Werner Herzog on Being a 'Soldier of Cinema' and the Relative Nature of Facts (Q&A)

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Werner Herzog

The 70-year-old director discusses his new viral documentary and some of the highlights, and odd episodes, of his long career -- all with tears in his eyes.

LOCARNO, Switzerland – German director, producer, actor and auteur Werner Herzog received the Locarno Film Festival's top career honor this year, adding his name to a prestigious pantheon that already includes Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach, Paul Verhoeven, Jean-Luc Godard, and Leos Carax. The festival's tribute to Herzog includes a retrospective of 10 of his films.

The 70-year-old director -- behind acclaimed films such as Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans -- is known for, among other things, his love-hate relationship with actor Klaus Kinski and for his influence on German filmmakers that include Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, and Alexander Kluge

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Herzog spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in a nondescript hotel conference room in Locarno, where the director sat for most of the discussion with tears in his eyes. Not so much from emotion over the honor the festival will present him with -- though he does allow that he is "extremely happy about it" -- but more because of jet lag ("It takes its toll," he admitted).

Herzog's latest project is the 35-minute documentary From One Second to the Next, which he made as part of AT&T campaign “It Can Wait,” warning against the dangers of texting and driving. The short film almost instantly went viral on YouTube.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with the anti-text messaging-while-driving campaign?

Werner Herzog: AT&T contacted me through an agency. I suppose because of the “death row” films I made, especially Into the Abyss. They wanted somebody who was able to look into emotional depths in a very deep and direct way. I knew I could do that and I immediately wanted to do the projects. But they had had four 30-second spots in mind, and I told them, no way. But I agreed to shoot a film at the same costs and within the same period of time.

THR: As soon as it was available on the Internet, it became an instant hit.

Herzog: Absolutely. I think around 1.8 million people have seen it so far, and 400,000 are added each day. And that's only talking about YouTube. It's also been screened in 40,000 high schools across the U.S., which means another 10 to 20 million people who have seen or will see it.

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THR: You sound excited when you talk about those numbers.

Herzog: "Excited" is probably not the right word. But if it means that there will be only one less accident, then the whole enterprise made sense. I do think that it might affect the statistics in a positive way. At the moment, the trends are shocking: There are around 1 million accidents per year involving cellular phones use, compared to almost none just three years ago. At the moment, there are no laws in the U.S. that forbid texting and driving, and I do think that this film will help to change that. If you overrun someone with your car because you were texting while driving, all you have to fear is getting a ticket the way things stand now. A ticket! Imagine. The same as for parking in the wrong spot.

THR: Is there an activist side to your cinema? Once you said you were “a soldier of cinema” -- someone who fights.

Herzog: I only mention the soldier because I don't have a better term to use when I respond to someone who calls me an “artist” or a “genius of film.” Terms like that bewilder me. They are hollow and strange, and don’t mean anything. That’s when I say that I am a soldier. It means that I have a certain courage, and by that I secure a post which nearly everybody has already deserted.

THR: You have another recent online presence: a Kickstarter campaign you supported, for organic fennel salt. What's that about?

Herzog: (Laughs.) That’s something I did for a very good friend of mine [San Francisco craftsman and chef Angelo Garro], who reached 160 percent of his economic goal through that campaign. He is one of the most talented chefs in the U.S., maybe the world,  but he has no clue how to make a film. He produced a video for the Kickstarter campaign, and it was so incredibly bad that I had to take things into my own hands, for his sake.

THR: Would you ever consider Kickstarter as an option to finance one of your own projects?

Herzog: No, I don’t think so. 

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THR: You also helped Joshua Oppenheimer and his film The Act of Killing recently. Do you feel young directors need support from established colleagues?

Herzog: They need encouragement, especially in an industry focused on the mainstream. Oppenheimer’s film is incredible. So intense, so disturbing, so surreal. It's like nothing I have seen before. When we met for the first time, we only had 10 minutes and he showed me, on his laptop, an excerpt of a film which is now 2½ hours long. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I gave him my e-mail address and we stayed in touch, and I always encouraged him to go on and try things. The ending of that film is so extraordinary. He told me he wanted to shorten it or even cut it completely, but I said to him: 'Your life is worth nothing if you cut out that ending.' So he left it in. 

Later, he asked me if he could put my name down as executive producer, and I said, sure, if it helps the distribution of the film. But the truth is my only contribution was to encourage him. And I did that because I am happy to see young people make films completely out of the mainstream.

THR: Is that a rare thing nowadays?

Herzog: Yes, definitely. Not many are so daring. And especially in documentaries, the so-called cinema verité is a malady, it’s an endless reproduction of facts. But facts never constitute the truth. I always say cinema verité is the accountants’ truth, and many people hate me for that. But it doesn't bother me. 

THR: Hard facts about you, personally, can be difficult to find. What, for example, is your real name?

Herzog: There are different versions of that, and they all add up to an artificial image about me, which, in a way, protects me. In my biographies, for example, you can read that I quit a career at NASA for the love of cinema. The truth is that when I was 14, I went through an intense phase which constituted important perspectives and directions for my life that molded me and still inform me today. First of all: Walking. Second: Cinema. Third: Religion, which I have already abandoned again, but which I still can relate to.

THR: Does your work reflect or embody religion in any way?

Herzog: No. Religion belongs to the church. That’s where it should stay. 

THR : Would you say that all your films constitute one grand, over-arching opera of sorts?

Herzog: That sounds like a very high concept. That would mean my work is inspired by some glorious vision of a future. No, I don’t think that's accurate. Besides. I don’t really care about the world after me. How could I? Also, I don’t think it is a good thing to look into ourselves too deeply. We are not made for that. Good films don’t stem from analytical thinking or from an academic proposition. 

THR: Getting back to the question about your different names, there are a lot of Werner Herzogs on Facebook -- are you one of them?

Herzog: No, but I am aware of them, about the 20 or 30 Werner Herzogs on Facebook, Twitter, and so on, and I could easily "turn them off." But I let them be because I regard them as kinds of soldiers. Let them fight their fight out there in my name. They function like bodyguards.

But I have to add there are really funny things out there. For example, there is one letter going around which I supposedly wrote to my cleaning lady, and in which I insult her in the meanest possible way. When you read it, you’ll see that the real author mentions his name right below the heading, but most people completely overlook that because, I suppose, people cannot read.

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THR: People cannot read?

Herzog: If we look closely, no. Most are illiterates, even though they know how to combine letters and make phrases and so on. I say: Consuming the Internet, TV, and even cinema makes you lose the world. Only by reading can you gain the world.

THR: You've never had a good relationship with critics and media in your native Germany, but you embraced the U.S., and even began a new career there as an actor, as, for example, in Jack Reacher. What is different about the U.S.?

Herzog: There are obvious reasons why I live in the U.S., one being that I am very happily married here. I got there 18 years ago with nothing but a toothbrush and I think, since then, I have done everything right. 

My wife and I always wanted to live in the part of the U.S. with the most substance, and that is, of course, Los Angeles. Because it not only constitutes Hollywood glitz and glamor but an immense creative density underneath. Wherever you look, there is an immense depth, a tumult, and that resonates with me. Also, I am happy to live in Southern California which is famous for its liberalism: The free-speech movement, gay rights, and a society that understands dignity. Of course, I could live without a lot of nonsense there as well: hippies, new age idealism, aerobic studios, yoga insanity, and the like.

THR: In the course of working with the actor Klaus Kinski, you gained the reputation of being choleric and slightly insane. Is that something you see gradually falling away?

Herzog: Nobody outside Germany or Austria knows Kinski, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I am not an angry person, but insane people are all around me. But that doesn’t mean they are monsters. I don’t think people are monsters. It's certain deeds that are monstrous.

THR: Did you really threaten to shoot Kinski on the set of Aguirre?

Herzog: Yes. But the so-called facts the Internet gives you are most of the time not real facts. I only whispered it to him, and I was unarmed.

[Editor's note: Herzog once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris completed his movie project on pet cemeteries -- as a ploy to challenge and motivate Morris. When Morris’ film Gates of Heaven finally premiered in 1978, Herzog cooked and publicly ate his shoe, an event later incorporated it into a short documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, by Les Blank]

THR: One more question, please: What do leather shoes taste like?

Herzog: I didn’t eat the sole which was made of rubber, only the leather parts. Our digestive system can deal with that. Theoretically, you could also eat your belt. The problem was I cooked the shoes for too long, and the leather became hard. Luckily, I had a lot of beer with me there, and I managed to swallow it with that. I really can't tell you what it tasted like, because I was already too drunk by the time I ate it.

Eric J. Lyman contributed to this report. 

Twitter: @AlexandraZawia

The interview was conducted in German and translated into English by the author.