'Soldier of Cinema' Werner Herzog unloads on the state of short film and the ancient Greek drama that is WWF
Has there ever been another filmmaker like Germany's Werner Herzog?
He has famously eaten his shoe (in a short film by Les Blank and on the losing side of a bet with Errol Morris), he has shot some 50 films, ranging from sprawling epics like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo -- films that took him and sometime "star" Klaus Kinski to the furthest reaches of both the Earth and sanity -- to deeply personal documentaries such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly and My Best Fiend, an exploration of his work with the troubled Kinski. He has also appeared onscreen in Harmony Korine's experimental feature Julien Donkey-Boy.
Add to that the voluminous books and essays he has written, the operas he has directed, and his unrelenting and wholly unique take on the craft of filmmaking, and you have one of the most intellectually challenging and original artists in any field. Herzog, however, dismisses the appellation and instead considers himself a "good soldier of filmmaking," albeit one who looks to the thoroughly American phenomenon of the World Wrestling Federation and sees neo-classicist dramaturgy.
"I'm not an artist," he says. "I'm just slaloming through life, trying to be a good soldier."
That and the curator of New German Cinema, maybe.
Austin Chronicle: Since you're going to be in town as a guest of the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, maybe you can tell us what happened to short filmmaking's cachet over the years. There's still plenty of shorts being made, but conversely there's virtually nowhere to see them outside of the Internet and the odd festival.
Werner Herzog: Well, they do have some sort of a life by putting some of them together into an evening program -- New Yorker Films used to do that, to program things like [Herzog's] The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner together with another one and call it a film evening.
AC: But that sort of thing is rare these days.
WH: It is rare, yes, but I think it would be a marvelous thing to have DVDs out that would have two or three or four short films, because then you would see the continuity and the complexity of some work that might be inherent in all two or three or four films. That makes a lot of sense in my work because it is all somehow intertwined and interconnected. It's as if I were working on one big film, all the time.
But really I think we should not lament it. It is what it is. There are certain habits of audiences. It's not that the cinemas do not show short films anymore, it's that the audiences do not perhaps want to see them, and we have to deal with that.
AC: You've been making films for 40 years now -- how have you seen the medium change, and do you feel in a position to make any predictions as to what the new millennium might bring, apart from more digital and less traditional filmmaking?
WH: That's only a different medium for storage. It doesn't even matter that much even though the possibilities for films that have no budget or that are extremely low-budgeted are improved. It's a great opportunity. I'm still a man of celluloid because celluloid cannot be replaced at this time (in quality) by video. It's a different attitude. But I would see the future in much larger strokes. All these instruments of communication, including the Internet, including cellular phone, including TV, you just name it, will ultimately create solitudes, strangely enough, even though they do not isolate us they create a deep solitude within human beings. So because of all these instruments of communication, this next century is going to be the century of solitude.
And I believe that filmmaking will return to more great storytelling. Special effects will exhaust themselves, and certain things that we have seen a lot in the last two or three decades -- the inclination toward very big special effects -- will subside. It will shift back to storytelling, and when I say storytelling I refer to the great storytelling we had in Hollywood like Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that kind of film.
AC: Do you ever go to see the local theatre to check out what sort of films are being made these days and what people are tuning into? It's tough to imagine you at a screening of Pearl Harbor -- it sounds like a New Yorker cartoon ...
WH: Sometimes I do. I do watch, for example, the World Wrestling Federation's WrestleMania, and I do watch Baywatch, and very rarely I go to see the blockbusters, sure, I do. I'm very curious.
AC: What is it about the wrestling that you find fascinating? Never would I have thought Werner Herzog = WrestleMania fan!
WH: It's fascinating because something very crude, something very raw is emerging. A very raw, primitive form of new drama is being born, as primitive and crude as it must have been in the earlier Greek times before Sophocles and before Euripides, when something like this emerged for the public eye. I do believe that what is fascinating about WrestleMania is the stories around it: the dramas between the owner of the whole show and his son, who are feuding, and his wife in the wheelchair who is blind, and he is then showing up in the ring with four girls who have huge, fake boobs, and he is fondling them. This is almost sort of an ancient Greek drama -- evil uninterrupted by commercials. So, what does it say? It says that this sort of thing is more important that the fight itself (which of course is all staged and all manipulated). And that's very interesting to me because apparently the emergence of a new drama has been understood by these people who invented WrestleMania.
AC: And what better way to segue into the Klaus Kinski segment of the interview! Does it give you pause that your filmmaking career will forever be intimately bound together with that of Kinski's, whom you refer to as "my best fiend" in your documentary on the man? And can you ever imagine another actor even remotely like him?
WH: No, not at all, and we won't wait for another Humphrey Bogart, either. There were films in life before Kinski, there were films in life while I worked with Kinski, and there will be films in life now that Kinski is gone. I had stopped my contact and my working relationship with him well before he died. That was over for me already, so his death hasn't impacted my work, my life, my attitudes at all. And the fact that we are thought of together, yes, that's fine, very good, we were wonderful together. And of course it will not be intertwined forever, because sooner or later there will be a realization by the common audiences that Kinski made 210 films and five with me. I made 50 films so far and five with him.
AC: Can you foresee a time when you might dive back into the wilds of South America with a small crew and a giant idea, on a wing and a prayer, so to speak, like you did with your two most well-known films, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo? Or does that sort of risky behavior no longer hold any interest?
WH: Actually I'm just back from western Tibet, where I worked with 30,000 or so pilgrims up on Mount Kilash at 19,000 feet in raging snowstorms. I was totally unprepared for the altitude because I got my visa so late. This is on a new production I was working on, and I'm working on an even bigger one now.
AC: How do you manage such monumental feats of endurance-filmmaking after all these years? Do you ever take a break or go on a vacation or, you know, tend a garden somewhere?
WH: Why should I? I love what I do.
AC: All in the name of art.
WH: No, not at all in the name of art. I am not an artist, and I think filmmaking has nothing to do with art. That's an earlier concept which belongs to a different century, a century where men met at dawn with pistols and would do a duel, where damsels would faint on a couch. That's where the artists belong, but there are no artists anymore.
AC: What do you consider yourself, then?
WH: I'm a filmmaker. Period. I'm a soldier. A soldier of cinema.
AC: I know some people who would disagree with the notion that you're not a great artist.
WH: Yes, well, it might be but I don't feel like it. I feel much more like an athlete or a good soldier. Whether or not it ends up in something like art, I don't know. And I couldn't even care less.
The nonfiction films of Werner Herzog will be presented in two parts. Program One, including Lessons of Darkness (1992) and Bells From the Deep (1993), will screen Sept. 21, 7pm, at the Texas Union Theatre; Program Two, including How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) and The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1973), will screen Sept. 22, 1:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Both programs will include a lecture by Herzog. See schedule on p.52 for ticket and venue information.