Interview with Filmmaker Werner Herzog

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment



Werner Herzog has produced in staggering number of movies since “liberating” a film camera from the Munich film school over forty years ago. Though they may superficially resemble the products of Hollywood, they are strangely alive with a uniquely poetic sensibility and wholly idiosyncratic interpretation of what it is to be human.

What further distinguishes Herzog’s work from the latest sequel to roll off the assembly line is the sense that his films somehow have to be made. There is urgency to their telling. And indeed, Mr. Herzog is notorious for stopping at nothing to realize his vision.  He has hauled a riverboat over a mountain. He has directed a recalcitrant star at gunpoint. He has eaten his shoe.

All of which would make you think that the last thing he would do is make a “Hollywood” movie.

Nonetheless, that is just what he has done.  Rescue Dawn, his 52nd film, stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn.  Though it has all the earmarks of a “hit,” it is still very much a Herzog film.   From his groundbreaking work with street performer Bruno S. (Every Man For Himself and God Against All, Stroszek) through his classic films with the wildly gifted yet clearly unhinged actor Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo), Herzog has always celebrated the exceptional individual who takes on an impossible project.  Bale’s character in the film, an American fighter pilot in Vietnam who is shot down and imprisoned in Laos, is the latest in this extraordinary lineage.  The action-packed story is even more amazing because it is true – as evidenced in Herzog’s own 1998 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

Q: The film is based on an earlier documentary?

A: Basically it’s the other way around . . . the feature film was always first, because it took so long to get the money together we made the documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” . The documentary is a consequence of the feature film even though the documentary was made first.  Even though it was made afterwards, it came before.  It’s not a remake or anything like that.  It was unfinished business.

Q: And of course they focus on different aspects of the story.

A: Yes, the camp experience doesn’t factor in the documentary.  What is interesting of course is to know about Dieter’s childhood.  I always knew, and Dieter always knew, the feature film was the first thing.

Q: What drew you this particular story?

A: As someone who is interested in storytelling I knew right away that this was something really big.  The story is really big and the character is much larger than life.  What else do you need?  I always vaguely aware of the story from articles in the German press in the late sixties on his ordeal in the jungle but I of course got into more detail when I finally met him. I had a hunch that he still lived in Northern California.  So I started just at random, no, not at random, systematically, checking phone directories county by county.  In the third directory I found a Dieter Dengler called the number and there was an answering machine with a heavy German accent.  I knew it was him.

Q: Were you contemporaries?

A: Actually he was a couple of years older which is significant because he was already a self-reliant kid when the war ended where I was something like two and a half and was just starting to speak and understand the world.   But both of us lived through the difficulties of post-war Germany, where everything was destroyed.  We were hungry.  Both of us were starving as children for quite a time.  Both of us  grew up in very remote places, he in the Black Forest and I in the mountains of Bavaria so we had an instant rapport because of these connections.

Q: As in Aguirre and Fitzcaraldo, the jungle is once again a character in this film.  Have your feelings about the jungle changed over the years?

A: Not really.  I like the jungle against my better judgment.  You see I have always functioned well when it comes to a real physical sort of filmmaking.  I wouldn’t be that good in the sterile atmosphere of a studio.  There is a great physicality in the film.  It is much more physical than Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Q: It’s an action movie, really.

A: Yes, it is!  And I want audiences back in a position where they can trust their eyes again.  You can tell that yes, this is done without any digital effects.  That this is really happening.  That when Christian catches a snake, yes the snake is a live snake and tries to strike at him.  That when he eats maggots you can see them wriggling . . .

Q: I appreciated his doing that extra bit for us . . . .

A: It’s more than just commitment, though.  It’s really giving the audience a basic sense of something I crave.  I have seen too many digital effects and things like this.  I am craving for a moment where I can trust my eyes.

Q: Christian Bale gives a wonderful performance overall.  He really seems to capture certain qualities of the Dieter we see in the documentary.  How did he go about preparing for the role?

A: Of course he studied the documentary and read books about Dieter.  He also met several members of the family and he did a lot of research . . . to the point where I said to him, ”Christian we are not going to imitate everything about Dieter.  That would be silly.”

Q: You start to imitate a character when he is too clearly articulated . . . like let’s say you are doing a film about Muhammed Ali.   You have to rap like Ali, you have to dance like Ali.  But in this case I said, “We have to take everything in you, Christian, that is deep and intense and somehow articulate it in a new way, not to reinvent Dieter necessarily, but it has to have something which is also yours . . . . your heart, not just an imitation.”

A: We’re sort of touching on a central aspect of your work, the search for a more poetic truth beyond the facts themselves.

A: Yes, an ecstatic truth.

Q: Is this an instance of that.

A: It is.  Somehow the leading figure and the kind of conflicts allow you to look at and to understand the heart of men.  It is a test or a trial of men and you understand some side of our . . .of our . . . of the human heart.   In a way I always hope to make films where you walk out and you have had a moment of illumination.

Originally published in Helio magazine.


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