April 8, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Iconic German filmmaker Werner Herzog swooped down on Williamstown for what appeared to be an impromptu visit, but was in fact scheduled a year ago … and was actually supposed to occur in 2006. Apparently, the date just slipped Herzog’s mind amidst the book and three films that he has been working on this past year.
“These accidents sometimes have a special charm,” Herzog told his audience in the Oakley Center at Williams College.
At Williams, Herzog fielded questions from the seminar audience, which ushered in some lively storytelling from Herzog, covering his work and his life, as well as his philosophies and techniques in film making.
Herzog’s international breakthrough was the 1973 film “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” which featured the late Klaus Kinski as a 16th-century Spanish conquistador in search of El Dorado.
Herzog went onto direct films such as “Woyzeck” and “Fitzcarraldo” with Kinski, as well as the posthumous documentary about his association with the actor, “My Best Fiend.” Herzog also was featured in the short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which the director does just that after losing a bet to Massachusetts documentarian Errol Morris.
Many behind-the-scenes tales of his productions illustrated his place as a unique figure in the film industry, as with his insistence on filming a dancing arcade chicken for the finale of “Stroszek.” His crew thought the idea was stupid, so he sent them out for burgers and filmed it himself.
“It’s a very big metaphor,” Herzog said, “but a metaphor for what, I can’t tell you. But I know it is very big and it will stand the test of time.”
For Herzog, the chicken was just one more example of what he calls “the ecstatic truth,” something he tries to capture in all his films. In his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Herzog scripted a section that has the Vietnam pilot and former prisoner of war Dieter Dengler making a large show of opening and shutting doors repeatedly and what this symbolizes to him.
In fact, Dengler did not do this in his real life, but Herzog directed him to in order to get at that “ecstatic truth,” which he describes as a deeper truth, not a fact — facts, says Herzog, are the “accountant’s truth.”
“If the accountants come and tell me this is incorrect I will tell them ‘Bravo! You get a straight A for that!’” Herzog said. “But sometimes you fabricate an event in a documentary in order to dig into a much deeper strata of truth, a quintessential truth, which nobody else would reach unless you started to stylize, to invent, to use elements that you have seen and intensify them.”
To Herzog, movies have lost this sort of truth and no longer wish to uncover it — largely, it seems, because of the talent and effort it takes to recognize the conduits of such truth.
“It is a gift that you can develop,” said Herzog, “and you can develop it by experiencing fundamental things like knowing what it means to be starving, what it means to be incarcerated, knowing what it means to raise children, knowing what it means to be shot at unsuccessfully. That’s a deep experience, when people open fire at you and you aren’t hit. You experience that and you develop into a human being who knows the human part, knows it better than others, and knowing the heart of men.”
Herzog claims that this ability is one of his biggest talents and points to his documentary “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner” as an example of this strength at work. The film examines the psychology of champion ski-jumper and wood sculptor Walter Steiner in a manner that is very personal to Herzog, who once trained to be a ski jumper and went to competition until a friend’s skiing accident distressed him enough to give it up.
“I keep dreaming it and all of a sudden, there emerges a man,” Herzog said. “A wood carver, an artist, a sculptor, taciturn, lanky, not good on solid ground, but flying like a Frisbee in the air, and that’s what I always had dreamt about.”
Steiner is typical of the kind of person Herzog centers his films around and Herzog says that is because people like Steiner are more than the person they appear to be.
“Steiner is the embodiment of all our dreams,” said Herzog, “of humankind’s dreams of flying, and here there is a man who flies and flies, and doesn’t stop and almost flies into his own death, being punished for the ecstasy of flying. He embodies all the dreams of humankind, dreams of flight, dreams of soaring, dreams that you have at night of falling and flying. So, it’s not a singular person, he’s quintessential, what constitutes us as human beings. The same thing with Kinski, all the rage, all the paranoia, all the intensity is in a person, visible on a screen, that is part of many of us and audiences understand that.”
Herzog himself appears to be one of these people to anyone who meets him. After leaving a remote village in Bavaria as a teenager, Herzog worked the night shift in a welding factory to fund his first film, which he shot on a stolen camera.
“I never saw it as a theft,” said Herzog. “It was a rightful appropriation.”
Herzog’s life shifts into the legendary from that starting point. His global exploits involve tramping around the United States, death plots from and toward actor Klaus Kinski, risking his life and others’ to drag a boat over a mountain in the Peruvian jungle, filming on location in Kuwait in the center of the oil fires, and being imprisoned in Africa.
After such a life, it is Herzog’s contention that future filmmakers should be ready for crime if they wish to make films that reveal that “ecstatic truth” that he seeks — forging a document and stealing a car would definitely be on his curriculum as important survival skills for film directors.
“How to pick a lock, that would be the first thing I would teach,” said Herzog. “It doesn’t dawn on any film school to teach that.”
The shadows of criminality are Herzog’s own way of doing things and, therefore, his personal way of living and working. As a young German, he moved on from the Nazi era, unlike so many of his contemporaries, and that, perhaps, is the root to his message to students who now find themselves in modern world. Herzog’s advice? Accept it and move on.
“Create your own values of culture and put it against the values that you do not like,” said Herzog. “Just don’t complain, don’t lapse into the culture of complaint — roll up your sleeves and create your own art, create your own values, create your own cultural values, that’s what going to change things.”