[00:56:38] WH: Can you speak up a little bit?
[00:56:40] Audience: Is it more fulfilling for you to expose people to nuance, where they thought there were extremes or the reverse?
[00:56:49] EW: Is it more important to expose people to nuance or?
[00:56:53] Audience: More fulfilling when you expose people to nuance where they had thought there was extreme or the opposite?
[00:57:02] WH: I’ve never asked myself this question. It doesn’t factor in my work. Well, I follow a very, very clear vision. I see a film very, very clearly, and of course it has a big story and it has extremes in it and it has nuances. And of course, I would never want to touch a story that was not really big. Well, I was convinced this is big and it has excesses and it has all sorts of things. At the same time, the real life, the real life comes from the nuance and from the details. So, but it’s I cannot even separate it, I cannot give you a satisfying juxtaposition of both, but it doesn’t function in the way I make my films.
[00:58:08] Audience: I heard you like carrying bolt cutters, have those ever gotten you in trouble?
[00:58:13] WH: Bolt cutters you have to take metaphorically, I have a whole list of things. Does anyone have the book A Guide for the Perplexed here, because I see it here on the can you give it to me please? Thank you. A Guide for the Perplexed, and we spoke about before, the title is so beautiful, I had to steal it from Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, middle age Spain, I think Seville or Córdoba, I don’t even remember, but anyway. And here on the back end, by the way, it’s a real bear, it’s no Photoshop. My wife, who sits back there, did this photo. I don’t know how it was put together, but it’s sums a lot of things up and it speaks of bolt cutters. Always take the initiative. There’s nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell, if it means getting the shot you need, send all your dogs and one might return with prey, never wallow in your travels, despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. The laptop in front of you may be the last one in existence, do something good and impressive with it. There’s never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere. Thwart institutional cowardice. There’s too much institutional cowardice in the film industry, and I do believe the computer industry and software and so, has bolder designs. I think there’s not too much institutional cowardice. It comes now after things like Facebook have been established. How do we stop excesses on Facebook? How do we stop excesses on Instagram? Do we show, do we have to stop a real beheading of a hostage in real time or do we not do it? So the institutionalization of content is coming post festum, after it has been normally but in the film industry, for example, the institutional cowardice comes before you even make a move. They ask you, do you have, for example, E and O insurance? Do you have a, how do you call it, some sort of insurance, a completion bond? No, I don’t, and I make a film anyway, but in that case, I had to finance it out of my own pocket. Can I move in a wild way back to a very early question about something that is fabricated, like WrestleMania has a lot of truth in it. They get away with bruises and dislocated elbows. The last film I made is a feature film called Family Romance LLC. Romance is a business in Japan, in the Japanese language, where you can hire a missing friend, a family a father of a family during a wedding ceremony, because the real father allegedly suffers from epilepsy. In truth, he’s an alcoholic and cannot be shown to the groom’s parents and family. And there’s an interesting thing that happens, the men who actually, in reality, founded this company, Family Romance, who sends out 1,600 agents and actors to help you feel less lonesome and replace a family member. He was filmed by Japanese television. They interviewed him and they interviewed one of his clients, who in his solitude had rented a friend, and he’s in the film as well. It turns out that the client was actually not a client, he was also a rented member from Family Romance. He was an imposter put in front of the NHK cameras, NHK apologized profusely in print and on the air. And the founder of Family Romance says something very, very significant now, he says, I do believe that the imposter that was sent out from my pool of actor tells you more of the truth than a real one. The real one would lie to the cameras because in Japan, in their society, you have to keep face and you cannot admit that your life is miserable, and you were lonesome, and you were crying at home in your pillow. And so, this person, the real person would not say that, he would lie to the camera, but Mike, my man who was put in front of your camera, my man who has done it 200 times, comforting solitary people, he tells you the gist, the real truth about what is going on, and I think he’s right. I’m sure he’s right.
[01:04:37] EW: Yeah, I’m very…
[01:04:39] WH: The imposter has more truth in him than the real person, who wants to keep a facade of whatever well-behaved behavior in public.
[01:04:53] EW: Do we have some other questions?
[01:04:59] Audience: If you could make a film about our generation, or the generation that sits in this room, what do you think the logline would be?
[01:05:07] WH: I wouldn’t know any logline, but I have done a film on the internet. Lo and behold, which, has appealed very much to your generation or even the younger ones. You are already a veteran. It’s the 15 year olds who probably come up and have to teach you, the 35 year old or 25 year old. No, I wouldn’t know a logline, but I have made a lot of films that apparently, were for a general audience when I made them 40 years ago, 45 years ago, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. All of a sudden I get emails of 15 year old, young kids, from Missoula Montana, because today they can have access to the film by streaming or other ways through the internet. Piracy, for example, which is a successful distribution system. And all of a sudden, it’s the very, very young who respond to my films. And it’s not foreign to me, I have always made films for those who are mentally active and who are in turmoil and who are looking out for organizing their lives. So I have always been, in a way, I’ve been young and now the film in Japan is a return to the times when I was 23, 24, 25, when I made Aguirre, the Wrath of God.You wouldn’t know what would come after the next bend of the river. What there be rapids or not? So, and this kind of readiness to face whatever is going to be thrown at you, and you just face it and you deal with it.
[01:07:18] EW: Do you actually, in terms of the generation that might now be rediscovering your films. Do you have any thoughts about the way in which we are going back and reevaluating cinematic work based on our new feelings about the directors? I’m thinking of Tarantino who put Uma Thurman at risk in Kill Bill, which I thought was a fantastic film, and Woody Allen, of course, with his difficulties having his work reevaluated. Are we how do you feel about bodies of work being reprocessed through the lens of the alleged failures of the creators?
[01:08:01] WH: I think there will be a renascence, and we see it already, for example, classical music, all of a sudden has, I just read yesterday or today, has new platforms on the internet, that’s all steered towards mainstream pop. All of a sudden you can access it. For example, in movies, The Criterion Collection, which is a very, very fine collection of films, had disappeared and reappeared apparently as it’s either independent streaming label or within Amazon. I have to find out. I don’t know yet, but all of a sudden these things are back. And, the 15 year old from Missoula, Montana is not just back, he is just emerging. So now I have no doubts, that we are gonna see films set outside of the regular mainstream, but have depth and vision and wonderful stories. They will not disappear. The shallow will disappear. The shallow of of yesterday. When you look at talk shows, so at pop shows, often 1960s, it’s just stunning how shallow they are and they disappear very quickly.
[01:09:30] EW: Yeah, are there some other questions?
[01:09:35] Audience: You mentioned that technological utopianism will end just as social utopianism ended in the past century. What do you think that looks like, or perhaps what occupies the minds of men next?
[01:09:48] WH: Well, when I’m speaking about a technological utopia that inevitably will come to an end, what comes to mind is immediately space colonization. Not only is it an obscenity, it’s also undoable. Obscenity because it hints at us, the human race, like locusts grazing our planet empty, and then moving on. We can move onto Mars, for example, but it should be contained and it’s doable for a few scientists, a few astronauts who have a small, tiny little habitat, where they have enough drinking water, enough shelter against radiation, and enough air to breathe. Yes, we can create that. We will not put 1 million humans on planet Mars. It’s not going to happen. It’s technically not really doable and unwise, and a part from Mars, we cannot reach anything outside of our solar system because it’s simply too far. It would take your 110,000 years to reach the next one, which is only three and a half or four and a half light years away. We just won’t be able to do it, period. And this kind of illusion, this kind of utopia, technical utopia, will come to a fairly quick end in our century or other utopia that come to mind, immortality. Of course, we can stretch out longevity to a certain point, but that’s about it. We are going to die. That’s what the entire creation everywhere, and not only on our planet, everywhere, points to the same thing, that there’s an impermanence of what is around everywhere, so that’s one of the things. I have to think about other utopias, technical utopias, but you are much closer to approaching technical utopias than I am. So you have to find out what we should do and what we should not do, and what is a utopia and what is within realities of human beings.
[01:12:24] EW: You have time for one or two last questions.
[01:12:27] Audience: Mr. Herzog, I would like to ask…
[01:12:29] WH: Can you speak up a little?
[01:12:31] Audience: I’d like to ask about the way you think a camera changes a real situation. The way in which you talk about the real world, when you interject a camera into it, how it affects the perception of people who are aware that the camera is there.
[01:12:50] WH: Yeah. It’s an old philosophical question and a physical question of how deep do you insert your camera or your position as an observer? Does it change the reality that’s out there? Hopefully it does because I’m a creator. I’m not an observation camera in the bank, that waits for 15 years and no bank robber ever shows up. So we are not, we are not the fly on the wall. I want to insert myself. I want to create, I want to mold, I want to influence my story, even the documentaries. And I do change facts. And I’m quoting now, André Gide, the French writer who said: “I change facts to such a degree that they resemble truth more than reality.” And it’s a wonderful way to say it. And, you’ll see you are too. If you are seriously asking the question with an indignant undertone, it means that you are very much fact oriented, which I don’t believe in your case, but many people are too fact oriented and cinema does not have to be. Even documentaries have to only partly be fact oriented, because the effects do not equal truth. They do not, and it’s the same thing like with Family Romance, the imposter gives you a deeper truth than the real person. And my simplest of all explanations is, and I have used it many times, so if you have heard it from me, my apologies. Michelangelo creating the sculpture of the Pietà, Jesus in the arms of Mary as a 33 year old man. And when you look at Mary, she’s 17. His mother is 17. So of course it’s not factually correct, but he didn’t want to cheat us or lie to us or whatever. He just wanted to point out an essential truth was something that resembles more truth, because I do not know what truth is, nor do mathematicians. I think only deeply religious people know what it is. So they have an easier life than those who are not religious.
[01:15:33] EW: Do we have a last question?
[01:15:39] Audience: I worked years ago with David Blaine on a show called Vertigo. They had me watch a film called The Passion of the Woodcarver Steiner. There’s a scene at the end with a raven, and they wanted to be very much to focus on that and find what, who the raven was in Blaine’s life, and we couldn’t really find them. And the implication being that the raven maybe wasn’t real in your film. So I guess I have waited awhile to ask you this, but was the Raven real, and does it matter? And with all these questions about truth, are there any things in documentary film that would be revolting for you? Like for example, Martin Scorsese was recently accused of putting a fake character in his Bob Dylan film. Is there anything that wouldn’t be okay?
[01:16:37] WH: No, I think putting a fictitious character in a Bob Dylan documentary, congratulations to Scorsese, who is normally cowardly when it comes to expanding forums. He follows very much the norm. He’s a wonderful filmmaker, but not really extravagantly courageous into creating new things. I have not seen the Bob Dylan film, but I welcome what you are saying. What you are saying about Harmony Korine and David Blaine, the magician, he seems, I don’t like David Blaine at all. He’s repulsive in everything he’s doing, but what seems to be significant is he tries, he started as an illusionist, doing card tricks and illusions. He seems to be moving away from the illusionist into trying to strain his body to its utmost limits, to the brink of death, which is stupid. It’s outright stupid to immerse yourself in a water tank for a whole week. It can’t get any more stupid than that. And he’s just making a living out of something that is definitely obscene.
[01:18:02] EW: Do you not have a cactus needle stuck in your kneecap now?
[01:18:07] WH: No, it stayed for a few years in my knee sinew, I jumped for a cast of midgets. I made a film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, and one of them was run over by a car that was driverless going in circles, one caught fire, and so atthe end I said, you…
[01:18:28] EW: You threw yourself on a midget to put out the fire, and then…
[01:18:32] WH: Sure, you better do that, because everybody else was just looking at like, at a Christmas tree burning, and the first thing you do, throw yourself on the him and extinguish the guy. I didn’t smother him. I didn’t squish him.
[01:18:47] EW: No one is saying that.
[01:18:48] WH: Yes, but I said, if all of you come out unscathed at the end of the movie, I’m gonna, from this ramp, I’m gonna jump into this field of cacti. And you all have your, at that time, eight millimeter cameras and your photo cameras and you can take your picture. And I take off and I leaped and, yeah sure, some of them got stuck in my knee sinews, and they don’t get out easily.
[01:19:14] EW: It would be an honor, sir, to take you to lunch with David Blaine to work this thing out.
[01:19:19] WH: Yes. No, no, to the next parking lot, not for dinner. I wouldn’t like to have a dinner with him. I do not want to ruin my appetite, but I would gladly take him to the men’s room to fight it out, to take him to the parking lot. Ask the…
[01:19:40] EW: We can settle this however you want to.
[01:19:41] WH: Ask the valets to step into obscurity and just let us sort it out among men. Okay.
[01:19:50] EW: Werner, I gotta tell you, your life has been an inspiration to me since I was 16 and it doesn’t even feel like you can meet a Werner Herzog in real life. So it’s a very special day in my life. I want to thank you for coming, bringing your stories, your wisdom, your views on arts and your admonitions, which no one is following. I think that probably there’s some in our audience who are going to make a special note, that this is the advice that’s hard to get behind.
[01:20:18] WH: Yeah, but it’s your life still. You don’t need to listen to me. You will find your own guidance and your own vision. Best of luck to all of you.
[01:20:30] EW: All right. A huge hand for Werner Herzog people.