Musings on Werner Herzog

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Filed under: Illusion and Magic, Publicity Stunts

Here, as an addition to this post written several days ago, are some clips posted on YouTube by consumerguide from Les Blank’s classic 1980 short, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.” The film documents Herzog fulfilling a bet he made with Errol Morris: if Morris would finish his brilliant first feature “Gates of Heaven,” Herzog said he would eat his shoe. He uses this public stunt to say some very serious things about American pop culture, filmmakers becoming “clowns” to promote their work, and the culture of images (or lack thereof).

Werner Herzog’s new film Rescue Dawn is getting interesting reviews.

Ponder Stibbons of The truth that makes me fret is reading Herzog on Herzog (written by Werner Herzog with Editor Paul Cronin) and shares some thoughts on the book:

057120708102lzzzzzzz200.jpgNotable quotes —

In response to “What are your views on film schools?”:

    It has always seemed to me that almost everything you are forced to learn at school you forget in a couple of years. But the things you set out to learn yourself in order to quench a thirst, these are things you never forget. […]

    Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you had travelled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometres. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom… academia is the very death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

On the mysterious ’something else’ (that is not happiness) he seems to be after:

    One aspect of who I am that might be important is the communication defect I have had since a young child. I am someone who takes everything very literally. I simply do not understand irony… Let me explain by telling a story. A few weeks ago I received a phone call at my apartment from a painter who lives just down the street from me. He tells me he wants to sell me his paintings, and because I live in the same neighbourhood, he says he wants to give me a good real on his work. He starts to argue with me, saying I can have this painting for only ten dollars or even less. I try to get him off the phone, saying, ‘Sir, I am sorry but I do not have paintings in my apartment. I have only maps on my walls. Sometimes photos, but I would never have a painted picture on my wall, no matter who made it.’ And he kept on and on until all of a sudden he starts to laugh. I think: I know this laughter. And he did not change his voice one bit when the painter announced that it was my friend, Harmony Korine.

    [Then comes another anecdote about another prank played on him by a friend.] When [the second prankster] called as the personal assistant he did not change his voice, but I took them as two different people. That is how bad my communication defect is. I am just a complete fool. There are things in language that are common to almost everyone, but that are utterly lost on me.

    And compared to other filmmakers — particularly the French, who are able to sit around their cafes waxing eloquent about their work — I am like a Bavarian bullfrog just squatting there, brooding. I have never been capable of discussing art with people. I just cannot cope with irony. The French love to play with their words and to master French is to be a master of irony.

    I find the above passage intriguing, because much of the appeal of his movies to me lies in their heavy metaphors. It would seem that he constructs heavily metaphorical films without being entirely aware of what metaphors he has included. This fits in with his explanations of why he did this or that in his films — they often have a lot to do with how he ‘feels’ about the film rather than clear, explicit reasons.

In response to “How do you feel about ‘customizing’ your films to fit television schedules?”:

    Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it.

On why his films are more popular overseas than in Germany:

    Germany is just not a country of cinema-goers. It has always been a nation of television viewers. The Germans have never liked their poets, not while they are alive anyway.

The following story about picture perception is intriguing, if true:*

    One of the doctors in [The Flying Doctors of East Africa] talks of showing a poster of a fly to the villagers. They would say, ‘We don’t have that problem, our flies aren’t that large’, a response that really fascinated me. We decided to take some of the posters… to a coffee plantation to experiment. One was of a man, one of a huge human eye, another a hut, another a bowl, and the fifth — which was put upside down — of some people and animals. We asked the people which poster was upside down and which was of an eye. Nearly half could not tell which was upside down, and two-thirds did not recognize the eye.

On the final midget-laughing-at-camel scene in Even Dwarfs Started Small, about which a rumour spread that Herzog had cut the the camel’s sinews to get it to kneel for so long:

    …I learned something that was to come in useful years later when I made Fitzcarraldo: that you can fight a rumour only with an even wilder rumour. So immediately I issued a statement that actually I had nailed the dromedary to the ground. That silenced them. Of course, in reality the creature was a very docile and well-trained animal whose owner was standing about two feet outisde of the frame giving it orders. He was trying to confuse the dromedary by constantly giving it conflicting orders by hand: sit down, get up, sit down, get up. And in despair the animal defecated, something which looks absolutely wonderful on screen.