WERNER HERZOG: THE UNANSWERED INTERVIEW
In Memory of Les Blank
"Sometimes it is better to have only questions and no answers."
in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams
With an interview like this, my greatest fear is redundancy -- that I might squander an opportunity for either of us to have a fresh experience. Please, as you see fit, ignore questions, speak of whatever you find worthwhile, and never shy from a story or a tangent. My statements and digressions are meant as invitations to respond as much or moreso than my questions. I hope you find this amenable.
It would take me a whole day to answer all this, and I definitely do not have it. Work here is accelerating, as we have choir, orchestra, costumes, the set, and light working more and more together at the same time. You should take the questions and make an article out of them; with a few connections here and there you already got it together.
At Werner's suggestion, the unanswered interview:
Earlier this year, I encountered some images that transcended all the image-weariness and callousness I had accumulated up to that point in my life, generating an ecstatic effect much like what I have experienced at moments in your films. These particular images were
massive, exquisitely detailed photographic prints of bird’s eye views of surfaces of heavenly bodies in our solar system.
As I was absorbing these images, I was reminded of what you were saying the first time I
ever encountered you in film. You were in another person’s film, in fact: Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga. You were craving, and willing to accept any risk to acquire, increasingly rare,
pure, “transparent” imagery that was in-tune with civilization – the kind of images that I
think of as the defining vistas of your career as a filmmaker.
Can you explain a little further what you meant by “transparent”?
How do you feel about that interview today?
Are there any images you’ve captured that you feel have been especially overlooked or misunderstood?
In recalling working with Antonioni on The Passenger, Jack Nicholson mentions a moment when he and Antonioni were standing in a remote area of the Sahara. After taking in a beautiful, barren, pristine desert vista, Nicholson turns around to realize that Antonioni has been looking in the opposite direction at a decrepit, non-descript, deserted building. He asks Antonioni: “Why are you looking that way?” Antonioni replies: “Because that is where man
To me, this exchange sheds light on much of your work perhaps even more than it does Antonioni’s, especially your most noted desert films: Lessons from Darkness and Fata Morgana.
While craving and pursuing pure images, whether in the Amazon, the deserts of Iraq or
Africa, or the “end of the world”, you also seem to remain equally driven to capture the fundamental mysteriousness of man – to look deeply where man has been and encourage
your audience to do the same.
You have had an extremely diverse, globe-covering career. Nevertheless, you seem to have maintained a fairly consistent bleak worldview while at the same time seeming to thrive
on a relentless, wide-eyed curiosity.
How has your worldview changed over the course of your career?
For instance, how well do you recognize yourself in Burden of Dreams, Werner Herzog
Eats His Shoe, or Tokyo-Ga?
What have been the rewards of so fearlessly following and documenting your curiosity?
You seem to be just as moved to find the world’s pure, transparent images as a filmmaker as you are to find them as a film viewer. In other words, authorship, for you, seems entirely secondary to the purity of the image. Yet your films are so singularly identifiable, so…if you’ll pardon the term… Herzogian.
Could you mention and/or describe some of the images that resonate with you most
from your life experience, whether they were filmed by you or others, or perhaps not
even filmed at all?
In your ongoing quest for images that speak to something deep within us all, you have in
recent years made films that incorporated images by other filmmakers, some of them amateurs. With Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, you state that it was the images made by Timothy Treadwell and Henry Kaiser, respectively, that drew you into these projects
What was it about these images that inspired you?
What are your hopes for what your images might do for your audience?
Can you explain for newcomers what you mean by a “grammar of imagery”?
Why is it important?
Documentary is a genre full of promise and stale stigmas.
What do you see now as the current frontiers of pure, transparent imagery – the boundaries of our crude, even arcane, “grammar of imagery”, for yourself, and also as
a challenge to future filmmakers?
I love the scene in My Best Fiend in which you visit your childhood apartment and unveil to
its current inhabitants Klaus Kinksi’s wild history in their now refined home.
I recall that once I heard you say you were a firm believer in never looking back and over-examining your past, that there is only the present and the future.
Assuming you still believe that -- Is film, if nothing else, not a medium designed for
looking back, preserving the past and sculpting the dreams of the future?
How do you reconcile or distinguish between these two notions – always looking ahead,
on the one hand, and being a filmmaker, on the other?
As seen in these questions, there is a lot of talk about “the image” in relationship to your
work, but you also give enormous consideration to your musical selections and scores.
How do you see the role of music in your documentaries?
One of the defining qualities of your films, and your persona, is a contagious enthusiasm,
even in spite of what seems to be a bleak worldview. Fillmmaking seems to afford you the opportunity to pursue and embrace the things about the world you want to pursue and embrace.
To what extent is this genuine enthusiasm consciously constructed in your
documentaries, if at all? Is it the consequence of an entirely intuitive process?
Over the years, I have found you to be an especially talented panelist.
At Telluride one year, you were on a panel with Michael Moore, who, in support of Bowling for Columbine, was trying mightily to answer a question about the origins of school shootings in America. He speculated about various potential cultural root causes.
“Yes, but Michael, I have to confess: One of my greatest regrets is that I did not blow up my
The reaction was uproarious laughter. To me, this was a moment full of ecstatic truth, and speaks to another hallmark of your work, one which is especially potent and distinguishing
in your documentaries: a commitment to story and self-representation that displaces the tendency toward amateur expertise or armchair psychology that can undermine a documentary’s best intentions.
Grizzly Man seems to be simultaneously a criticism or warning about amateur expertise (Treadwell’s study of Grizzly Bear behavior) while at the same time a praising of it (his cinematography).
As far as I am aware, you have never made a documentary in which you set out to master
a subject in the conventional vein. Why is that?
In a panel of documentary filmmakers at the Academy of Motion Pictures, you were again admirably intent on being a provocateur with an obligation to a sublime, “higher” truth. This was sometimes confounding -- even infuriating -- for your esteemed fellow panelists. When you brought up Lessons From Darkness, Ross McElwee said it was his favorite film. When
you confessed that the opening quote by Pascal was fraudulent, McElwee groaned loudly, and jokingly changed his position, saying that it had just become his least favorite film.
How you do you decide when to exercise poetic license by injecting your own ideas and,
in some cases, dreams in the interest of generating or accessing “ecstatic truth”?
In a recent interview, your editor Joe Bini stated that you were a rarity in that you really direct your documentaries whereas most directors just produce them.
Can you talk about what it means to direct a documentary?
Do you see your role as a documentary filmmaker differently now compared to when
you made, say, Fata Morgana?
The forklift philosopher in Encounters at the End of the World believes deeply in trusting dreams as a kind of soil from which reality springs or, perhaps better put, an ocean from
which reality can evolve. The Alan Watts quote he recites at the end of the film seems to
be the manifestation of a consistent thematic throughline over the course of your career.
What relationships do you see between dreams, documentaries, and the manifesting
What is your idea of a hero?
You once said: “Posterity can kiss my ass!”
As you accept this Career Achievement Award, are there any further thoughts you
wish to share?
Thank you for your time.